Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Friday, September 22, 2017

New DNA results shed light on African migration patterns

Researchers in Malawi examine bone fragments whose DNA provided input into a significant study of African migration patterns. Photo New York Times
There is an interesting article in Cell, Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure. The summary reads:

"We assembled genome-wide data from 16 prehistoric Africans. We show that the anciently divergent lineage that comprises the primary ancestry of the southern African San had a wider distribution in the past, contributing approximately two-thirds of the ancestry of Malawi hunter-gatherers 8,100–2,500 years ago and approximately one-third of the ancestry of Tanzanian hunter-gatherers 1,400 years ago. We document how the spread of farmers from western Africa involved complete replacement of local hunter-gatherers in some regions, and we track the spread of herders by showing that the population of a 3,100-year-old pastoralist from Tanzania contributed ancestry to people from northeastern to southern Africa, including a 1,200-year old southern African pastoralist. The deepest diversifications of African lineages were complex, involving either repeated gene flow among geographically disparate groups or a lineage more deeply diverging than that of the San contributing more to some western African populations than to others. We finally leverage ancient genomes to document episodes of natural selection in southern African populations"

The New York Times (21 September 2017) carried a useful story by Carl Zimmer, Clues to Africa’s Mysterious Past Found in Ancient Skeletons, which provides some useful supplementary material.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

New England: A journey through the built landscape


Mark of the past: Groves made by grinding as part of Aboriginal axe production. This required suitable stone and access to water. This is the second in my new series on New England's built landscape and architecture 

We begin our journey through the New England built landscape and associated architecture in Aboriginal times with a question. If you could shut your eyes and return to New England in 1700, what would you see?

The physical landscape would appear familiar but also different. You would recognise major land forms, some types of vegetation, but then you would notice the differences.

Over the millennia, the Aborigines had modifies the environment to suit their needs and life styles. When the Europeans came with their stock, ploughs and axes, the landscape changed quite quickly.

The Tablelands, for example, were much boggier in Aboriginal times. The lagoons that now survive as remnants stretched along the Tablelands’ spine. Creeks such as Dumaresq Creek had high banks and deep pools. The pattern of trees and open space was different, altered by burning to meet Aboriginal needs.

All human societies have similar needs for food, shelter, protection and social interaction. They hold beliefs and values that allow society to function and explain their world. They invest time and resources in creating things that will make life easier and express their beliefs.

The Aborigines were no different. In addition to altering the landscape to meet their needs, they created a built environment that reflected available resources, climate and their culture, beliefs and life style.

That built landscape varied across Australia in ways we don’t properly understand. In Northern NSW, I suspect the first thing you would have noticed were the carved trees. They marked boundaries, graves and ceremonial sites embodying religious and ceremonial messages.

The next thing you might notice were the range of ceremonial sites including bora rings, stone arrangements and cave paintings. Some were of local significance, but others had a wider importance as centres for broader gatherings drawing visitors from long distances.

The stone sites are often found in high country including the Fall country, while the concentrations of cave paintings suggest sites of particular ceremonial or religious importance.

These ceremonial sites involved investment of considerable time not just to build and maintain, but to gather the food need to feed those attending.

The signs of Aboriginal industry and economic activity were also spread across the landscape.

Quarries such as the Moore Creek axe factory were developed to access particular types of stone, Axed had to be ground at particular sites, leaving distinctive markings on rocks. Over millennia, the production of stone tools created a lithic scatter across space, with special concentrations around occupation sites.

I will complete my discussion on the Aboriginal built environment next week looking at food production, communications and housing.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 13 September 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

When and where did the Australian Aborigines and the Denisovans meet?

Back in September 2016, a paper in Nature rather dryly titled “A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia.” reported on the results of a comparative genomic study of Australian Aboriginals and Papuans.  Genomics applies recombinant DNA, DNA sequencing methods, and bioinformatics to sequence, assemble, and analyze the function and structure of genomes (the complete set of DNA within a single cell of an organism).

The results were quite striking,  so striking that they attracted global media attention. “Indigenous Australians most ancient civilisation on Earth, extensive DNA study confirms” read one UK headline.

Some care must in fact be exercised in interpreting the results, for the statistical techniques used give you date ranges, a central date and then a confidence interval, a range within which the actual date might fall. These can be large, 20,000+ years, something that can be quite frustrating when you are trying to match dates to understand a pattern. That said, the results were remarkable.

They suggest that Aboriginal Australians and Papuans are more closely related to each other than to anyone else on earth. They also suggest that the Aboriginal-Papuan population diverged from Eurasians following a single out-of-Africa migration 51,000 to 72,000 years ago. See what I mean about date ranges.

In their long travels, that small band or bands of Australo-Papuans appear to have mixed with two related archaic human species. The first were the Neanderthal, something shared with Eurasians. Between one and six per cent of modern Eurasian’s genes derive from the Neanderthal, a percentage higher in some individuals depending on their exact family lineage.

Much later, the travelers mixed with the Denisovans, with about four per cent of the Aboriginal genome traceable to that admixture. We did not discover the existence of the Denisovans, a group named after Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, until excavations that began in 2008. Subsequent work suggests that the cave had also been inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans over 125,000 years of intermittent occupation.

Speaking of the meeting with the Denisovans, study leader Professor Eske Willerslev is reported as saying: "We don't know who these people were, but they were a distant relative of Denisovans, and the Papuan/Australian ancestors probably encountered them close to Sahul."

Now comes this interesting piece in The Siberia Times (Olga Gertcyk, Extinct Denisovans from Siberia made stunning jewellery - but did they also discover Australia?, 14 September 2017). The UK Daily Mail carried a rather more sensationalised verson.(Will Stewart and Tim Collins, Were ancient Denisovans the first to discover Australia? Scientist believes traces of their DNA found in Aboriginal people suggest they beat homo-sapiens to the continent, 15 September 2017). Hat tip to regular commenter JohnB for pointing me to the Siberia Times story.

While the stories have a beat-up tone, the recent discoveries do raise the question of just when and where the ancestors of the modern Australians did meet the Denosovans. If, as the present consensus seems to suggest, they met them near Sahul, the extended continent that became Australia as the sea levels fell, the Denosovans must have been wide spread.    

In an earlier 2013 paper in Science,  Alan Cooper and Chris Stringer posed the question Did the Denisovans Cross Wallace's Line?. The summary of the paper reads:
The recent discovery of Denisovans (1, 2) and genetic evidence of their hybridization with modern human populations now found in Island Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Pacific (3) are intriguing and unexpected. The reference specimen for the Denisovan genome (4), a distal phalanx from a young girl, was recovered from the geographically distant Denisova Cave in the Russian Altai mountains. Three Denisovan mitochondrial genomes have been generated from material in the cave, dated by poorly associated fauna (5) at more than 50,000 years old. The diversity of these genomes indicates that the Denisovan population had a larger long-term average size than that of the Neandertals (6, 7), suggesting that the Denisovans were formerly widespread across mainland East Asia. However, interbreeding with modern humans only appears to have occurred in remote Island Southeast Asia, requiring marine crossings and raising questions about the distribution and fossil record of Denisovans in Island Southeast Asia.
So far we still have only one known Denisovan site, the original at one at Altai. Based on the material remains there, they have appear to have been an advanced hunter-gatherer group. It seems unlikely that the Altai Denisovans "discovered" Australia. It is more likely that there were a number of Denisovan migration paths with possible northern and southern migration routes. But we just don't know. As Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts, Director of the Centre for Archaeological Science at the University of Wollongong suggested in the Siberia Times piece, We need deep study of ancient migration routes to understand how the Denisovan DNA exists to this day in the native people of Australia. More broadly, we just need more information about them!

We also need, I think, to consider the latest results from the Madjedbebe rockshelter in the Northern Territory,  something I wrote about in The lessons and questions from Madjedbebe, which showed occupancy as well as a sophisticated tool kit from around 65,000 years ago. Recognising my own lack of professional expertise, there is an apparent tension now between some of the date ranges generated by genomic analysis and archaeological analysis.

I have no idea how these conundrums will be resolved, nor what picture we will find at the end of the process. I suspect that it will be as different from current knowledge as current knowledge is from the world view holding even thirty years ago. .      .  .

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Architectural keys to the past


Mid Victorian finery: Mallam House was built in 1870 for Henry Guy Mallam, one of Armidale's pioneer chemists and druggists. This post marks the start of a a new series on New England's built landscape and architecture 

The past lies all around us in the form of the built landscape. We see it, but then we don’t because it is so familiar to us.

Each period since European occupation of the land has been marked by different architectural styles, by different building forms that vary depending on the time built, on purpose and on available materials, on economics and available technology, on fashion and sometimes fad.

There are similarities in the built landscape across the broader New England. The old bank buildings or post offices, for example, are instantly recognisable, sometimes surviving as symbols of a more optimistic time. However, there are also differences that reflect differences in physical, human and economic geography. The architecture of the North Coast is not the same as the Tablelands, that of Newcastle is different again.

The built landscape is constantly reinvented through a process of destruction and reconstruction, of expansion and sometimes contraction. Sometimes elements survive as memorials to past hopes and expectations.

In 1970-71 when Robert Bryant designed stage 3 of the Old Boiler House at the University of New England, he did so as part of a broader plan for a northern residential complex. That complex was never built, swept away in the changes taking place in the university sector.

When New England gained autonomy in 1954 there were nine Australian universities. In 1970 that number had increased to 14. Then an explosion occurred: there were 19 universities in 1980, 25 in 1990, 39 in 2000. UNE’s focus shifted from expansion to survival in the face of fierce competition, leaving the Old Boiler House behind as a sign of things past.

There are different ways of classifying the architecture surrounding us.

We can classify it by period and style. Mallam House, for example, is Armidale’s best surviving example a mid Victorian fashionable house.

It was built in 1870 for Henry Guy Mallam, one of Armidale’s pioneer chemists and druggists, to service the high end rental market. Its first tenant was Bishop Timothy O’Mahony, Armidale’s first Catholic Bishop of Armidale.

We can, as with the old Boiler House, look at architecture in terms of the combination of style and purpose.

A very different example of Armidale’s Victorian architecture can be found on the western side of Beardy Street. Designed by architect John Sulman for the Australian Joint Stock Bank and completed in 1889, the building was intended to be functional while acting as a physical assertion of authority and respectability.

With this as introduction, over the next few weeks I will take you on a tour of New England architecture from the very ancient to the most modern. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 6 September 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

William Gardner - chronicler, sketcher, amateur photographer, tutor, regional historian and geographer.


Saumarez Homestead as we know it today. When William Gardner took up a position as tutor on Saumarez Station in 1842 the property was owned by the Elizabeth Dumaresq. In 1856, Saumarez was sold to Henry Arding Thomas who in 1874 sold it to Francis White. It was the Whites who built the homestead we know today.  

“When New England was first settled by the Whites”, William Gardner wrote in 1854, “they found standing nets of the Blacks in many parts of the bush for the purpose of entrapping the wild animals – The tribes of Blacks met by appointment at these places at certain times driving from different directions their game before them, and this from a circle of many miles into these nets”.

This has become one of the most often quoted descriptions of traditional Aboriginal life on the Tablelands, providing a clear picture of the nature of cooperative work within an Aboriginal society on the point of disruption.

One of the first chroniclers of life in Northern New South Wales, William Gardner has been described as sketcher, amateur photographer, tutor, regional historian and geographer.

Gardner (1802-1860) was born in Glasgow, Scotland. In April 1838 he sailed from Leith, Edinburgh’s port, for Sydney as a cabin passenger on the barque Countess of Durham, arriving five months later.

We know little of Gardner’s life in the thirty six years before he sailed for Sydney. He was clearly an educated man and may by then have spent some time in Georgia (USA), for in 1848 he published a pamphlet on the possibility of growing of cotton in NSW.

Upon arrival in Sydney, Gardner worked briefly for the Union Bank of Australia before going north to Maitland to assist in Dickson’s general store. About 1842, he moved further north to become tutor (at £15 a year, plus keep) at Saumarez Station near Armidale.

The Saumarez run had been taken up by William and Henry Dumaresq in 1837. When Henry died from war wounds in 1838, his wife Elizabeth inherited Saumarez. While the property remained in family hands until 1856 when it was sold to Henry Arding Thomas, Elizabeth and her children returned to England a few years after Henry’s death.

Gardner was then employed as tutor at various stations around the district, Moredun, Rockvale, John Barker’s Mount Mitchell Station, and finally Andrew Coventry's Oban Station .

A keen horseman, Gardner travelled widely over the district. He compiled the first detailed map of the northern districts of New South Wales, published in September 1844.

Gardner's later writings were not published, but were kept in large manuscript notebooks. “I made them for my own amusement”, he wrote. These notebooks, now held in the Mitchell Library, are a treasure trove of information about the early years of New England.

One of his pupils, John Barker’s daughter, recalled Gardner as a stout, jovial man of wide learning, a keen amateur photographer and painter, the owner of a stereoscope with views of his native country and a keen student of history who 'wrote in bulky volumes far into the night by the light of a candle’.

Gardner did not marry. He died at Oban in September 1860 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In November 1973, a headstone was finally erected on the grave by the Armidale and District Historical Society.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The fossil footprints of Trachilos date to c5.7 million years ago

The Trachilos Footprints

On Trachilos, Crete, 29 small fossil tracks were found made by someone walking upright. The footprints have remarkable human like characteristics. Now Professors Mathew Bennett (Bournemouth University) and Per Ahlberg (Uppsala University) report in The Conversation (1 September 2017, (Our controversial footprint discovery suggests human-like creatures may have roamed Crete nearly 6m years ago).that the footprints have been dated  to around 5.7 million years ago. At this point towards the end of the Miocene the Mediterranean Sea was apparently dry, with Crete linked to Greece with a very different environment from today.

The authors conclude:
If – and for many it is a big if – the tracks of Trachilos were indeed made by an early human ancestor, then the biogeographical range of our early ancestors would increase to encompass the eastern Mediterranean. 
In a later piece in The Conversation (4 September), Robin Crompton (University of Liverpool) and Susannah Thorpe (University of Birmingham) ask Ancient footprints in Crete challenge theory of human evolution – but what actually made them?

They note  that it looks as though the footprints may be hominin – a member of the human species after separation from the chimpanzee lineage."But, as the authors point out themselves, the findings are highly controversial – suggesting human ancestors may have existed in Crete at the same time as they evolved in Africa..........So what should we make of it all? If the footprints are confirmed to be from a hominin – additional studies are needed before we can know for sure – it is unquestionably exciting."

After discussing options and the need for further investigation of the findings, they conclude:
If all 50 of the Trachilos prints were made freely available to other scientists as high resolution laser scans, we would have a decent sample to assess their variability and compare them to other fossil and recent footprints and foot pressure records. And indeed, the researchers behind the study told The Conversation they are aiming to release all their data at some point. 
This would give us a good chance of saying who made them. As it stands, they could as well be those of gorillas – which separated from us over 10m years ago – as those of a member of our own human lineage such as Oreopithecus or Orrorin.

Using Domain or realestate.com.au as historical research tools

I have begun a new series in my Armidale Express column on New England's built landscape and architecture. The opening sentences sentences in the first column, Architectural keys to the past, set  the theme.
The past lies all around us in the form of the built landscape. We see it, but then we don’t because it is so familiar to us.
This is Woodleigh on the outskirts of Armidale. While modernised, it is a fairly typical country homestead of its period with its weatherboard construction, chimneys and verandah.

I found Woodleigh on the Domain real estate site. I had not actually realised to that point that the sale notices on Domain and rival site realestate.com.au are actually quite a valuable tool for historical research for those interested in the history of architecture and the built environment in general or in regard to particular locations.

Each house has photographs, a floor plan, a written description and a map. By looking at the map you can place the house and its type in a particular location. By scanning a number of house sale notices over time, .you build up a picture, a mental mud map, of the varying built landscape in an area. You also get a good idea of prices, although that may not be your primary aim.

You can also use the approach to select examples that illustrate particular architectural styles to be found in the area.

In investigating, you also find out new things that then provide a base for further research.

This is 148 Dangar Street just two blocks from the main street. It was constructed in the 1890s from Armidale blue brick

I know this house quite well because I used to walk past it all the time. It's a funny place, striking in its own way but somehow different.

While I knew the house from the outside, I did not know its history. I find from Domain that it was originally built as stables for James Miller’s Kapunda estate. This was described in 1891 as “one of the most complete private residences in town”, with the stables planned by James White described as “very comfortable quarters” for racehorses. The house was later refurbished as a four bedroom residence.

I don't know anything about James Miller or his Kapunda estate, so I have some further research to do at some point.




Monday, September 04, 2017

Winners of the 2017 NSW Premier’s History Awards

On Friday night, 1 September, the 2017 NSW Premier’s History Awards were announced at the State Library of NSW as part of the official launch of NSW History Week.

Details of the winners are set out below. I have given links to the publishers plus the judge's comments for each award.

Australian History Prize ($15,000). From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories, Mark McKenna (Melbourne University Publishing) 

From the Edge contends that it is only when Australians look to the edge of their country that they can properly comprehend what makes their histories distinct. The book begins with an account of a walk along the southeast Australian coast in the late eighteenth
century, before moving on to the failed British attempt to establish a presence at Cobourg Peninsula, the search for profits at the Burrup Peninsula and James Cook’s stay at what is now Cooktown. The focus is on the encounter between Australia’s Indigenous and non‐
Indigenous inhabitants.

This evocatively written and innovative study is based on wide‐ranging research and fieldwork. It conveys a powerful sense of place. Attractive images are a vital component of the evidence it presents. A convincing case is made for the importance of historical connections between remote localities at opposite ends of the continent. By explaining why an understanding of these localities’ Indigenous stories is so essential, Mark McKenna makes a major contribution to the development of a more widely informed Australian historical consciousness.

From the Edge stands out in a competitive shortlist through the manner in which it highlights and makes sense of a complex network of local histories that deserve far greater attention than they have previously received. The book combines well‐told intriguing stories with sophisticated and clear analysis. McKenna demonstrates that Australians’ historical imagination can be enriched through a broader yet more geographically intimate view. He emphasises the significance of a local and regional perspective that emerges from the histories of locations that are ‘both on the edge of the continent and the edge of national consciousness’. Through detailed place studies that give special attention to Aboriginal–settler encounters, he offers a highly original contribution to understanding Australia’s past with considerable contemporary relevance.

General History Prize ($15,000). Japanese War Criminals: The Politics of Justice After the Second World War, Sandra Wilson, Robert Cribb, Beatrice Trefalt and Dean Aszkielowicz (Columbia University Press)

Japanese War Criminals showcases the power of collaboratively authored historical research. In its analysis of new sources written in multiple languages, it is truly transnational. It engages impressively with one of the most complex moral and legal problems — can we achieve justice and restitution for crimes committed during war?

Wilson, Cribb, Trefalt and Aszkielowicz have placed the war crimes tribunals in their full cultural, legal, diplomatic and political contexts. We read about the significance of the trials to people around the world as they struggled to return to ‘normal life’ and reconstitute moral order amid the wreckage produced by the war. The book skilfully shows that identifying criminal acts committed during militarised conflict is more than a matter of practical legal determination; it has implications that go well beyond setting parameters for just war and legal killing Japanese War Criminals is an exceptional book. It provides readers with fresh insights into the complex moral challenges, practical legal limitations and political constraints that influenced the Allied authorities in their execution of justice in the emotionally charged years following the Pacific War.

Never shying away from recognising the horror of crimes committed by the Japanese military, the book also reveals that the trials were complicated by the Allies’ efforts to prevent their own wartime atrocities from facing similar legal and moral attention. This powerful book shows us that the horror of war contaminates every aspect of civilised life, including the law and its ideals of justice and impartiality. It is a remarkable achievement, both for its intellectual reach and its deft handling of fraught ethical issues that continue to confront us today.

NSW Community and Regional History Prize ($15,000). Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past, Peter Hobbins, Ursula K. Frederick and Anne Clarke (Arbon Publishing)

The North Head Quarantine Station operated from the 1830s until it closed in 1984; it served as a holding station for passengers on inbound ships to New South Wales arriving from well‐known hotspots for contagious diseases. Stories from the Sandstone examines around 1600 engravings in many different languages that were carved into the rocks and walls around the Quarantine Station during its 150‐year history.

The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs of the engravings and paintings of the area. In addition to the inscriptions and graffiti, sources include official records, personal recollections, unpublished diaries, private correspondence, family trees and various archives. The authors draw from this rich body of sources to spotlight individuals who passed through the station and left their signatures in stone.  This fascinating and accomplished history of the Quarantine Station firmly locates the experiences of the local within the broader context of the global. It covers the history of immigration to Australia, the conditions of ship travel for men, women and children, the start of government public health measures and the establishment of official quarantine policies to manage arrivals and the spread of disease. It is a history contoured by how the governments of the day applied ideas of gender, race and culture to the treatment of diverse individuals. Such local experiences are set within the broader transnational framework of the history of trade, trade routes, theories of disease and pandemics.

Young People’s History Prize ($15,000). Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story, Christobel Mattingley (Allen and Unwin)

On 24 June 1952, the Aṉangu people were forcibly dislocated from the Ooldea Lutheran mission on their traditional land in South Australia and sent to Yalata, another mission station in the country of another Aboriginal people. The traditional Aṉangu country was renamed ‘Maralinga’ and handed over to British scientists to carry out nuclear tests which would contaminate the land for the next 24,000 years.

Maralinga’s Long Shadow tells the story of Aṉangu woman Yvonne (also known as Tjintjiwara), who experienced this dislocation. Her husband and two sons died of cancer when they were granted ‘salvage rights’ and sent to clean up Maralinga many years later.

This well‐researched and original history interweaves the account of nuclear testing at Maralinga with Yvonne’s biography, community service and career as an artist. It tracks her experience of life on mission stations, her grief at being tricked into allowing her baby to be removed from her care, her marriage and family life, her reunion with her adult son, and how the introduction of alcohol began to destroy the Yalata community.

Christobel Mattingley does an outstanding job handling the many strands of this complex narrative, telling the tale in a simple but powerful and accessible voice. The book is beautifully illustrated with photos from Yvonne’s life and vivid reproductions of her artwork. Despite the tragic history it recounts, Maralinga’s Long Shadow is suffused with hope because of Yvonne’s resilience and her determination to serve her community both in practical ways, and by passing on Aṉangu stories, traditions, and her art. This is an
important, moving and inspiring story.

Multimedia History Prize ($15,000). The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial, Adam Clulow (Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media) 

In the 1620s, Dutch and English competition for control over the lucrative spice trade in the East Indies (present‐day Indonesia) reached a critical point. After uncovering an English plot to take the Dutch castle at Amboyna, the Dutch authorities tortured suspects, placed them on trial, and ultimately condemned to death 10 English merchants and 10 Japanese mercenaries. For the following decade, passions escalated as both sides clashed over the legitimacy of a trial that would become one of the most famous legal cases of its age.

The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial website invites us to revisit this seminal case. With a rich trove of digitised archival material, we become investigators, lawyers and jurors tasked with understanding historical events. The process is guided by insights from academic experts who explain the trial’s context within the spice trade and colonialism. Primarily designed for tertiary students, the interactive website is accessible to broader audiences. The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial asks us to investigate an event, on a human scale, that is dense with continuing issues of justice, journalism, politics and propaganda.

The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial website is an outstanding example of how maps, sketches, paintings and archival documents (in multiple languages) can be brought to life. It vividly and intelligently introduces us not only to the history surrounding the trial, but also to the tools of the historian in making sense of a trail of angry missives and public pamphlets. The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial is fresh, interesting and engaging. It is an important resource for teaching history and a model for multimedia history education.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The History Carnival 168 hosted Helen's ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly


The History Carnival is a regular generally monthly round-up of history posts carried on different blogs in different countries, hosted by a different blogger each time. This month's carnival, the 168th, is hosted by Helen's ART and ARCHITECTURE mainly.

Do have a look. My favourite among the posts mentioned, and I'm not alone here, is Laundry Methods During the American Revolution: The Really, Really Quick Version

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Armidale Boiler House's unique past


Ahead of its time: Closed in 2000, the Boiler House with award winning Stage 3 design was central to UNE's campus services

Cockatoo Island is one of Sydney’s most popular tourist destinations. There the old dock works with its buildings and cranes has been turned into an exhibition and activity space, adding depth and variety to the visitor experience.

But did you know that Armidale had what could become an equivalent if smaller space, one that won a state architectural award in the same year as the Opera House?

Boilers were central to the industrial revolution. They provided the power and heat required to drive industrial development.

On the Tablelands with its cold winter climate, boilers generated hot water that was then used to heat larger buildings such as TAS 

At the University, the growth of the top campus in the late 1950s created new heating demands. The University decided that a new coal powered reticulated hot water system was the most effective response.

Stage one opened in 1961 in a new facility built at the northern end of the campus. Continued growth in student and staff numbers led to a stage 2 extension in 1965 designed by Leif Kristensen and then a much bigger stage 3 expansion in 1971.


New beginning: the Boiler House with its raw concrete form reveals aspects of industrial life while providing a space for exhibitions and activities including a children's discovery space

While I was aware of the building, I had no idea of its size or architectural significance. Designed by Government design architect Robert Bryant as part of Bryant’s larger scheme for a residential complex in the northern part of the campus, the award winning stage 3 makes creative use of off-form concrete to create an arresting brutalist form.

The boiler plant closed in 2000 and then sat idle for many years. Finally, a small team was formed to look at ways of re-purposing and re-imagining the building, while retaining key links to the past. The team includes the Program Manager for UNE’s School Discovery Program Kirsti Abbott, historical archaeologist Pamela Watson, archivist Ian Stepenson and photographer Terry Cooke.

The concept under development centers on the use of the space as an exhibition and activity area, including a special focus on a children’s discovery space that will link past, present and future.

This approach takes advantage of the building’s unique structure and history, as well as its location on the northern edge of the campus with easy access and closeness to other facilities.

As part of its work, the team is trying to build a full history of the facility, including stories from those who have worked there.

If you have stories to share or indeed would like to find out more about the project, please contact Kirsti Abbott, email kabbott6@une.edu.au, phone 0466 726 525.

An exhibition of Terry Cooke’s photographs of the Boiler House, called Getting into Hot Water, is currently on view in the Dixson Library at UNE.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 23 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Mapping the path of human progress


The Madjedbebe dig: Because of the global importance of the Kakadu site, the team used all the latest archaeological technology to deliver the best results.

New discoveries reshaping our knowledge of the deep human past just keep rolling.

The Madjedbebe rockshelter can be found in Kakadu near Jabiru in the Northern Territory. In 1989, a small excavation at the site suggested human occupation at 60,000-50,000 years ago, but the numbers were disputed.. The site was therefore further excavated in 2012 and 2015.

The team used the latest technology as seen on the increasingly popular TV programs that have done so much to turn archaeology into a glamour profession.

Ground penetrating radar a-la Time Team was used to survey the area before digging. As digging proceeded, laser scanning (Time Scanners) was used to create accurate three dimensional maps recording the placement of artefacts for later study.

A variety of dating techniques were used including OSL, Optically-Stimulated Luminescence. This allows the last time quartz sediment was exposed to light to be dated, a useful technique if you are trying to date artefacts or human remains surrounded by sand.

The results of the team’s work was published in Nature in July, attracting world wide headlines. They showed an earliest occupation date range of 65,000 years plus or minus 5,000 years. Further, that date was associated with artifacts including the earliest known global example of a ground edge axe indicating a sophisticated and well established life style.

Within weeks, on 9 August 2017, updated results were published in Nature from Lida Ajer, a Sumatran Pleistocene cave with a rich rainforest fauna associated with fossil human teeth. These indicated an early modern human presence in Sumatra of 73,000 to 63,000 years ago, effectively the same date range as Madjedbebe.

What do these and other discoveries mean? I think that we can summarise the results this way, recognizing that new evidence is emerging all the time?

The date for the emergence of modern homo sapiens is being pushed back all the time, with modern homo sapiens widespread across Africa before a 100,000 out-of-Africa migration date. That date itself is looking increasingly uncertain to my mind.

The number of identified hominid species continues to increase, with modern humans living alongside them in the same time space, and indeed the same geographical space in some cases, for extended periods.

The DNA evidence shows interbreeding between hominid species, casting doubt on the old idea of straight line evolution in which modern humans simply supplanted other hominid species such as the Neanderthals. Rather, there may have been parallel and overlapping evolutionary paths. We carry our complex past in our DNA!

As the time span of Aboriginal history increases, so does the range of environmental changes to which the Aboriginal peoples were subjected to. We cannot understand Aboriginal history unless we understand those environmental changes.

There is therefore a growing need for a full and understandable environmental history of this continent accessible to all.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

New England's big screen highlights


Old Main Street, Raymond Terrace: Filming for Tomorrow, When the War Began

A few months ago, New England born writer and comedian Carlo Ritchie oganised New England expatriate/New State drinks at a pub in Sydney’s Redfern. The idea was to bring us together across interests and generations, to create a centre where we could talk about New England matters from film to food to beer and all things beyond.

It wasn’t a big group, these things take time to evolve, but I couldn’t help noticing just how many film makers, actors and dramatists there were.

We don’t have a proper history of New England film, indeed most people don’t even know that there is such a thing. In 2006 when film writer Neil Rattigan wrote his pioneering piece on New England film in High Lean Country, he identified ten feature films with New England connections.

I have been digging around in the ten years since Neil wrote. I use a broader definition of New England, but have now identified 29 feature films with some New England connection from the rather ramshackle 1921 Guyra Ghost Mystery to P J Hogan’s 2012 production, Mental.

When I look at the time distribution of the films, we have one on the 1920s, two in the 1930s, then just one in the 1940s. In the 1950s when the Australian film industry was down, there were actually four including Armidale filmed Captain Thunderbolt.

The 1960s saw just one film, Koya No Toseinin (The Drifting Avenger). Filmed on location at Nundle, this Japanese western starred Ken Takakura, the Clint Eastwood of Japanese film., seeking revenge for his murdered family. The movie was apparently never released in Australia, but I am told that it is available on YouTube. .

The 1970s saw six films, then just one the following decade. Production picked up in the 1990s with three films, six in the 2000s, with four so far in the 2010s. In all, its quite a lot.

A number of the films have absolutely nothing to do with New England beyond incidental filming.

Ken Halls’ 1937 Lovers and Luggers is a rollicking adventure melodrama about a lounge lizard and pianist who is sent on a quest to Thursday Island to retrieve a pearl for a girl.

What could be more reasonable than that? It’s a 1937 chick flick! Needless to say, the girl was not worth his love, but he does find true love in the process.

The only connection between Lovers and Luggers and New England is that a few scenes were shot in Port Stephens.

That was 1937. Many years later, I visited Raymond Terrace. I hadn’t been there before. We were on our way to Armidale, introducing a friend to New England.

Over a picnic lunch near the pioneer museum, wine and pate and meats and breads, I explained that I wanted to find the main street location where Tomorrow, When the war Began (2010) was shot.

Later we found it. Like Lovers and Luggers, the only connection between this film and New England is location. But it makes life so much richer because I can see the interconnections. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 9 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nature: An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago

A letter published in Nature by K E Westaway et al, An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago, (Nature (2017) doi:10.1038/nature23452 Received 30 March 2017 Accepted 29 June 2017 Published online 09 August 2017) reports that scientists have now accurately dated two human teeth first discovered in the Lida Ajer cave on the island of Sumatra in the late 19th century, showing modern humans were living there between 73,000 and 63,000 years ago.

Background information is provided in a piece by Kira Westaway in the Conversation, Old teeth from a rediscovered cave show humans were in Indonesia more than 63,000 years ago.

The results are interesting for two reasons. Thirst is that they are consistent with the 65,000+/5,000 date for the recent Madjedbebe rock shelter date in Kakadu. Secondly, they are the oldest raif forrest date in the world.

.There are a couple of odd things that I didn't understand about the piece in the Conversation. I just note this now without amplification as a reminder to come back to to issue.  

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Patersons and their artistic legacy

Frozen Moment. A National Library of Australia photo of Esther Paterson
One of the best known paintings in the Hinton Collection, Esther Paterson’s The Yellow Glove also known as Portrait of Betty Paterson, is now on tour as part of the NERAM travelling exhibition. Esther entered the painting in the Archibald Prize competition in 1938. She didn't win, but the following year Howard Hinton purchased the arresting portrait for his Armidale Teachers' College collection.

I have known this painting since childhood because the Armidale Teachers’ College was just up the road and I went there quite often. The paintings in the Hinton Collection were everywhere, hanging in the hallways and the lecture theatres.

I was probably seven when I first saw it. It is a piece of art that I really like, but I knew nothing about either Esther or Betty Paterson. Investigating, I find that they were members of one of those artistic families that Melbourne seems to specialise in.

Our story begins in Scotland with John Ford Paterson and his wife Elizabeth, née Stewart. I have no information on John Ford Paterson nor on Elizabeth, but the family was clearly artistic with the three oldest boys all completing initial artistic training in Scotland.

In 1872, the Paterson boys decided to emigrate en-mass to Melbourne. Sister Mary Jane followed in 1881 after the death of her husband with her young son, the future Australian poet and dramatist Thomas Louis Buvelot Esson.

Marvellous Melbourne was booming. In 1880 the population reached 280,000, then 445,000 in 1889. Money flowed like water, and a fair bit of that went to Paterson Bros, the interior design business established by the eldest boy Charles Stewart with his brothers. One of their best known projects was the interior design for William Greenlaw’s Villa Alba, now a Melbourne museum.

Hugh Paterson, Esther and Betty's father, was born in Scotland in 1856 and, like his brothers, attended the Royal Scottish Academy schools. In addition to his work with Paterson Bros, both he and brother John quickly became prominent Melbourne artists, active in the cultural politics of the time.

The Paterson studio managed by Hugh became an artistic centre. Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher whose office was next door liked to drop in. This led, among other things, to the imposition of tariffs on imported paintings and the establishment of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board.

Ester Paterson was born in 1892, Betty Paterson in 1895 to Hugh and wife Elizabeth. Both were prodigies who played with, mixed with and trained with the elite of Melbourne's bohemian set. Both were talented artists, cartoonists and writers who went on to long artistic careers.

I think that the thing I notice most about their work are the lines, the colours and the simplicity. Their work is quite striking, part of the Art Deco scene. Betty in particular became artist by appointment to the flappers, both captured the resonance of the 1920s.  
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 2 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

Monday, August 07, 2017

More DNA data, the impact of cold on human survival

In the constant turmoil that is modern prehistory I missed this September 2016 Nature paper, The Simons Genome Diversity Project: 300 genomes from 142 diverse populations. The abstract reads:
Here we report the Simons Genome Diversity Project data set: high quality genomes from 300 individuals from 142 diverse populations. These genomes include at least 5.8 million base pairs that are not present in the human reference genome. Our analysis reveals key features of the landscape of human genome variation, including that the rate of accumulation of mutations has accelerated by about 5% in non-Africans compared to Africans since divergence. We show that the ancestors of some pairs of present-day human populations were substantially separated by 100,000 years ago, well before the archaeologically attested onset of behavioural modernity. We also demonstrate that indigenous Australians, New Guineans and Andamanese do not derive substantial ancestry from an early dispersal of modern humans; instead, their modern human ancestry is consistent with coming from the same source as that of other non-Africans.
Cold, cold, cold. That was the story of long periods of the hominid past. In a comment in Current Anthropology, Robert Hosfield responds to criticisms of his work on the impact of cold on the human species, including especially the possible impact of hypothermia as compared to frostbite.  It seems to come back to questions of clothing as compared to other physiological modifications. I had only seen references to this controversy, how did early hominids survive with poor tool kits and limited clothing, in very cold environments?  This popular piece provides a 2016 input reporting on Horsfield's work.

 Wikipedia piece on this issue points to the disagreements but also suggests that it was rather a long time ago.
One of the issues is the date of the domestication of fire. Many of the presentations such has this Wikipedia diorama are actually very stylized. This example will make you shiver!

 I think the reality is threefold: the human body has considerable capacity to adapt if it is given time; if you have fire and shelter, you can get warm or at least warmer when external conditions are very harsh;  and you may have access to skins or other coverings to keep you warm.

All these things have then to be adjusted to local conditions. For example, you will not go outside if a blizzard is raging unless you absolutely have to. So you will store food if you can to accommodate.  This may be no more than leaving it outside if temperatures are that low.

Your age also determines your response to climatic extremes. If you are younger, it is easier to cope. people may just die earlier.

This total mix determines the group's response It's important from the viewpoint of Australian history because it helps us make judgement about the impact of the Last Glacial Maximum.The Aborigines survived in Tasmania in glacial conditions. Clearly, they had the culture and equipment to respond, although it may have reduced populations and life expectancy. Beyond this, we just don't know what the actual story was.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Forming the unique Anaiwan language

Separation: Squeezed between larger language groups, the Anaiwan language evolved different because of their need to preserve culture, territory and separate identity.This is the eight and last in a series discussing the deciphering of the mysteries of New England's Anaiwan or Nganjaywana Aboriginal language.


Last week I suggested that as the Last Glacial Maximum eased, the Tablelands were reoccupied by two main groups.

From the south came Dainggatti speakers from the Macleay Valley. We don’t have dates, but from the pattern of the dates that we do have this probably took place about 5,000 years ago.

As the Dainggatti speakers spread north following the watershed , they coincided with settlers from the Northern Rivers and especially the Clarence/Nymboida river system, the Gumbaingirr speakers, who had followed the rivers upstream and effectively occupied significant parts of the Tablelands. Further north, there was Bandjalung expansion, but this appears to have been less pronounced.

But why did the Anaiwan language then diverge so much from its coastal origins? To understand why this might have happened, we need to return to Terry Crowley’s language map. I note that the language boundaries on the map are indicative only and do not indicate exact boundaries.

Crowley suggested that the language north of Armidale described by McPherson as Enneewin was not the same as that further south because it included lexical items borrowed from Gumbaingirr, whereas the language further south did not.

I think that’s incorrect. Although Anaiwan varied greatly from north to south, we can reasonably think of it as a single language, in part because of geography, in part because Crowley himself concluded that the northern and southern languages had a 65 per cent common lexicon. It makes perfect sense that Enneewin or Northern Anaiwan should be a distinct dialect with Gumbaingirr inclusions given the two language groups were side by side.

If we now look at Southern Anaiwan, Crowley’s Nganjaywana with its dialects of Inuwon and Himberrong, you can see a very distinct pattern. In the far south, Himberrong adjoined Gamilaraay in the south and west, Birbay in the south east plus Dainggatti in the east.

Inuwon, by contrast, adjoined Himberrong in the south, Ennewin in the north, both Dainggatti and Gumbaingirr in the east and Gamilaraay in the west. That’s a lot of languages in both cases.

Part of the reason that Crowley put forward for the evolution of Anaiwan as such a distinct language lay in the existence of the secret Anaiwan language identified by Mathews. This, Crowley suggested, reduced the need to borrow from other languages when words fell out of use as a consequence of things such as deaths.

This is possible. However, a simpler explanation lies in the geography described above.

Occupying relatively small territories squeezed between other bigger language groups, the Southern Anaiwan in particular became isolated because of the need to preserve their land and culture.

There is at least some fragmentary evidence to support this view in the archeological and ethnographic record as well as Aboriginal memories. However, that will have to wait to a later series.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 26 July 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017.