What is wrong with this sentence?
Why did Australia not develop metal tools, writing, and politically complex societies?
The answer is both simple, and very complex. The question was posed by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the past 13,000 years, (first published in 1997). His thesis is that –
- It is impossible to understand even just western Eurasian societies themselves if one focuses on them. The interesting questions concern the distinctions between them and other societies. Answering those questions requires us to understand all those other societies as well, so that western Eurasian societies can be fitted into the broader context.
Thus his book is about understanding ‘western Eurasian’ society in terms of comparisons with others that are neither ‘western’ or Eurasian’. It is in this context that he feels able to ask a question which misdirects attention and misrepresents the facts of life in pre-contact Australia.
The simple answer to the question
Only one part of the question is accurate. It is true that Australian Aboriginals (the intended meaning of the word ‘Australia’ in the question) did not develop metal tools. in different ways the remaining sections of the question imply a set of ‘facts’ that are not true, but in different ways.
Writing and ‘civilisation’
Diamond’s assertion that there was no ‘writing’ in Australia in the pre-contact era is totally false; his position is that
- … until the expansions of Islam and of colonial Europeans, it was absent from Australia … and the whole of the New World except for a small part of Mesoamerica. As a result of that confined distribution people who pride themselves on being civilised have always viewed writing as the sharpest distinction raising themselves above ‘barbarians’ or ‘savages’.
And his writing exhibits exactly that ‘pride’ of which he writes, revealing his assumption that the ‘writing’ he knows and uses is the only form of writing. However, Australian Aboriginals did develop and use writing in several different formats and varying in regard to both purpose and geographic location. While Aboriginal literary traditions are considered verbal rather than printed even that statement is only partly true. The linguistic difficulty here is that the word ‘writing’ has taken on highly confined meanings and written means of communication used in the pre-contact era do not conform to the narrow definitions of writing. So the charge that Australia did not develop ‘writing’, and in Diamond’s thesis was therefore not ‘civilised’, is wrong. Yet it is widely accepted, and as such contributes to the continuation of the kind of ‘deficit model’ that inhibits progress towards respectful acknowledgement of the actual nature of Australian Aboriginal civilisation.
And finally the assertion about an absence of ‘politically complex societies’ is also inaccurate in regard to the assumption that Aboriginal society pre-contact was primitive or unsophisticated in regard to its management of internal and external relationships and exercise of power. As Sveiby and Skuthorp demonstrate in their book, it was a knowledge-based culture, highly sophisticated in its capacity to manage relationships of all kinds and operating continuously for more thousands of years than western ‘democracy’.
To demonstrate how this is so, the three words need to be considered separately. ‘Politically’ in Diamond’s lexicon refers to the concept ‘of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government’ (Merriam-Webster) and ‘government’ in terms of such structural elements as ‘elections’, ‘electorates’ and ‘voters’ was not how Aboriginal society was managed. Knowledge, capacity for learning and in depth knowledge of genetic relationships were among the key ‘management tools’ that sustained the cultures and civilisations living in close communion with their environment for 40,000 years.
Rewriting the Question
To provide a factual answer to the question requires rewriting the question along these lines
To what extent did the pre-contact inhabitants of the Australian continent create metals, employ writing to communicate and record their lives, and apply management activities to ensure the survival and continuity of their societies?
And then we can engage in a totally different conversation about the sophistication of Aboriginal society.
Diamond, J (2005) (Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the past 13,000 years,
Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorp (2006) Treading Lightly Allen and Unwin
Merriam-Webster – accessed 4/6/2015 at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/political