Aboriginal affirmation at Coolum Beach

I was a guest at the inaugural Sunshine Coast International Readers and Writers Festival to talk about The Memory Code. I had no idea it would prove to be such an emotional time. The affirmation of my work by the Traditional Owners proved to be far more powerful than I could have expected.

coolum-welcome1We were welcomed to Gubbi Gubbi Country by Lyndon Davis and the Gubbi Gubbi Dancers. Festivals don’t start any better than this.

My time with Traditional Owner, Bridgette Chilly Davis (Dhdugga Kabi Kabi), was an emotional one for both of us and for the audience.

Bridgette talked about the songlines from the perspective of a Traditional Owner, what it was like to walk Country, to be in Country and to interact with the animals and plants in Country. She talked about the knowledge of the Old Ones and how it came to her so strongly when alone with them in the bush. She talked about the spiritual link, something I would not even pretend to be able to emulate.

I talked about the way that the songs, dances, stories and links to sacred places in Country act as an extraordinary memory aid to all the complex knowledge of the culture: animals, plants, genealogies, navigation, geology, seasonality and something I think I have greatly underestimated – the way it all links together. No animal is known without understanding its relationship to all the other animals and plants which inhabit that ecological niche and the seasonal cycle.

coolum-bridgette1 coolum-bridgette2

We answered a lot of questions from the audience, but throughout it was the connection to Bridgette and the Kabi Kabi knowledge which at times overpowered me. This is not the usual sensation of a science writer talking about a science book!

The most moving moment for me was when Bridgette told the audience “She really gets it! She really gets it!”. Members of the audience afterwards said they had listened to the Aboriginal stories and talk about Country many times but realised that they had not really understood that the connectives to Country was far more than just loving where they lived. My work acts as a segue to hearing what Bridgette was actually saying. How rewarding is that?

coolum-lyndon-davisLyndon Davis ran a session on Dreamtime story-telling talking about the Gubbi Gubbi stories and songs, all of them about Country, animals, plants, seasons and responsibilities for Country. One story tells of the way the pilot fish of the mullet leads the migration and must never be killed. The largest fish are left and the Maroochy River ran think with mullet. Of course, these laws are not respected by fishermen today and there are few mullet left. The timing of the fishing was linked to the behaviour of the sea eagles. The stories Lyndon told and performed all reflected the integrated pragmatic knowledge of our Aboriginal cultures. A second session with Lyndon was about the language and the way words reflect the behaviour of the animals, nature of the plants, calls of the birds and so on. And all is linked to place, song, story and mythology. Lyndon’s paintings also reflect the Gubbi Gubbi stories, in particular his use of the sea eagle and details in the designs.

coolum-daim-axe-helen-herbMy husband, Damian, is an archaeologist, and spent time examining an axe head with archaeologist Helen Coooke and Uncle Herb Wharton (for non-Australian, Uncle is a term of respect for Aboriginal Elders).


coolum-linda-kateThank you to the organisers for the invitation, in particular to Wendy O’Hanlon and Eileen Walder. Thank you also to the volunteers, especially Linda Morse and Kate Eagles.


Writing – the complication of definitions


What is writing?

Specifically, when does what I call a mnemonic object really constitute a written device?

It all depends on definitions.

Let’s start with the most controversial question it the area – is the Inca khipu a written or mnemonic device?

quipu khipu
Khipu as displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Lynn Dombrowski, under Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike.)

This knotted cord device is the most adaptable portable memory device that I have found so far. In combination with their landscape pathways known as ceques, the khipu was the reason the Inca could maintain a vast empire in South America without writing. That is, if you define, as I do, the khipu as a mnemonic device.

But it isn’t simple. I have also found it less memorable in my experimentation than the landscape locations forming songlines or the portable devices such as the African lukasa. Was it ever intended to be fully memorized? Was it much closer to a written script? 

In The Memory Code, I use the narrowest definition of writing, that of a script which represents the sounds to a degree that an independent reader of the same culture will reproduce the exact words inscribed by the writer. Hence, there needs to be an alphabetic script, or at least one in which syllables can be represented, for me to call the symbols on a physical media ‘writing’.

urton-khipu-bookGary Urton, in his fascinating book, Signs of the Inka Khipu, defined writing as:

the communication of specific ideas in a highly conventionalized, standardized manner by means of permanent, visible signs.

However, he goes on to define ‘true writing’, a term he acknowledges as inflammatory and ethnocentric and wants dropped. Urton wrote:

I would also like to subscribe to the qualification that the forms of writing that accomplish the most highly specific level of denotation of ideas are those in which the signs of writing denote the sounds of the language community in question.

Urton, among many others, would prefer the terms glottographic (sound based) and semasiographic (non sound based) with further qualifications.

Using Urton’s definitions, I am happy to consider the two khipus I am using in my experiments as written devices although I may find that I start to  memorise them much as I do the other devices. That isn’t the case yet, but all these experiments take years. More on that in a future blog.

But what about those who consider all indigenous inscriptions to be writing?

Again, I hand over to Gary Urton, who talks about the description of wider definitions which include dance and music, images on textiles and ceramics as writing thus:

However, I think such signing devices are best classified as icons bearing conventional but highly abstract, context-specific meanings. Referring to such productions as writing, while perhaps satisfying what I would argue are essentially politically motivated programs or agendas promoting inclusiveness and multiculturism (to which I am sympathetic), renders the concept of writing virtually meaningless and (more to the point) useless for analytical purposes.

I think we can only conclude that there is a continuum from devices which are clearly mnemonic to those, like this blog post, which are clearly writing and that a very specific division between writing and mnemonics isn’t possible. The people who created the symbolic forms were more interested in storing and communicating information than they were in my future struggles with definitions.

History is usually defined as the study of the past where there are written records. Before written records, it is prehistory. Consequently, the division between history and prehistory is similarly blurred. Such is the reality of studying the human past.

I am going to give Urton the final word here. He wrote that

the point on which differentiation between different types of signing/ recording systems would turn … is that of need, rather than intelligence. (His emphasis).

Quotes are taken from Gary Urton, Signs of the Inka Khipu, (2003), University of Texas Press, pp 26-8.

See also:

My 25 Memory Experiments

Singing the land, signing the land

Singing the land, signing the land is written by Helen Watson with The Yolngu community at Yirrkala, and David Wade Chambers. Because the Yolngu community were so heavily involved, the content is an accurate reflection of the way they want their knowledge conveyed to the world.

This work was hugely influential on my thinking right from the start of my research journey. One click on the image and you will be there.
Yolngu knowledge


Orality – why it is so important for prehistoric archaeologists

Primary orality is what you have when you don’t have literacy.

It is often commented that prehistoric cultures didn’t leave a written record. What is almost never mentioned is that cultures which had no contact with writing did have an alternative. They had orality. Most aspects of orality have been literally overwritten by writing, but they do leave a trace in the archaeological record.

Oral cultures employ a wide range of techniques to retain a vast amount of information in memory because they don’t write it down. The research on primary orality talks about the way song, stories, dance and mythology encode vast stores of information in memorable forms.

What is important for archaeologists is that primary oral cultures also used material devices to aid memory: from the landscape and art through an incredible range of enigmatic portable objects. It is these material signs which can be detected in the archaeological record.

Lukasa from the Brooklyn Museum

For example, the African Luba use a memory board known as a lukasa, among many mnemonic devices. It is used in a very similar way to the Australian churinga/tjuringa. These devices are restricted to knowledgeable elders. Their prehistoric equivalent should be found in ceremonial sites, but almost never in domestic settings.

Songs, dances, stories and mythological representations are not simply for entertainment nor are they purely superstitious. They are an essential way of recording masses of pragmatic information. Performance spaces should exhibit a public/restricted dichotomy as is found in all indigenous cultures.

It is too often assumed that knowledge is simply handed on through stories told around the campfire or casually taught, parent to child, out on the daily gather and hunt. In years of research, I have never found a single culture which operated that way. All cultures teach in formal settings – oral and literate.


To understand the nature of orality, I started with some of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, the 300 or so Australian Aboriginal language groups.

The Yolngu of Arnhem Land share their knowledge at the annual Garma Festival. They offer some of the best understanding of orality because they have explained it on their terms.

Indigenous survival depends on masses of practical knowledge. There are many commonalities about the memory methods used by oral cultures from the mobile Australian to the more sedentary Native American, African and Pacific cultures.

It is those commonalities which can offer another tool for archaeologists interpreting ancient ceremonial sites: orality.

Archaeological interpretation needs to include knowledge systems

ancient-cult-sitesI am not denying that ancient people, like many modern people, believed in lots of superstitions. What I am arguing as loudly as I can is that they wouldn’t have survived without a massive store of practical information. All my ethnographic research points to the memorising of pragmatic knowledge was, and in some cases still is, a critical practice of non-literate cultures at their ‘ritual sites’.

The report is about really interesting sites in Israel and the quality of the archaeology is obviously superb. I just have one small niggle.

Reports, such as the one linked above, invariably talk about cults and fertility rites and death rituals but never about knowledge systems. My research shows clearly that a large proportion of esoteric rituals serve to repeat the knowledge on which survival depends – vast stores of animal and plant information, navigational knowledge, geology, water sources, laws, weather and seasonal indicators and so on. People aren’t only interested in sex and dying.

The descriptions given in this article fit all that I would expect from a knowledge sites, they describe restricted spaces, reference to the landscape, a great deal of effort without obvious reason, decorated objects, evidence of sequence and space for performances. Each small group would require these knowledge spaces, with clusters representing those used for larger gatherings.

In Australian Aboriginal terms, these are referred to as bora grounds and corroboree sites. Evidence from all of the 300 or so language groups in Australia is that the transfer of practical knowledge was key to the purpose of these sites.


Primary orality – what is it?

‘Primary orality’ is all about the way societies communicate and store information when they have no contact whatsoever with writing. If they don’t have literacy, they do have orality.

Orality is an information technology, a tool which increases the ability of humans to store and process information. It is simply extraordinary how much can be memorised using orality.

Indigenous cultures stored vast amounts of knowledge about the thousand or so animals and just as many plants in the various habitats they knew intimately. The Navajo, for example, stored a classification of over 700 insects along with habitats, behaviour, identification and metaphor for human behaviour. And that’s just insects. Then there’s navigation, geology, genealogies …  the list goes on and on.

How on earth did they memorise so much stuff? That’s what primary orality is all about.

The oral encyclopaedia was (and in some cases, still is) woven into stories, vivid imaginative sung narratives, with the specific information often associated with characters within the story. Thousands of stories integrated with spiritual beliefs were kept in mythological form, constantly repeated to ensure they were not forgotten. 


The Bear Dance, painted by George Caitlin, 1844

Most significantly, knowledge is performed; songs, dances and mythological reenactments being far more memorable than facts stored in prose. Hence the research on primary orality always includes mythology as a mnemonic form, while acknowledging the substantial spiritual role.

My research adds material memory aids – mnemonic devices – to the topic of primary orality. It is through these physical devices, along with public and restricted performance spaces, that we can link primary orality to the archaeological record.

Singing the knowledge – Yanyuwa kujika

A wonderful collaboration between the Yanyuwa people and Monash University is online and enables us to glimpse the singing tracks of their culture. The Yanyuwa live 0n the Gulf Carpentaria in Northern Australia.

Animations of the songs can be seen at the Monash Country Lines Archive.


As described in his 2010 book, Singing Saltwater Country John Bradley has mapped over 800 km of singing tracks in a three decade long association with the Yanyuwa people of Carpentaria.  The sung pathways through Country are referred to by the Yanyuwa as kujika and described as a ‘Yanyuwa way of knowing’ and as the ‘key to rich, complex and intricately related knowledge systems’. For one kujika, Bradley recorded over 230 verses, with knowledge stored in layer upon layer, the more complex knowledge gained with initiation into higher levels. Every detail of the landscape is described and stored in the sung narratives. Fixed in place by the very landscape they describe, the kujika act as the link connecting all songs in a sequence.

This is the method of loci in its most expansive form. Every aspect of the knowledge is encoded in these songs. This is one of the few glimpses of primary orality available in the world today, when this method of knowing almost certainly served every human community for tens of thousands of years.

The complexity of Australian Aboriginal knowledge has been hugely underrepresented until recently. We need to ensure it is understood before it is lost forever.

Bradley wrote about the experience of learning an Australian Yanyuwa kujika:

So much knowledge was being presented to me, at many levels and intricately interrelated. I was struggling to find words for much of the material as it was deeply encoded and dependent on other knowledge.

…I was amazed by the detail of this kujika, especially of the different species of sea turtles, their life cycle and habitats; it was a biology lesson in sung form.

The first stage of the Tigershark Dreaming  and then the second represent just a tiny part of the Manankurra kujika. Part One is linked to the image above, with part 2 below. Further songs are available at the Monash Country Lines Archive.


Although there is clearly a spiritual dimension to the kujika, it is so beautifully clear that these songs give an intensie knowledge of the geography for navigation and identification and behavioural details of the animals in each microenvironment. The techniques of treating the cycad seeds to take them from deadly to edible are also mentioned. These are a rational people with great depth of knowledge.

It is the singing tracks and the depth of pragmatic knowledge which is the basis of all I write about in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (Cambridge University Press, 2015).


Adding the Dowitcher – a comparison of memory aids

A small wading bird landed in a lake and started a twitch unlike any before in Australia. Social media went into overdrive, as bird watchers scrambled to travel for hours in the hope of a glimpse of the one long-billed dowitcher among the sharp-tailed sandpipers at Lake Tutchewop, between Swan Hill and Kerang in northern Victoria.

"Long-billed Dowitcher"
The long-billed dowitcher and sharp tailed sandpipers. Photograph with permission of Paul Dodd. Lots more stunning photographs on his website: http://paul.angrybluecat.com/Trips-and-Locations/2014/Lake-Tutchewop-Nov-2014/

Why all the excitement? This is the first record ever of a long-billed dowitcher in Australia. A new tick, a lifer, for every twitcher who managed to see it. They turned up in droves.

Readers of this blog will know that one of the memory challenges I have undertaken is to memorise the 407 birds in Victoria using a memory board. The list in my head is in taxonomic order with family names in Latin. So what happens when a new bird inserts itself in the middle of one of my existing families?

If I’d used one of the standard mnemonic methods, such as creating a rhyme for all the birds, I would have real trouble adding in a newcomer. What would happen if they found a new king between Richard I and John and needed to add him into the famous mnemonic for the monarchs of England:

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry three;
One, two, three Neds, Richard two;
Harrys four, five, six… then who? …

More complex memory methods, such as using an acronym or a linked sequence of items (the Link Method)  would also let me down here. It is very difficult to add in a new comer into the chain.  By using the complex of indigenous methods as I do, adding the dowitcher was a breeze.

My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand.

I describe the way I memorise the birds in the post Memorising Birds. Each bead on the memory board (based on the African lukasa) represents a family. I traverse the beads in a set order. I can sing the 82 family names: Dromaiidae, Anatidae, Megapodiidae, Phasianidae, Podicipedidae … 82 of them. As I sing them, I can see the memory board in my mind, I know it so well. Mythological stories associated with each bead tell me how many species there are in the family. If there are more than 4, I use a journey, the method of loci, to memorise all the members of the family, again in taxonomic order. I had difficulty believing this would work when I first read about the lukasa. I now know that it is amazingly effective.

I had to add a new bird, the dowitcher. It is Scolopacidae, along with the 25 sandpipers, stints, godwits and the like in the family. The house along my sandpiper songline with the godwits and sharp-tailed sandpiper (the birds most like the dowitcher) has two small palms in front which I have linked to the two godwits. I needed something new, and soon noticed a third small palm, mostly hidden by other bushes. That palm was, within a minute, linked to the dowitcher. Hear the word ‘dowitcher’ now and my brain instantly sees that palm which allows me to locate the bird in the taxonomy. Into the ‘mythology’ I have already created around that location, I encode everything I learn about the dowitcher.

Using a range of mnemonic technologies system reflects the way non-literate cultures encode such a vast store of information about animals, plants, laws, navigation, astronomy, timekeeping and all the other practical knowledge I talk about in Indigenous mnemonics. It seems as if it would be confusing, but it isn’t. It seems as if it is more work than just memorising by constant repetition, but it is far far easier and far more robust.

I love this stuff!

Why rituals and belief? Why not knowledge?

I guess this is going to be my hobby horse over the next few years: Why are enigmatic objects always associated with ‘beliefs’ and nebulous ‘rituals’? Why not knowledge?

Past Horizons is an archaeological journal often reporting very interesting finds. In a report about various objects from a mesolithic site in Poland, all of which can be interpreted as part of knowledge systems, the site is described as “a rare glimpse into the world of Mesolithic beliefs”.            




[click on image to go to the full article.]

There is ‘magic’ and ‘shamanistic ritual objects’ but no mention of knowledge systems.

There is the implication that prehistoric people lived in a fog of superstition. I don’t deny that contemporary non-literate cultures have spiritual beliefs integrated with the knowledge system. It is the emphasis I object to.  My research in primary orality indicates strongly that a great deal of ritual performance and ceremonial song is linked to repeating pragmatic and rational knowledge. This includes astronomical observations used to  retain a calendar closely related to resource availability – be it from hunting, gathering or farming. Star patterns are often used as representations of mythological characters whose stories also encode rational knowledge.

At the end of the Past Horizons article is reference to another research paper on mesolithic astronomy. I assumed that it also referred to rituals and shamans and magic supporting the tone of the previous part of the article. That surprised, given the list of contributors:


Among other familiar names is that of Clive Ruggles. Always rational and demanding significant evidence for any claim, Ruggles is my major influence in archaeoastronomy. I read the article (linked to the image above) and there is not a mention of superstition. There’s just lots of really interesting reporting and discussion.

Am I getting pedantic? I don’t think so. But it takes a whole book to present my argument fully. Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies comes out with Cambridge University Press in Fall (US) 2015. Until then, I just grumble.