Thursday, January 21, 2010

From Mungo to North Sentinel: messages from the real world

Call me sentimental, if you like, but as a reader and as a writer I'll always prefer the printed word to the electronic text. For me, the whisper of a turning page page has a poetry alien to the hum of a laptop. My computer guru brother-in-law tells me that books are a waste of forests, and that I should invest in one of the suddenly-popular range of wireless reading devices, but I can't imagine leaving an Amazon Kindle under my pillow, instead of the crumpled paperback that currently resides there. If I did my bedtime reading on a screen, I think I'd feel like I was about to kip down in an office.

But even if it can't offer the tactile delights of the printed word, electronic publishing does afford certain special pleasures, like the possibility of immediate communication between reader and writer. Most of the online journals and blogs I write for and read have comments boxes, and those that don't at least list the e mail addresses of their contributors.

One of the most enjoyable things about blogging is reading the comments one's posts provoke. Positive comments are nice, especially when they come from experts in a field one is interested in, and even abusive comments - and, let's face it, this blog attracts its fair share of abusive comments - have, for me at least, an obscure fascination. (I've thought of keeping a record of the various epithets I've attracted from my more abusive critics - 'fake Pakeha', 'failed poet', and 'long white political pig' are three of my favourites...)

I find it especially exciting to be contacted by someone with an intimate connection to a place or a piece of history I have written about. Last September I posted an essay about Lake Mungo, the Unesco World Heritage Site in the far west of New South Wales where bones, tools, and campfires are preserved in layered walls of sand and mud that have been raised and sculpted by meticulous desert winds over the last one hundred thousand years. Since the stratigrapher and bushman Jim Bowler discovered an ancient skeleton he dubbed 'Mungo Man' in 1974, Mungo has been a place of pilgrimage for archaeologists. Mungo Man is between forty and sixty-five thousand years old, and Mungo is one of the oldest known continually-inhabited places outside Africa.
It is a pleasure to find that someone with a very close connection to Lake Mungo and to Jim Bowler recently read and responded to my 'Annotated Guide to Mungo National Park'. Here's the comment that Jenny Bowler left under my post last week:

Beautiful post...came across your site as I was looking for a poem with reflections on Mungo.

Much like the history and presences of Lake Mungo; a silent shadow on the Australian psyche, the finder of Mungo Man & Mungo Woman also remains mostly unrecognised.
My parents are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, for 40 years of that my father worked at Mungo. His PhD was done on the sheep farm in the 60's and it was he who came face to face - alone on the shores of Mungo, with the original inhabitants of 40,000 BC. His life's work has been compiled into a CD Rom call - Lake Mungo...he can be contacted on

It is such an evocative landscape, that slowly is beginning to rise and feed the imaginations of those who visit and hopefully school students who might find it soon embedded in the curriculum. Climate change...Australian Ancient history...ecology...Aboriginal
...artists...politics - all meet in the lakebed of Mungo. What more do we need for a great story.

Oh yeah and by the way, my father's name is Jim Bowler.

Cheers, Jenny

Thanks Jenny, and sorry for calling your old man John instead of Jim! Jenny's comment follows one made a couple of months ago by someone calling him or herself 'Aussie Knight':

Just as an aside to this fascinating article. I grew up in this area in the sixties and often travelled through and played in the dunes etc. When it was made a national park many people were upset as the 'owners' had been on the land for a long time. Ironically, 15 years later the same family won 16 million dollars in a lottery. Perhaps there is such a thing as Karma!

Because of a blog's function as a sort of informal archive, and because of the frightening indefatigability of search engines, an almost-forgotten post can sometimes attract a comment years after it was made. Back at the beginning of 2006, when this blog was just learning to crawl, I posted about North Sentinel, the island in the Bay of Bengal which is home to one of the world's last 'uncontacted' peoples. The people of North Sentinel are technically citizens of India, but they look like African pygmies, have had little to do with the world outside their island for thousands of years, and speak an unknown language. My post was a response to a marvellous article on North Sentinel by Adam Goodheart, who seems to have developed the obsession with obscure tropical islands that is an occupational hazard for romantic Western intellectuals. Goodheart told the story of a cargo ship called the Primrose, which became stranded on a reef close to North Sentinel Island in 1981. When the captain of the Primrose radioed his bosses to tell them that little frizzy-haired men in dugout canoes were firing arrows at his vessel, he was at first suspected of excessive consumption of rum. Eventually the distress calls were heeded, and the captain and his crew were taken off their reef by helicopter.

Some time last year a man named Robert Fore left a short comment at the bottom of my post about North Sentinel:

I have the distinction of being the pilot who flew the helicopter which rescued the crew of the Primrose from North Sentinel Island. It is good to see that the entire episode did not simply disappear into the shadows of time. It was a memorable event for those of us involved.

I hoped that Fore's note might be the entree for a more detailed account of his extraordinary experience, and a google search turns up a long e mail he wrote to another blogger about the rescue of the crew of the Primrose.

The late David Stevens, the electronic utopian who was the proprietor of a website with the immortal name Trotsky, Sex and Drugs, once claimed that 'everything in the world is on the internet, plus a little more'. Stevens was writing a decade ago, before large parts of the internet had been enclosed by multinational companies, and before it was clear that the most popular political blogs would inevitably be panoptic spaces whose megalomaniacal proprietors wallowed to the reverberations of their own egos and the praise of their fellow-thinkers. It is hard to see much of the real world in the dozen or so posts Cameron Slater makes every day, or in the thousands of repetitious comments that are deposited at the Huffington Post every day. Yet even if the internet and the blogosphere have failed to live up to the expectations of Stevens and other idealists, communications from the likes of Jenny Bowler and Robert Fore make me feel that the game is worth the candle.


Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Books don't waste forests that is nonsense. The main forests we use are renewable pine such as Radiata so as pines are cut down new ones are planted - there is no wastage. There is no argument for electronic kindles etc based on "wastage of trees".

There are many other good reasons for having them.

I "invented" an electronic book device some time ago (jawing with an acquaintance in a pub for two hours!): but I was dubious of its value. But as one grows older (or one develops certain eye problems) eyesight deteriorates.

Now theoretically a very advanced device for reading in bed or wherever, could enlarge and adjust type size for an elder reader or someone who is (variously) sight impaired.

(Also - not yet here - but eventually we should be able to get big numbers of books etc onto single device.)

I have thought about this and argued with others about it for some time, but I feel that they will be much like video machines -when they came people declaimed end the death of movies - and indeed movie theatres got somewhat less patronage. That was also said re televison and there were many other evils TV would produce...and indeed I recall growing up when there was no TV.

Until 2000 I didn't have a (Microsoft) computer (I used an Amiga) - I still mostly write anything first with a pen in a notebook. I only write directly onto Blogs and also emails.

I think that a more advanced version of a 'kindle' or similar will one day be of great use but it is like every thing else: it is only tool and there will still remain alternatives.

But whether books will go one day - after all an "electronic book" takes up much less space - is anyone's guess. And some kind of hologramic device might be the ticket....)

I love books but also curse them -
it is possible that books as we know them will disappear - not sure how much my reaction to that is sentimental and from habit...

11:15 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I have book - 'Triumph of the Nomads - A History of Ancient Australia' by Geoffrey Blainey that mentions Jim Bowler in a note:

Blainey talks about the discovery of the remains of young woman at Lake Mungo - because she was (partly) cremated it aided archeologists to date here death (and to help work out when the inhabitants arrived) and they were able to see how old he was and many other aspects of her and the people who lived there. And hence to get an (pretty accurate) idea of how long Australia had been inhabited (At the time about 30,000 years ago it was much colder as it was the end of the last ice age, also there was much more game etc, and even a (now extinct) tiger.

Here is the note -

'In the autumn of 1975, Jim Bowler, the geologist who found the first human remains at Lake Mungo, revealed that an even older burial had been uncovered in the sands of the lake. The skeleton - of a man about six feet in height - was some 30,000 years old.'

Blainey shows that the aboriginal people of Australia were not "primitive" but brilliantly adapted to life where they lived and were far from "static" as had been thought by even educated Australians. And possibly still is by many. But Blainey counters this.

I have to confess that I haven't read all of this book - but what I have read is very interesting.

"Blainey was a Professor of Economic [and social] History... and one of Australia's most distinguished economic and social historians...." [Blurb on the back flap of the cover]

He wrote at least 13 books.
He also wrote what might be an intriguing book "The Causes of War"

Yes the feedback is part of the interest of Blogging. Even the spam -
I used comments saying I was - unmentionable words on here! - as part of a long "poem" I did on EYELIGHT !!

Also I published comments including abuse as post! As I felt that to be a valid part of the totality of what I was doing and it thus included even random things appearing...and the "good" and the "bad" (which is which?) and the ugly etc!

"All must be remembered, even the murder of a spider." !

I assume you are back on the Earth now Maps. Please in future don't travel beyond the Bombay Hills - such folly is as dangerous as falling off the Sidney Harbour Bridge. !!

12:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Australian archaeologists have announced the discovery of human occupation dating to between 50,000 to 45,000 years ago at Lake Gregory, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert of northwest Australia. Dates come from a wide range of landscape features and from three separate sites placing this find within the earliest bracket of dates for occupation in Australia.
The find is reported in the December issue of Australian Archaeology, the official journal of the Australian Archaeological Association Inc.
Associate Professor Peter Veth, Deputy-Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies and Adjunct Professor at the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University and lead author of the paper, said the discovery was highly significant.
“This is the first evidence of human activity from an open context in the arid northwest of the continent which can be dated to a time before the last great Ice Age,” he said.
The earliest securely dated artefact is what archaeologists commonly refer to as a ‘core’ – a piece of stone from which flakes have been struck to make tools.
It was found in situ within a distinctive layer of sediment approximately 1.5m below the ground surface during a pilot excavation project at Lake Gregory during August 2008.
A detailed examination of the core was undertaken by the ANU’s Professor Peter Hiscock, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ancient stone technology.
Professor Hiscock found that the pattern of flake scars appearing on the core was entirely consistent with human stone knapping techniques and could not have been produced by natural processes.
Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) was used to date the layer of sediment in which the artefact was found. The OSL dating method measures the time elapsed since geological sediments were last exposed to sunlight, effectively providing an estimate of when an object was buried.
“Our analysis of the OSL chronology from Lake Gregory suggests that the core was likely to have been buried during a period when the lake was expanding, somewhere between 45,000 to 50,000 years ago”, Peter Veth noted. “It would appear that someone has collected a cobble from the lake shore, then flaked and discarded the core, which was later covered up by sediment from the expanding lake”. There are other heavily weathered artefacts now exposed in other ancient stream beds in the region which likely date to the same time period.
The team has worked closely with Traditional Owners for Lake Gregory and the Kimberley Land Council’s Paruku Indigenous Protected Area staff. The Traditional Owners have exclusive possession native title over the area. In order to get recognition of their rights they had to show continuous occupation over the country since European occupation. Their culture is deeply embedded in the country.
This find has built on three decades of research by Professor Jim Bowler at Lake Gregory – one of the co-finders of the now World Heritage Listed Lake Mungo sites.
“There is huge potential here for reconstructing deep-time human and environmental histories for northwestern Australia in collaboration with Indigenous owners,” Peter Veth said.

3:16 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My name is Robert Fore, and I was one of the helicopter pilots that performed the Air/Sea rescue of the crew from the shipwreck Primrose, which had run onto the reef on the shore of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, in 1981.

If your readers are interested in seeing photos of the rescue operation, as well as a re-posting of my original e-mail description of the rescue operation, it can be found at:

The pictures have suffered somewhat from the aging due to long term storage, but still give the observer an idea of what happened on that day nearly 30 years ago.

Capt. Robert Fore (

6:37 pm  
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6:40 am  
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