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The myth of the world's oldest culture


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The extinction of the Megafauna

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Wrestling and reconciliation

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Russel Drysdale The Ruins

Why didn't Aborigines build cities?

"Native Australia had no farmers or herders, no writing, no metal tools, and no political organization beyond the level of the tribe or band. Those, of course, are the reasons why European guns and germs destroyed Aboriginal Australian society. But why had all Native Australians remained hunter/gatherers? "-Jared Diamond

In 2014, Bruce Pascoe released the hugely popular book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident, in which he used settler accounts to overturn conventional viewpoints that described pre-colonial Aborigines as hunter gatherers rather than farmers who made permanent dwellings. The popularity of Pasco’s book revealed two significant flaws in the way Australian history has often been considered. The first was an over-reliance on writing records which could be selectively cherry picked to support a narrative that was not supported by evidence in wider culture or even scientific possibility. The second was a reliance upon a "moral" argument to persuade readers to overlook flaws in the inquiry method. Not only was Pascoe's moral argument problematic because it encouraged readers to accept the implausible, but it was also problematic because the morality itself was in fact a form of prejudice in denial.

The problem of cherry picking written records was exposed in 2019 when anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe re-visited Pascoe's evidence. there they found it was:

‘littered with unsourced material, is poorly researched, distorts and exaggerates many points, selectively emphasises evidence to suit those opinions, and ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions."

As one example of their de-bunking, Walshe and Sutton showed how Pascoe has used accounts of a settler named Granville Stapylton who had met the Wathaurong people and saw buildings that “were of very large dimensions, one capable of containing at least 40 persons and of very superior construction”. Although Pascoe relied on Stapyton for evidence of a large building, he omitted Stapyton’s interpretation that the structures were likely made by escaped Convicts that had joined the tribes. Likewise, Pascoe quoted a settler Alice Ducan-Kemp who remembered Aboriginal women sprinkling seed on the ground. Pascoe stated that the seed spreading was evidence that Aborigines were planting crops. He omitted Duncn-Kemp saying the seed was spread as part of a ceremony to make it rain. Admittedly, the settlers may have been wrong in their interpretations; however, since their accounts were first hand and made after encounters with Aboriginal people, their accounts should have carried more weight than someone like Pascoe who who needed to rely on writings alone centuries later.

Aside from being flawed because it relied on a selective interpretation of written records, Pascoe's interpretation was flawed because there was a lack of evidence of farming in Aboriginal culture. Specifically, all over the world, the transition to agricultural societies from hunter gathering societies was associated with a change in social organisation. Elders and aunties give way to chiefs and monarchs (usually male) that conglomerated small tribal groups into larger groups. The re-organisation of society from egalitarian structures to hierarchical structures in turn led to the creation of individually owned ornaments and jewellery to express status. Furthermore, it led to the creation of elaborate burial mounds that allowed the higher status to take their possessions to the afterlife and would be leaders to use an association with the deceased to legitimise their own rule. Evidence of such hierarchies in Aboriginal culture is almost non-existent.

Science also presented an inconvenient truth for Pascoe in that Australia, prior to 1788, lacked plants and animals that were suitable for agriculture. Specifically, in North and South America, civilisations were built around corn. In Asia, they were built around rice and wheat. In Europe and North Africa, they were built around wheat. In the Pacific, smaller communities were built around sugar cane, sweet potatoes and yams. Australia had none of these high-yield crops.

As well as lacking a high yield agricultural crop, Australia lacked docile herd animals like cows, sheep, pigs and goats that could be enclosed in pens. Kangaroos, wombats, and possums would not have been suitable because that could not have been enclosed in rudimentary pens and could not be herded. (Even today, kangaroos are not farmed and only wild kangaroo meat is sold in shops.)

It is likely that some of the agricultural species may have made their way into Australia in the past but a combination of cultural and environmental obstacles prevented them from surviving. Specifically, sweet potatoes were introduced to Papua New Guinea from South America. Rice was introduced to Indonesia from China. Polynesians took chickens and pigs though the pacific. Despite the crops and animals probably reaching Australia as well, the dingo is the only species that survived any attempt at introduction.

One reason for the extinction of introduced crops might have been northern Australia's propensity to be hit by bushfire during the dry season and its soils suffering nutrient leaching during the wet season. Areas of the northern hemisphere where farming occurs that are similar distances from the equator don’t suffer the same problems because the vegetation is not as fire prone. Not only does this mean that communities don’t suffer a bushfire threat every summer, but significant amounts of vegetation are always decomposing slowly to replenish soils. As an added benefit, greater quantities of vegetation increase rainfall, and lock up more moisture in an ecosystem during the wet system where it is slowly released in the dry.

Aside from being more fire-prone, another challenge for farming in northern Australia would have been Australian marsupials. Kangaroos, wombats and possums would have decimated small gardens. Unlike animals of other continents, the Australian animals are difficult to exclude using fences because they can go over the top or underneath. Furthermore, because they are nocturnal, they do most of their garden raids by night when humans are not awake to defend their crops. For humans lacking guns or the inclination to eradicate the marsupials entirely, even elephants would easier to defend against.

Because the pig was introduced to Papua New Guinea, potentially it could have been introduced to Australia by the same humans that brought the ancestor of the dingo; however, it would have been targeted by the thylacines (Tasmanian Tiger), marsupial lions (Thylacoleo carnifex) and Tasmanian devils that were once common on mainland Australia. Certainly, a pig would be an easier animal to hunt and would return more reward for effort than a kangaroo or possum.

Aside from environmental problems, one of the most significant barriers to hunter gatherers making the transition to agriculture is that there is a short term decline in military power as hunters transition to farmers. It is only when the agricultural society gains a sufficient size to allow the division of labour into specialised soldiers, farmers, stone masons, leather makers etc that the military benefits of agricultural are achieved. As well as suffering a short-term decline in military strength, small groups that transitioned to agriculture also risked becoming increasing targets of other groups as they needed to store food while their crops and livestock grew. It is probably for this reason that hunter gathering remained dominant over Eurasia and Africa for more than a million years - they just couldn't overcome the initial decline in military strength coupled with their stored food making them more prized targets for attack.

It was only when groups somehow managed to get into isolated regions that they were able to make the transition. For example, humans arrived in the Americas around 10,000 years ago and soon made the transition to agricultural societies, probably because they were able to find isolated regions free from attack. Agriculture in China developed around 8,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. Not only had the ice age reduced population densities, but it probably also forced a more sedentary life in caves. After emerging from some of the caves, hunter gatherers may have found isolated ravines where they could grow crops and domesticate animals without being attacked. In the Pacific, humans were able to gain some isolation each time they reached an uninhabited island. In Papua New Guinea, the mountainous terrain may have likewise provided some isolated areas free from attack.

When humans first arrived in Australia more than 50,000 years ago, they may have found conditions suitable for agriculture and they may have been able to find isolated areas where they were free from attack. At the time, Australia had environmental conditions a bit like South America with rainforests covering most of the continent. There is some evidence that agricultural could have developed. Firstly, the Bradshaw paintings of the Kimberley (which are at least 20,000 years old) were more typical of agricultural societies than Palaeolithic hunter gatherers as it was humans rather than animals that were the chief subjects. Secondly, 30,000 year-old grinding stones have been found at Cuddle Springs in Western NSW. These are the oldest grinding stones in the world.  Of course, the possibility of agricultural developing was still dependent upon Australia having some crops that it did not have in 1788. (Based on what existed in 1788, an agricultural society would not have been possible.)

The Bradshaw (Gwion Gwion) art of Northern Australia was very uncharacteristic of the paleolithic era because it was humans rather than animals that were the chief subject matters. Humans only started dominating as the subject of art in agricultural societies that had developed status hierarchicies.

After agriculture developed in Polynesia and Papua New Guinea, there was potential to introduce chickens, pigs, yams, sugar cane and even rice to Australia to parts of Queenslan to form the basis of agricultural societies. Although Queensland had a suitable climate, it was also a region where Aborigines had some of the most widespread engagement with other Aboriginal groups, thus it would have been difficult for group to find isolation where they could be free from attack. Specifically, every second year, Aboriginal groups from diverse regions would descend upon the bunya mountains of southern Queensland to harvest football sized nuts from the bunya tree. These harvests were not just about gathering food, they were also about a truce of hostilities that enabled different tribes to perform ceremonies, agree on lore, and arrange marriages before travelling back to their country. Not only would such meetings provide an incentive for groups to maintain nomadic ways so that they could be part of the ceremonies, but they also would have shared reconnaissance on a group that had gone its own way into farming. Certainly, groups in the north would not have been able to leave crops, animals and stored food unattended to walk thousands of kilometers to the south. In theory, such meetings could have been an opportunity to share knowledge on how to farm but that would have undermined the very meetings'existence.

Even though Pascoe’s book was implausible, it was anchored in moral arguments that persuaded readers to overlook its limitations. In short, Pascoe argued that there would be more respect for Aborigines if they were seen as farmers. Furthermore, he inferred there would be more support for Aboriginal land rights if they were seen as farmers. In his own words,

“Hunter-gatherer and farmer are both settler/colonial labels, and the long prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (as a justification for terra nullius),”

Pascoe’s argument was a form of dressing up Aborigines in white face to make them more appealing to a white audience. It could be likened to saying an Olympic athlete could play the triangle in order to impress an audience who value people who can play classical music. In short, it devalues the Olympians strengths and positions them in an area where they are weak. Despite being demeaning, Pascoe's approach appealed to an audience that didn't really have any respect for Aborigines as hunter gatherers but still wanted to respect them in some way because it was the moral thing to do.

Pascoe’s reference to terra nullius was probably an exploitation of populist myths that proposed the British used the Aborigines' lack of farming as the justification to colonise Australia and remove Aborigines from land. In truth, British colonists gave little consideration to whether land was being farmed when deciding whether to take possession of it. In Asia, Africa and the Americas, the British simply planted their flags and stated the lands were British dominions. They liked agricultural societies because they were organised along hierarchies that made them easier to control. In short, the British could walk into large buildings occupied by a chief, maharajah or emperor and make their requests. If the requests were not met, war would follow. The British could not do the same in Australia because there weren't big buildings to walk into to find the individuals other Aborigines had to answer to.

A final moral issue with Pascoe’s approach was that it devalued how difficult it was and, and still is, to live off the Australian land, and how there was a genius in how Aborigines managed to survive in such tough conditions. Today, even with the onset of modern technology, rural communities in Australia have not thrived as they have around the world and most of Australia's farms have failed. For example, The Land and Water Resources Audit (1996-97) found that 80 per cent of Australia's agricultural profits are derived from less than 0.8 per cent of its agricultural land. To put it another way, 99 per cent of Australia's agricultural land makes little contribution to Australia's economy. Many of the farms, even the profitable ones, are not sustainable with the land. Many of these farms will not exist in 100 years, let alone thousands of years like some farms in Asia. Other farms only continue to exist because the federal government has provided welfare in times of drought. Ironically, the difficulty in farming has now made Australia one of the most urban societies on earth, with 70 per cent of the population living in the 10 largest cities. Living off the Australian land as farmers is just too difficult to build a community around.

 

 

[Top]

"They look ancient but at 10,000 years of age they’re much younger than the lightly built Mungo people. How could that be? " Mungo Man

"The Bradshaw Paintings are incredibly sophisticated, yet they are not recent creations but originate from an unknown past period which some suggest could have been 50,000 years ago." Bradshaws

"The reduction of plant diversity, however it came about, would have led to the extinction of specialized herbivores and indirectly to the extinction of their non-human predators." Megafauna extinction

" Is the keelback’s ability to coexist with toads a function of its ancestral Asian origins, or a consequence of rapid adaptation since cane toads arrived in Australia?" Migrant flora and fauna

"I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? (Jared Diamond)" Why didn't Aborigines build cities?

"It then dawned on the old man lizard that the lesson to be learnt by watching the kangaroos, was that death need not be the outcome of the fight." Wrestling and reconciliation