Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000




About the author


Contents and excerpts


National Biography Award nomination

TV documentary


The Ngadjon people

Мой темнокожий брат


The Barrinean mystery


Squeezed in with Jessie, me and my young son Ralphie on the back seat of the car as we were heading towards Lamins Hill, Flora gently touched Jessie’s arm: ‘My mother was like that, light skin, not real dark’. Flora did not suspect that this light skin-colour of her ancestors, unusual among Aboriginal tribes, was part of the problem of the origin of the Australian Aborigines, one of the enigmas still not fully resolved. Neither could she suspect that my husband, Vladimir Kabo, who was sitting in the front seat of the car, once wrote a whole book about the mystery of her ancestors’ origin. Thirty years ago in St Petersburg he pondered about people from the Atherton Tablelands and Lake Barrine without at that time having any hope of seeing them, since he, a former political prisoner, was not allowed to travel abroad. Luckily we came in time to meet Jessie and Flora.

             It took less than a century to reduce the Ngadjon tribe of around 700 people to a handful of full-blood Aborigines who still speak the language and know the traditional culture. Only once did Flora say what the white invaders did to her people: ‘They did a lot of bad, bad things, they used to shoot the black people for nothing. Just shoot them like a dog. It only came better since World War II. Before the war they didn’t think they were any better than a dingo or kangaroo.’

            Jessie’s family was captured and sent to Yarrabah Mission in the 1930s, when they came to receive their blanket rations. Only years later she did manage to return to her country. The Ngadjon, one of the most mysterious tribes, disappeared and took with them the mystery of their origin and culture, which might be the key to the settlement of Australia by humans, a key to human evolution.

            In 1938 the anthropologists Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell described a group of twelve tribes inhabiting the rainforest on the Atherton Tablelands and neighbouring coastal area which differed from the surrounding peoples. They were distinguished by ‘Small stature, crisp curly hair and a tendency toward yellowish-brown skin colour’. Their appearance so much resembled Tasmanian Aborigines that Tindale and Birdsell named them Tasmanoids and suggested an interesting hypothesis that Australia was settled by several waves of people. The Tasmanians and the north Queensland Tasmanoids were the remnants of the first, the earliest, wave. While in Tasmania their anthropological type was preserved unchanged, the inhabitants of the continental rainforest were partly influenced physically and culturally by the later waves.13 As Lake Barrine was in the centre of the Tasmanoids’ territory scholars also used another word to describe them — Barrineans. Owing to their small stature, they were sometimes called pygmoids.

            It turned out that Barrineans possessed a number of distinctive features in their material culture which were not present in the rest of Australia. They used unique, large, decorated fighting-shields made from the buttresses of Ficus trees and flat-bladed, long, wooden fighting swords. According to Tindale and Birdsell, some rainforest tribes made ‘half-hitch coiled grass baskets closely similar in their appearance and technique of manufacture to those of the Tasmanians’.14 Some of them had a unique, cross-shaped boomerang, which was used for sport and games rather than for hunting. Furthermore, these rainforest inhabitants were the only tribe in Australia to use beaten bark blankets, which were made in a similar fashion to the tapa that is used on South Pacific islands. Were these bark blankets a local invention or an adoption of islanders’ culture? While some features in the appearance of Tasmanoids–Barrineans and Tasmanians resembled those of Melanesians, some scholars were tempted to see them as descendants of proto-Melanesians or negroids, who survived in Australia and Tasmania because of isolation.

            The languages of Barrineans provided a field for further hypothesis. According to the latest research by Bob Dixon, their dialects and languages were divided into two different linguistic types. The watershed lies along the border of the Ngadjon-ji with their closest northern neighbour, the Idindji. Languages to the south of this watershed were closer to the surrounding non-Barrinean tribes than to the northern Barrinean neighbours. For instance, Ngadjon-ji had only 27 per cent of its words in common with Idindji, whose language in its turn was more related to northern non-Barrinean tribes. Moreover, the Aborigines believe that the mythological ancestors of the southern Barrineans came from the south and those of northern Barrineans from the north.15 How to reconcile this difference with the uniformity of the Barrineans’ physique and culture? One possible explanation might be derived from the fact that a similar process occurred among African pygmies; confined to the jungle area, they adopted the languages of several neighbouring tribes but have a distinctively lighter skin pigmentation than their neighbours.

            The Ngadjon-ji occupied the very centre of the Barrineans’ area. They, as other Aborigines, believed that their ancestors had lived in Australia forever: in Jessie’s myth about the Rainbow Serpent, for instance, the birds are mythological ancestors, proto-people, that inhabited the land in the Dreamtime. Scholars operate with facts: skeletal remains, archaeological sites, geological changes. From different angles they try to find out who the Ngadjon-ji ancestors were, when they came to Australia and settled on the Atherton Tablelands. For many years it was believed that Australia was first inhabited 15–20,000 years ago. In Russia Vladimir Kabo, after comprehensive studies, suggested in the late 1960s that humans were living in Australia at least 40,000 years ago. Now, after new archaeological excavations, this date has been moved back to 60,000 years ago. European history seems only a short span in comparison with such dates. America and the South Pacific were still uninhabited 60,000 years ago; Europe, covered with glaciers, was occupied by mammoths and inhabited by Neanderthals (an extinct branch of human development) and the predecessor of Homo sapiens, the so-called ‘archaic sapiens’. Thus, Australian Aborigines were correct in their own way: their ancestors settled Australia, which was at that time part of a big continent called Sahul, at a time when modern man (Homo sapiens) was still emerging; and from these ancestors Aborigines developed into what they are here, in Australia.

            But it was the Rainbow Serpent crater from Jessie’s myth that was to reveal to the world further sensational information about Australian prehistory. The snake’s spirit guarded its secrets for millennia until a scientist, Peter Kershaw, began studies in this area — first of Lynch’s Crater (Jim Lynch was the Illins’ neighbour across the road) and then of the Rainbow Serpent crater (its official name is Strenekoff’s Crater; although actually named after Strelnikoff, the official naming unfortunately incorporated this mis-spelling). Kershaw made cores of organic sediment 45 m deep. That gave the lowest date of at least 140,000 years. His analysis of the varieties of pollen and the amount of charcoal in the cores from this area allowed him to reconstruct the distant past. He discovered that, initially, wet rainforest dominated the Atherton Tablelands. Then, 80,000 years ago it became drier, Araucaria being the main type of vegetation. Suddenly, around 40,000 years ago, Araucaria was replaced by sclerophyll woodland (consisting mainly of Eucalyptus and Casuarina) while the amount of charcoal in sediments increased sharply. Kershaw argues that, along with a decrease in rainfall which took place at that time, the destruction of rainforest was caused by the fire-burning practice of the Aborigines, who burned scrub to make tracks and better hunting grounds. Between 10,000 and 6000 years ago this sclerophyll woodland was replaced by the wet rainforest, which Aborigines learnt not to destroy but to use and benefit from, and that survived until the European invasion in the late nineteenth century.16 Thus, this discovery proves to be one of the earliest records of human interference with nature and suggests that the Atherton Tablelands have been inhabited for more than 40,000 years.

            Anthropologists contributed to the solution of the Barrinean problem, too. The latest research involving different data, particularly blood tests, proves that Birdsell and Tindale’s theory was not correct. The Barrineans are not related to Tasmanians or Melanesians more than other Aborigines. They acquired their unique physique as a result of genetic processes which took place in small groups isolated over a long period. While marriages were mainly endogamous (within the group), some particular features of the founders of the group might intensify among their descendants — for instance, crisp hair. In the Barrinean case the genetic evolution was enhanced by the specific rainforest environment. This might explain their light pigmentation and small stature. The Barrineans’ similarity to Tasmanians, who underwent independent genetic evolution isolated on their island for 12,000 years, turned out to be only coincidental. The Barrineans’ unique material culture was an adaptation to specific rainforest conditions and resources. They learnt to make sturdy domed huts — the most elaborate structures in the whole continent — that gave protection from rain and lasted for several years; they skilfully used vine-ropes for climbing trees; they developed sophisticated techniques to remove poison from tropical plants and thus increased the availability of the abundant food. As for the tapa technique used to make bark blankets, it could be a local invention suggested by the availability of Ficus tree bark. Thus, the Barrinean history was not just survival in isolation, it was development and adaptation to the changing environmental conditions.

            The Ngadjon tribe was linguistically related to five contiguous tribes (Mamu, Jirrbal, Jirru, Gulngay, Girramay) occupying territories to the south and southwest of their territory. According to Dixon, these ‘six tribes speaking dialects of what we call the Dyirbal language are all descended from a single ancestor tribe’, which might live in the southern part of their present territory, in the coastal rainforest. As the size of the original tribe increased, it split into groups; these became separate tribes and moved north and northwest, occupying the emerging forest on the tableland. Ngadjon-ji was one of the first groups to split from the Proto-Dyirbal tribe and now Ngadjon is ‘the most divergent dialect of the Dyirbal language’.17

            The ancestors of Ngadjon conquered new territories, they changed the land, and they learned to live in accord with nature. Their experience suggests the methods to be adopted for current management of rainforest resources. Gradually, scholars fill Ngadjon mythological past with ever-newer facts. Alas, a hundred years ago, however, few people realised that ‘the Atherton blacks’ held keys to Australia’s prehistory.