The man who provided Central Australia with some of its most significant historical research and writing has died, aged 90: “There is no one who has done more work on the Central Australia of 100 years ago than John Mulvaney, and there probably never will be,” says Alice Springs historian Dick Kimber.
Professor Mulvaney’s definitive biography of the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer and his work on the letters to Spencer from Frank Gillen reinvigorated interest in the pair after decades of neglect, including interest from Aboriginal people seeking to preserve their heritage.
Spencer met Gillen, head of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, during the Horn Expedition in 1894. Their publication in 1899 of The Native Tribes of Central Australia was unprecedented for its description of many aspects of Aboriginal society, including its kinship and social organisation and complex ceremonial life.
As Professor Mulvaney wrote: “They recognised the essential locality-based nature of ritual practices, where the landscape was studded with sacred places and objects, related to Dreaming concepts (their Altyerrenge). This intricate ethnography, with documented ceremonial exchange routes following ancestral creators, went beyond any simplistic model of Darwinian social evolution with which Spencer and Gillen are accused.” (“Anthropologist of the Northern Territory” in The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer)
He was most renowned as a pioneer of prehistory and archeology in Australia. According to a tribute by the University of Cambridge where he trained in prehistory in the early 1950s and was awarded a doctorate in 1970, his field work changed “the historical imagination of a nation”.
This was fundamentally because he established the “remarkable time depth to Aboriginal occupation in Australia, which was really radical news in the 1950s”, says Philip Jones, a historian based at the South Australian Museum.
Professor Mulvaney’s opening words to The Prehistory of Australia, first published in 1969, retain their force today, almost half a century later: “The discoverers, explorers and colonists of the three million square miles which are Australia, were its Aborigines.”
In his archeological work, Professor Mulvaney made some extraordinary individual discoveries. His excavations from the mid-1950s at Fromm’s Landing on the Murray River, for example, produced the earliest date for the arrival of the dingo in Australia, a date which still stands.
“He would be surprised that it does,” says Dr Jones, “because archeologists continually trump one another in terms of dates. With the dingo that has not happened, although there is an announcement that will be made shortly that he would have been very interested in.”
He also took part in the celebrated excavations at Lake Mungo in south-western NSW, directing with Jim Bowler in 1973 the largest ever dig there, which revealed a hearth dated to about 31,000 years ago.
Professor Mulvaney was able to put these exciting discoveries into perspective with wise and measured contextual commentary, says Dr Jones.
“He was not one for being carried away by transports of enthusiasm, he’d dampen down the hyperbole. He was a conservative in the sense that incremental additions to knowledge were valued more by him than leaps in the dark, a salutary approach and still needed in science generally.
“His extraordinary contribution was his capacity to bridge the humanities and the sciences. Scientists were always grateful for his capacity to add a human dimension to their discoveries, the social scientists were grateful for his grasp of the scientific detail.
“As a historian he had a great capacity to look at seemingly isolated events, such as the activities of different explores and expeditions and their relationships with Aboriginal people, and put all those into a broader historical context, linking them to other histories, currents and ideas unfolding in Central Australia and beyond. That is the gift of the best historians.”
Note: The photograph of Professor Mulvaney is reproduced from the tribute to him this week by the National Museum of Australia.
Compiled by Kieran Finnane