Death of distinguished academic Dr Ruth Latukefu
The cost to the Pacific of plundered resources

Australia’s first people had farming savvy

Archaeologists at an ancient banana farm, cultivated over 2,000 years ago on Mabuyag Island in the southern Torres Strait 


TUMBY BAY - There’s been a curious debate going on for several years among academics about whether Aboriginal people in Australia engaged in agriculture and therefore lived sedentary lives.

The debate was given impetus in 2014 when author Bruce Pascoe published a book, Dark Emu.

In the book, Pascoe identified himself as Indigenous saying he has Aboriginal ancestors on both sides of his family from the Yuin people of NSW, the Bunurong people of Victoria and also Tasmania.

Critics of Pascoe claim his book is based on a highly selective reading of history. They also say that his identification as an Indigenous person is questionable.

Both criticisms are fairly standard fare in the often heated world of Aboriginal studies.

An upcoming book by anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, promises to offer a forensic assessment of Pascoe’s claims.

In the book they argue there is extensive evidence that Aboriginal society was a hunter-gatherer society and just as sophisticated as traditional European farming societies.

The reason that I think the whole debate is curious might ultimately settle on this question of sophistication.

Having hitherto watched the toing and froing only out of the corner of an eye, I was intrigued to find that Pascoe’s ideas are now creeping into literary fiction.

Indigenous women harvesting yams, which were cultivated in many parts of the continent (Sketch by Andrew Todd, 1835)

Trevor Shearston’s latest novel, The Beach Caves, for instance, is about the discovery of Aboriginal ‘villages’ that appear to prove that Aboriginal societies were becoming less nomadic during the last eight hundred years or so of the current geological epoch, the Holocene.

Readers will remember Trevor from his Papua New Guinean books, including the magisterial Something in the Blood, and his involvement in the 2014 Crocodile Prize workshop in Port Moresby.

Why anyone thinks that agriculturalists are more sophisticated that hunter-gatherers is strange in this age of angst about climate change and the fate of the planet.

It could be argued, for instance, that the agricultural revolution, which started about 10,000 years ago, was the beginning of mankind’s impact on the planet and has led us to the sorry place where we now find ourselves.

Had we happily continued to be hunter-gatherers we might not be in what some people call the new epoch of the Anthropocene - the age of humans and our largely detrimental impact on the planet.

What we might now be, had we not taken that fatal step to sit down in one spot and grow crops and domesticate animals, is a differently evolved society.

This would be a world of benign philosophical sensibility with a better appreciation of the constraints of unfettered exploitation of the planet’s resources.

We might not now also be looking at the few remaining hunters and gatherers on the planet for advice on how better to manage the remaining resources of the planet.

What also strikes me as curious is the idea that there is some sort of strict dichotomy between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists.

From my own experience working in Papua New Guinea and among Aboriginal people in Australia, I know that the division between these two groups is decidedly fuzzy.

Hunter-gatherers in both places often engaged in what can be defined as farming and farmers often went out hunting and gathering wild food.

Along the relatively densely populated River Murray, with its rich natural resources, people once lived in semi-permanent settlements. They fished and hunted and tended to plantations of yams and grasses with edible seeds.

On the Great Papuan Plateau people lived in transitory settlements doing much the same sort of thing.

So did their more sedentary cousins in the Highlands, cultivating their plantations of sweet potato and taro but also hunting and gathering in the forests.

Even in the demanding arid deserts of central Australia, nomadic Aboriginal groups engaged in what could loosely be defined as farming, particularly in the way they used fire to manage the environment.

The mistake that modern people make is that our highly industrialised societies with all their whizzbang gadgetry are an improvement on the Arcadian lives of our ancestors and those few people who still pursue such lifestyles.

Perhaps that is just the sort of arrogance that has got us into this mess.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Here's another interesting article:

I'd intended to let Phil's earlier riposte go, but now it's being serialised a reply is in order.

I don’t want to get engaged in the culture wars around Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emus’, in which Phil seems to have taken sides with those claiming Pascoe is a hoaxer and even a fraud in claiming evidence to support the proposition that Australia's Indigenous people farmed.

The photo I included with the original article (the headline to which Phil took exception) illustrated part of the evidence of agricultural practice in pre-colonial Australia.

Even Phil found himself able to state “…. in the demanding arid deserts of central Australia, nomadic Aboriginal groups engaged in what could loosely be defined as farming, particularly in the way they used fire to manage the environment.”

The argument about the extent to which Australia’s First Nations people might have undertaken farming practices was an issue amongst historians, writers and academics for a long time before Pascoe wrote ‘Dark Emu’.

The core of the ‘yes’ case seems to be that the first Australians had complex systems of agriculture including land management, fire, sown seeds, stored plants, grown tubers such as yams, grown grain such as native millet, grown macadamia nuts, fruits and berries, even moving caterpillars to new breeding areas.

The Indigenous anthropologist and geographer, Professor Marcia Langton of Melbourne University - a supporter of Pascoe - has said Pascoe’s writing is “a profound challenge to conventional thinking about Aboriginal life on this continent”. And she meant 'challenge' in the explorative sense.

I believe that’s true and it’s galling to see Pascoe being picked off by Murdoch’s racist boys and girls and academics who seem to have already closed their minds to the possibility and want to slam dunk any view that doesn't coincide with their own. Yeah, I'd also add Nine newspapers to the lynch mob.

I prefer the more disinterested words of Dr Richard Trembath, who asks: “Is the issue of hunter-gatherer versus sedentism as crucial as both Pascoe and his ideological opponents, like Andrew Bolt and Peter O’Brien, insist it is?"

Answered his own question, he writes: “Proponents and opponents are essentially fighting for possession of the one position. We must not adopt a social hierarchy which places sedentary crop-based society at the top and hunter-gatherer cultures below.”

I find the open-endedness of that much easier to agree with. There are too many minds already closed for my liking - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

The title of this article is extremely misleading.

Rather than claiming Australia's indigenous people farmed the land I am making the point that they didn't engage in farming and there was nothing wrong with that. As hunters and gatherers they had a rich and meaningful life that was in many ways superior to that of agriculturalists.

Here is a review of the Sutton/Walshe book that counters Bruce Pascoe's dodgy claims.

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