Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Into the Heart of Tasmania: a Search for Human Antiquity by Rebe Taylor doesn’t look like a treatise. Its cover doesn’t speak to the casual observer in academic language but it’s a different story between the covers. Here is a thoroughly researched study of the highest scholarship. This is a volume that harvests the data collected by a British geologist on the 1900s, archived in his own unique way, and then interpreted many years later by an academic with a nose for research and an appetite that accepts nothing but first rate argument. The book is a tribute to the worthiness of archives here and abroad, and it is a glowing testament to the academic rigour of Rebe Taylor’s work.
Ernest Westlake was a collector. His interest lay in eoliths, his belief was that these shaped rocks were ancient tools whose distribution would provide valuable information about cultural evolution and anthropology. His travels brought him to Tasmania in 1908 where, his bicycle and his own two feet his only means of transport, he collected more than 13000 specimens of aboriginal stone tools and learnt a staggering amount of information about the history of the aborigines and of the island itself.
Westlake’s conversations with Tasmanian settlers record massacres, warfare and shame. He talked to Tasmanian aborigines who told him of their continuing cultural practices such as their use of traditional tools. He spoke of medicines from the Australian bush, of hunting, fishing and the navigation and weather predictions of the indigenous people based on their knowledge of astronomy. He also recorded their language. He soldiered on never realising that his writing would bear witness to the richness of a living Tasmanian aboriginal culture that many historians regarded as extinct for so long.
By writing extensively to his family in England Westlake built up a comprehensive record of his life and times. The First World War troubled his Quaker pacifist soul, but having overcome that, he became a progressive in his thinking. An evolutionist, he could not throw off the scars of destruction resulting from war, and he ceased collecting. Questioning humanity, he, with the assistance of his son Aubrey, established the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry in which boys and girls could become worthy community members.
When Westlake died in 1922 his family retained an interest in his work. Thus it was that Rebe Taylor found them in 2000 and discovered that Westlake had built a gravel path with his collection but had kept his catalogue numbers. She recovered his work and brought it to the notice of the world. Taylor steers the reader through the politics of archaeology and history in Tasmania. The width of her research is demonstrated by her extensive and careful referencing. Many of the book’s original sources have been digitised and are available at http://www.westlakehistory.info at the University of Melbourne’s e-research centre.
Rebe Taylor summed up Westlake best: “Westlake looked for stones of a dead people and recorded their living Aboriginal voices” (205). Taylor is attempting to answer the big question: the last Tasmanian mother was among those who became isolated by rising sea levels, “the first group of humans geographically removed from a previously shared global gene pool” (202), was she possessed of the genes of all humanity? As Taylor puts it, was she “our mitochondrial Eve”? Are we therefore all Tasmanians or is no one Tasmanian, or as Rebe Taylor (203) sensibly puts it: “Is the question absurd?”
However, the book may appear to be only about Westlake and his quaint history. It is more than this. It is a record of Rebe Taylor’s dogged perseverance, of her dedication to her studies, and her desire to set the record right. It is a detective story, too, in that Taylor has followed the clues, made due and proper obeisance to other authorities who have written about the Tasmanian people, and has come out of the venture, skin intact. In doing so she has illuminated her own scholastic eminence by casting light on that of a very humble other.
This is a very impressive book.
By Rebe Taylor