Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Millet Harvesters                                                                                                                       

The one native cereal grain in Australia, wild millet (Panicum decompositum), was one of the main foods in arid Australia. There was also a closely related species of Setaria, relatives of  these Australian plants were the plants from which the domesticated European common panicum and Italian millet (Setaria italica) were derived.

Harvesting cereals was mostly an adaptation to survival in arid central Australia where the annual rainfall was 300 mm or less. In wetter areas to the north where alternatives such as fruit, nuts and tubers, seeds were a minor food source, if collected at all.

The Bagundji (river people) occupied the semiarid areas in the Darling River Basin. Along the banks of the Darling River they had a riverine economy mostly based on food from the river, fish, shellfish and ducks, as well as bulrush roots. These foods were in shorter supply in winter, so at this time of year the people separated into smaller groups and moved out away from the river. They collected wattle seeds and flax seeds and hunted emus by luring them with a horn that sounded like a female emu then trapped them in nets. They also caught kangaroos by driving them into nets with beaters or fires. In winter rainwater pools were utilised for drinking water, but when they were away from the river in summer they depended on water in some plant roots and carrying it in kangaroo skin bags.

The main plant food in summer was native millet which seeds between December and March. The seeds of  the millet don't all ripen at the same time, an adaptation to the erratic climate. This was a problem for harvesters who wanted to gather large quantities at a time. The problem was solved by harvesting the grass while it was still green, but after the seeds were full but not ripened. The grass was stacked in heaps to dry and ripen. When it was needed the heap was threshed, all the now ripe seeds falling to the ground in the one place making it easy to gather.

The explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell reported 1835 as he passed down the Darling "the grass had been pulled, to a great extent, and piled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hayfield ... we found the rick, or hay-cocks, extending for miles . . . the grass was of one kind, a species of Panicum . . . and not a spike of it was left in the soil, over the whole of the ground . . . The grass was beautifully green beneath the heaps and full of seed". It was July when Mitchell travelled along the Darling, the hayricks he saw were actually in-field storage of seeds that had been harvested at least 3 months previously.

Cereal grasses were harvested by pulling the plants up by the roots and either pulling the stalks off or gathering the seeds into a bark dish. The latter method was the method used in central Australia. A stone reaping knife was used in the area around Cooper's Creek in southwestern Queensland, as was used by the early cultivators in the Middle East. Knives used for reaping can be distinguished by the the 'use-polish', a sheen they have on the edge of the implement.

The stones used for grinding seeds are different from those used for grinding other food, being larger, flatter and smoother. It has been suggested they should be called millstones because they are used to make flour. These are the type of grindstones found at sites in the Darling Basin. A study of the grindstones found in New South Wales in the Australian Museum, Sydney, show a correlation between the distribution of these grindstones and the harvesting of millet.

The Mungo people ate fish, shellfish, small mammals, birds and emu eggs 30,000 years ago. After the lakes dried up about 15,000 years ago, they ate the same food but it now came from rivers, but now with the addition of grass seeds. At sites dated from after the drying up of the Willandra Lakes millstones are found in the middens. The diet based on fish, shellfish, small mammals and grass seeds was still the basic diet in the 19th century.

In New South Wales the semiarid basin and humid western slopes of the interior had a similar environment to areas where cultivation developed in Mesopotamia and Mexico. There were also plants such as millet that were potential crops for cultivation. But cultivation never developed in these parts of Australia. One reason may be the erratic climate, were droughts were common and often severe and long lasting. It might also be because the Aboriginal People could always move to a different part of the territory and shift their forging to a different set of their wide variety of food items. If they cultivated in such an unreliable climate they would be tied to their crops however long the drought. Even with more efficient food storage methods than they had it would have been difficult, and probably impossible, to store enough to sit out the frequent droughts. 

Sources & Further reading

  1. Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 05/10/2009

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