Saturday, 1 August 2015

Special talk at Riddells Creek Landcare's AGM, Saturday, 15 August: AGM 2:00; Talk 3:30: How did Aboriginal Australians manage their knowledge of plants and animals critical to their survival? What does this tell us about ancient monuments like Stonehenge?

Bill Hall's Introduction to Lynne Kelly's

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies

On July 3 at La Trobe University, Castlemaine local naturalist and author Lynne Kelly launched her new book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies

In her talk Lynne will explain how her research and discussions with Aboriginal Australians about how they maintained their detailed knowledge of the detailed natural histories of a wide variety of animals and plants gave her the insight to see how Stonehenge functioned that is different from any of the many ideas that have been put forward to now. Lynne is a great story teller, and I am sure her talk will be entertaining as well as important.

Personally, I am convinced that Lynne Kelly's work will revolutionize our understandings of ancient monuments like Stonehenge and how our prehistoric ancestors made the transition from hunting and gathering to managing agrarian city-states.
Dr Kelly is a science writer who started her career as a school teacher with a background in engineering, physics, mathematics, information technology and gifted education. This made her a very good story teller. She then went on to write 10 books for education before turning her hand to popular science titles. Lynne is also a skeptic who became an amateur magician and memory specialist to better debunk mystical and paranormal clap-trap. Her first popular science book, The Skeptics Guide to the Paranormal (Allen & Unwin - click book pictures for more information about each book from Lynne's web site) explains how the magician's tricks and feats of memory work.

For her next two books, also with Allen & Unwin, Crocodile: evolution's greatest survivor - looking at 23 species of crocodiles around the world but focusing on the two Australian species, and Spiders: learning to love them - an award winning look at their natural history, Lynne researched the surprisingly detailed and accurate natural history knowledge recorded in the Aboriginal dreaming.

crocodile_cover-vsmall      spiders-front-cov

On a holiday in England Lynne's husband, Damian, a prominent local birder, archaeologist and IT specialist decided they would have to visit Stonehenge. Lynne tells me she was initially reluctant to go with him because she was so put off by all the nutty and mystical explanations put forward to explain why the monument was actually constructed. Trying to answer why people with no more sophisticated tools than stones, bones and antlers would expend the huge amount of effort required to dig huge ditches and drag stones weighing many, many tons from than 100 km distant, certainly provided an opportunity for fanciful explanations.

Lynne and Damian at Stonehenge
However, Lynne's skepticism, dabbling in magic and mnemonics, and understanding of how Aboriginal Australians used tracks through the landscape to manage their detailed and extensive knowledge of natural history, geography, bush medicine, astronomy, etc. - all without writing - prepared her to see in a totally new light why people would want to build something like Stonehenge. She brought her idea back to Australia, and completed her PhD at La Trobe University in 2013 researching and testing her explanation against observations how pre-literate (primary oral) people around the world managed and transmitted large bodies of knowledge that could only be held in living memories.

In her talk, Lynne will explain how ancient monuments such as Stonehenge act as mnemonic devices in formal knowledge management systems. Systems like Stonehenge helped prehistoric cultures accumulate and transmit the great increases in new knowledge they required to make the transition from hunting and gathering to specialized trades and roles in settled agricultural communities and city-states.

From my own point of view, it took Lynne about 10 minutes to convince me that she had made a great and revolutionary discovery. I have been working for some time on my own book charting the evolution of tools and humans' capacity to manage knowledge from when our ancestors began hunting and gathering on the African savannas up to now. The only transition I could not easily explain was how hunters and gatherers could accumulate enough practical knowledge to take up agriculture and build towns and small cities without any concept of writing.

Lynne's idea that circular monuments allowed people moving from a mobile existence across broad landscapes where they indexed their mnemonic songs to conspicuous sites, to a sedentary existence in much smaller areas. The circles with their stones and pillars also provided memorable locations that could be used to index stories containing essential survival knowledge.

The entirely practical explanation of Stonehenge's functions makes sense of a lot of puzzling observations in prehistoric anthropology and archaeology, and from my own investigations, also coordinates very well with how memory is organized in the human brain.

Understanding how Stonehenge was used by pre-literate cultures to organize and index important survival knowledge also emphasizes in ways European Australians could not otherwise understand just how important their association with "country" was to our Original Australians. Their Country provided the loci for indexing their memories of natural history, technology and culture in song-lines.