Folks in Western civilization have known about our neighbors in Australia for about four centuries.
Understanding their beliefs became easier, I think, when some of us realized that respecting them makes sense.
- Same reality, different views
- In the news
References to “dreamtime” in today’s popular culture may be less common than then they were in the 1970s. Or maybe television series I watched then were more likely than most to have a “dreamtime” episode.
I liked American entertainment media’s greater respect for other cultures. The less-than-accurate portrayals, not so much.
On the ‘up’ side, disconnects between what we’re learning about alcheringa and television-series “dreamtime” may help me understand distortions of Christianity. Paraphrasing something my father said, ‘never ascribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance.’
I haven’t dug into the history of our early mistranslations of alcheringa. Not deeply. Most of what I’ve learned is from a Wikipedia page, and one of its references.1
Apparently Western researchers heard the Arandan word alcheringa and its root, altjira.
When locals explained the concept, the Westerners figured they meant something like our words for dreams, imagination, or fantasy. Given that understanding, “Dreamtime” is a reasonable translation of alcheringa.
Since then, other researchers went back and learned more about alcheringa, the folks who use the word, and how they see the world.
We don’t, quite, have a widely-understood word in English for the ideas mis-translated as “Dreamtime.” It’s not dream or fantasy.
Folks who were living in Australia when Europeans showed up apparently saw alcheringa as “time out of time” or “everywhen.”
I use words like eternity for similar ideas. But they’re quite specific, and refer to how Catholics view realities we can’t see, taste, or touch. Or how we should view these realities. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 202, 325–327, 330, 771)
Some of us have a very imperfect knowledge of our faith.
I think it’s quite possible that translating alcheringa as “Dreamtime” happened partly because of what had been going on back in Europe. Acknowledging realities that aren’t strictly material was becoming unfashionable.
Binot Paulmier de Gonneville said he landed somewhere “east of the Cape of Good Hope” in 1504. We’ve learned that he landed on the Brazilian coast, northwest of the Cape of Good Hope.
There’s been informed speculation, based on physical evidence, that someone from Portugal got there in the 1520s.
First documented contact with folks in Australia happened during Willem Janszoon’s expedition in 1606. It did not end well.
That doesn’t surprise me.
The Keerweer remember a shipload of Europeans who asked permission to build a city. They agreed, and let the newcomers dig a well and build huts.
The newcomers seemed friendly. The Kerweer accepted tobacco, but not flour or soap. Then the outsiders attacked, killing many Kerweer.
Janszoon reported “savage, cruel black barbarians who slew some of our sailors.”
I don’t think folks on either side were lying. Not in the sense of deliberating saying something that’s not true.
My guess is that we’re looking at how each side perceived the events.
The lesson, I think, is not that Europeans are killers and shouldn’t be trusted. Or that Kerweer are cruel. Not more so than folks anywhere.
I think learning how folks from other cultures live and think, and how they perceive our actions, is a really good idea. Preferably before someone makes a lethal mistake.
The Janszoon fiasco happened in 1606.
Baldwin Spencer Gillen mentioned the Alcheringa in 1896.
In 1899 he published “Native Tribes of Central Australia.” He described the Alcheringa as a time in the distant past. Five years later Europeans were calling it “the dream times.”
As I said earlier, I haven’t dug deeply into why Baldwin Spencer Gillen translated Alcheringa as “a time in the distant past.” I also don’t know how or why that morphed into “the dream times.”
I think Western civilization’s changing view of — and attitudes toward — spiritual realities was an important factor.
The Enlightenment began more two centuries before Gillen wrote his “Native Tribes” book. Europeans were re-thinking old assumptions about authority and belief.
My guess is that by the mid-19th century, quite a few educated Europeans simply didn’t realize, or want to admit, that non-physical realities are possible.
And that spiritual realities aren’t a sort of fantasy. I’ll admit that of some today’s notions about ‘being spiritual’ are quite silly, and that’s another topic.
I see the Enlightenment as a response to decades of destruction, disease, and death.
The Thirty Years’ War ran from 1618 to 1648. There was probably some religious motivation, at least in the earlier conflicts.
I see it mainly as a turf war between northern and southern European leaders.
Northern bosses wanted a bigger piece of global trade.
Southern bosses, understandably, liked the status quo: where much of the trade went through their ports.
All sides took advantage of religious sentiments and the Reformation in their propaganda. Europe’s leaders finally ran out of cannon fodder and useful targets around 1648. Those reasons for calling a halt to Europe’s self-destruction is my admittedly-biased view of their decisions and actions.
Upwards of 7,500,000 folks were dead by then. Some were killed in the fighting; many others in famines, disease, and witch hunts sparked by the war.
After decades of ‘God is on our side’ propaganda, it’s no wonder that some survivors assumed that religion had caused the war.
Some also felt that it was time to stop believing leaders, and start thinking. Louis XIV’s later spin on the divine right of kings didn’t help.
I don’t think any one thing caused the Enlightenment. But I think propaganda from the Thirty Years’ War helped many see religion as harmful and unreasonable. (July 14, 2017)
I don’t see religion as a threat. That’s partly because I’m a Christian, and partly because I learned the difference between propaganda and facts. Folks who seem convinced that God belongs to their social club or political party? They can be trouble.
I don’t miss the rabid mix of jingoism and cultural preferences on ‘Christian radio’ in the 1960s. Looking at the lasting popularity of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” I’m guessing that others felt the same way. And still do. (July 4, 2017; November 15, 2016)
“Secrets of the world’s toughest creatures revealed”
Sarah Gabbott, BBC News (July 28, 2017)
“Genetic analyses of tardigrades has revealed some of the secrets of their incredible survival abilities.
“These tiny creatures, sometimes called water bears, can survive radiation, freezing, extreme dehydration and even the vacuum of space.
“Researchers have now decoded the DNA of two species of tardigrade and uncovered the genes that allow them to be revived after desiccation….”
As Sarah Gabbott’s lead paragraph said, scientists found some previously-unknown explanations for tardigrade durability. There’s a whole lot about these tiny animals we still don’t understand.
We’re also closer to learning how closely they’re related to insects. My guess is that the question isn’t settled yet. If anything, what scientists are finding seems more likely to heat up the debate. For now.
But I’m reasonably sure that new data will I let us find answers. And new questions.
Despite their appearance, they’re more like nematodes than insects or spiders, genetically. Tardigrades, that is, not the scientists.
One clue in where tardigrades fit into our classifications of critters is in their hox genes. Those genes control how a critter develops along its head-to-tail axis. Even animals without heads or tails in their adult form, like starfish, have them.3
Hox genes don’t change much as critters evolve. All insects, for example, have eight hox genes. Most animals have somewhere around ten.
Nematodes have five, and so do tardigrades. That strongly suggests that tardigrades are more like nematodes than insects. If that’s so, tardigrades are still protostomes: critters like arthropods, molluscs, and rotifera.
Humans are deutersomes; along with other vertebrates and similar critters, echinoderms, and hemichordes. Acorn worms are hemichordes, too, and none of this makes much difference unless you’re a scientist or science geek.4
Their radiation resistance is probably due to DNA that’s unusually good at self-repair.
These scientists say their resistance to dehydration is genetic, too.
When a tardigrade loses enough water, its genes start producing proteins that replace the missing water in its cells. The proteins won’t do what water does in the cells, but they will keep the cells and the tardigrade alive for a long time.
A dormant but living tardigrade can’t eat or drink. But that won’t keep water from seeping into it. When the tardigrade gets sufficiently soggy, the proteins dissolve and the critter will be more obviously ‘alive’ again.
“Sperm count drop ‘could make humans extinct’”
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (July 25, 2017)
“Humans could become extinct if sperm counts in men continue to fall at current rates, a doctor has warned.
“Researchers assessing the results of nearly 200 studies say sperm counts among men from North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, seem to have halved in less than 40 years….”
In a way, this research is a bit like the work of historians. Instead of performing their own experiments or observing phenomena, this team used statistical analysis to sift through the results of research done by other scientists.
The new and improved word for research like this is meta-analysis. It was coined recently by statistician Gene V. Glass — or maybe someone else. I eventually stopped trying to dig back to the term’s origin. I learned a few things along the way, though.
Meta-analysis is a new term, but the idea goes back at least to 17th century. That’s when Blaise Pascal’s recently-developed statistical math gave scientists a tool to sift through data and analysis by other scientists.
Pascal’s statistics had started in correspondence with some friends, who developed a way to predict how games of chance would end.
It’s anyone’s guess what Pascal would have done for mathematics if he hadn’t had a religious conversion around 1654. He pretty well gave up on math after that. But not entirely. He became a Jansenist.
That’s a sort of Catholic splinter group that started in the mid-1600s. Their beliefs sound a lot like Calvinism. Jansenism was a big hit for a while.
I gather that they were very into guilt and humanity’s alleged total depravity.5 Focusing on sin and humanity’s ickyness still appeals to some folks. I’m not sure why.
I’d be more concerned if humanity was an endangered species found only in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America. We’re not.
For one thing, humans don’t have the giant panda’s limited range, diet, or 36-hours-per-year reproductive window.
We’re opportunistic omnivores living on very continent except Antarctica.6
That’s our current range. We’ve recently built year-round research bases in Antarctica, and one in low Earth orbit. We’re developing tech for settlements on Mars. (June 9, 2017)
Individuals and families can have problems, though. So do a significant fraction of men in Western Civilization. Maybe.
These researchers say they took factors like selection bias into account. Pallab Ghosh apparently found other scientists who’d read the paper, and thought differently.
My guess is that researchers would have to be very thorough indeed to figure out average fertility, based on research that often focused on folks seeking help with infertility.
On the other hand, maybe more folks in the English-speaking world aren’t able to have kids these days. If so, it’s an issue we can probably deal with. We’ve been learning a great deal about how the human body is supposed to work, and how we can improve health.
Getting healthier won’t be easy, I think. Americans have gotten used to living like kings: particularly England’s Henry VIII.
Henry VIII went through several wives and mistresses. He eventually had at least one illegitimate son and a male heir.
“The King’s great matter” didn’t always end with an execution and remarriage.
Henry VIII annulled his marriages to Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves.
Anne Boleyn, wife #2, was convicted of adultery and incest. Possibly to make room for #3. Either way, she lost her head.
Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, died of an infection, about 10 days after giving birth to England’s next king.
Childbirth in civilized countries got a great deal less dangerous after doctors started washing their hands. And that’s yet another topic. (October 30, 2016)
Maybe Henry didn’t realize that Edward would survive. Or didn’t want to take the risk.
Whatever his motives, he remarried. Catherine Howard was convicted and executed for adultery. He didn’t like Anne of Cleves, who kept her head. Catherine Parr outlived him.
Charges against Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard may or may not have been true.
Henry’s own behavior wasn’t exactly monogamous. But he was king and this was England, so that wasn’t an issue. Not legally. Not at the time.
Henry VIII’s obesity and fevers almost certainly killed him when he was 55. What other diseases, genetic and acquired, he may have had is an ongoing debate.
Sometimes, in about 20% of cases where American couples start getting medical help, we simply don’t know why they can’t have children.
An old-school explanation might have been that they’d offended one of the spirits.
A more recent notion, that a vengeful God is smiting them for something they or an ancestor had done, isn’t much of an improvement.
I see it as the old ‘offending a fairy’ explanation with a Christian paint job.
Some sexually transmitted diseases hurt a person’s chances of having kids. But so do other infections, diabetes, genetic glitches, and some toxins.
Some of my health problems are self-inflicted, but God isn’t smiting me. I’m experiencing logical consequences of illogical acts. They’re “temporal punishments,” and helpful if I use good sense. (Catechism, 1472, 1863, 1964)
My obesity and, most likely, diabetes, are the logical consequences of illogical acts. I don’t know why Henry VIII got so fat.
In my case, obesity is a pretty obvious result of my gluttony. I finally admitted that, and am working at reversing consequences of my disordered behavior. (June 18, 2017)
If what’s happening today doesn’t change, parts of America will be depopulated.
But don’t panic. Change happens. That’s not just my opinion.
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus (c. 535 BC-475 BC))
“The universe is transformation: life is opinion.”
(“Meditations,” Book IV, Marcus Aurelius (c. 161-180 AD))
“There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1 (c. 5th-2nd century BC))
Folks in North America’s vast prairies and grasslands aren’t facing extinction.
We’re human, and have been doing what humans often do: moving somewhere else.
Families and individuals had different reasons for moving: crop failures during the Dust Bowl, not enough customers to keep the gas station open, better jobs elsewhere.
Pretty much the same thing has been happening in some American cities over the last half-century, particularly in the Rust Belt.
I figure that’ll change too, even if Fernando Palazuelo’s plans don’t work out. He’s the Peruvian developer who bought what had been the Packard factory. The last I heard, cleanup will start there in August of this year.
I trust that whoever rebuilds America’s partially-depopulated cities will successfully decontaminate the sites. Places like the Packard plant were in operation for a long time before we started getting smart about environmental damage.
I’m pretty sure toxins in the soil, water, and air aren’t our only problem.
The typical American diet and lifestyle isn’t particularly healthy.7 Many folks here have picked up Henry VIII’s habits.
His disinclination to eat enough fruits and vegetables probably wasn’t the only cause of his heath issues, but it wouldn’t have helped. And that’s yet again another topic. Topics.
“Australia human history ‘rewritten by rock find’”
BBC News (July 20, 2017)
“Archaeologists have found the first evidence to suggest that Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 65,000 years.
“The discovery indicates their arrival on the continent was up to 18,000 years earlier than previously thought.
“It was made after sophisticated artefacts were excavated from a rock shelter in the Northern Territory.
“Researchers unearthed what they say are the world’s oldest stone axes and ochre crayons, thought to be used for art….”
“…Australian Aborigines are believed to be the world’s oldest continuous civilisation….”
As far as I know, our neighbors in Australia never got around to building cities. Not on the scale of what we’ve done in Africa, western and eastern Eurasia, and the Americas.
“Civilization” is my language’s word for a culture with urban development, symbolic communication, some control over the environment, and different levels of status.
Since urban development is part of our definition of civilization, I’m not sure that’s quite the right word to describe what they have.
But respect for cultures that aren’t European or rooted in European traditions is a nice change of pace.
We got “civilization” — the word, not being civilized — from 16th-century French civilisé, “civilized.”
That’s from Latin civilis. It’s related to civis, “citizen;” and civitas, “city.”
My language doesn’t seem to have a commonly-understood word meaning “having a rich cultural heritage but not urban development.”
Maybe we’ll expand “civilization’s” definition. I think the term could be refined a bit.
Some “civilized” traits, like control over the environment and social strata, seem like part of being human.
In a way, it’s what folks at different levels wear and use that make social strata “civilized.” I’ve read that ceremonial scepters and maces started out as practical weapons.
Maces were among the most powerful general-purpose weapons, and one of the few effective against armor.8
In the ‘good old days,’ when folks were rebuilding after Roman times, holding a mace would be a good way of reminding folks who was boss. Also, I suspect, sometimes useful for restoring order to an unruly meeting.
If we have to rebuild again, rulers of a following era might hold something recognizable as a decorative and impractical machine gun.
On the whole, I think developing an alternative to the old empire-collapse-rebuild cycle is a better option. (May 28, 2017)
Good grief, we’ve been learning that chimps and other primates have hierarchies. So do other social animals.
Social animals? I’d better explain that.
I’m a human, a primate, and an animal. I have more in common, physically, with a chimp or orangutan — or a fish — than a fungus.
Strictly-accurate or not, calling folks with a very different heritage “civilized” seems a whole lot better than some older attitudes. (August 26, 2016)
My branch of humanity’s huge family is famous, or notorious, for developing new technology and learning how to handle it safely later.
We’ve also tried quite a few different forms of government while Japan kept the same imperial dynasty. (July 24, 2016)
Whether we’re seen as innovative or unstable depends, I think, on a person’s attitudes toward change. I see change as occasionally uncomfortable, and a whole lot of fun. Technophilia runs in the family, which may affect my outlook.
Either way, I won’t say that our culture makes us better or worse than other folks. It’s not just my ’60s roots showing.
Seeing humanity as a huge and diverse family is part of being Catholic. Or should be. So is reasoned respect for everyone. (Genesis 10:1–32; Catechism, 1929–1933, 2284–2301; “Gaudium et spes,” Blessed Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))
We’ve been making and using stone tools for at least 2,600,000 years. I strongly suspect that some current kitchen utensils, like the mezzaluna, are the latest version of Oldowan choppers; the most recent of a long succession of upgrades. (June 16, 2017; May 19, 2017; May 5, 2017)
Clarifying the BBC News article’s mention of “…the world’s oldest stone axes and ochre crayons, thought to be used for art….” — “oldest” refers to the ochre crayons.9
The stone tools are comparatively recent models. Folks in Australia likely enough learned about the tech through trade with other cultures. (June 16, 2017)
The paper talks about “…elaborate lithic technology, ochre ‘crayons’ and other pigments—including one of the oldest known examples in the world of the use of reflective (micaceous) pigment….”
Ancestors of today’s older Australian families may have learned about ochre pigments through trade. Or we may learn that the rest of us learned about that creative tech from them. Either way, there’s a great deal left to learn about these folks. And all of us.
Earth was not always as we know it today. Some changes, minor ones, have happened during my life.
A habit of enjoying wherever I am at the moment let me notice progressive changes in what was a lake during my youth. (July 2, 2017)
The lake is in Minnesota, on a route I’ve traveled at intervals over the last half-century. It’s now a pond or two in a meadow. The meadow could be a marsh. We have an abundance of both in Minnesota. Sometimes a meadow will be waterlogged one year, dry the next.
My schedule, customs, and a fence, kept me about a quarter-mile from the pond that had been a lake. I am quite sure that the lake has been filling in: which is not a crisis. That’s what happens to lakes.
We had droughts in North America during the 1980s. That was almost a crisis: a temporary one. Minnesota is not becoming a desert. We’ve also had years with a regrettable overabundance of rain.
Oddly enough, my language doesn’t have a common word for periods when fields stay wet. The idea is often expressed with phrases including “water” or “flood.” Minnesota’s weather is not boring, and that’s still another topic.
Or maybe not. I grew up in Moorhead, across the river from Fargo, North Dakota. That town, now a small city, is on remarkably flat land. The area was at the bottom of Lake Agassiz several millennia back. Its farmland these days.
Lake Agassiz formed during the current ice age’s most recent glacial period.
I don’t remember reading any claims that our remote ancestors are to blame for the Quaternary glaciation.
That’s almost surprising, since we passed a developmental milestone around that point.10
Humanity’s current model showed up more recently. We probably started moving out of our homeland about 200,000 years back.
My ancestors, most of them, headed generally north and west. Other folks moved east, eventually reaching Australia.
Australia’s interior wasn’t particularly hospitable at the time. But these folks found tropical grasslands where the Arafura Sea and Gulf of Carpentaria are now. Like I said, Earth was not always as we know it today.
The first explorers and settlers moved along Australia’s coastal lands quite quickly.
Some of them apparently liked parts of the newly-found land a lot, and settled in.
Their descendants, for the most part, stayed close to the originally settled areas. Their love of the land is apparently a long tradition.
My guess is that there’s a great deal more to learn about the Australian branch of our family tree. And ours. There’s already an interesting debate about exactly how old the recently-discovered stone tools are.
My recorded family history runs back a few centuries, and is nowhere near as stable.
Each ancestral root made one long trip across the Atlantic, followed by several intermediate stops before settling for the last several decades in central North America.
Access to contemporary transportation tech made the transatlantic jump practical. Economic hardship, religious suppression, and — in one case — helping a friend were obvious motives.
We may eventually learn that different parts of humanity’s family have different degrees of wanderlust. Serious studies of such things must most likely wait until my civilization gets over the ersatz science of a recent era.11
I have seasickness to thank for my existence. Someone in my father’s family didn’t plan on staying in the new country. She’d come over to keep someone company, got violently seasick, and wouldn’t risk a return trip. And that’s — another topic
More, mostly how I see life, love, and being human:
- “Adam and the Animals”
(July 23, 2017)
- “Ammonites, Dinosaurs, and Us”
(May 19, 2017)
- “Truth and Love”
(May 7, 2017)
- “Who is My Neighbor?”
(February 1, 2017)
- “Bioethics and a Three-Parent Baby”
(October 7, 2016)
- “Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations,” page 249
Barbara Tedlock, editor (1987)
- “Evolution of the echinoderm Hox gene cluster.”
S. Long, M. Byrne; Evolution & development (September-October 2001) via PMC, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
- My take on being human, a Catholic viewpoint
- “An historical perspective on meta-analysis: dealing quantitatively with varying study results”
Keith O’Rourke, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (December 2007) via PMC, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
- “Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis”
Hagai Levine, Niels Jørgensen, Anderson Martino-Andrade, Jaime Mendiola, Dan Weksler-Derri, Irina Mindlis, Rachel Pinotti, Shanna H. Swan; Human Reproduction Update, (submitted May 15, 2017; resubmitted June 14, 2017; editorial decision June 27, 2017; accepted June 28, 2017; released July 25, 2017)
- “Why Pandas Have Trouble Getting Pregnant”
Rebecca Jacobson, PBS, (September 27, 2012)
- Facts & Statistics
President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, Resource Center, HHS
- “Packard plant still in ruins 3 years after sale”
Corey Williams, Associated Press, Detroit News (May 8, 2017)
- History and role of the Mace
Parliament of Australia
- “Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago”
Chris Clarkson, Zenobia Jacobs, Ben Marwick, Richard Fullagar, Lynley Wallis, Mike Smith, Richard G. Roberts, Elspeth Hayes, Kelsey Lowe, Xavier Carah, S. Anna Florin, Jessica McNeil, Delyth Cox, Lee J. Arnold, Quan Hua, Jillian Huntley, Helen E. A. Brand, Tiina Manne, Andrew Fairbairn, James Shulmeister, Lindsey Lyle, Makiah Salinas, Mara Page, Kate Connell, Gayoung Park, Kasih Norman, Tessa Murphy, Colin Pardoe; Nature (July 20, 2017)
- “First Americans?” (May 5, 2017)
- “Footprints in Ancient Ash” (February 3, 2017)
- “Climate Change Continues” (January 20, 2017)
- “Right-Handedness and Evolving Jaws” (October 28, 2016)