UFOs versus the Rainbow Serpents
One of the advantages of tripping to other libraries is that you get to browse journals you’d otherwise miss. One example is the Journal of the Royal Institute for Anthropology, which I wouldn’t see at Leicester. That is a pity because I’m missing some stuff like Close encounters: UFO beliefs in a remote Australian Aboriginal community by Eirik Saethre.
The community Saethre looked at is well qualified for the term ‘remote’. He was conducting research with the Warlpiri, an aboriginal people who live around 300 miles or 500 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs in the Tanami Desert. The community he was in was created specifically to provide work for Aboriginals far from Alice Springs. However there is little work there to do, which leads to high unemployment and plenty of time for watching television like the X-Files. At night in this community it’s not uncommon to see UFOs. Saethre reports that he and other kardiya, non-aboriginals, were warned not to drive on their own at night or else they were risking alien abduction.
Saethre says he never saw anything he would regard as a UFO, but most of the people in the settlement were quite adamant about their existence. The age range of people seeing UFOs was from 12 to 51 and they were seen by men and women. Not only that, but only around half the claimed sightings were by sole witnesses. The UFOs were a localised phenomenon. Saethre visited other Warlpiri communities, but if peoples in these settlements mentioned UFOs, it was only in relation to Saethre’s home. The UFOs were also said to be specific in their targets. Kardiya could be abducted, but not Warlpiri people. The inhabitants in the UFOs recognised that the aboriginal peoples were where they belonged.
As for the people in the UFOs, the Warlpiri had some details. They were extra-terrestrial, travelling great distances. The X-Files had more or less got it right (Saethre 2007:909). It would be nice to neatly solve the mystery by tying the arrival of one with the other, but Saethre couldn’t get an accurate sense of time for when the UFOs first appeared. Odder was that they didn’t seem to have much effect on the lives of Aborginals. They were certainly scary to some witnesses, and most people would rather not see one but they didn’t seem to do a lot else. They didn’t bestow prestige or stigma. They didn’t steal or bestow wealth. The only way they really made much difference is that they were thought to take water from waterholes.
If all I told you about were the UFO encounters in isolation, then this would all seem to be mundane battiness. Immensely intelligent and powerful aliens travel the unimaginable distances of the universe -and when they choose to refuel with water the place they stop is the middle of the Australian Desert? As it happens the Tanami desert has regular floods, but even so there are better places on the planet to go for water. What makes the idea of water-powered UFOs remotely beliievable? This is the clever bit of the paper because Saethre intertwines the UFOs with the local Aboriginal cosmology.
It’s not just UFOs which take water. The warnayarra, the rainbow serpents which the Aboriginals believe in, are also capable of taking water down into the earth with them. You could argue that this too is batty, but this would be more obviously missing the point. The reason for the warnayarra is to explain a variety of natural causes and effects. Their existence in Australia isn’t explained by biology, it’s explained by culture. Looking more closely at the warnayarra reveals some interesting similarities with UFOs. Warnayarra can abduct Aboriginals, especially Aboriginal people who are outside their own territory. The warnayarra recognise local peoples as belonging to the land, but a man outside his territory can be in danger if he hasn’t been formally introduced to the local warnayarra by someone who belongs.
Saethre is able to draw up a series of comparisons between rainbow serpents and UFOs. In some ways they are thought of as quite similar. Neither is cursed for taking resources, they’re accepted as a fact of life. They both are tied to ideas of belonging to the land. In other ways they’re mirror images. Saethre notes that warnayarra take water down, while UFOs take it up. They are dangerous to different targets. They also seem to occupy different conceptual spaces. Despite operating in the same landscape, they don’t interact. UFOs seem to occupy an ambiguous social space. They’re considered as part of the landscape as other traditional Aboriginal beings but not fully integrated with aboriginal cosmology. Nor are they a cosmology bolted-on to the culture for assimilating Kardiya into aboriginal cosmology. Saethre observed aboriginal peoples talking about natural events and attributing their actions to aliens as other aboriginal peoples would to ancestor spirits.
Saethre’s conclusions are that declaring native and western beliefs as ‘incommensurable’ doesn’t work. Instead he argues that the UFO tales show that the local people are taking western concepts and re-casting them into aboriginal cosmology. Rather than simply being wacky, Saethre states that indigenous UFO beliefs offer a way of observing the interaction and acculturation which occurs between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
It’s an important point to bear in mind. Archaeologists routinely use ethnographies as the basis for analogies to explain archaeological deposits. It’s important to remember that peoples living now are not straightforward proxies for those living in the past. One easily recognised way is that hunter-gatherers today have been pushed out to harsher environments as modern society expands. In the Mesolithic and earlier hunter-gatherers would have had access to the most bountiful landscapes. At the same time we cannot think of hunter-gatherers of any period as living in an interchangeable timelessness. Saethre’s UFO study is a particularly effective demonstration that indigenous peoples today live in the 21st century just like everyone else.
Saethre, E. (2007). Close encounters: UFO beliefs in a remote Australian Aboriginal community. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13(4), 901-915. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9655.2007.00463.x