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Historicising human antiquity in Australia, 1860-1960

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posted on 2022-04-08, 01:45 authored by Amy Way

In 1859, leading British scientists reached a consensus that overthrew traditional chronologies and asserted that human beings had existed on Earth for upwards of hundreds of thousands of years. For Australian historians and archaeologists, the consensus on human antiquity was an intellectual revolution that would not be fully realised in Australia for another century. Existing literature argues that the reality of Australia’s extensive Aboriginal occupation was not ‘discovered’ or broadly understood until the 1960s, when the twin revolutions of professional archaeology and radiocarbon dating propelled the country’s human history into the national and international spotlight. Until this point, common settler understandings placed Aboriginal Australians at only a few thousand years old.This dissertation contests the claim that it took one hundred years to apply an understanding of human antiquity to Australia's Aboriginal population. In the decades following the British consensus in 1859, Australia’s human antiquity was Aboriginal, but as the twentieth century dawned, public and professional recognition of that aboriginality began to turn on a dime of racial politics and shifting methodological goalposts. By warping their disciplinary paradigms, scientists could claim a deep human past for Australia, while simultaneously maintaining that Aboriginal antiquity was ‘not proven.’ Even in moments when a distinctly Aboriginal antiquity was proven, such knowledge was often disconnected from living Aboriginal peoples. Current scholarship claims there was no ‘scientific’ discovery of Aboriginal antiquity until the 1960s because evidentiary support and appropriate professional interpretation was lacking. These narratives’ oversimplified periodisation of amateur versus professional, ignorance versus enlightenment, not only elide the shifting levels of recognition that were given to Australia’s human antiquity, but ignore the nuanced and insidious process of contradictory cognition and intellectual dispossession that professional scientists were all too embroiled in. To redress these narratives, this dissertation refocuses a historical gaze on the concept of human antiquity in an in-depth intellectual history of its conceptualisation in Australia. Doing so provides crucial context for Australia’s current academic interest in the deep human past, while also confronting the role it plays in national and cultural narratives.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. ‘Time, time, and yet more time’: Human antiquity and the Australian public, 1859-1879 -- Chapter 2. Antiquity in absentia: Competing priorities in professional science, 1859-1879 -- Chapter 3. Shifting history, changing paradigms: Erasing Aboriginal antiquity from the logic of anthropology, 1880-1920 -- Chapter 4. In the eye of the beholder: ‘True’ Aboriginality and antiquity in Victoria, 1890-1912 -- Chapter 5. Anatomical antiquity and the suitability of skulls: Removing Aboriginality from a global human story, 1912-1931 -- Chapter 6. Coming full Circle: Aboriginal antiquity in the ‘great Australian silence,’ 1930-1960 -- Conclusion – Bibliography


16 December 2020 A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Includes bibliographical references (pages 304-339)

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Macquarie University, Department of History and Archaeology, 2020

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Alison Holland


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Amy Elizabeth Way 2020.




1 online resource (iv, 339 pages)

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