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intellectual apartheid

May 8, 2009

[Guardian] If Stonehenge were bulldozed for a McDonald’s, or the collections of the British Library were burnt to heat the Hilton, there would be a furore in the press. But a site of equivalent spiritual, intellectual and artistic importance to ­Aboriginal people – referred to as an ancient university, part of their ritual, sacred culture and songlines – is under similar threat, and the chances are you won’t have heard of it.

The site includes what is probably the oldest artistic representation of the human face anywhere in the world. Pause on that a moment. That fact alone makes it iconic for all human beings. Carved with huge, haunting eyes and an expression of vivid intensity, it is one of hundreds of thousands of rock carvings in Western Australia’s Burrup peninsula, known as Murujuga to Aboriginal peoples. Some carvings are at least 30,000 years old and it is even possible that the site is twice the age of the famous Lascaux cave paintings. But there are plans to site a liquid natural gas plant here, and parts of the area have already been destroyed, with images either pulverised or ripped away from where they belong. When this happens, ­Aboriginal people say, part of a songline is destroyed forever, it is “like our Bible torn apart”.

The World Monuments Fund has named it as one of the world’s most endangered sites, and archaeologists want it listed as a World Heritage Site, but so far haven’t been successful. Why? Because it’s part of a long story, what I’d call the “intellectual apartheid” which the dominant culture operates towards indigenous people, refusing to believe that indigenous philosophy is worthy of the title, that the Amazon has its rigorous medical schools, or that a Chartres could exist, in ritual, in the Australian outback. Tellingly, until 1967, Aboriginal people were legally classed as “flora and fauna” – ie not capable of rising from nature into culture. (read)

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