Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater
—Indigenous Science Queers Western Science
A Modern is someone who believes that others believe. An agnostic, conversely, does not wonder whether it is necessary to believe or not, but why the Moderns so desperately need belief in order to strike up a relationship with others. (Latour, Modern Cult, 2)
Here’s the problem: how can the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater, located in the Australian outback, be both an object of Western science1 and be embedded in Walmajarri and Jaru knowledge without the one cancelling the other out, without cheap relativism, and without that old-style scientific condescension that has ‘us’ acknowledging ‘their’ beliefs, while we really know?
This kind of comparative study, exploring the possibilities of Indigenous science, is an expanding field marked out by the work of David Turnbull (Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers), Helen Verran (‘Science’), and David Chambers and Richard Gillespie (‘Locality’). But in the process of focussing largely on Wolfe Creek, my argument develops a Latourian line of inquiry. I do not assume that ‘Western science’ and ‘Indigenous science’ have anything in common when they talk about the meteor crater. It would be easy to assume that they both have ‘nature’ in common, as do Berkes and Berkes in a fairly typical fashion when they define Indigenous knowledge as ‘a body of knowledge built up by a group of people through generations of living in close contact with nature’ (‘Ecological Complexity’, 7). Bruno Latour (Modern Cult; Inquiry), Eduardo Vivieros de Castro (Cannibal) and Phillipe Descola (Beyond Nature) have insistently demonstrated that the concept of nature in the singular is a European invention, and rarely has any part to play in Indigenous worlds. With that common ‘rug’ pulled out from under the feet of the analysis, interesting possibilities open up. This essay will follow the linkages that articulate ‘things’ like the Wolfe Creek crater through different knowledge networks that sustain the ‘things’ themselves.
The place White people call the Wolfe Creek crater is located in Jaru (also Djaru; spellings vary) country south of Halls Creek, North-West Australia. We learn in a scientific paper published in Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy and Culture, that it is about 300,000 years old and is 850 x 900 metres in diameter. Numbers: the first thing that ‘Western’ science provides. This evocation of numbers is not meant to be glib. It is meant to point to a textual feature of scientific papers that is crucial for their truth-value. But it goes beyond the textual boundaries, to the measuring instruments that are also an essential part of the network of scientific knowledge.
Wolfe Creek Crater. Photo: Stephen Muecke.
For the Aboriginal knowledge of the crater, the article goes on to say that there are ‘multiple stories associated with the crater…. One of the earliest Djaru accounts tells how a pair of subterranean Rainbow Serpents created the nearby Wolfe and Sturt creeks. One serpent emerged from the ground, creating the circular structure’ (Hamacher and Norris, ‘Australian’, 69). So, for the Jaru and Walmajarri traditional owners of the site and the country, according to this account, among others, there are stories rather than numbers, and, as we shall see, there are also songs, dreamings and paintings. In the article, Hamacher and Norris respectfully include the Jaru and Walmajarri accounts in their cultural astronomy. A painting from Bililuna elder Boxer Milner is reproduced with the following text:
That star is a Rainbow Serpent
This is the Aboriginal Way
We call that snake Warnayarra
That snake travels like stars travel in the sky
It came down at Kandimalal (Wolfe Creek)
I been there, I still look for that crater
I gottem Ngurriny – that one, Walmajarri/Djaru wild man. (ibid., 70)
Boxer Milner, Kandimalal (Wolfe Creek Crater) and the Rainbow Serpent. Detail. Photo: Peggy Reeves Sandy
My approach to the problem is this: one can’t extract the fact of the crater being one thing or another from all the other kinds of knowledge that sustain the fact, what is often called the broader culture. A fact like ‘the crater was caused by a falling meteor hitting the Earth about 300,000 years ago’ was apparently introduced to Jaru people at some stage, as Hamacher and Goldsmith report, citing Peggy Reeves-Sanday (Aboriginal Paintings, 97-9):
In 2002, Walmajarri artist Jack Lannigan (b. 1924), a Jaru speaker, cited the story about the structure being formed from a giant serpent emerging from the ground (Reeves-Sanday, 97). When Reeves-Sanday asked him if the snake that formed the structure came from the sky, he replied ‘nah’, the star-story was ‘... white-man’s story’ (99). The influence of the Western scientific explanation of the crater on local Aboriginal stories is evident. When artists developed paintings of the crater they were encouraged to include the ‘star story’, and were given directional advice about the theme. (Hamacher and Goldsmith, ‘Aboriginal Oral Traditions’, 305-6)
Someone’s ‘directional advice’ seems to have given rise to a genre of paintings related to the site. But Lannigan remains loyal to the Rainbow snake story in this account. For my argument, the important thing is that an isolated fact about a star hitting the Earth will not explode Jaru/Walmajarri knowledge systems. It can’t make the Rainbow Serpents disappear because they have been around for many generations, possibly for thousands of years. They are habitually treated as viable agents, acknowledged especially for doing the work of creating rivers. They are sacred and dangerous, connecting in multiple ways with water courses, storms, people and other creatures. They have been translated and exported into the mainstream. They have gone from oral to anthropological and fictional literature, and into new forms of visual culture, in a network too extensive to trace out or cite here.
The same issue applies in the other direction across the cultural divide. A Jaru elder insisting to a White scientist that the Rainbow snake curled around and made the crater, will not explode the scientist’s scientific culture, and everything that extends and sustains it, unless the scientist decided for some reason to accept that as a fact along with everything else that keeps Jaru culture alive. The scientist would probably have to start inhabiting a different cosmos, and start living as a Jaru person. The same could apply, in principle, to some other Jaru person—this is just speculating with possibilities—upon hearing the story of the falling meteor. ‘Oh, whitefella must be right, all that Rainbow snake story must be only humbug’. Or they could try for some kind of accommodation, or synthesis, of the two accounts.
And this is what I think happened with some of the stories. The Jaru are very familiar with falling stars; they are meaningful events. Falling stars are often associated with the death of someone. In 1999, says John Goldsmith, who wrote a chapter in his PhD about Wolfe Creek:
I recorded a story about a ‘star’ that fell from the sky and became buried in the ground, forming the crater. According to Djaru Elder Jack Jugarie, one day, the crescent moon and the evening star passed very close to each other. The evening star became so hot that it fell to the ground, causing an enormous explosion, flash, dust cloud and noise. This frightened the people and a long time passed before they ventured near the crater to see what had happened. When they ventured to [the] crater, it was realised that this was the site of where the evening star had fallen to the Earth. The Djaru people then named the place ‘Kandimalal’ and [it] is prominent in arts from the region. (‘Impact Craters’, n.p.)
And in Goldsmith’s 2014 video Kandimalal, Stan Brumby sings a song about the star falling down:
that story come from—
that story (...)
And the lines of the song he repeats are warda warrinyar/ngurrangayi.
So there is a confusion of stories. How many old men in the video were influenced by scientists or directed to paint along a theme? Did they extrapolate from knowledge of other instances of meteors falling, synthesising the ‘star falling’ story with more ancient knowledge (but no older than 50,000 years; extensions of Indigenous knowledge have been traced back no more than about 10,000 years)? No doubt it is ultimately up to the Jaru and Walmajarri to reconcile, if they wish, falling star versions with the Rainbow Serpent versions.
But my problem, coming more from a ‘Western’ knowledge perspective (and this is not necessarily the concern of scientists like Hamacher or Goldsmith), is how to recognise Indigenous knowledge as a kind of science, which I take to mean knowledge that is reliable when tested and repeated. But how can that be, you might ask, if it means, of all things, singing songs about it? I take heart from Bruno Latour’s argument that scientific purity is an ideal, if not an illusion, a claim he elaborates in his recent account of a hypothetical anthropologist who sets out to study the value system of ‘modern western societies’:
It did not take [the anthropologist of the Moderns] long to notice that in Science ‘not everything is scientific’. She has even spent a fair amount of time drawing up a list, a truly dizzying one in this case, of all the ingredients required to maintain any scientific fact whatsoever (a list that nothing in the official theory of her informants allowed her to produce, moreover—here we have the contribution of the ethnography of laboratories in a nutshell). (Latour, Inquiry, 39)
Shifting the emphasis from the existence (of a fact) to the process of maintaining it has the effect, in the case of my contrast, of making both the extensions of Indigenous knowledge (or science), and extensions of Western science, look decidedly queer. I don’t need to embrace the totality of queer theory in order to reiterate that refusing to use the concept of nature as common ground also entails refusing, as Karen Barad says, ‘to be civilized by the laws of classical physics’ (‘Nature’s Queer Performativity’, 45). On this basis it is possible to accept that phenomena like atoms and lightning strikes behave strangely, and that, just possibly, an invisible being like a Rainbow snake might have some part to play in a reliable form of knowledge, and not be a mere belief.
The Hiatus, the Extension and the Rush of Stories
When asked what that crater-like-thing is doing there in the middle of the outback, the Jaru elder can offer, as we have seen, the action of the Rainbow snake as a kind of ‘proof’ for the ‘existence of the phenomenon’. But if this move appears from the standards of modern empirical sciences to be an unjustifiable leap between two heterogeneous domains, Latour’s account of his anthropologist’s investigations suggest that discontinuous leaps and epistemological transformations may be the norm in scientific knowledge production too:
By going into the most intimate details of knowledge production, she believes she has distinguished a trajectory characterized in its turn by a particular hiatus between elements so dissimilar that, without this trajectory, they would never have lined up in any kind of order. This trajectory, made of discontinuous leaps, is what allows a researcher to determine that, for example, between a yeast culture, a photograph, a table of figures, a diagram, an equation, a caption, a title, a summary, a paragraph, and an article, something is maintained despite the successive transformations, something that allows him access to a remote phenomenon, as if someone had set up, between the author and the phenomenon, a sort of bridge that others can cross in turn. This bridge is what researchers call ‘supplying the proof of the existence of a phenomenon’. (Inquiry, 39)
This is something of a radical view, that science proceeds by way of ‘hiatuses’ among heterogeneous elements, rather than through ‘pure’, ‘classical’ and universal methods that are blind to contextual interruptions because their ideal object is an exteriorized and fully-material ‘nature’. Valorizing such ‘interruptions’, as opposed to smooth method, Anna Tsing takes the view further:
To listen and to tell a rush of stories is a method. And why not make the strong claim and call it a science, an addition to knowledge? Its research object is contaminated diversity; its unit of analysis is the indeterminate encounter. To learn anything we must revitalize arts of noticing and include ethnography and natural history. But we have a problem with scale. A rush of stories cannot be neatly summed up. Its scales do not nest neatly; they draw attention to interrupting geographies and tempos. These interruptions elicit more stories. This is the rush of stories’ power as a science. Yet it is just these interruptions that step out of the bounds of most modern science, which demands the possibility for infinite expansion without changing the research framework. Arts of noticing are considered archaic because they are unable to ‘scale up’ in this way. The ability to make one’s research framework apply to greater scales, without changing the research questions, has become a hallmark of modern knowledge. (Mushroom, 37)
So, in the case of the crater, we can imagine—I’m speculating again, conceiving scenarios in order to illustrate in-principle possibilities— ‘Western Science’ arriving in Jaru country and being initially stranded, without the usual support group that helps to generate its habitual (factual) knowledge. No labs, no instruments; its ‘rush of stories’ is slowed to a trickle. Until someone saves the day by finding a theodolite in the back of the truck and they can be happy measuring the size of the crater (numbers!). Then a rock is taken away for carbon dating (more numbers!) and the rush of stories can start again.
Things get a little queerer as time goes by. In the Kandimalal video the narration transitions from the Jaru stories and songs to a kind of scientific theme park, the Gravity Discovery Centre, located north of Perth. At this site, a serious scientific facility is co-located with a public education exhibit. The narrator tells us: ‘At the Gravity Discovery Centre visitors learn about Wolfe Creek crater in the exhibit “Timeline of the Universe”’. We then see a little pedagogical exercise where you can ‘create your own impact crater’ by dropping a water-filled balloon from a specially-constructed 45 metre tower into a sand pit. The Gravity Discovery Centre has indeed gone to a lot of trouble and expense to extend the science and the reliability of its knowledge with a primitive kind of replicable experiment that really proves very little about real meteorite impacts. It tries to be a simulation, but it is actually a kind of allegorical fiction. One has to ask: which extension is queerer? From crater to Rainbow snake, or crater to water balloon dropped into a sand pit?
It seems to me that what has been built up as a supporting network for the ‘Western science’ version of the existence of the crater is nothing short of a whole civilisation. Science is often conceived of as the pinnacle of success of this particular kind of modern civilisation, along with its ‘rush of stories’: its culture, its technologies, its protective security forces, etc. What I hope to have demonstrated in this short article is that the power of science is not sui generis, but lies in its embeddedness in the whole civilisational complex. This was a civilisational complex that had imperial ambitions, as Chambers and Gillespie argue, and the science came along (co-evolved) with everything else, so that it could be ‘scaled up’, as Tsing says, to a global level. So, when a scientist finds a crater in Peru, or anywhere on the planet, they can apply the same principles of analysis. This is well and good, putting numbers on the deathly traces of past cosmological events, and it can lead to Copernican revolutions, but it is not all there is to the crater in Peru or to the one in Wolfe Creek. These craters articulate with other cosmoi as situated knowledge, knowledge that starts with the question of relevance: ‘putting the adventure of shared relevance over and above the authority of judgement’ as Isabelle Stengers says (Another Science, 42). The impetus is not the imperial one of scaling up one instance to universal importance, as in ‘this is important for understanding the structure of the solar system’ or ‘refining carbon dating’ or, in the next step, ‘exploiting a new resource’, but rather, ‘this is an important part of our lives today’. Far from diminishing the massively important achievements of ‘Western science’, the demand for relevance brings the sciences to the negotiating table of democracy, where no-one has decided in advance on what knowledge might be relevant (Another Science, 13).
Stengers speaks of the way in which ‘Western Science’ is increasingly engaged with industry, poised for opportunities for sponsorship, finding less time for the difficult questions that slow, considered study demands (ibid.). This takes me to resource exploitation in Western Australia where, in a recent long-running conflict, the ambitions of the Woodside mining company on the Dampier Peninsula were thwarted by the efforts of a consortium of Green and Indigenous groups (Muecke, ‘Indigenous-Green’). The environmental consultants (I call them private scientists) engaged by the mining company worked quickly as if the hidden agenda was not to find any flora or fauna that might be endangered. So, on their quick day trips they failed to find the bilbies (Macrotis lagotis) that the Traditional Owners knew were there, knowledge which the Traditional Owners had conveyed to the citizen scientists working with them. The work of the citizen scientists was slower, longer-lasting, engaged and relevant. They found bilbies, and wrote a report that challenged the private scientists’ findings (Lindsay, ‘Evidence’). The latter had searched from the air, because that was how they had done it in the desert, looking for mounds of earth outside the burrows. But when told that the acacia undergrowth would obscure such vision, they were still prepared to conclude that the bilbies weren’t there (Muecke, ‘Indigenous-Green’). And they didn’t consult with the Traditional Owners. Fast science can thus work towards the results that industry wants. It makes universalizing assumptions (what was the case for the desert will also be the case for the Peninsula) that do not support the aura of neutrality it would normally like to cultivate. It, too, produces relevant research, but in this case the relevance has been bought at a price and supported by the ‘productive relationship with industry’ that government likes to encourage.
In the end, the bilbies were minor actors, among quite a few other critters, that performed in opposition to the mining venture. Actual bilbies were too skittish to come forward (and, in any case, they were indifferent to human politics), so a puppetry head and tail was made for the anti-mining activists by installation/theatre artist Bernadette Trench-Thiederman, which allowed a bilby to perform its presence at various events, captured in the image below on a Woodside bulldozer.
Bilby performance. Photo: David Keir.
This is another instance of a natural-cultural extension, precisely mediating the human and the non-human. Among the Goolarabooloo custodians of the area, the bilby is not a ‘totemic’ animal, unlike the pelican. But this bilby extension mimics the way in which Aboriginal totemism expresses the idea that the human (the ‘pelican clan’, say) and the totem animal share the same life-force. Barbara Glowczewski has recently rescued totemism from anthropological obscurity by writing of them as multiple, a ‘constellation of totems’ that ‘reticulate’ as non-hierarchical networks (Totemic Becomings, 136). Totemic relations are not based in fanciful Indigenous ‘belief’, that modern science will eventually argue out of existence. Totemism could rather be seen as an extraordinary invention, a solution to the problem of what it means for humans to coexist with other beings. The ‘Western’ solution is to put humans in cultures and pelicans in Nature. But so-called totemistic societies refuse the singular concept of Nature, and usually do not have a word for it. I want to claim that they have another solution, totemism as an expert Indigenous scientific construction pertaining to the crucial importance of the continuity of ‘nature’ and culture’. Not only is there continuity between the clansman and his pelican totem, but responsibilities for care for such non-humans are evenly distributed in the human kinship network in relation to a vast array of critters. It may be strange, but it is no queerer than the analogical dualistic construction that ‘Western science’ is based on, what Latour and Stengers, after Whitehead, call the ‘bifurcation of nature’: ‘we Moderns’ have built up and come to depend on the idea that our cultures (where all values lie) are alienated from inactive, singular, Nature (where all facts lie).
When the Jaru or Walmajarri elders are asked—if indeed they are asked—why the crater is relevant in terms of how they live their lives, their answers don’t just lead to ‘stories’ that can be put in the baskets of ‘culture’ or ‘belief’. They can lead to different forms of expertise. This expertise could be used, as I have done, to ‘queer’ Western science in an experimental intellectual exercise. But in the field, forms of collaborative expertise may be more pragmatic. Elders can be welcomed, not just as informants, but as colleagues capable of asking questions of the scientists about what they do with their knowledge, and what its relevance is. This can have the effect of rebooting modernist science by extending its capacities for knowing, and making the list of authors on scientific papers a bit longer. By testing itself against this radical alterity, and finding new forms of expertise by asking different questions, this method will demonstrate Stengers’ hope that ‘another science is possible’.
Based on a paper originally presented at the Ctrl-Z research symposium, geo- (the earth and the earth sciences in humanities inquiry), Curtin University, Perth, November 28-30, 2016. Thanks to Robert Briggs, Duane Hamacher and the anonymous reviewers at Ctrl-Z for helpful suggestions in the preparation of this paper.
1. Capitalised and in the singular, ‘Science’ in this sense is an abstract ideal. It doesn’t correspond in any serious way to the innovative diversity of actual scientific inquiries. But sciences, once they are oversimplified, can become Science. And they can become Science rhetorically, when engaged in debate with people who ‘don’t understand’ how important science obviously is. #back
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