In search of the indigenous little people of northern Australia

Thanks to Mr Red for this Report.

The Weekend Australian reports

THEY are everywhere in north Australia, and nowhere. They are real and unreal; mythical and historical. They are depicted in the rock art, they are in the stories, they are in the minds of men and women from Cape York and the Top End right across to Broome on the distant Indian Ocean’s shore — the Little People. They have a hundred local names — Rai, Janjarri, Mimih — yet the picture we have of them is strikingly consistent. We know they are slight, elusive, magical, mischievous. We are told that they are always nearby, listening, hovering, poised just beyond the edge of our field of ­vision: they are the necessary companion ­beings to complete and populate the vast, empty-seeming country of the remote north. Of course we hear about them most often in old, remembered song-cycles: they serve as the puzzling trickster-heroes of many a wildly ramifying Aboriginal narrative. But are those stories simply tales, ­legends — or do they point to a time now gone when there were diminutive people spread through the lush rainforests and up and down the coastlines of the north? Were the Little People real? Are they still?

Even the briefest journey through the meanders of remote Australian life will quickly turn up their persistent traces and highlight a complex trail of evidence. For the Little People are not a simple or straightforward category. There are different kinds of them, and they move on different levels of reality — the established and the imagined, the past world and the present — and these various populations blend into and reinforce each other, and accentuate the particular atmospherics of the north, where nothing is quite what it appears to be, and haunting presences seem to lurk constantly just out of reach.

Let’s begin with a handful of intriguing stories: stories so similar they seem linked for sure, though they stem from different cultural regions and from places hundreds of kilometres apart. In Bardi country, at One Arm Point, on the tip of the Dampier Peninsula, it is well known that a climactic battle took place “in early times” between two groups: a tall tribe, perhaps forebears of today’s people, and a smaller tribe whose memory is preserved in dance and tradition to this day. In the Roper River region of southeast Arnhem Land a similar conflict is remembered — and there are traces of just such deep-seated rivalries between two separate, physically different groups as far afield as north Queensland and the coastal community of ­Yarrabah near Cairns.

One of the most precise and detailed narratives of a clash of this kind between cultures can be heard on Groote Eylandt in the western Gulf of Carpentaria. Today, Groote is home to the tall, thin, ritually conservative Anindilyakwa clans, keen protectors of the records of their past. Many strange tales are told on the island. Many were recorded by the unsung hero of Groote studies, Canadian anthropologist David Turner, who had a particular interest in auditory hallucinations, and who devoted several books and papers to renunciation, psychic transport and spirit flight. Few of those stories are odder or harder to pin down than the case of the lost clan chief who is believed to have been abducted by a foreign submarine shortly before manganese mining on the island’s southwestern shore began. Groote, then, is a place of sagas, and murky episodes, where old events are plumbed for their hidden meanings, and their retelling is veiled in swaths of allegory.

At the aged-care centre in little Angurugu, Murabuda Wurramarrba, one of the great patriarchs of the Anindilyakwa, lays out the deep story of the island’s past. Murabuda is among the best-known exponents of Groote’s austere bark painting tradition, quite different in its ­aesthetic from the much more widely dissemin­ated cross-hatched styles of neighbouring Arnhem Land, but one theme rarely treated in his work is the contested occupation of Groote: a topic that has suddenly become the focus of intense interest among genetic scientists seeking to trace the origins and spread of an illness newly present in the region — the crippling, degenerative Machado-Joseph disease. Murabuda is explicit. In the relatively recent past, his Anindilyakwa ancestors lived on the mainland of the Northern Territory, in the region around today’s community of Numbulwar, the former Rose River mission: it’s not far away. On a clear night, from the manganese loading jetty, you can see its lights gleaming across the deceptive waters of the gulf. The Anindilyakwa speak a variant of the mainland’s Nunggubuyu language and still have close ties to their old country. In those early days they travelled on long trading missions by dug-out canoe, ranging widely down the coastline, and thus came to Groote. There they found a population of little people, speaking a language they did not know, and adhering to dreadful customs: the islanders were intimate with their own children, and with their dogs. Relations between the two groups were far from smooth: tensions grew.

There was a pitched battle at the aptly named stronghold of the original inhabitants, Sexy Beach, on the island’s southeast coast — the Little People were wiped out. And this might be put down as an unlikely fable, as some half-jumbled, half-forgotten tale, were it not for the fact Sexy Beach exists. According to the children of missionaries who were on Groote four decades ago, when it was a simple thing to roam freely across the farthest reaches of the island, telltale traces of a conflict at the site were in evidence back then. Along the low cliffs and prominences that face out into the gulf there are well-masked caves and sheltered nooks and crevices. Many were filled with burials: mummified bodies, wrapped in shroud-cloths of some unusual kind, and the skeletons of those men, women and children were all short in stature, slight in scale.

Slightness is the defining characteristic of the best-known of the Little People of north Australia, the Mimih spirits who live in the stone country plateau of the Top End. This is the stronghold of the Kuninjku-speaking clans, creators of much of the most keenly collected indigenous artwork of our day: art showing thin, supple Mimih figures in a range of dramatic poses. The inspiration the artists draw on is evident: the Mimih are constant presences in the rock art frescoes of the ranges behind Gunbalanya and Maningrida, old decorative complexes that festoon the region’s shelters and overhangs, and stretch down river channels for kilometres on end. There are slender rock art figures reminiscent of the Mimih as far afield as the Victoria River district, the north Kimberley and the Pilbara, and extant stories that describe their lives. Almost always these creatures are spirit beings, occupying another dimension of reality, yet inquisitive, engaged with mankind, within easy reach. “Clever” men, magic men are able to make contact with the Mimih: some have visited their camps, learned their ways, heard their songs and seen their secret places. The Mimih have exactly the same elaborate kinship system as the Aboriginal residents of the stone country and speak the same lan­guages. On occasion, Mimih will seek out Kun­injku hunters in the bush and lead them off to the other world, where the hunters fall in love with Mimih women and linger, ensnared in fantasy and unwilling to return to their own camps and homes. These ambiguous beings are not, then, hostile, but neither are they entirely ­benign: in fact they are a striking mirror population on the margins of the human realm.

As it happens, this strong relationship between the world of men and the parallel, unseen spirit world was already under close observation 50 years ago when pioneer anthropologists Ron­ald and Catherine Berndt were in the field in the Top End. The pair collected hundreds of songs and stories, and they were keen to make sense of what they heard. They developed a ­theory: it was elegant and succinct, and can be simply summarised. The Berndts felt the traditionally minded indigenous people they worked with had a special empathy with nature. As a result, Aboriginal groups in the north tended to endow the natural world with human characteristics; they brought it “within their own social orbit”. Hence the distinctive, potent creatures their imaginations brought to life; creatures with supernatural authority, spirit fam­iliars who gave their human contacts gifts of secret knowledge: how to hunt, how to butcher kangaroos, how to sing and dance, even how to play their special instrument, the didgeridoo.

In earlier times, the Mimih seem to have been rather less prominent; they were only one group in the menagerie of spectral beings haunting the ravines and the rocks: bat-people, speaking birds, devils in various guises, ghosts. The Mimih are decidedly not ancestor or creator figures with overwhelming, world-shaping powers; rather, they have an artful, playful, ­goblin-like quality about them. They are so thin they can pass through cracks and crannies in the rock face; so delicate a gust of strong wind is enough to break their necks. As such, they are instantly recognisable, and they also lend themselves to sculptural representation, for their form is very like the slender kapok trees of Arnhem Land — and those trees can be easily carved to resemble a slender Mimih form.

It was a single individual who made the Mimih famous: celebrated singer Crusoe Kun­ingbal, who died 30 years ago. According to anthropologist and art historian Luke Taylor, Kuningbal’s sculpted Mimihs were first made in their refined form for a public ceremony, called Mamurrng, a Kuninjku performance held in honour of a child’s birth, and displayed to the region’s other language groups: an elaborate dance and song cycle, all tales of death and “the activities of ghosts” but suffused with joyful, celebratory overtones. There is humour in the Mamurrng, too: the dancers paint themselves as skeletons and wear macabre headdresses that include carved wooden bones.

Kuningbal was a particular virtuoso, in both voice and movement: he used life-sized Mimih figures in his dance. As Taylor writes, “Kun­injku still smile with pleasure as they recall his hilarious performances and evocative singing.”

In the mid-1960s, collector Louis Allen became the first Westerner to buy a Mimih carving by Kuningbal: it had a slightly puckish look about it, it was thin and short-armed, its red-painted body was dotted with dabs of white and yellow, there were stylised markings to de­lineate its face. This look seems to have been a personal invention, perhaps inspired by the gaunt Mokuy spirit figures of East Arnhem Land that Kuningbal saw during his time at Mil­ingimbi mission in the years leading up to World War II. He kept carving, and painting his carvings; he used a grid of black dots as decoration. There was nothing quite like his Mimihs: they were impossibly slender, and the curve in the sculpted wood gave them the air of figures in the dance. By the early 1980s demand in the craft shops for these figurines was picking up. You could buy a good one for just under $50.

It was in the year of Kuningbal’s death that the breakthrough came. The National Gallery of Australia acquired a set of his carved Mimihs. In the context of a fine art hang, it was suddenly obvious there was something immediate and urgent and stripped back about the sculptures. They were all shimmer, motion, life; they had the grace of Giacomettis, and none of the pathos and despair. At once they became part of the new canon of indigenous contemporary art.

Kuningbal’s gifted sons, Owen Yalandja and Crusoe Kurddal, took on his tradition, and refined his style. This pattern was reinforced in the bicentennial year when a landmark collective art installation, made up of funerary poles from Arnhem Land went on view in Canberra. The “Aboriginal Memorial” had an impact — visual as much as moral: it brought Top End ways of seeing and shaping form to the wider nation. Slender Mimih figures were now art, worthy of catalogue essays and connoisseurship. They were displayed in high-end galleries in Melbourne and in Sydney. They changed hands for thousands of dollars apiece. They were distinctive: they went very well in the sparse surrounds of modern living rooms. The hidden world had become manifest. Suddenly, Australians could see, plain before their eye, the thin, exiguous trickster spirits of the north.

But was this something so very new? Had these slight, elusive figures not always been present, half-announcing and half-concealing themselves? In the tropics and the savanna country, wherever the mainstream and the traditional realms rubbed up against each other, all through the settlement decades incomers have experienced, and recorded, their odd sightings and encounters. They glimpse little outlines in the shadows, or sense some living thing around a nearby corner, their keys go missing, their doors mysteriously close or open, the world becomes a constant, slightly mad surprise.

Broome, where the desert meets the salt-water, is just such a place. Its long-established Aboriginal community know their Little People very well. The Rai are small creatures who bring babies and live on the bare, narrow Turtle Island off the West Kimberley coast. You can see, or sense, the Rai all through the Dampier Peninsula: they often steal food or tease people by appearing and disappearing. Westerners who live in old Broome see them from time to time. Children are particularly sensitive to them. Puertollano Place is a hot spot: it’s not unusual to catch Rai groups there, bustling about at knee-height, or digging among the bougainvilleas in backyard gardens with a certain mischievous zeal. So it is, too, in the spirit-haunted little port of Wyndham on the Cambridge Gulf. So it was once, in years gone by, in Darwin, a place awash with Aboriginal beliefs and spectral presences until it was transformed from a sleepy shantytown and took on its present incarnation as a liquefied natural gas export entrepot.

Given this permanent proximity of half-glimpsed figures, this penumbra of slender, small-scale beings, it seems almost natural that there should have been real, clearly identifiable Little People living until recently in a far corner of the Australian north. These groups are well documented: they were the subject of scientific peculations and fierce controversies that lasted for decades, and are only now quiescent, lost in the dusty records of old scholarship. Some of the rainforest tribes living in the steep ranges behind Cairns at the time of first Western settlement were not just slight: they were so short of stature they seemed a population quite separate from the rest of Aboriginal Australia. Reports from the early explorers and pioneers describing these “tableland pygmies” soon spread south. Those documents were colourful: they gave the details of a specific local culture. The members of the 12 forest clans made large, richly decorated fighting shields from ficus trees, and carried flat-bladed wooden swords. Their blankets were of beaten bark-cloth. They had perfected the use of cross-shaped boomerangs. Ethnographers came north to see these marvels and to study them — but the familiar, thorough processes of the Queensland frontier were already well under way: dispersals, indentured labour, removal to missions, disease and death. It is clear, though, from what evidence survives that the rainforest environment was its own micro-world, occupied by four alliances of clans. The southern slopes were roamed over by tribes whose descendants in our day include the well-known artists of Girringun, in coastal Cardwell.

Senior figures there, men such as Claude Beeron, can remember old, slight-boned survivors from the high country tribes. “They were from up round Ravenshoe,” says Beeron: “Yes, up past Davidson Falls, that’s where the short people came from: they had different hair, tight-curled, wiry, that’s how you could tell them.”

In 1938, anthropologists Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell came in search of the little Aborigines and found them, in appreciable numbers, at Mona Mona mission near Kuranda and at Yarrabah. They believed these people — the men were between 140cm and 150cm, the women shorter — constituted a distinct indigenous group, and gave them a name, Barrineans, for the volcanic tableland’s Lake Barrine. Hence the influential theory they put forward about Australia’s deep past: they posited that there had been three waves of occupation by three quite separate groups — the Barrineans the first of them, “Negrito” pygmoids, who reached Australia 40,000 years ago, to be followed by two later incoming waves.

This idea took hold and was something like the academic orthodoxy for much of the mid-20th century, until new researches and the rise of the pan-Aboriginal political movement thrust it aside. It suffered a final reverse last year with the release of genomic studies showing that “rainforest ecozone” people are closely related to other Australian indigenous groups.

The rainforest Aborigines themselves, though, were largely unaware of these excitements. They endured. In time their descendants came back to the high country regions that had been their ancestral home. Experts have studied them since. Their languages have been anatomised by scholar Bob Dixon; their memories have been collected by local chronicler Tim Bottoms; their art has been revived; their early lifeways surface in an unknown jewel of north Queensland literature, My Dark Brother, by Russian emigre ethnohistorian Elena Govor.

But what of the rainforest men and women themselves, and the Ngadjon, above all, the clan group from the heart of the tableland? Their best-known voice belongs to the elegant, engaging Ernie Raymont, a figure revered in Malanda, his long-time home. For years he was the cultural heritage expert at the Falls visitor centre, and before that a stockman at Mount Surprise. His was the second last family to come in from the fringe camp to Malanda after World War II.

“Our mob over here,” he says, “We’re the real rainforest people. Our old people were pretty strict, but they wouldn’t talk that much in language. Government had made a law against it. They were afraid. And so they weren’t allowed to pass their knowledge on. I knew a few of the short people, less than five foot: there was my old aunt Jessie Calico, a great storyteller, and another short old lady, Ginny Spear, who worked in the pub for years and years ’til she had to retire. Their height, maybe it was something in the genes, or the environment. Where they lived, and how: remember, it used to be important for the men to be able to climb trees, climb up them using lawyer cane. They needed to climb to where the scrub python is, up among the crows-foot ferns. He’s up there because he wants the sunlight, and our people could smell him, they’d go up and kill him with a yamstick. So you see, it was helpful, in the forests, back then, to be short.”

All’s clear? The story’s end? Almost. The Ngadjon had another story, a tale of little hairy men in the depths of the rainforest, the Gatcha, or Janjarri — and this tradition has its widespread, suggestive echoes, too, and there are images of little men in rock art all through the ridge country of the lower Cape.

Few people know those inland backblocks well these days, those far reaches where real and dream seem close, but the handful of reports of Janjarri sightings that come out tally: they are short, dark, hair-covered creatures, with a ginger tinge; they climb trees readily, they freeze when spotted. They seem to survive still in the thick cover around Yarrabah; there may be a lone family in the remote Petford ­Ranges. They fear dogs, they have a distinctive smell, a bit like that of flying foxes, they never light fires, they live on grubs and insects.

Jeff Guest, the animator of a bush rehab for young people in the Petford Hills, is a bold thinker: now in his mid-80s, married to a rainforest woman, intensely active, a pioneer in brainwave analysis, he knows that bush as well as anyone. He has been in Janjarri haunts, and found their scrub beds of mountain oatgrass, something no animal would make. “We saw one of them, about 10 years ago,” Guest says: “I’ve caught glimpses of them, I’ve had a sense of them nearby, maybe five times in three decades. That country’s so wide and empty you’d never know what’s out there now.”

The edge of Australia; the frontier of our perception. All we can be sure of, out in the old bush country, is that the best efforts of scientists and explorers serve only to classify our ignorance. There is nothing so vast as the world we do not know.

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