Whose Theory Do We Believe? - Mr Bruce Pascoe's or Mr Jared Diamond's?
Mr Pascoe, when discussing the progress of civilizations relies on the thoughts of the “theorist” Jared Diamond to support his contention that most ascendant civilizations, including our current Western Civilization with its obsession with growth, eventually run into dead ends (Dark Emu 2018 reprint, p181).
Mr Pascoe would seem to agree that Jared Diamond, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a credible enough source to include in Dark Emu - (see boxed text below), so let us look at some of Mr Diamond’s other work. It just so happens that Jared Diamond is one of the world’s top authorities on the study of human societies, including hunter-gatherer ones. He had done field-work in places such as New Guinea and Australia.
We have selected a few quotes from his international best-selling book, “Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies”, published by W.W. Norton & Co. 1997, to show that he completely disagrees with Mr Pascoe’s conclusion that the Australian Aborigines were agriculturalists who did sow, irrigate and till the land.
Jared Diamond writes :
“Australia is the sole continent where, in modern times, all native peoples still lived without any of the hallmarks of so-called civilization – without farming, herding, metal, bows and arrows, substantial buildings, settled villages, writing, chiefdoms or states. Instead Australian Aborigines were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, organised into bands, living in temporary shelters or huts and still dependent on stone-tools.” – (ibid. p297).
“Compared with Native Australians, New Guineans rate as culturally “advanced”…most New Guineans …were farmers and swineherds. They lived in settled villages and were organised politically into tribes rather than as bands. All New Guineans had bows and arrows, and many used pottery.” - (ibid. p297-8).
“While New Guinea…developed both animal husbandry and agriculture,…Australia…developed neither.” - (ibid. p308).
Mr Pascoe not only does himself a great disfavour when he refers to Mr Jared Diamond, in an apparently casual way, as a “theorist” (Dark Emu, 2018 reprint, p181), but in some ways he reflects badly on all of us Australians - how could it be that an Australian best-selling author seems to dismiss an intellectual giant such as Mr Diamond in such as casual way, and without including the results of Mr Diamond’s other work on the Australian Aborigines? What does that say about Mr Pascoe’s research methods and the adoration of his supporting readers? Mr Pascoe would do well to reflect on the other work, opinions and “theories” of Mr Diamond, described by some as a polymath due to academic diversity in medicine, geography, ornithology, ecology and environmental history.
Positions Held and Awards*
Professor of Geography at UCLA, Editorial board of the Skeptic Magazine, Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Member of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S. regional director of the World Wide Fund for Nature 1975. 1985 MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant, 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs and Steel, 1999 National Medal of Science, 2001 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, 2004 A foreign holder of honorary title of Academician in Academy of Finland, 2005 Elected Honorary Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge, England, 2005, Diamond was ranked 9th on a poll by Prospect and Foreign Policy of the world's top 100 public intellectuals, 2006 Dickson Prize in Science, 2008 PhD Honoris Causa at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, 2013 Wolf Prize in Agriculture, 2016 American Humanist Association Humanist of the Year
Photocredit - Diamond on a field study in New Guinea. - National Geographic Television
We wonder whether possibly Mr Pascoe, on reading Mr Diamond’s work and selectively quoting from it, may have realised the bind he was in - he quotes the “theorist” Jared Diamond, but doesn’t actually provide a reference to Mr Diamond’s work in the bibliography of Dark Emu. Maybe, it is because Mr Diamond comes to the completley opposite view of Mr Pascoe regarding Aboriginal agriculture, despite using the same evidence as Mr Pascoe?
To show the reader how nuanced this area of study is, and how difficult it is for the “Intellectual Elites” in their attempt to re-write Australian history and weave a narrative that Aboriginal societies were agricultural, we quote from Mr Diamond’s book, “Guns, Germs and Steel -The Fates of Human Societies” below, which seems to support many of Mr Pascoe’s points, but ultimately says this Does Not constitute an agricultural society :
Jared Diamond writes :
“During the last 13,000 years less cultural change accumulated in Australia than in any other continent.
Yet, as of 40,000 years ago, Native Australian societies enjoyed a big start over societies of Europe and other continents. Native Australians developed some of the earliest stone tools with ground edges, the earliest hafted stone tools (that is, stone ax heads mounted on handles), and by far the earliest watercraft, in the world. Some of the oldest known painting on rock surfaces comes from Australia. Anatomically modern humans may have settled Australia before they settled western Europe. (ibid. p297).
The Aboriginal Australian substitute for food production has been termed “firestick farming.” The Aborigines modified and managed the surrounding landscape in ways that increased its production of edible plants and animals, without resorting to cultivation. In particular, they intentionally burned much of the landscape periodically. That served several purposes: the fires drove out animals that could be killed and eaten immediately; fires converted dense thickets into open parkland in which people could travel more easily; the parkland was also an ideal habitat for kangaroos…and the fires stimulated the growth of both new grass on which kangaroo fed and of fern roots on which Aborigines themselves fed.
We think of Australian Aborigines as desert people, but most of them were not. Instead, their population densities varied with rainfall (because it controls the production of terrestrial wild plant and animal foods) and with abundance of aquatic foods in the sea, rivers, and lakes. The highest population densities of Aborigines were in Australia’s wettest and most productive regions: the Murray-Darling river system of the Southeast, the eastern and northern coasts, and the southwestern corner. Those areas also came to support the densest populations of European settlers in modern Australia…”
“Within the last 5,000 years, some of those productive regions witnessed an intensification of Aboriginal food-gathering methods, and a buildup of Aboriginal population density. Techniques were developed in eastern Australia for rendering abundant and starchy, but extremely poisonous, cycad seeds edible, by leaching out or fermenting the poison. The previously unexploited highlands of southeastern Australia began to be visited regularly during the summer, by Aborigines feasting not only on cycad nuts and yams but also on huge hibernating aggregations of a migratory moth called the bogong moth, which tastes like a roasted chestnut when grilled. Another type of intensified food-gathering activity that developed was the freshwater eel fisheries of the Murray-Darling river system, where water levels in marshes fluctuate with seasonal rains. Native Australians constructed elaborate systems of canals up to a mile and a half long, in order to enable eels to extend their range from one marsh to another. Eels were caught by equally elaborate weirs, traps set in dead-end side canals, and stone walls across canals with a net placed in an opening of the wall.
Traps at different levels in the marsh came into operation as the water level rose and fell. While the initial construction of those “fish farms” must have involved a lot of work, they then fed many people. Nineteenth-century European observers found villages of a dozen Aboriginal houses at the eel farms, and there are archaeological remains of villages of up to 146 stone houses, implying at least seasonally resident populations of hundreds of people.
Still another development in eastern and northern Australia was the harvesting of seeds of a wild millet, belonging to the same genus as the broomcorn millet that was a staple of early Chinese agriculture. The millet was reaped with stone knives, piled into haystacks, and threshed to obtain the seeds, which were then stored in skin bags or wooden dishes and finally ground with millstones. Several of the tools used in this process, such as the stone reaping knives and grindstones, were similar to the tools independently invented in the Fertile Crescent for processing seeds and other wild grasses. Of all the food-acquiring methods of Aboriginal Australians, millet harvesting is perhaps the one most likely to have evolved eventually into crop production. Along with intensified food gathering in the last 5,000 years came new types of tools. Small stone blades and points provided more length of sharp edge per pound of tool than the large stone tools they replaced. Hatchets with ground stone edges, once present only locally in Australia, became widespread. Shell fishhooks appeared within the last thousand years”. (ibid.p309-311 and our emphasis).
One can’t help but think that these extracts above from Mr Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel -The Fates of Human Societies”, might have been written by Mr Pascoe himself, so closely do they fit the narrative and theory of Dark Emu !
But even after all this, Mr Diamond still concludes :
“…Aboriginal Australians never acquired it [ food production] at all.” (ibid. p86).
“Aboriginal Australians who never reached the stage of farming yams and seed plants nonetheless antipated several elements of farming. They managed the landscape by burning it…In gathering yams, they cut off most of the edible tuber but replaced the stems and tops of the tubers in the ground so that the tubers would regrow. Their digging to extract the tuber loosened and aerated the soil and fostered regrowth. All that they would have had to do to meet he definition of farmers was to carry the stems and remaining attached tubers home and similarly replaced them in soil at their camp.” (ibid. p107).
“…my [Jared Diamond’s] thesis is not that…Australia…[was] devoid of domesticable species and would have continued to be occupied just by hunter-gatherers indefinitely if foreign domesticates or peoples had not arrived…[It] is that… food production had not yet arisen independently in some fertile regions as of modern times…[Australian] Aboriginal societies in recent millennia appear to have been evolving on a trajectory that would eventually have led to indigenous food production. They had already built winter villages. They had begun to manage the environment intensively for fish production by building fish traps, nets and even long canals. Had Europeans not colonized Australia in 1788 and aborted that independent trajectory, Aboriginal Australians might within a few thousand years have become food producers, tending ponds of domesticated fish and grown Australian yams and small-seeded grasses.” (ibid. p155).
So there you have it, Dark Emu is some 3000 years ahead of its time ! - it is still a wonderful and compelling story. But we do not have to lie to ourselves and speak on behalf of Aboriginal people when we try to re-write our, and their, history for our own modern, political ends. It can only lead to harm to pretend that their pre-colonial society was something it was not. The real story is of pre-colonial, Aboriginal Australia as a hunter-gatherer society on the path to an agricultural future, and this is something all Australians should read about. It is not Australia’s history that needs to be re-written, but instead the book cover blurb of Dark Emu :
“Pascoe puts forward a compelling argument for the understanding that pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians were on a trajectory from their hunter-gatherer existence towards food production and agriculture within the next 3000 years. The evidence shows that the first beginnings of an agricultural way of life were starting in isolated parts of the continent. It is the story of mankind and a story that we will all admire and find fascinating as Australians."
Main photograph - hat-tip to Matt Ridley