The Great Horticultural Experiment - or Maybe Not?
“Most Aboriginal Australians were, at the very least, in the early stages of an agricultural society, and, it could be argued, ahead of many parts of the world”. Really? Only one Intellectual appears to be trying to argue that!
A Misleading Reading of the Evidence?
Mr Pascoe tells us in Dark Emu (2018 reprint, p 58):
“It may be that not all Aboriginal peoples were involved in these practices [horticulture], but if the testament of explorers and first witnesses is to be believed, most Aboriginal Australians were, at the very least, in the early stages of an agricultural society, and, it could be argued, ahead of many other parts of the world. In an article in Antiquity, Denham and colleagues say,
‘If the dispersal of greater yam occurred before the separation of New Guinea and Australia…then horticultural experimentation occurred in northern Australia before at least 10 000 years ago.”
- Denham,T., et al, ‘Horticultural Experimentation in Northern Australia Reconsidered’, Antiquity, no. 83, 2009, p643.
So Mr Pascoe’s writing skill is in building his theory’s frame-work, leaving out some crucial details, and then letting the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps, so as to paint a picture of a pre-historic, Aboriginal Australia experimenting with horticulture and successfully developing early agriculture, way ahead of many other parts of the world.
But is this really what Denham is arguing in his peer-reviewed paper?
Let’s read Denham’s words, on pages 643 and 644, before and after Mr Pascoe’s selected paragraph (which is in bold) :
“Banana and the greater yam can be added to taro as plants that were potentially subject to varying degrees of management and experimentation in northern Australia prior to the flooding of the Torres Strait...If the dispersal of greater yam occurred before the separation of New Guinea and Australia…then horticultural experimentation occurred in northern Australia before at least 10 000 years ago...According to this hypothesis, experimental horticulture occurred in parts of New Guinea and northern Australia prior to the flooding of the Torres Strait….From this perspective, present-day populations of banana, taro and the greater yam in northern Australia represent formerly managed plants that were abandoned….These experimental horticultural tendencies…were eventually transformed into various types of agriculture and arboriculture across most of New Guinea. By contrast, they were abandoned in northern Australia after the formation of the Torres Strait for as yet unknown reasons...and utilised plants faded into the regional flora. Only some remnant practices survive, such as planting in north-eastern Queensland, and the sustainable harvesting and replanting of tubers.”
That is, Aboriginal Australia tried horticulture but abandoned it in favour of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A few remnants survived in parts of NE Queensland, but possibly these were also slowly fading out as a cultural practice.
So, instead of Aboriginal horticulture being on an upswing, as it was in New Guinea, it had really been abandoned over nearly all of Northern Australia by the time of European settlement.
So no settled Aboriginal Agriculture to be seen here!