Dingo Dreaming

aurukun camp dog at GOMA

When my father was a young boy, he spent a lot of time on his uncle’s farm, where he had a pet dingo.  One day, he was walking in town with his pet beside him when someone shot it dead.  It still upset him when he told me the story 30 or 40 years later.  Dad was born in 1921, so this must have been about 1930, around the same time that the Queensland Government declared open season on koalas.

There was no comeback.  Anyone could shoot a dingo – even in the main street of Caboolture.  Dingoes were vermin.

Last week, the fourth coronial inquiry into the death of Azaria Chamberlain decided that – just as Lindy Chamberlain claimed 32 years ago – a dingo did, after all, take her baby.

There has been some soul-searching, and some apologies by individuals who were swept up in the hysteria of the time.  One such apology came from Tim Flannery, biologist and public figure, and recently Australian of the Year.  In the Sydney Morning Herald, Flannery wrote that he ‘accepted Lindy Chamberlain’s guilt uncritically’.

It’s hard to think ourselves back into the mindset of another time, hard to explain why we seized on the unlikely, rather than the likely, explanation.  One concern for Flannery – and I suspect for many – was fear that dingoes might ‘face widespread persecution’ if one was found responsible.  For European settlers have nearly always treated dingoes as vermin, to be poisoned or shot if they threaten our stock – or our children.

Yet dingoes are not really wild animals.  The first dingoes appeared in Australia only about 4000 years ago.  By then, Australia was already an island continent, so dingoes almost certainly arrived by boat.  (Until last year, I would have left out the ‘almost’ – but after the Japanese tsunami in 2011, a pet dog was found drifting on wreckage in the sea – alive – 3 weeks later.  So you never know, but if the dingo arrived by tsunami, she was pregnant.)

Wolves were first domesticated at least 15,000 years ago, so by the time dingoes arrived here in Australia, they were already far removed from their original wolfish ancestry.  They resemble other dogs from Southeast Asia, and because they came in very small numbers, they have very little genetic variability.

Dingoes never made it to Tasmania, which was cut off by sea some 10,000 years ago, so carnivorous marsupials, the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and Tasmanian devil, both survived there, whereas competition with dingoes saw them both wiped out on the mainland.

Aboriginal people adopted dingoes as pets – or perhaps it was the other way around.  Dogs and humans co-evolved everywhere except in Australia, where Aborigines had a head start on dingoes by forty or fifty thousand years.  Dingoes and Aborigines were both hunters, but independently.  They don’t seem to have cooperated, as hunting dogs do elsewhere, perhaps because of the nature of the prey available – although it’s true that the Aboriginal suite of hunting tools changes about the same time, so perhaps there’s more yet to be learned.

Instead, dogs and humans befriended each other.  Dingoes became camp dogs, eating scraps, living and sleeping together in close quarters.  (A two-dog night is a cold night; a three-dog night is colder.)  Dingoes also became important in the Aboriginal Dreaming.

When settlers arrived in Tasmania in the early 19th century, they brought with them hunting dogs known as ‘kangaroo dogs’. Kangaroos became an important source of meat for the early Van Diemen’s Land settlement – and shooting them devastated the food supply of the Tasmanian Aborigines.  Within a few years, the Tasmanians turned to hunting sheep, the settlers returned fire, and the conflict spiralled into genocidal slaughter.

Yet there seems to be a dog-sized hole in the human heart – or vice versa.  Although Tasmanians had no experience of dogs, within a few years, they were adopting these kangaroo dogs, presumably as pets.  They are present in Benjamin Duterrau’s important painting, The Conciliation.

The Conciliation, George Augustus Robinson

Benjamin Duterrau, The Conciliation (1840) – an idealised image of the work of George Augustus Robinson, ‘Protector of Aborigines’

There are few purebred dingoes left, since they breed readily with other dogs.  Some people believe that the dingoes of Fraser Island, off the Queensland coast, are the most genetically pure.  Fraser Island had an Aboriginal population long before the arrival of Europeans.  It was then harvested for its timber [see Teredo post] until recently.  Both Aborigines and timber-getters kept dingoes as pets.

Now it is a tourist destination.  When I visited Fraser for a holiday, the guide told us: ‘Don’t feed the dingoes.  They are dangerous – and that one’s name is Sally.’

The dingoes of Fraser Island have always seemed to me to behave like dogs that have lost their masters – and the residents treat them as such, despite the warnings.  And they are hungry now.  A major part of their diet was the shellfish – pipi or eugarie – buried in the sand, but 4-wheel drives [SUVs] along the beaches have destroyed most of the shellfish.  Now they hang around barbeque areas and camping grounds – just as they did near Uluru, back in 1980.

PS. For those of you who live near Brisbane – I can really recommend a current collection of Camp Dogs of Aurukun on display at the Gallery of Modern Art.  The photo above comes from the exhibition.

This time last year:
Abattoir Fever, 15 June 2011
Rules of Engagement, 19 June 2011
Samoa’s great leap forward, 21 June 2011

19 responses to “Dingo Dreaming

  1. Just an update for you Marion, dingoes arrived in Aust about 18,300 years ago, originally from China, according to latest findings.
    Hooroo Simon

    • Thanks for the link, Simon. It’s an interesting study, and certainly helps to track where the dingo probably came from. But from my reading of it (and I don’t pretend to be a scientist) what it is saying is roughly summed up as:
      “The earliest archaeological evidence for dingoes in Australia has been dated to 3500 years BP [1,2], but, based on the mtDNA data, we estimate the time of arrival of dingoes to 4600–18 300 years BP.”

      In other words, the mitochondrial DNA evidence pushes the arrival back. And as the first fossils were found on the Nullabor, the dingoes had already travelled a long way south, which could take a few thousand years. But ‘18,300 years ago’ is the very earliest date within a range of 4600-18,300 BP, which is a very wide variation.

      The authors’ main interest seems to be whether the dingoes came as part of a Neolithic distribution of people – the Lapita people – into the Pacific and New Guinea.

      I’d be very interested to hear other readers thoughts on Simon’s reference. And thank you, Royal Society, for putting your stuff on open access!

      • Gidday Marion, I have read many other papers where it states a dingo skeleton was discovered in a cave on the Nullabor and another one near Eden on the East Coast etc, but basically none of us were there at the arrival time ?? was it a pregnant dingo? why not many over the years?
        will we know all the answers, probably not. I have lived with dingoes for the past 17 years, bred them in Vic and now here in Qld have the only private dingo sanctuary. Have some wild ones and domestic ones, they are all different in looks and behaviour and have wonderful cheeky personalities. Discovery Channel sent a film crew out here last year. The story is about Fraser Island dingoes and mine and is supposed to go to air this month, but since I don’t have Pay TV I am not sure when it will be televised.



        ps, oh, and I knew one of the writers of that paper, Alan Wilton, a great bloke , but suddenly died last year with cancer.

  2. Hi Simon,
    There could have been many arrivals over the years – but there would need to have been at least one occasion when a male and a female arrived at the same time and place!
    Good luck with the TV program – I don’t have pay TV either, but I’ll look out for it. Cheers, Marion

  3. Mary-Ann Turnbull

    When a kangaroo jumped theatrically into our dam in order to entice the dog to follow and to drown him, I thought it may have been from some ancient memory of Thylacines. But perhaps not if dingoes have been here much longer than previously thought. I have read that Thylacines may still have been on the mainland when the First Fleet arrived.

    • Thanks, Mary-Ann, I’ve never heard of thylacines on the mainland post 1788. I’ll look out for references, but you’d think there would be some Aboriginal references, if true.

  4. Mary-Ann Turnbull

    Yes, I thought it seemed unlikely. Wish I could remember where I read that.

  5. dennis murray

    but now we have Aboriginal cave art over 25.000 years old with drawings of Dingos in it, so how long have Dingos been here it now seems over 25.000 years

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  7. In regards to claims about older fossils than 3500 years, yes there have been dingo fossils found at ANU’s south coast campus dated to 6000 years. However, there is only a mention in the history of the campus papers and it is unknown as to the methods and scrutiny of the dating. This is not to say it is not accurate, just that without having full details it cannot be cited as anything other than “reports of a 6000 year old fossil”.
    There are also fossils in SA that have been found which were dated to 12800 years from memory. However, there was possible geological contamination (hairline cracks in the sedimentary layers above the fossil). This means the carbon dating may have been influenced by other factors. Again, that doesn’t mean the fossil isn’t 12800 years old, just that we can’t be 100% certain. Thus the correct statement, as now used by the Australian Museum, is the earliest “undisputed” fossil is 3500 years old.
    However, we need to always remember a fundamental rule of science – absence of proof is not proof of absence. It is also extremely hard to get fossilised.

    The rock art mentioned above dated at 28,000 years does exist, and it does depict dingoes. However, the actual dingoes themselves have not yet been dated – only the surrounding areas. So at this stage in time, it is inconclusive (circumstantial) evidence.

  8. Just wanted to add, based on the extended range of 4600-18300 years ago, there were natural land bridges to Asia at some point during those years. Sea levels were much lower due to it being the last ice age. Dr Wilton who took part in the mtDNA research is quoted by Australian Geographic as stating his opinion is that dingoes most likely walked down naturally across those land bridges.

    Of course there is no scientific evidence of this, but likewise, there is no scientific evidence of the dingo being introduced by “seafarers”. Another possibility is that both occurred – dingoes walked down naturally (or drifted in naturally from a Tsunami/storm) and were also introduced/traded. We will never know. Not that it really matters, they were well established and living in harmony with the eco-system when eurpoeans arrived.

  9. Savethedingo – I presume that request was aimed at Craig, not me – but if me, then yes, of course, just include the link back. Cheers – Marion

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