now more than ever – learning from our past

Posted: 01/05/2024

For a long time, I’ve felt honoured to live in a country that is home to the longest, living, continuous, culture in the world. It has always felt momentous to me. But it wasn’t until I went on a trip to Greece last year that I truly understood how momentous it actually is.

how old is old

As culture buffs and story catchers, my partner and I were excited to visit some of the most iconic sites of ancient Greece—the acropolis, Delphi, Aristotle’s school, Knossos—especially Knossos—which is home to the myth of the minotaur in the labyrinth and some of the most interesting statues linked to matriarchal cultures in the world, such as the Minoan Snake Goddesses.

While some of these sites are among the most ancient in the Western world (many of our founding stories, philosophies, sciences, architecture, languages and political systems originated there) their age pales in comparison to so many Aboriginal sites across Australia.

Homeric and Classical Greece, for example, (the eras we often think of when we imagine ‘the Ancient Greeks’ i.e. from Homeric Age to the philosophers) roughly started around 1200BCE.

A few months before we travelled to Greece, we went on a camping trip to Gariwerd (Grampians National Park) in Victoria and visited five rock art sites (there are over 200 rock art sites in the park, but only five are open to the public).

I remember the first one we visited, driving down a dirt track and parking in a small carpark, before walking a few hundred metres up a rough-hewn path to Bunjil’s Cave.

In the cave we encountered an incredible painting the on the rock wall of Bunjil, the Kulin creator being and Wedge-tailed Eagle, protected by a wire cage. There was no one else there the day we visited and we had to wander around a bit to find it (very different to the ancient sites in Greece where there are huge crowds all the time).

Some of the rock art in the Grampian’s National Park is estimated to be 20,000 years old.

Around Australia, we have many examples of ancient Indigenous sites. From the two-metre long kangaroo cave painting in the Kimberley region, dated at approximately 17,000 years old, to the Brewarrina Fish Traps (or as they are traditionally known, Baiame’s Ngunnhu) on the Barwon River in New South Wales, which are thought to be the oldest manmade structure on earth. In 1968, in the Willandra Lakes region of New South Wales, the remains of Mungo woman were found and have since been dated at 42,000 years old.

These incredible sites give us some perspective on what ‘ancient’ means.

continuously the same … and continuously changing

When people describe First Nations Australians as the longest living continuous culture in the world, they are referring to a genomic study that traced their genetic origins back 75,000 years to a single founding population of people, making them the oldest, continuous civilisation on earth.

However, the word ‘continuous’ also implies ‘unchanging’. The reality is, First Nations Australians have lived through periods of immense change and have had to constantly adapt and grow.

They have survived ice ages, the last one ending approximately 20,000 years ago, during which the population plummeted and ‘the vast majority of Australia was simply uninhabitable’. They lived alongside the megafauna that followed the dinosaurs (including a marsupial lion and a giant wombat) for at least 30,000 years. They have survived volcanoes and floods and droughts. And, of course, they are survivors of colonisation.

As a result of having to be so adaptable and responsive to change, Aboriginal peoples gathered an enormous body of knowledge and wisdom over tens of thousands of years, about the land, climate, flora and fauna and how to survive and thrive in such challenging circumstances—often embedded in stories, songlines and other cultural artefacts.

As Luke Pearson notes in his article, What is a ‘continuous culture’… and are Aboriginal cultures the oldest? | SBS NITV:

‘The term ‘continuous culture’ should be a source of pride, but it is also a concept that needs to be unpacked. Viewed through the wrong lens it can also be seen to suggest that because we had a ‘continuous culture’ for over 60,000 years that there were no changes, no adaptations, no innovations, and was not influenced by individuals of great talent and skill. Aboriginal cultures in Australia maintained certain consistencies, but we also know that it survived through significant periods of change and needed to be able to grow and adapt, to survive and thrive in these changing environments.’

He also notes that First Nations Australians can be celebrated, not only for what they did—‘environmental sustainability; equitable wealth and resource distribution’; the first makers of bread; the first astronomers and the earliest evidence of religious beliefs and practices’—but also for what they didn’t, like ‘not being in a state of perpetual war; not needing to exploit others for resources and labour’, all the barbaric, destructive and power-driven practices and inventions of so-called ‘civilised’ cultures.

But even to think of First Nations Australian cultures in this way, as always ‘advancing’ or ‘progressing’ towards civilisation, is to frame these cultures against a Western, Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ idea of what it means to be a ‘successful’ human community.

Pearson says, ‘The fact that Aboriginal cultures ‘never invented the wheel’ is misunderstood by many people, and is often used to argue that Aboriginal cultures are ‘primitive’, rather than understanding that Aboriginal cultures were not further behind on a single path of progress, but were on an entirely different path altogether.’

Margo Neale, series editor for the First Knowledges series, says in the foreword to Design: Building on Country:

‘In the Aboriginal world view, everything starts and ends with Country. Yet, there are no beginnings in this world view, nor are there any endings. Everything is part of a continuum, and endless flow of life and ideas emanating from Country…’ (p.1)

So, what does it actually mean to be part of a ‘continuous culture’ in this context? This isn’t a linear ‘time moves forward’ model; it is a regenerative, reflective, flexible and relational model of being human, of being ‘continuous’.

Perhaps this is one of the most profound and humbling lessons we can learn as we navigate such uncertain times—times that require a new (or old) kind of wisdom and innovative thinking—times in which many of our ideas about ‘progress’ or ‘evolution’ are failing us.

Maybe this ancient understanding of being ‘continuous’, where everything in the world—living and inanimate—is viewed as belonging to a continuum, could help us move forward in a more meaningful, sustainable, connected and hopeful way. Maybe replacing our constant drive for progress with a more flexible, cyclic, responsive model of living would not only enable us to be more adaptive to our changing world, but also happier and more fulfilled.

While the ancient Greeks have clearly made a huge contribution to so many aspects of our lives, perhaps we have just as much to learn, if not more, from the longest living continuous culture in the world.


The theme of National Reconciliation Week this year is, ‘Now more than ever’. As they state on the National Reconciliation website, ‘… the work continues. In treaty making, in truth-telling, in understanding our history, in education, and in tackling racism. We need connection. We need respect. We need action. And we need change.’

Talking Up Our Strengths is a card set for talking about what we can learn from First Nations Australians—their strengths, their sense of place and connection to country and community, their struggles and their resilience in the face of huge challenges.


by Sue King-Smith

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