Why No Agriculture? Maybe it was due to Aboriginal Fundamentalism?
Mr Pascoe quotes the US anthropologist Aram Yengoyan in Dark Emu as follows :
‘Interpretation of Aboriginal society by archaeologists and anthropologists reflects, according to US anthropologist Aram Yengoyan, the reigning fashion in anthropological theory that often fails to acknowledge rites and ceremonies as religious and philosophical acts.
Not only does morality result from the Dreaming, but virtually all behaviour is an expression of a well-developed sense of moral conduct, which provides the basis for all human imperatives’ - (Dark Emu, 2018 reprint, p 178).
Mr Pascoe then continues himself with :
“The economic foundations of traditional society were inseparable from the philosophic and religious beliefs, and to see the spiritual life as simply superstition and myth means that the practical advances in food production become invisible.”
We actually agree with this idea that Aboriginal economic society was inextricable linked with Aboriginal philosophy and religious beliefs, but Mr Pascoe is wrong to claim that these then hid any advances in food production. The reason why the the ‘advances in food production’ were hidden from view was because there were none in Aboriginal hunter-gatherer society to see.
Let us explain using Mr Pascoe’s own reference, Aram Yengoyan, who Mr Pascoe, as usual, quotes selectively where it suits his narrative, but completely ignores those paragraphs of Mr Yengoyan, which we believe contradict Mr Pascoe’s theory.
Aram Yengoyan writes :
“One of the underlying themes in Aboriginal thought is the continuous collapsing of the natural into the supernatural and the supernatural into the natural. In fact, virtually everything in the supernatural sphere of life has a natural counterpart and vice versa…[T]he natural/supernatural distinction, which is so basic in Western thought has no relevance in Aboriginal culture…[F]or most Aboriginal cultures, the terrain as expressed through locality, residence, and livelihood is not only a territorial phenomenon, but also a spiritual force that relates to the whole question of existence and being.
Throughout Aboriginal religion, statements of spiritual meaning and content arise out of the Dreaming, an experience which all Aboriginals inherit (but cannot disinherit). This experience not only is the basis of emotional sustenance, but it provides the major vehicle by which morality is regenerated through time.
Not only does morality result from the Dreaming, but virtually all behaviour is an expression of a well-developed sense of moral conduct which provides the basis for all human imperatives. The sacred quality of the moral is never debated nor is it compromised in the rigors of everyday life. The code of morality is based on myth and liturgy, two areas which embrace almost every aspect of Aboriginal society. [T]he…fit between the natural and the supernatural means all nature is coded and charged by the sacred, while the sacred is everywhere within the physical landscape. Myths and mythic trackings cross over numerous tribal boundaries and over thousands of miles, and every particular form and feature of the terrain has a well-developed ‘story’ behind it.” - (ibid. 398-9,406)
To our Western eyes, this is a form of ‘religious fundamentalism’. This Aboriginal religion, its myths, morality and laws, was fully prescribed and understood by all members of the Aboriginal tribe such that no member could publicly stray outside its tight confines. When ‘sacrileges’ were deemed to have occurred, punishment was swift.
Now, one can imagine that this ‘fundamentalism’ is a very effective way to keep Aboriginal society operating within the bounds of an economic and social system that, by its very survival for some 50,000 years, must have been very successful.
However, we would argue that, by its very strict proscribed nature, this same system would not be encouraging and nurturing of experiments in economics and progressive social change. If a member of this society attempted a variation, or major change, that the Elders deemed to be too radical, it would be quickly classified as ‘sacrilegious’ and stopped before it had time to take hold. Therefore, any changes that did occur in Aboriginal society needed to be very small and occur very slowly to have any chance of survival. Otherwise they risked being classed as ‘blasphemy’ and snuffed out.
We would argue that the economic and social changes necessary to move from a hunter-gatherer existence to a settled agricultural one were just too great to be accepted within the Aboriginal spiritual and moral framework and so they never occurred. Aboriginal society was then in this sense trapped in the Stone-Age.*
So, imagine yourself as an Aboriginal girl growing up with your mother, digging yams day-in day-out. You, like your mother have an acute awareness of nature and have finely honed observational and memory skills. One year you revisit the same yam patch with your mother that your grandmother, and her grandmothers before her for generations, visited to collect yams. This year you notice an unusual, thick cluster of yams, growing together in a neat circle by the large rock where you like to sit and rest each year. You start to think, and finally you remember that last season, you were sitting on that rock and chopping the heads off the yams with your little stone knife, just like your mother showed you. You remember that you decided to play a game, just for fun, where you replanted those little yam heads back in the soil in a pretty circle, before heading back to camp. ‘Were those the yam heads I planted last year you wonder? They seem to have re-sprouted and grown to big fat yams this year.’ Later that night you relate the tale to your mother and ask her whether maybe you should plant more, to see them grow and increase for when we come again next year. She looks at you wearily, “Dear” she says, “we only need to do the increase ceremony like grandmother showed you, and then your totem, the yam spirit, will supply us with all the yams we need. It is not for us to interfere with the spirits by planting yam tops ourselves. I said the same to my mother when I was your age and I have always heeded her advice, ‘if you don’t want a crack on your head from your grandfather for suggesting such stupid things, you had best be quiet and just let things go as they are.’”
The Australian anthropologist, A.P. Elkin in his book, “The Australian Aborigines”, (1938, rev 1974, p222ff) describes in detail, the Increase Rites or Ceremonies of the Aborigines where they drew on their spirits and totems to increase natural species such as kangaroo, wallaby, lilies and yams, and phenomena, such as rain. Rather than take a direct action themselves to increase the population of an animal by domesticating and breeding, or a plant such as yam, by cultivation and transplanting, the Aborigines instead appealed to their spirits or totems with words to the effect, “let there be plenty of kangaroo here, and there.” They would then for example, blow powder from a stone at the relevant kangaroo sacred site, throw stones from a sacred heap, or take a mixture of a powdered earth and blood from the hunter’s vein, and leave it where the hunters hoped to find prey.
There are recorded observations of where attempts to ‘interfere’ with the natural/supernatural worlds by using man-made, agricultural techniques to improve the existing situation, by ‘sowing’ and ‘planting’, have been deemed to be ‘sacrilegious’ and quashed.
For example, E.A Worms, a German missionary and expert Aboriginal language linguist, writes :
“In accordance with the Dreamtime ‘law’, man is presumably obliged to contribute to this succession of natural events by carrying out ritual ceremonies (the so-called increase ‘ceremonies’), but it would be sacrilegious if he acted on his own.
In 1954 a Njangomda informant expressed this view in the following way:
‘woro wirina-go djunga-nga mono ngalba djibi, - Something put-for earth-in Not good Finish
goi, mai-ba djarulin-ganga bugari-gara-dja.’ - Animal plant and becomes to above to dream belonging-of
A free translation of this is:
‘Planting (or sowing) in the earth is not good; - animals and plants shall arise (become to above) from the Dreamtime (to the dream belonging)’.”
- In the translator’s postscript to Worms, Father Ernest A., and Petri, Professor Helmut, 1998, p214. Australian Aboriginal Religions, Spectrum. A reprint of Worms, Father Ernest A., 1986. Australian Aboriginal Religions, Spectrum. (translated from the original Australische Eingeborenen Religionen, 1968. in German).
So we can see how any Aborigine, who had “agricultural” thoughts that could be deemed to be ‘sacrilegious’, was in mortal danger for herself and possibly her whole band – and it was most likely to be a woman. This threat cannot be underestimated as the Elders were duty-bound to act in cases of sacrilege, even if the act was accidental. Blasphemous sacrilege or alteration to proscribed Dreamtime ritual (such as conscious agricultural techniques?), demanded immediate punishment and if the Elders did not act, the neighbouring tribes were duty-bound to take matters into their own hands. This blasphemy, or even the accusation of blasphemy, was a common cause of, or perhaps even a common excuse for, inter-tribal warfare resulting in major massacres of Aborigines by neighbouring tribes. This was noted by Kathleen Stuart Strehlow in her paper, The Operation of Fear in Traditional Aboriginal Society in Central Australia (ISBN 0 959576840), :
“I have also frequently heard the remark made that if any tjuruηa secrets were revealed to women and children, men from outside clans would intervene and kill the offenders unless their own council of elders had first taken action. Thus, in 1949, Rauwiraka told me the story of the alleged slaughter of a whole camp of natives somewhere near Mt. Eba many years ago. ... Men, women, and children were slaughtered, and their bodies flung into their own fires and left to burn. Thus was sacrilege punished by others, since the whole clan had shared in it.”
Therefore, if an enterprising Aboriginal band was found by a neighbouring Aboriginal band to be replanting yams tops and cultivating gardens for example, and this was deemed to be sacrilegious, it would invariably result in severe punishment including perhaps death to the apprentice “agriculturalists’. The risks were therefore far too high for any entrepreneurial Aborigines to consider a new career in ‘agronomy’. And so this religious fundamentalism is what may have contributed to continually snuffing out any major material ‘progress’ for Aboriginal societies over the past 50,000 years.
Note that we pass no comment here on the relative merits of the apparently successful Aboriginal hunter-gatherer lifestyle, compared to an agrarian one that may have potentially arisen. We merely wish to highlight the inherent religious fundamentalism of Aboriginal society that would not have allowed significant experimentation, or encouraged any ‘progressive’ ideas as we would now define them.
A further example of the reliance of the Aborigines on their spirits and totems to provide food as and when required, thereby obviating the need for the Aborigines to undertake ‘agriculture’, the anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry writes :
“As the totemic ancestors passed through the country they left stones or sometimes a tree, each of which is supposed to contain the ‘gunin’ of some animal, bird, fish, reptile, tuber and so on. By rubbing one of these or striking it with bushes and uttering a spell, the gunin will go forth and cause the species with which it is associated to multiply. The Aborigine has no granaries, but he has, if we may use the term, these “spiritual” storehouses, in that they insure him against starvation, and give him a sense of security and confidence in regards to his food supply for the coming year”
- Kaberry, P., Aboriginal Woman. Sacred and Profane , Routledge 1939 (2014ed), p203.
The Australian anthropologist, A.P. Elkin in his book, “The Australian Aborigines” (1938, rev 1974, p233-5), goes into great detail with regard to the philosophy, rites and beliefs of the Aborigines.
In his chapter on “The Food-Gatherers Basic Concepts”, he writes of the Aboriginal beliefs of time in that the past is considered all to be in the present, the ‘now’ and whatever has pre-existed is also now in the present and is not a new, or fresh creation, but is already here somewhere.
So, for example, if :
“a human being, or animal or plant species, or some natural phenomenon is not [visible or present ] this just means it is in an unseen phase of its continuous cycle of existence, a cycle which does not go forward, but is repetitive…It is…a reflection of the food-gatherer’s life. He does not develop, or expect to find, new or better varieties of yams or edible seeds, or to breed better “beef” wallabies. His existence depends on the repetitive cycle of the seasons, of the growth of yams in their usual places, and the “ increase” of wallabies in their regular time and place and so on. That is, it depends on the maintenance of the status quo”
So we would suggest to Mr Pascoe, no Aboriginal Agriculture to see here; and if it was to develop, it would take several more millennia, and possibly an Aboriginal ‘Reformation’, to shake off the constraints of the current Aboriginal religious fundamentalism.
* The rapid collapse of the 50,000 year-old Aboriginal society within a few decades of British settlement is testament to this entrapment in a Stone-Age culture. Interestingly though is the observable fact that over time, some 80% of Aborigines are now essentially fully assimilated into modern Australian society, whereas the remaining 20% that still live in remote regions, and still attempt to follow a lifestyle philosophically closer to the traditional, are the ones who we are told live dysfunctional lives and are greatly disadvantaged.