Ancient knowledge given life in a virtual world

Professor John Bradley

Associate Professor John Bradley

Words: Dr Gio Braidotti

Facing a linguistic crisis that threatens the oral traditions that pass on indigenous knowledge, culture and identity, aboriginal elders have turned to 21st-century animation technology to help sustain intergenerational remembering.

From a Western perspective, the songlines of Indigenous Australians can seem like simple origin myths; tales of ancestral beings whose 'Dreamtime' actions animate Australia's creation story.

Only more recently have 'white fellas' come to realise that songlines defy Western concepts and categories by passing on an encyclopedic knowledge of Australia's eco-biology, bound up in kinship laws that are embedded in cultural and spiritual traditions. Over thousands of years people have become adept at this unique way of learning, knowing and being.

Songlines remain a vast, living archive comprising some 270 distinct languages and about 600 dialects. Within this is stored the vast bulk of Australia's human history, a history that dates back more than 40,000 years.

Alarmingly, however, this knowledge is slipping away. Linguists say Australia is losing Indigenous languages at a rate of two a year – and the loss of Indigenous languages means the loss of the songlines.

The deputy director of the Monash Indigenous Centre, Associate Professor John Bradley, is one of only five speakers left of the Yanyuwa language, which is from Borroloola country on the Gulf of Carpentaria in remote northern Australia. When he first went there 33 years ago as a primary school teacher there were 260 Yanyuwa speakers.

"You have to understand that where I work, the ultimate form of knowledge is the ability to sing songlines," he says. "These are the professors. The ultimate way of knowing is being able to dance your country. Knowledge is not just conceptual ideas learned with books and computers."

He says this can be difficult for people educated in a Western culture to understand, but it is how Indigenous people construct and hold knowledge, and hold it true for a very long period of time. But for this knowledge to be sustained, so must the languages of the songlines.

Associate Professor Bradley explains that songline preservation involves much more than simply compiling dictionaries. "They are incredibly complex phenomena – linguistically, musically, in the way they are performed, in the way they are held as a body of knowledge."

Initially, Associate Professor Bradley compiled dictionaries and grammars as a way of preserving languages, but came to realise that a new way to conserve and pass on languages was needed. He envisioned a technique capable of encoding – in culturally appropriate ways – the layers upon layers of meaning contained in songlines. A chance encounter with the work of a fellow Monash University academic in 2007 provided just what he was looking for.

Dr Tom Chandler at the Monash Faculty of Information Technology is a specialist in 3-D animation, which draws on advanced software to build a virtual world populated by 3-D objects.

A 'camera' can then fly through these worlds – and around the 3-D objects it contains – to produce films. It is the same technology used in the production of movies such as Avatar and countless computer-game worlds.

Fortuitously, Dr Chandler also has a background in archaeology and he combines these academic interests by participating in projects to rebuild – in virtual 3-D space – lost ancient cities such as Cambodia's Angkor.

"John really liked the Angkor animations and in 2007 he emailed me out of the blue," Dr Chandler says. "He had all these wonderful concepts and huge amounts of materials including storyboards and atlases. The first thing I did was set up a meeting between John and a talented 3-D-animation graduate, Brent McKee, to determine what was possible."

The result is the re-creation – in virtual space – of Australian landscapes in which songlines can be modelled, animated, filmed and narrated in their native languages, with copyright remaining the property of the participating Indigenous community.

Read the full article and find out more about other research breakthroughs in the MONASH: Delivering Impact online edition.