Home   International Poetry Fiction Non-fiction
© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter Sixteen - Legacy

Perhaps, before Yat's death, in his lucid moments, he may have considered himself fortunate and successful. After all, he had survived against the odds of a quirk of nature, and turned his too-many fingers and toes into an advantage by the quickness of cunning and guile. He had lived, for one of his time-span, a long and useful life; the bounty of which was the continuance of his people, and especially of his children. Maybe, in the last moments before night stole across his eyes, satisfaction lingered there.

But Yat, for all such feelings, was totally unaware of his greatest contribution. In essence, he had been the architect of an incredible journey: a journey that had taken the folk of his keeping south from somewhere beyond the Sunda Shelf, out across the regions that later would be known as the Banda Sea, along the extended coastline of modern Papua New Guinea. Thence to the shallow waters bordering the adjoining mass of Sahul: Australia.

Those few who, by sheer accident, had drifted to the empty shores before his journey did not survive for more than a generation or so. After Yat there were to be other waves of folk over thousands of years who were destined to walk the length and breadth of a country beyond their ability to measure. Some were met with resistance by those already settled in the coastal areas, whilst others landed and remained unhindered, even undiscovered, until long after their arrival. These were to become later men's ideal of the Dream Time people; the ghost-like forefathers of aboriginal descendants, who kept their distancing memories of them alive through myth and legend; associating them with all manner of bird and beast and growing thing. Naming mountains and ranges and rivers as sites sacred to a multitude of happenings. Events of singular merit, places where the god-like beings of the remote past had left their mark: and all these real and imagined happenings, tangled amongst the inter-weaving fabrics of generation upon generation, overlaid by the skein of tale.
'Where this one sat down.'
'Where another walked about.'
'How the moon came to be in the sky.'
'How the crow gained white feathers?'
'The origin of the rainbow serpent?'
'How the creature that would be named platypus came to be?'
All these and countless more stories had their foundation in a time so distant and so devoid of documentation, other than that of the tale-carrier, that it is a marvel they survived at all. And yet a richness of stone-age culture was preserved with little more than this and the rock paintings, tended and embellished by unknown, unnumbered hands.

In the earliest periods of habitation, mythologies linking the peoples to the country were slowly formulated as the shaman and witch-doctors themselves emerged; investing those men, and in some cases women, with the powers of go-betweens in a climate where the notion of the spirit world was yet embryonic. The land itself was the crucible in which the culture, social organisation and strata, taboos and rituals of a divergent people would be forged. Without the new continent, with its boundless horizons and unique fauna and flora, there could not have been such a branch of humanity. The lonely country was to create the kind of men that walked its surface. To ask what manner of men were they, is to ask only a part of the whole question. What kind of men had they been, and what kind of men did they become, is in itself the beginning of the answer. Their past roots had stemmed from origins distant both in time and environment. They were, and remained for the most part, hunter-gatherers. Their physical appearance altered minimally over tens of thousands of years. But the psychological evolution of these continental immigrants began and continued thereafter as a matter of cause and effect. And it was the cause of the new land that begat such effect.

Unfortunately, the prelude to tragedy for a people lies in the inherent dangers of such myth-land basis, no less than that built upon the shaky principle of human-pyramid structure. In the latter, whole societies foundered when the pinnacle was removed and in the former, the removal of the land itself would be the death knell of that culture. The investment and submergence of self into the country, so that the country became the self and the self, the country was ideal whilst further migratory waves were prepared to accept and assimilate to this mode of life and harmony. And, although there were conflicts at various times, they never reached a state of total warfare of a kind that could destroy the ideal.

It was to be far off in the future, some sixty thousand plus, years on, before an invader would arrive to claim the land and dispossess that life-blood earth of they who dwelt in, on and through it.


During the interim, the last vestiges of the largest marsupial ever known, the diprotodon, lingered until around twenty-six thousand years ago, and may have been helped toward extinction by those earliest human inhabitants. Protemnodon, resembling the modern wallabies, only considerably larger, and perhaps the last of procoptodon, a kangaroo-like creature with a shortened muzzle, standing to a height of ten feet, may also have been seen out by the hunters. Semi-domesticated dogs, later to be called dingos, came along with the flood of new water-voyaging peoples; probably hastening the decline of the pouched wolf and other carnivores that had roamed unmolested until the arrival of Man.

That arrival continued, spasmodically, into the last glaciation and beyond, until sea levels rose with the melting of the ice at the poles and the final isolation of the great southern land masses. These early migrations were no less a feat, and no less important than those undertaken by the peoples who crossed the Bering Straits, on foot and by sea-craft, to filter down into the North American continent, long afterward.


In Yat's case, as must have occurred on more than one instance, circumstances arose to push forward a motivator. Unrest amongst the small groups of clans, warlike and menacing, wandering much as his own, in the same direction; force of invaders, upheaval in the form of natural disturbances, flood, famine, changing climatic patterns and the ensuing alteration to bird and animal life so necessary to the hunter-gatherers. Volcanic action, earthquake and raging wild-fire. Any, and all these, were reason enough for Man to explore new areas and, at need to take to the open sea. That He did so by accident, drawn out on fickle tides, cannot be denied either; but there was also Man's innate curiosity, his natural inquisitive being, that led individuals such as Yat to dare their lives and the lives of others against the unknown. Certainly, Yat was the instigator of his people's long journey, though their survival was achieved more by good fortune than any other reason; and yet it was because of him, in spite of the tremendous odds, that the voyages were undertaken. Here was an individual who had elevated himself from the position of a curiosity to that of tribal shaman, with little else at his disposal than native cunning, observation and the power to move the minds, and in so doing, the destiny of those about him.

Perhaps, by sham, he had attained such status; possibly without conscious realisation of the act of deceit, but in this, one way or the other, he was not, and would not be alone. The concept of sacrifice, and especially self-sacrifice, would never have entered Yat's mind; what was attempted and achieved came about because of his desires and needs above all else. And the welfare of his people, in real terms, was secondary to that condition; though of course of much consequence, since without them there could be no shaman. That some perished along the way, including his own family members, was a matter that did not alter his determination. For Yat, and on a greater scale beyond his scope to visualise, the end did justify the means. The great work of voyage and exploration was done, as it would have to be done by someone eventually. He had simply arisen at a time when circumstances required a guiding, if not domineering, hand. But his contribution, unconscious of the final result, was nevertheless to alter prehistory. Occupation of the vast, empty lands came, as it would have to come, sooner or later. It merely fell the lot of a particular individual at a particular time.


And so, the emptiness of Sahul, the lonely island-continent, later to become Australia, began to recede into the mists of aeons before Man's coming. The shore-lines would gradually shrink as the encircling oceans devoured them, changing the geography, as Man changed the nature of the environment, and in turn receded into the mists of the memories of those who followed. That these men, the Spirit-Ancestors of the many tribes that flourished after their coming, existed is incontestable. Exactly who they were and where they came from is as yet uncertain.

What is certain is that men and women of Yat's inclination did once dwell upon an earth filled with mystery, un-revealed terror and beauty; where every new step forward pushed back the crowding leaves of the forest, beyond which sunlight, and enlightenment itself, lay awaiting. The earliest cremation sites so far discovered in Australia do not date back as far as Yat's. But this is not to say that the record will not be altered by further finds. It well may be that in his time cremation was not a practice, but a singular event.

Still, for those ashen-grey ghosts stamping through the dusts of long ago fires, it was assured that their Riser from the Dead would never walk again.

As to the remains of Yat and his people: they have become a part of the wind and the earth of the land and the folk who yet endure.




Australian Page email your comments to the author Exchange critiques on the Lit-Talk board