It's a myth that dies hard. Our recent Prime Minister Tony Abbot (now, ironically, the government's 'special envoy on Indigenous affairs') loves to celebrate the wonders created by the arrival of the First Fleet.
I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, great southern land.
The arrival of the first fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent.
Yet over recent decades, historians have steadily chipped away at this myth. Most Australians now know that Aboriginal people did not roam randomly, they travelled on a seasonal rhythm between different areas in a carefully defined country. Henry Reynolds and others have made us aware of the fact that Aboriginal people did not simply passively accept the peaceful settlement of their lands, they fought and lost a fiercely contested war in which thousands were killed.
More recently we are starting to see a similar dismantling of the myth that Aboriginal people lived passively on the land, accepting whatever it gave them. As far back as 1975, Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads documented the huge impact Aboriginal burning had on the nature of Australian landscape. Blainey's depiction seems to suggest that this burning was indiscriminate, but in 2011 Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth carefully documented the highly intentional, skillful strategies involved in Aboriginal land management, with the judicious use of fire allied with other management strategies to produce a carefully tended patchwork of different types of environment across a nation's various terrains.
I've recently come across a fantastic little book which boldly develops this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion - Dick Pascoe's Dark Emu: Black seeds, agriculture or accident? published in 2014. Pascoe is a man of Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage who grew up in Victoria. He is mainly known for his fiction writing, publishing a number of novels for adults and children, and spending a number of years as publisher and editor of Australian Short Stories. However, he has also written widely on history.
In Dark Emu he takes the hunter-gatherer myth head-on. The starting point and in a sense the cornerstone of his account is the descriptions of Aboriginal society contained in the diaries of early European explorers.
For instance, there is this from George Grey, travelling in the Kimberley in 1839.
As we wound along the native path my wonder augmented; the path increased in breadth and its beaten appearance, whilst along the side we found frequent wells, some of which were ten and twelve feet deep, and were executed in a superior manner. . We now emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran (yam) plants, the root of which is a favourite article of food for the natives. This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root.... passed two native villages,or as the men termed them, towns the huts of which...(were) built and very nicely plastered over the outside with clay, and clods of turf, so that although now uninhabited they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence.
Wells constructed 'in a superior manner'. Root vegetables grown in monoculture. 'Fixed places of residence'. Does this sound like a hunter-gatherer culture?
Or this from Thomas Mitchell in Queensland's Belyando River district.
We crossed some patches of dry swamp where clods had been extensively turned up by the natives.... The whole resembled ground broken with the hoe.... There might be about two acres in the patch we crossed and we perceived at a distance other portions of the ground in a similar state.
Or from Charles Sturt, exploring the Murray-Darling Basin in 1845, when he saw
...grassy plains spreading out like a boundless stubble field, the grass being the kind from which the natives collect seed for subsistence at this season of the year...large heaps that had been thrashed out by the natives were piled up like haycocks.
Haycocks? Or this, also from Sturt.
Where there were villages these huts were built in rows, the front of one hut being the back of the other, and it appeared to be a singular but universal custom to erect a smaller hut at no great distance from the large ones.
Pascoe describes how the members and search parties associated with the Burke and Wills expedition found food.
King...found a store of grain in an Aboriginal house, which he estimated at four tons. John Davis, a member of one of the search parties...reported on the vast quantities of nardoo seed waiting to be harvested on the dry floor of Lake Coogiecoogina in the Strzelecki Desert, reminding us that 'desert' is a term Europeans use to describe areas where they can't grow wheat and sheep.
Pascoe is not the first to comment on the irony that Burke and Wills and their companions starved in the midst of plenty, even scaring off the Aboriginal people who were trying to help them.
There is much more of this from various explorers and early landholders in various parts of the country in the mid to late 19th century. Put together with the findings of archaeology and the traditions of Aboriginal people themselves, a picture emerges that is very different to the 'hunter-gatherer' story we heard in school.
- Aboriginal people did not simply pluck or dig the food plants they found along the way, they actively cultivated them. Yam fields were carefully tended, the soil regularly dug to ensure a harvest each year, while various native grasses were cultivated and managed for their seeds. The explorers describe this quite clearly - fields of grain or root crops, piles of stalks that reminded them of European hay-ricks, and storage huts in which large quantities of grain were placed for future use. There is also strong evidence that they traded seeds and seedlings, resulting in productive plant varieties spreading across the country.
- They practiced extensive aquaculture, including building elaborate fish traps, diverting streams to channel fish into these traps, and building pools to trap floodwaters and provide a confined environment to breed fish for food. Coastal peoples also cultivated cooperative fishing with dolphins and orcas, training these animals to herd fish and even whales in-shore and rewarding them with a share of the catch.
- Although they did not actively herd kangaroos as Europeans herd cattle or sheep, they did use fire management to cultivate pastures, strategically located at the distance a group of kangaroos would travel in a day so they could predict fairly accurately where they would be.
- To support this agriculture they built permanent villages, with sturdy huts made of timber, earth or stone.
In addition to these evidences of settled agriculture there was a system of governance which, over a period of 40,000 years or more, allowed the Aboriginal nations to co-exist in relative peace - while nations did clearly fight from time to time, there is no evidence in archaeology, traditional stories or genetics to suggest there was invasion or conquest in Australia prior to that of the British, and their system of governance enabled cooperative land and resource management across national boundaries.
So how did we come by the story that Aboriginal people were nomadic hunter-gatherers? Part of Pascoe's answer is that the invaders were persuaded by the social Darwinism popular in their day to see Aboriginal people as inferior and this coloured what they saw. Hence Sturt uses the term 'subsistence' despite clearly describing a system of agriculture, and Burke and Wills failed to see the rich food system through which they were travelling.
However, this was perhaps just a superficial justification of more base economic motives. The explorers were not looking for scientific knowledge or a civilisation with whom to trade. They were seeking pasture for cattle and sheep, and fertile soil for wheat. The livestock thrived in the lush grass, and the wheat grew prolifically in the former yam fields. It suited them to believe, and to tell others, that all of this just occurred naturally.
Yet before too long the hard hooves of the sheep and cattle, and the neglect of the new 'owners' of the country, had degraded these same fertile fields and pastures, fouled the water sources and drastically reduced the amount of grass that grew each year. A system that had proved sustainable for thousands of years was replaced by an unstable economy that Jared Diamond perceptively compares to mining.
Pascoe's message is primarily historical, but he also looks forward. Our degradation of the country and the changing climate present serious challenges to agriculture based on European models. Pascoe thinks traditional Australian agriculture can help solve these problems. For instance, while native grasses don't yield the same amount of grain as wheat, they can grow in much drier conditions. Yams, which are now only found in disturbed places like the edge of roads or railways, can be successfully grown in a range of conditions. Kangaroos similarly can survive in fairly arid conditions, have less impact on the country than sheep and cattle, don't produce methane like cattle do, and yield tasty, lean meat which is better for us than beef or lamb. The revival of these crops is still only at the experimental stage, but Pascoe believes it has huge potential.
Of course many, like Tony Abbott and so many ordinary people, will never read this book, or Gammage's, or any of the sources they refer to. They will continue to see Aboriginal civilisation as an optional prelude to the main story which begins with Captain Cook and the First Fleet. Myths die hard, especially convenient ones. The idea that Aboriginal people had nothing and lost nothing in the British invasion is comforting to us British people who have benefited from it. But those of is who value truth and justice need to resist this seduction and acknowledge the truth, even if it hurts. It won't hurt us as much as it hurt those who were dispossessed.
In fact it may even help us, not just to a clear conscience, but to address the environmental problems we have created. It was unwise, to say the least, for our forebears to so carelessly disregard the knowledge of managing this country that Aboriginal people built up over millennia. Much of this knowledge has since been lost, but some survives and some can be recovered and re-learnt. It can help us feed ourselves into the future, better manage bushfire risks, recover soil fertility and water quality, and make better use of native flora and fauna. Aboriginal people were and are not stupid, and millennia of history and learning must be worth something.