Black Swan Song v ‘Modern’ Certainty


Willem de Vlamingh, the Dutch commander of the three ships searching for survivors of a Dutch East Indies ship the Ridderschap van Holland, is the name associated with the European ‘discovery’ of the black swan.

In January 1697, having already been a few days on the Island they named “Rottnest” (Ratnest – after the quokkas, small marsupials Setonix brachyurus they saw there – P. Macinnis, ‘Curious Minds’ 2012:16), de Vlamingh and some of his men crossed over to the mainland. They soon came to the river they subsequently named Zwaanenriver – Swan River.

(Another source says “The de Vlamingh expedition resulted in the name ‘Swarte Swaene-Revier’(Black Swan River), named after the black swans they saw there.” Plants and People in Mooro Country:  Nyungar Plant Use in Yellagonga Regional Park )

It was here that one form of European certainty came to an end – for here they encountered a large water bird that looked like a swan but it was black.

In the European tradition not only were swans white, but it was considered a tautology (self-evident truth) to say “Swans are white”.

The encounter with this new water-bird (in what they would come to call New Holland) presents a famous and well-known dilemma for European thinking. In relation to whiteness is a defining characteristic of swans then either:

  1. despite the new black bird being like a swan in all other respects, it cannot be a swan.
  2. whiteness is not a defining characteristic of swans, and the black bird is a swan.

Today we have no difficulty in accepting that that these birds are black swans. European certainly was proven to be wrong.


Cygnus cygnusCygnus atratus

One example of First Peoples names for Black Swan from the relevant area (

Swan gooljak, kooleeja, maalee

Described scientifically by English naturalist John Latham in 1790, the black swan was formerly placed into a monotypic genus, Chenopis.” (Wikipedia- Back Swan)


From the Australian Museum website we learn


















The expression “new to science” is often heard in relation to forms of life which have been known to First Peoples for tens of thousands of years. The European Age of Reason – perhaps dazzled by the opportunities of ‘new’ lands and ‘new’ resources – was particularly blind to the important place in life for indigenous people in the “New World”.

Rather than embracing First Peoples – and their systems of naming and classification – Naturalists fashioned a ‘fetish’ object which they inserted into their newly minted ‘natural’ conception of creation, rendering it ‘fit’ for intellectual consumption.

The idea of taste (le goût) was a social indicator: to truly be able to categorize nature, one had to have the proper taste, an ability of discretion shared by all members of polite society. In this way natural history spread many of the scientific developments of the time, but also provided a new source of legitimacy for the dominant class.[185] From this basis, naturalists could then develop their own social ideals based on their scientific works”


This movement from doubt and certainty to doubt and certainty as a process in refining knowledge. See, for example, the classic ‘Doubt and Certainty in Science’ by J Z Young (

The certainly provided by the ideas of creation as contained in the Bible, for example, were already giving way in 1697. The locus of European understanding was shifting from a geocentric world as created by God to a heliocentric system. Copernicus, died 1543, and Galileo (died 1642) are two names associated with this shift.

From a world view in which the stars were fixed overhead in relation to the earth, the earth itself was seen to be on the move. Soon, new ideas about time would also replace the Biblical account of creation. The European idea of the centre of Being was on the move.

New cosmologies were now being crafted. And it is into that historical context that the cultural code of Naturalism emerges. Views of life as part of a Great Chain of Being – with a top-down form of organisation – continued to be of influence with a stress or privileging of vertical metaphors. Metaphysical or sacred aspect is removed to produce a ‘secular’ form of representation.

These new cosmologies provide a vehicle for the aspirations of a rising wealthy elite vis-à-vis a declining elite. New forms of wealth were being tapped into by European countries. The trading operations of the Dutch East India Company brought the Dutch to the West Coast of this continent. (Interestingly, Dutch anthropology in now Indonesia explored and appreciated dual organisation to a greater degree (in my opinion) than British anthropology.)

The new social landscaped contains people like Banks, Humboldt and Darwin – all wealthy people who could undertake the conceptual work of Naturalism. And then, in their train, a whole class of minor conceptual craftspeople seeking to improve their social and economic position in life.

The culturally one-sided forms of reason are typified by a particular type of abstraction; hierarchy and notions of ‘genealogy’. More on this later.


The human brain has two complementary opposite hemispheres and this provides a useful model for First Peoples systems of interpreting and ordering experience. Think Yin – Yang – but highly elaborated. Eaglehawk and Crow are two well know complementary opposite systems.

It is like a double-entry system of book-keeping – for every entry on the left side there has to be a corresponding (counterbalancing?) entry on the right side.

Modern anthropology has increasingly come to appreciate the role of complementary opposition in Australia. This is not the place to document that all that. Ken Maddock was one anthropologist who appreciated its importance.

With ‘modern’ systems of abstraction part of a whole (A) is privileged and the remainder (non-A) is, as it were, discarded. First Peoples systems take a lot more care – every mental operation (of note?) takes as much care with the positioning of the (non-A) as it does with the placement of(A). (I don’t know how to talk about A and non-A in terms which provide equal weighting to both sides.)

Added to this, the concern for balance acts to keep abstraction more closely tied to the sensory level – rather than taking off into a one-sided (unbalanced/unstable) conceptual stratosphere. Claude Levi-Strauss explored ‘sensory’ logic in his book known as “The Savage Mind” (a very poor translation from his title in French). He had also written on Dual Organisation (which he briefly reviews in his chapter19 ‘The Bipartite Ideology of ‘ the Amerindians’ in his 1991 ‘Histoire de Lynx’ (English 1995:225-242) ‘The Story of Lynx’))

Qualities may be represented by a particular bird. The Willie Wagtail, for a Western Arrernte Dreaming story example, may represent a brave and perhaps dominating quality (telling an enormous serpent what to do!). Male Willie Wagtails, I read elsewhere, raise their ‘eye-brows’ to fight! There is a whole world of abstract qualities represented in all the Dreaming narratives.

What I have yet to track down is where Swan would be placed in the dual-sided forms of knowledge (‘Moieties”) which typify First Peoples systems of interpreting and classifying their world.


From an orthodox perspective in this country, Black Swan is located in one ‘conceptual hemisphere’ and has relationships with the overall configuration formed by both hemispheres.

The late C G Von Brandenstein’s research into an ‘Aboriginal Ecological Order’ – a ‘superstructure of the highest philosophical order’ – places Black Swan, Cygnus atratus, in his CSF category for Kidja, Lungga people. Cold + Moist/Slow + Flatter? (‘Names and Substances of the Australian Subsection System’ 1982:113 and Figure 1.31 pp 24-25) (Also in the ‘Mythological’ moiety C (as opposed to W) – Cold as opposed to Warm?)

The major complementary opposite hemispheres are sometimes named as White Cockatoo – Crow (SW Australia?) and Eaglehawk and Crow in different parts of the country (SE Australia)

Another quick search, which also touches on the markings of black and white birds, Peter Hancock writes:

“In the past, the Noongar had two great family groups – the crows (Wardong) and the white cockatoos (Mandich) – and for a crow to marry a crow or a cockatoo to marry a cockatoo was regarded as incest and severely punished.”

A very brief search on Black Swan and Dreaming stories place Black Swans (initially White, like their cygnets?) on the side of the Crows and in opposition to Eaglehawk. See material from K Langloh Parker ‘Australian Legendary Tales’ – and note link from feathers to Flannel Flowers (& Sun as Woman) – at

More research needed. Check Daisy Bates materials e.g.


There is much more to be said on these themes. Briefly, it is time for a new sense of ‘taste’ – a sense which is bi-culturally balanced and which regards First Peoples methods of classifying, naming, and knowledge of ‘things’ as an essential part of what counts as adequate forms of representation. The privileging of European forms at the expense of those of First Peoples is drawing to a close.

This shift is already underway with a renewed interest, on a formal level, with ‘ontology’ – and a more down-to-earth movement in other parts of life.


  1. Locate the Swan River area on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) map of indigenous languages of
  2. Check out and note the sub-entry “Indigenous Australia’
  3. Follow the link on ‘Noongar People’ at the Wikipedia sub-entry on Indigenous Australia
  4. Check out indigenous words for Swan at Daisy Bates Online”

Further reading:

You can read some of von Brandenstein’s (difficult) book online at

And, for Kidja and Lungga language group/people see

Picture of Black swan and cygnets:


This particular realisation – the existence of black swans – has come to stand for such events where certainty is revealed to be misplaced.



Black Swan emblems and popular culture

Street names …

“The Black Swan is featured on the Western Australian flag, and is both the state bird and state emblem; it also appears in the Coat of Arms and is used in icons by some of the state’s institutions. The Noongar People of the South-West of Australia refer to the Black Swan by various local names: Kooldjak along the West and South-West coast, gooldjak in the South East and sometimes referred to as maali in language schools.”

Entry under Cygnus Parade at

“John Latham (27 June 1740 – 4 February 1837) was an English physician, naturalist and author. Latham has been called the “grandfather” of Australian ornithology. “

Integrating Ontology into Ethnobotanical Research Author(s): Lewis Daly, Katherine French, Theresa L. Miller, and Luíseach Nic Eoin Source: Journal of Ethnobiology, 36(1):1-9. Published By: Society of Ethnobiology


Ken Maddock ‘The Complexity of Dual Organization in Aboriginal Australia.’ Chapter 3 in ‘The Attraction of Opposites. Thought and Society in Dualistic Mode’ David Maybury-Lewis and Uri Almagor, Editors. 1989. Hard book to locate.

Leave a Reply