Australia is despairing this Invasion Day – fire and carbon are what we should be reflecting on

Paul Daley
Australia is despairing this Invasion Day – fire and carbon are what we should be reflecting on. We need to look way, way back and embrace the Indigenous antiquity of this land

Fire and carbon.

That’s what I’ll be reflecting on today, 26 January, Invasion Day to me and many I know, Australia Day officially.

Amid all of the inevitable non-Indigenous nationalist hyperbole that’ll be megaphoned your way, there is an alternative, quieter but insistent political, social and environmental conversation happening about bushfires and carbon mitigation and what that all means when it comes to being Australian today.

This 26 January, as the country burns, as our government becomes the ever-greater subject of international ridicule over its recalcitrance on emissions mitigation, the national mood is one of ennui and despair. There is a deep introspection about caring for country and global responsibility that will more energetically than ever defy the official celebrations on this most divisive day of national self-congratulation, imbued though they’ll be from the top with the politically convenient, she’ll-be-right distraction of Aussie stoicism.

Related: Indigenous groups tell Scott Morrison of 'deep sorrow' at bushfire devastation

Fire and carbon are, ironically perhaps, central to what I think really should be the focus of national reflection on any day of the year – the key to connecting with this continent’s heart and what we should hold dearest.

I’m talking about continental human existence and the increasing evidence that Indigenous people were in this place 120,000 years ago. That’s 55,000 years longer than the generally agreed scientific proposition of 65,000 years of Aboriginal civilisation.

Even at a mind-boggling 65,000 years, Indigenous Australians – while among the most disadvantaged people in the world – constitute the globe’s longest continuous, most enduring human civilisation. Almost doubling the longevity of that civilisation to 120,000 years has profound implications for our understanding of humankind, and the date at which modern humans trekked this way out of Africa.

Finding consensus among archaeologists, geologists and physical anthropologists – those with a practical interest in solving what is now one of humankind’s greatest questions – is not easy. It may yet be hundreds of years before they uniformly accept the proposition, already supported by geological evidence, of human activity on this continent 120,000 years ago.

Geologist Jim Bowler turns 90 this year. He’s pretty sure he probably won’t be around when the conclusive archaeological evidence – human and/or faunal, remains or a stone tool in the right place – proves what he already knows: there was human activity, namely seafood feasting by fires, on the coast outside Warrnambool, Victoria, 120,000 years ago.

To talk with Bowler about this continent’s Indigenous people and their links to the cosmos, the animated landscape of Aboriginal spirituality and its fusion with Islamic and Christian understandings, is to truly alter one’s way of considering life, the world and the universe.

He’s been regarded as something of an iconoclast. But there’s nothing quite like an iconoclast vindicated. As a much younger field geologist, Bowler asserted his belief in an ancient human presence in the Lake Mungo area of the Willandra Lakes district of New South Wales. His scientific colleagues rejected his assertion. Then in 1969 and 1974 he discovered the bones of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, still the oldest homo-sapien (modern human) remains unearthed in Australia, later dated to at least 42,000 years.

Fast forward to the new century. Bowler was among a small group of eminent academics that spent 11 years researching at Moyjil, near Warrnambool, south-east Victoria. The research was supported by traditional owner groups of the Gunditjmara nation – the Eastern Maar, the Kuyang Maar and the Gunditj Mirring.

The field work centred on a series of blackened pebbles, carbon-marked fire pits at various depths and a number of associated shellfish midden. Fire and carbon.

Last March I reported on the findings the researchers presented to the Royal Society of Victoria: an implied 120,000-year potential human presence in the south of the continent.

But scholars of various disciplines have interpreted the findings with differing levels of conviction and scepticism.

Bowler, perhaps with an eye to posterity and very much wanting his own convictions on record, wrote to me ahead of 26 January pointing out a long academic article he’d just published to reiterate his conviction that his research at Moyjil has convinced him of a 120,000-year human continental habitation.

“With the approach of yet another ‘Australia Day’, any failure to acknowledge at least the very high level of 120,000-year occupation will come back to bite us,” he wrote.

It is time, he says, for Australia to embrace as central to its identity an enduring Indigenous presence stretching beyond the limits of our understanding of time.

“In my life’s work ... one elemental mystery has long remained – the arrival of people and earliest moment of human impact,” he wrote. “Now in my 90s, this closing stage of the 13.8 billion-year geological drama resonates with the closing stage of my own life. It is part of my own connection to this land.

“The impact of people, now so drastically amplified [through] recent bushfires, began on that moment of arrival [evidenced by the fires at Moyjil] ... dramatic disasters of the bushfires remind us of elemental realities when the world of nature interacts with and is forever changed by the arrival of people.

Related: 'A big jump': People might have lived in Australia twice as long as we thought | Paul Daley

“The evidence from Moyjil near Warrnambool provides an important new chapter in that story. Australia’s land-people history has relevance and implications on a cosmic scale.”

As a story of human endurance against the odds – in the face of post-1788 massacres, the introduction of European disease, the attempted genocide, assimilationist policies, the removal of children, stifling economic and physical disadvantage – it is unparalleled.

We need to look beyond the tall ships of 1788 and Arthur Phillip, beyond the voyage of “discovery” of James Cook and the Endeavour.

We need to look way, way back and embrace the Indigenous antiquity of this land, the thing that makes it so special, the thing that makes those of us who arrived so much later so privileged to be a part of it.

We need to think about that this 26 January as we yearn for leadership that will care properly for this continent that stages such enduring civilisation, and the world it fits into.

Fire and carbon.

• Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist