Singing the Land, Signing the Land

In many cultures outside Australia the crocodile has been understood as a sacred animal, having extremely diverse spiritual, and sometimes kinship, associations with humankind. This impressive remnant from the age of reptiles has been religiously venerated along such great rivers as the Congo, the Nile, the Indus, the Ganges and the Sepik. The oldest historical records of the crocodile are probably Egyptian: the Greek historian Herodotus describes a visit (in the 5th century Bc) to Crocodilopolis on the Nile, where crocodile worship had already flourished for two thousand years. Topsell (above) notes the crocodile's relation to the mythology of the Bible.

Crocodile and fish


Crocodile and fish; moiety - Yirritja; clan - Gummj; painter - Ŋalawurr Munuŋgurr, 1989
ochre on bark, 60x33 cm.

The fish inside the crocodile illustrate the way these particular fish live in close association with crocodiles. Whenever Yolngu people see these fish they know a crocodile is nearby.

On this and the previous page are printed four texts, exceedingly abbreviated and arbitrarily chosen from European accounts of the crocodile over a period of two thousand years. Within the original texts from which these extracts derive, we find several of the central strands that characterise writing about nature in the European tradition. First of all, notice that Lang's recent article in Science tells us little of substance that was not known to the other writers. For instance, Pliny clearly describes the day-night cycle, while Topsell even gives a plausible explanation for this phenomenon. Notice, though, what is different about Lang's account; he quantifies his observations, attaching numbers to his descriptions; he isolates the animal from its natural context, insofar as possible controlling or manipulating environmental conditions; he eliminates myth and emotive or romantic language, making great use of jargon and technical terms; and he focuses his interest almost entirely on one narrow aspect of crocodile behaviour. In short, his text is eminently 'scientific'.

Secondly, consider the role of authority and credibility in the four accounts. Pliny, Topsell (who is mainly a translator of earlier accounts) and Bartram tell much of what is known about the crocodile. Why, then, are we inclined to believe the Lang text and to discount the earlier texts as colourful but relatively unreliable? Lang's use of number and apparently objective language greatly contribute to his text's credibility for the modern reader, who cannot after all check the figures' accuracy but who is inclined to take assurance from Lang's absorption with precision. Notice how even the Bartram text gains plausibility as soon as measurement rather than subjective impression predominates.

Pliny and Topsell both gained credence in their own day by their direct and stated reliance on earlier authorities of great repute (like Aristotle). Though considered entirely appropriate to differ with the earlier authors, it was essential to situate one's comments in relation to them. In Lang's case the reliance on earlier authority is largely implicit in his language and methodology. Indeed, his work is utterly embedded in the scientific literature, only a tiny fraction of which could be listed in his bibliography. Bartram, while also writing in a well-known tradition, takes his authority principally from the fresh, explicit and concrete 'eyewitness' quality he presents. Even what at first seems a fanciful account of a fire-breathing dragon may be one of the most effective verbal descriptions of the crocodile ever written. Imagine yourself in a swampy jungle in the near presence of these huge creatures, whose moist breath turns to vapour in the cool night air and whose huge tail, striking the earth, sets up vibrations in the very soil.

The inscriptions of the Lang text also gain greatly in credibility from the social practices through which they were produced and by means of which they are communicated. Lang is only one of many university workers, trained in particular skills and working to particular paradigms, who have devised such experimental apparatus and procedures. The work was funded, housed, refereed and published by certain reputable institutions that constitute a concrete social system for the validation of scientific ideas. Had Lang's work not been completely situated in this social network, his scientific credibility would be almost non-existent. Consider the case of the absurdly anomalous duckbilled platypus. Its 'discovery' was constituted not by the extensive Aboriginal knowledge of the creature, not even by reports from European scientists based in Australia, but only by similar reports from scientists based in Europe-the institutional 'centre' of science.

What science gains and loses by this highly refined system of social practice is a question well worth pursuing, but the point of the present discussion is to demonstrate that Aboriginal knowledge of the crocodile, no matter how valid and extensive, can never be considered authoritative by European science unless and until it is socially 'translated' and cleansed of 'error and irrelevance' by being positioned, through the agency of scientific practitioners, within the scientific framework.

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