Let’s get one thing straight first: I don’t know nearly as much about Australian history as I should. Most of what I know forms the very general outlines of the traditional Euro-centric view: the founding of Botany Bay in 1788, Australia’s history as a penal colony, and the eventual coalescing into a government and post-colonial society in the 19th and 20th centuries. I am, as most people are, aware that Australia had a very long and rich history prior to 1788, when the people we now know as aborigines were the continent’s sole inhabitants; but that history (I refuse to use the word “prehistory”), like the history of the Americas prior to 1492, is usually treated as either invisible or greatly abbreviated in comparison to more recent history, simply because aborigines, like many Native American tribes, did not keep written records that proved cognizable to European-style historical scholarship.
But Australia does have a recorded history prior to the arrival of Europeans, and it’s a really fascinating one: it’s usually referred to as Dreamtime, but is rarely considered to be coequal with “real” history that comes from written records, dates and factual accounts of the past. Dreamtime is a key part of Australian aborigines’ belief system, but it defies a simple explanation in Western terms. It seems to be equal part cosmology, mythology and history. Spirits and gods are said to have literally “dreamed” the existence of the world during Dreamtime, establishing not only its physical attributes but the laws, mores and customs that human beings should continue to follow in modern times. Dreamtime is thus not only a “creation story” in the Western sense, but something akin to nation-building and the establishment of both religious and civil society.
Dreamtime stories explain, among other things, the origins of the natural environment of Australia, including Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), which is sacred to indigenous Australians.
I will admit right now that there are many aspects of Dreamtime that I don’t understand. It’s easy to simply classify it as mythology, relevant to anthropology and the understanding of aboriginal society, but irrelevant to factual history. However, as a historian, I’m extremely reluctant to do that, and in fact I would argue that Dreamtime, however it is interpreted, is a crucial element of understanding what really happened in Australia’s distant past. In my own research, which involves environmental history, I’ve had to delve into Australian history, and I was intrigued to see that the very first Australian history book I picked up–I believe it was Stuart Macintyre’s 1999 book A Concise History of Australia–began with a chapter entitled “Dreamtime,” and sought to incorporate aboriginal spiritual, religious and foundation beliefs into a broader context of archival Australian history. I think this is a terrific approach and one I’d like to see done more often with regard to North American history, though I concede that the concepts of Dreamtime are not directly analogous to Native American foundation beliefs, which are extremely various.
I’m also a believer–and perhaps I’m venturing into philosophical or metaphysical territory here–that time and history are heavily influenced by the way in which observers perceive them. In the West we live our lives according to a very linear conception of time, thanks in part to our mathematical calendar systems and our scientific worldview that we owe both to the roots of the classical world and to the intellectual upheaval of the Enlightenment. However, in Australia, where no European even set foot until 1788–the tail end of Australian history–the custodians of historical perception were exclusively aborigines, who had as much right to construct their own perception of time and history along lines congruent with their beliefs as we do. Thus, I think that Dreamtime is the literal factual history of early Australia, and should be treated as such.
If anyone can recommend some good books on the basic concepts of Dreamtime–especially its implications for alternative understanding of the nature of time–I’d be very interested in delving more deeply into it. You don’t just find history in a library or archive; sometimes you find it in rocks, caves, or even the stars.