By Margo Neale and Lynne KellyNon-fictionThames & Hudson Australia

Songlines: The Power and Promise

Songlines are an archive for powerful knowledges that ensured Australia’s many Indigenous cultures flourished for over 60,000 years. Much more than a navigational path in the cartographic sense, these vast and robust stores of information are encoded through song, story, dance, art and ceremony, rather than simply recorded in writing.

Weaving deeply personal storytelling with extensive research on mnemonics, Songlines: The Power and Promise offers unique insights into Indigenous traditional knowledges, how they apply today and how they could help all peoples thrive into the future. This book invites readers to understand a remarkable way for storing knowledge in memory by adapting song, art, and most importantly, Country, into their lives.

Portrait of Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly

Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly

Margo Neale is the head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges, senior Indigenous curator and principal adviser to the director at the National Museum of Australia. She is also an adjunct professor at the Australian National University and has published widely, including the Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, and curated groundbreaking award-winning national and international exhibitions.

Lynne Kelly is a science writer working as an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. Her field of research is the memory methods used by oral cultures who depended on their memories for everything they knew, including Australian Aboriginal, Native American, Pacific and African cultures. She is also author of many books including The Memory Code and Memory Craft.

Judges’ report

Songlines is an exhilarating invitation to marvel at and learn from the sophisticated knowledge systems of Indigenous Australia. The first in a ground-breaking new series on ‘First Knowledges’, the book explains how First Nations peoples use songlines embodied in Country to store and learn knowledge. Over millennia, songlines acted as a living library or archive that held the wisdom that enabled Indigenous people to survive and thrive across Australia. 

In an impressive feat of communication, Songlines offers an engaging introduction to this Indigenous epistemology. Co-written by Margo Neale, Head of the National Museum of Australia’s Indigenous Knowledges Centre, and white memory scholar Lynne Kelly, the book is a cross-cultural conversation that opens up new space for dialogue and understanding. Together, the pair unpack abstract ideas about knowledge and memory, combining science with storytelling. Neale posits the idea of the ‘third archive’, a hybrid space in which Western technologies are used to preserve Indigenous knowledges. Kelly also explains the neuroscience behind songlines and documents how Indigenous cultures worldwide have employed similar mnemonic tools. 

Most of all, Songlines is a testament to the complexity, resilience and adaptability of First Nations cultures. It reminds readers that Indigenous peoples are and have long been scholars and intellectuals, a status historically denied to them by the depredations of colonial Australia. Indigenous expertise about Country is, Neale and Kelly demonstrate, a living knowledge with direct relevance to our shared present and future. As settler Australia confronts the damage it has wrought within a mere 250 years, we would do well to listen and learn from the knowledges that came before. Justice and healing will take different ways of knowing. Songlines is an important step in that direction.  



Margo Neale

Songlines, a term coined and popularised by English writer Bruce Chatwin in 1987, refers to a knowledge system – a way of retaining and transmitting knowledge – that is archived or held in the land. They can be visualised as corridors or pathways of knowledge, like Dreaming tracks. The Songlines or Dreaming tracks are often associated with animals (such as a native cat or dingo), natural elements (such as Water Dreaming) or contemporary events (such as the Darwin cyclone of 1974 – the Dreaming provided an explanation for this phenomenon and ceremonies were created). They are also associated with major ancestral beings, such as those embodied in the Seven Sisters Songlines. Some Songlines are confined to small local areas, like Yam Dreaming or Bandicoot Dreaming, and others, like the Seven Sisters Songlines and Marlu the kangaroo, travel the entire continent.

As a set of complex arterial connections, the Songlines comprise an organic network of lines crisscrossing the continent along distributed nodes of concentrated knowledge, often referred to as sites of significance or story places. Like libraries, these sites contain stories in which knowledge is embedded. Some of the stories are open to all, but many are not; rather, there are many layers of the same story, each with varying levels of access. Stories are called ‘open’ or ‘closed’. For example, the Seven Sisters Songline story in the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition is an open story, which the custodians call the schoolkids’ version. Beyond this version, the deeper layers of a closed story will only ever be known by a select few. At one level, access to knowledge is age-graded – similar in some ways to the system we progress through at school and university in the Western education system. Further access to deeper knowledge is not democratic but gendered, age-graded and continually negotiated.

A person’s bona fides as an archivist are strictly based on family lineage, where the traditional owner, with custodial responsibilities to a place or site, becomes simultaneously carer or keeper, archivist, reader and contributor. While Western archivists also have to go through training, they need not have a familial relationship to an archive. In the Indigenous system, not all people can know all knowledge, and because it is a non-text-based system, you can only be told by the right people, at the right time, in the right place. Because you gain access through family lineage, it inherently becomes a subjective system and the custodians of the knowledge have a strong responsibility to keep it alive. 

In the Aboriginal archive at given sites, landforms tell the history of their making. A landslide of red rocks may tell of a bloody ancestral battle; the fissure in a rock face may be associated with the Seven Sisters and their journey to escape a lustful pursuer; and a monolithic rock at a cave opening may indicate the presence of the creator ancestor who made the cave. In this respect, landforms are a type of writing, like ancestral scripts. They serve as a mnemonic rearticulated in ‘open’ or popular songs, dance and paintings. These sites are terminals to which only a few archivists have the password. The password gives them access to deeper, more secret or sacred histories, the story behind the story, which is often told in a language considered to be ancient and not accessible to others. These stories, whether they be open or closed, are portable versions of the master archive embedded in Country, over which we travel.



Lynne Kelly

All knowledge, no matter where you store it, is based on memory. It is as if Aboriginal cultures read modern neuroscience and created a knowledge system to match. In truth, the system evolved over thousands of years, constantly being tested and perfected with use. Songlines optimise the way human memory works.

The main area of the brain for learning and for converting short-term to long-term memory is the hippocampus. You physically change your brain with everything you learn. This ability of the brain to change is known as plasticity. It used to be thought that the brain was hardwired from a young age, but recent research has shown that plasticity lasts throughout life. It is a matter of exercising your brain the same way you exercise all your other muscles. Every time you learn something, new physical neural pathways are established in your brain – the memory is actually physically laid down. If you don’t reinforce it fairly quickly, then you will lose access to that memory even if it is still hanging around somewhere. If you reinforce it and make sure you have a way of calling it back, it will be yours forever.

This is where all the features of Songlines come into play. The brain is particularly good at associating memories with music, dance and art, and it is spectacularly good at associating memory with places. And it needs novelty: your brain simply doesn’t remember things that are abstract or dull. Exploring the cognitive elements that are active when Indigenous people engage with their Songlines is very revealing. Each element of the performance of the Songlines can be linked to specific valuable neurological processes. In combination, these elements form a powerful knowledge system applicable to any human brain. 

The vital element is the way in which Songlines call up Country. A Songline presents a structure for knowledge that is literally grounded in the landscape. When an Aboriginal person is engaged with a Songline, they are mentally in the physical space where the actions of the ancestors occurred. 

Memories are stored in the brain in a kind of spatial map. The hippocampus gets particularly active when learning spatial knowledge, so any knowledge encoded by using physical locations will be remembered far more easily than information that has no physical grounding. Memories that piggyback on the hippocampus’s ability to remember space can become very strong: any events we associate with specific locations at a given time can gain this potency.

Familiar environments are recorded in our brains as actual physical pathways made of neurons. Anyone who knows their home, school, workplace or neighbourhood already has a landscape that they can use to start taking advantage of this natural ability. The more you engage with your personal landscape, the more familiar it becomes and the more robustly it is represented in the physical structures of your brain.

Neurons in the hippocampus will associate abstract knowledge, not just experiences, with any place where that knowledge is talked about at the same time as the place is evoked. This is what neuroscientists call a ‘temporal snapshot’. So being at a particular location, or imagining yourself there, at the same time as you learn something new enables extremely robust memory by associating events with the familiar locations in the landscape. 

Indigenous people’s use of the landscape is enhanced by the fact that a sequenced story emerges as you move through the spaces, and the story is further enhanced by the use of song and movements, including dance. This vivid knowledge space is then reproduced in art and repeated through ceremony. As every performance is slightly different, the brain is constantly exposed to novelty. There is emotional investment in the performance, but also times when singing the names evokes imagination to revisit the story.

Upon this firm foundation, senior members of the community provide commentary, not only to teach but also to use restricted knowledge to maintain accuracy. By keeping  knowledge secret from those not yet ready to receive and protect it, they can ensure that every repetition of the story is accurate. That can’t be done in a free-for-all chat. This  foundation is used as a base on which to layer ever more complex knowledge of the Songline.

The fact that Aboriginal people know their Country intimately has granted them an invaluable tool for long-term memory to learn new knowledge. It is no surprise that Indigenous cultures all over the world independently created knowledge systems based on events associated with their physical landscape.

When a long time has elapsed since you last studied particular information, it is likely you will forget what you have learnt. The research also shows that if your brain is given some kind of cue, it will often recall information you think you have forgotten. Old memories can be retrieved. By associating knowledge with locations in Country, Aboriginal people have those cues permanently in place. The more distinctive a cue, the more likely it is to work. The way in which Songlines are mapped onto a sequence of distinctive locations, each separated from the other, is the optimum set of cues.

This is an edited extract from Songlines: The Power and Promise by Margo Neale & Lynne Kelly, published by Thames & Hudson Australia.

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