McGregor, R. 2016. Making the Rainforest Aboriginal: Tindale and Birdsell’s foray into deep time. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture 10: 9-21. Brisbane. ISSN 2205-3220
Tindale, Birdsell, racial classification, North Queensland, rainforest Aboriginal people, artefacts, Australian anthropology
In the late 1930s Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell identified the inhabitants of the North Queensland rainforests as a distinct race of Indigenous Australians. This classification was a keystone of their attempted reconstruction of the deep past of Australia. According to their narrative, the Aboriginal inhabitants of the rainforests were relicts of the first human occupants of Australia, refugees from later waves of Aboriginal invaders who seized all but the most inhospitable parts of the continent. From the outset, Tindale and Birdsell’s argument was burdened with serious problems, both in the qualities they attributed to rainforest people and in their representation of the rainforest environment as a ‘refuge’. While Tindale and Birdsell’s racial theorising and historical speculations drew some supporters, they failed to win general academic acclamation and by the 1970s were quite thoroughly discredited. Yet the category ‘rainforest Aboriginal’ survived, disengaged from the reconstruction of Australia’s past that had inspired it and anchored instead to the distinctive economy of rainforest subsistence, instantiated in a unique material culture. This paper takes Tindale and Birdsell’s relict-race representation of rainforest Aboriginal people as the starting point in an exploration of how European people represented the Aboriginal inhabitants of the North Queensland rainforests over roughly a hundred years, from the 1870s to the 1970s.