Yarning and Peer Review - The world's first research methodologies

10 October 2016

It is the kind of dream that you know is not really a dream. So real. So visceral. There is no dulling of the senses or confusion of consciousness. More real than reality. I am walking up to a fire with a coolamon (bowl) in my hands. It is a balmy day. The air is hazy with smoke. The Ancestors are sitting around waiting for me when someone, but no one, says: "You can't fill your coolamon as soon as you get here". So, I take a seat at the fire and the dream ends. But my Dreaming has just begun.

The timeless Dreaming. Anthropologist WEH Stanner described the Dreaming as "everywhen". It has no beginning and most certainly no end, for the Dreaming still goes on. For my D'harawal father, the Dreaming is what some may call the astral plane. For me, the Dreaming sometimes arrives to me in the form of an actual dream.

So my dream from the Ancestors came at a time when I was very keen to gather more knowledge from my family; to find out more about who we are and to hopefully, one day, expand the areas in which I share our family's knowledges. I was now approaching the Ancestors in the form of my Elders - my aunts and uncles as well as cousins and friends who could help me.

Now, to really gain an idea of the richness, the interconnectedness and the complexities of Ancestral information and Indigenous human experience, one must sit at the fire. Have a chat. Converse. Pull up a pew. Chew the fat. One must... yarn.

Yarning - the kind of commitment to learning that would make a time-poor research assistant shudder, but revealing the depth of information that could put a billion dollar government census (failed or otherwise) to shame. Trying to garner the kind of information that is patiently revealed to a D'harawal Knowledge Keeper throughout a lifetime of Yarning is not for the faint hearted but some of it has been crystalised in the form of 'structured' yarns or Dreaming stories.

Dreaming stories can reveal key information about everything from life, law and lore to resources, ceremonies and science with startling accuracy. So accurate in fact, that modern science has been left reeling. Nicholas Reid (University of New England) and Patrick Nun (University of the Sunshine Coast) have presented a preliminary draft of their studies matching Dreaming stories from around Australia with the land and how it has changed. Some Dreaming stories speak of land formations that have been submerged for the past ten thousand years. D'harawal stories mention valleys that are now rivers due to a sea level rise that occurred over six thousand years ago. This information is staggering!

So, what is the key to Dreaming stories containing accurate information that has been dated up to ten thousand years old? One of the basic principles of Yarning and storytelling is that our stories are being told amongst many members of family and across many generations - undoubtedly the world's first peer reviews.

To go some way to explaining this level of peer review in a contemporary context, imagine you're sitting around the table at a family lunch and you start to tell a story from your childhood. You'd like to use some creative licence, exaggerate here, embellish there (it works to entertain everyone down at the local, right?). Unfortunately though, you know there's a sibling or two and some cousins who will pull you up on the details, not to mention the parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles who will remind you of the facts of the stories and your (more than likely) embarrassing part in them. This is peer review at its most basic but most effective. It is the underpinning principle behind the accuracy of oral storytelling in Indigenous families. Stories are told to numerous family members over several generations so it is many people who are remembering a story, who can correct the details if needed, who are hearing it repeatedly throughout a lifetime.

For as long as I can remember, the Dreaming has been described by outsiders as primitive, naïve, simplistic and unsophisticated, with no mention or understanding of the systemic ambiguity and carefully revealed layers of knowledge, let alone its mind-blowing accuracy. The Dreaming is widely seen as mythology - false beliefs and ideas (albeit widely held). So where does that leave our Dreaming and Yarning that is being proven to be accurately recounted for over ten thousand years? Firmly in the realms of science, I would say.