Real Examples of Non-farming Aboriginals
We provide here some real examples of evidence supporting the case that the Australian Aborigines were NOT agriculturalists, but in fact were living in a true, hunter-gatherer society.
1. Phyllis Kaberry was an anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in 1935 and 1936 in North West Australia and portrayed the Aboriginal women in a realistic light in her book, Aboriginal Women (1939). She noted:
“It is also of interest…..to raise the question here whether the Aborigines display any tendency to plant seeds. On the Forrest River Mission both sexes worked in the vegetable gardens, but the women were not better gardeners, nor did they seem to manifest any more enthusiasm and interest. They never bothered to take seeds and start their own little plots. One white man told me he had given them grain to sow, but when he asked them later what they had done with it, they had replied causticallly and realistically: ‘Me bin eat him. Suppose me plant him, white-ant eat him. More better me eat him first time’. Unanswerable logic….Women do not appear to be embryonic agriculturalists in this part of Australia in spite of the fact that many have worked on the stations and know something of gardening.”
(Kaberry, 1939, p 23-24.)
[ie: No agriculture here - A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!]
2. The famous Australian anthropologist, A.P. Elkin, in his paper, “The Social Life and Intelligence of the Australian Aborigine”, attributes the absence of agriculture in aboriginal society to the :
“…native philosophy of the pre-existence of spirits of natural species with its corollary that the increase of the species and therefore the maintenance of the food supply depends not on digging and sowing, but on the performance of the prescribed rites at the sacred places at right times.”
(Oceania, 1932, p103)
[ie: No agriculture here - Hunting and Gathering will do just fine! - See also our blog post Aboriginal Fundamentalism]
3. Another colonial reference relied upon by Mr Pascoe was the pioneer settler and ethnologist, Edward M Curr, who in Dark Emu is quoted as having :
“…admitted that the sophisticated bark huts made by the Aboriginal people were easily the most comfortable of any habitations in the colonial bush”.
However, Mr Pascoe does not seem to want to quote the very same, Edward M Curr, when he writes in his book, ‘Recollections of Squatting in Victoria’, 1841-1851 (MUP 1965, p122) that:
“It is a noteworthy fact connected with the Banderang and indeed as far as I am aware, with the whole aboriginal population (notwithstanding what Capatin Grey asserts to the contrary in connection with the Blacks of Western Australia [see Dutch influence post on this site], that as they neither sowed or reaped, so they never abstained from eating the whole of any food they had got with a view to the wants of the morrow. If anything was left for Tuesday, it was merely that they had been unable to consume it on Monday. In this they were like the beasts of the forest. To-day they would feast - aye, gorge - no matter about the morrow. So, also, they never spared a young animal with a view to its growing bigger”.
[No sign of any ‘sophisticated’ food storage here - Classic hunter-gatherer lifestyle].
4. Tim Flannery in his book, “The Future Eaters,- An ecological history of the Australasian lands and people”, (1998 reprint, pages 279 - 281), provides many plausible reasons for the choice by, and/or necessity for, the Aborigines not to adopt advanced agriculture on this continent, viz:
“The most striking features of Aboriginal lifestyles to nineteenth century Europeans were doubtless the absence of agriculture, widespread nomadism, its associated simple dwellings and limited material possessions. We now know that it is rather deceptive to view these features in isolation, for they were part of an adaptational response that included religious beliefs and social customs which, as a whole, maintained a balance between Aborigines and their environment. In order to understand that adaptational response it is necessary to examine all these factors. There is no better place to start than the lack of agriculture.
“I have long been uneasy with the idea that the lack of agriculture by Aborigines is a primitive trait retained from remote ancestors. This is because it seems probable that humans have been practicing rudimentary forms of agriculture for many tens of thousands of years. …. In some areas of Australia there is indeed evidence for ‘plant curation’. The most important was broad-acre management using fire, but because of the multiplicity of uses that Aborigines put fire to, it is difficult to evaluate from the perspective of plant curation alone.
More exclusively agricultural in nature are the practices of small scale curation, such as removal of competing plant species, the diversion of small streams to provide water for certain food plants and the transplantation of useful plant species. Some of these small-scale practices are perhaps hundreds of thousands of years old. Some were I think, part of the behavioural repertoire of the first Aborigines. What is remarkable is that in Australia, these practices with the exception of fire, seem to have survived only in exceptional circumstances. Over most of the continent, even the relatively small investment of time and energy in agriculture that such practices entail, may have been uneconomical.
There are a number of reasons why agriculture may have been down-played in the economic activities of the Aborigines. …..examples from elsewhere in the world where people have abandoned agriculture….shows that agriculture does not always pay, even when conditions are favourable. …The lack of agriculture among Aborigines was certainly not brought about by a lack of plant species suitable for cultivation; for among the indigenous flora of Australia are yams, taro, nardoo, and various grasses, relatives of most of which are cultivated elsewhere. There are also members of the Solanaceae (including tomato, potato, tobacco, capsicum and other species that have been widely cultivated). In addition there are tree species such as Macadamia, Terminalia and Araucaria that produce nut crops that are important cultivars in the Pacific and elsewhere”
[So no agriculture here either-but with justifications for its absence].