Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Agriculture

One of the features of Aboriginal Australia that has been wondered about is that for the whole of their presence in Australia, probably more than 60,000 years, the inhabitants never adopted agriculture or domestication of animals, remaining one of the few places in the world sticking with their traditional hunter-gatherer way of life.

Many reasons have been put forward for the lack of agriculture in Australia, but it is only recently that it was realised that they did in fact practice a form of agriculture, firestick agriculture. They not only used fire to hunt, setting fire to grass to chase out animals to aid in hunting, but regularly burnt limited areas to increase the availability of new grass to feed the animals they hunted, maintaining the populations of their prey species sustainably for many thousands of years. Not only did they maintain their hunting lands in the condition their prey species preferred, they are also thought to be possibly, at least partially, responsible for the spread of dry eucalypt forests after their arrival, because this type of vegetation is fire-resistant.

The pig has been present in New Guinea for about 10,000 years and definitely by 6,000 BP. Pigs were not endemic to New Guinea, so must have been brought from Indonesia, but never reached Australia. Agriculture has been present in New Guinea since at least 9,000 BP, but was not taken up in Australia. By 6,000 to 5,000 BP the inhabitants of New Guinea were living in semi-permanent villages, cultivating and sometimes irrigating endemic and imported crop plants, and raising pigs. But not in Australia. One of the reasons suggested for the lack of agriculture in Australia was the lack of contact where these practices could be learned from. Obviously there has been contact with people practicing agriculture for many years. Even in New Guinea it wasn't practiced intensively, more as an adjunct to hunter-gathering. Regarding hunting in New Guinea, compared with Australia, there is a paucity of mammal species, and those present, such as wallabies, are smaller than the very abundant kangaroos in Australia. This gap in the food supply in New Guinea is filled by pig raising.

On the northern Torres Strait islands the mix of agriculture and foraging was similar to that in southern New Guinea, but moving from north to south of these islands the mix gradually changes until by the islands in the south it was the same as in Cape York, there was no agriculture, subsistence was based entirely on foraging.

There is also a difference in the islands of the western and eastern parts of the Torres Strait. In the west the islands are mostly high volcanic islands with surrounding reef and shallow seas with plentiful fish and shell fish, turtles and dugongs, as well as plant foods like yams and mangrove fruit. On these islands there was normally no agriculture, though some yams could be planted for periods when there was a temporary leaner time. On the smaller, lower islands in the east the surrounding seas are not as bountiful as around the western islands and agriculture was practiced extensively.

Based on the presence of agriculture only on the islands where a comfortable living could not be depended upon, it seems that agriculture is not the lifestyle of choice, being resorted to only when necessary for survival.

One of the main differences between the early civilisations in the Middle East where many of the plants and animals were originally domesticated was that in the Middle East the opportunity to move to a different location if food was in short supply didn't exist, either because of the lack suitable land or unfriendly neighbours. In Australia in hard times the people simply moved to another area, unencumbered by large amounts of baggage that sedentary farmers needed, and moved more frequently than they would in better times, and the neighbours tended to be more accommodating. In the harshest environment in Australia, if not the world, the Western Desert, the inhabitants often travelled 400-500 km, especially during drought. The people of this area have been known to cover an area of 2600 km2 in 3 months.

A feature of the food exploited by Aboriginal People is that they eat a wide variety of food, never being dependent on a single or a few food types. This is a problem with sedentary farmers when times are bad, they can't easily move to a new area or exploit a new food source.  Studies of Aboriginal People in their environment showed that when one usual food supply wasn't available at a particular time, such as a drought, they shifted their foraging to other plants and animals, and often moved to a different part of their range, or even into a neighbouring group's range, were they were permitted to hunt until times improved in their own area. Their lack of material goods made such travels easier, just taking the bare necessities for their survival, their travelling kit. An advantage of the nomadic way of life that was not appreciated by most Europeans is that they are not vulnerable to starvation because of the failure of a single crop, as has occurred even in historical times among settled peoples.

Unlike farming peoples they did not use times of plenty to store food for leaner times, and, as occurred with the civilisations of the world, increased food availability allowed larger populations, which makes the people more susceptible to food shortages. In Aboriginal society the population size was aligned with the food supply in the leanest time, such as winter in the southern parts of Australia, the good times being a time for get-togethers, corroborrees, art and dance, etc.

Studies of the foraging of Aboriginal people found that in times of plentiful food it took only a couple of hours a day to gather enough food for the group for that day. In the Western Desert it only took the women less than 7 hours to gather enough food for the group, even in drought, and the men always hunted meat for the group. By moving around their territory on a regular basis they allowed each part of their range to recover before returning, unlike farming practices that are much harder to maintain sustainably without input such as fertilisers, particularly when the population grows and more food needs to be produced.

Archaeological evidence has shown that the same species of plant and animal have been eaten for a very long time. The nomadic way of life was apparently adopted soon after arriving in Australia when they had worked out what was needed to survive in this very inhospitable continent. Apart from their possible contribution to the demise of the  megafauna, they seem to have done a remarkable job of living sustainably for a very long time, much longer than the existence of any civilisation any where on earth, and without the periodic collapse of civilisations, at least partly through over exploitation.

In 1770 Captain Cook wrote of the Aboriginal People he encountered.

'From what I have said of the Nature of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon the Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans. They live in a Tranquillity that is not distrurb'd by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff & ca, they lie in a warm and fine climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so they have very little need for clothing and this they seem to be fully sensible of, for many to whom we gave Cloth & ca to, left it carelessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seem'd to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities'.

The attitude of the Aboriginal people to the agricultural practices of the white settlers on their land can be seen from the statement of an Aboriginal woman in Arnhem Land when watching a Fijian missionary working in his mission garden who became concerned that a few of his plants had died. 'You people go to all that trouble, working and planting seeds, but we don't have to do that. All these things are there for us, the Ancestral Beings left them for us. In the end, you depend on the sun and the rain just the same as we do, but the difference is that we just have to go and collect the food when it is ripe. We don't have all this other trouble.'

In areas such as the Daly River, they avoided exhausting yam beds, always leaving enough scattered plants to provide the next season's crop for harvesting. This sort of attitude was actually widespread across Australia. Their intimate knowledge of the plants and animals on which they depended allowed them to avoid overexploitation of any particular food source. This aspect of their culture was overlooked by nearly all the Europeans who came in contact with them. It allowed them to use the same plants and animals continuously for about 60,000. Instead of hording food in times of plenty they realised that by avoiding overexploitation of a food resource in times of plenty they ensured the continuance of the food resource for the future. There were a number instances that were observed of this practice in various places. One example is Aboriginal People observed to refrain from killing stingrays for food because it was the breeding season for stingrays.

By treating their environment as a big garden that didn't need cultivation they had to make use of the food that was available at any particular time, but by doing this they were not continually fighting against the climate and the soils as European agriculture did, with its boom and bust cycles as droughts and floods came and went. They successfully lived with the environment for thousands of years, taking what it offered and not trying to grow crops or animals that were not adapted to the harshest and most variable climate on Earth.

In 1941 the husband and wife anthropologists, the Berndts, listed some of the food plants and animals the local Aboriginals used in the area immediately around the Ooldea Soak and mission in arid central Australia, country that to Europeans looked too desolate to support anyone. The food items they counted were 18 varieties of mammals and marsupials, 19 birds, 11 reptiles, 8 insects, 6 water roots, 17 varieties of seed, 3 vegetables, 10 fruits and berries, 4 other plants and fungi, and a variety of eggs.

Some important food sources

In some instances the Aboriginal People in various parts of Australia encouraged the production of certain food species of plants, with fire as usual, and in southwestern Victoria they built structures to assist in the capture of eels that come close to the accepted meaning of agriculture, or aquaculture. On the Barwon River near Brewarrina the local Aboriginal People built stone fish traps to take advantage of the occasional abundance of fish during floods when they were more abundant than at other times. 

They used fire to encourage the production of cycad fruit and daisy yams, removing competing plants. the Anbara of Arnhem Land dug the yam tubers out but left the top of the tuber attached to the plant, and the tubers subsequently regrew. They also planted yams on offshore islands for a reserve.

The book Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe has a lot of instances of Aboriginal agriculture gathered from the journals of early explorers and other in the early days of European settlement in Australia.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J.B. Publishing, 2004
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 19/02/2012

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