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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - The Temporality of the Deep Human Past

17th November 2016, 17:30 to 18:30, Sir James Knott Hall, Trevelyan College, Professor Ann McGrath, Australian National University

This lecture argues that historians need to consider fresh approaches to both historical chronology and to temporality itself. It considers how collaborative community engagements with Indigenous ‘dreaming stories’ may offer tools to develop relevant methods of understanding the temporality of the deep past.

Aboriginal Australians have the ‘oldest continuing culture on the planet’. While this phrase has entered the imagination of the Australian nation, it obscures the astonishingly long duree of 60,000 years into a blur of continuity and immeasurability. This time span seems to defy the possibility of narrative and to stand outside ‘history’. Certainly, such a temporal scale is difficult to envisage. Additionally, it lacks the usual European and northern hemisphere reference points, with their accepted yardsticks based upon technology, modernity and political reigns.

Periodization remains an important tool that historians use to conceptualize human narratives (Davis 2008). Viewing the world primarily from Europe, twentieth century prehistorians and archaeologists divided early human history into the categories ‘Stone Age/Palaeolithic’ and ‘Bronze Age’. This entrenched the Aboriginal Australian past into the static vision of a ‘timeless’, unchanging and primitive era still reflected in many European museums. Today’s archaeologists tend to divide Australia’s deep past into climatic zones such as the Pleistocene and the Holocene. While this resonates with the current challenge of the Anthropocene, it can also privilege environmental determinism above human dynamism.

One possible way for historians to contribute to humanizing the deep past would be to probe the stories of individuals, such as Lady Mungo, who lived at least 40,000 years ago. As revealed in our film, Message from Mungo, it was easier, however, to narrate her role in the present rather than in the past. The film’s local Aboriginal participants challenged western notions of temporality, portraying the vast time gap between Lady Mungo’s life and their own as relatively meaningless; she was ‘like an old aunty who died yesterday’ but whose living presence continued to intervene in the present. Could such perspectives expand our theoretical understandings of temporality, of history’s lives operating in the past and present?

Details about Professor Ann McGrath

Directions to Sir James Knott Hall, Trevelyan College

Map - Trevelyan College is denoted as building No. 9

Contact for more information about this event.