Thursday 10 January 2013

Can Australia join Classical history - the 'almost' evidence

Being on the periphery of the world's neolithic, bronze and iron age history - and despite it's very rich paleolithic past - Australia seems to generate a lot of wild theories and wishful thinking about such-and-such pile of rocks being a lost Egyptian pyramid. Put to the test these stories never usually stack up. They might be in places where lots of Australians live now, but are so far from any shipping-route an ancient mariner might have been taking they can be immediately refuted. Once again, it pays to consider the economic reasoning a classical-era seafarer might have made to continue searching along a desolate, and uninviting Australian coastline when they left the Spice Islands...even Sinbad would have given up eventually...and it's at some approximate point down the Cape York Peninsular in the east and the Pilbara in the west we can more or less dismiss any 'logical' chance of early European or Asian exploration continuing southwards.

Australia in 1583, that's the
Kimberley coast on the left
But what about the northern coastline where visits could be potentially explained? Frankly, until I started looking at Classical-era trade routes to Indonesia and China I wouldn't have given any credit to the suggestion ancient bronze and iron-age cultures had ever visited Australia. Now I give it a small chance, and its turned my thinking around on one story a 'local identity' once told me. My source has a considerable profile in Northern Australia and has never been one for telling tall tales - but a decade ago when he told me he'd stumbled into a cave in the West Australian Kimberleys and found its walls covered with Egyptian tomb paintings I'd rolled my eyes and shuffled the story into the 'time for his medication' part of my mind. Now this guy is no archaeologist, but I think most of us have a general feeling for the 'Egyptian' art style - it's unlikely he confused artwork from North Africa with that of the local First Australians. Still, how can I write any of this without part of my tongue in my cheek? Well, at a stretch, the story is plausible. Where these alleged paintings were found is exactly where its believed the First Australians arrived sixty thousand years ago, so the area was the easiest landfall for the very ancient and less ancient mariners travelling southwards from Indonesia - in this regard, the paintings are at the most likely place any pre-Classical or Classical-era travellers may have pulled their ships ashore.

Still, Egyptians? Puleeeeeaaaase. Well, not so fast. Egyptians were making the ocean voyage to India as early as 1400BC. By 1000BC they dominated the eastern trade route. And as my source isn't an expert - if those tomb paintings are the real deal, they could date anywhere from the New Kingdom to the Ptolemaic period. That gives us a potential 1300-year window for at least one expedition east of India, and given these were tomb paintings, I suppose the expedition wasn't a success. So, if the Egyptians possibly made it to the Kimberley coast...who else might have?

A-ha, you say, I've just Googled and I can't find anything about these paintings. Yeah, don't worry I Googled too. What I can tell you, at least one Australian University was sent photographs and video footage of the cave, but to my knowledge nothing more was done. The area is culturally sensitive to First Australians and it's very remote - but most likely some history academic did the same thing I did when I was told the story. Egyptians in Australia? Puleeeeeaaaaase.

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