Australian Indig Agriculture pre-Euro: 2003 World Archaeol Congr#5 Washington DC
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The Fifth World Archaeological Congress
Theme: Empowerment and Exploitation: North-South and South-South
Session: Inherited models and the denial of prehistory: challenging
existing concepts of agriculture
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Agriculture: was Australia a bystander?
Archaeology, University of Sydney, Australia
Ethnographically, Australian and New Guinean societes are contrasted,
the former as hunter-gatherer, the latter as agricultural. This
contrast has directed our research to the point where similar kinds
of evidence are interpreted in different ways in the two areas.
This is a paper sparked by noting that nobody in these sessions has
mentioned Australia. Of course not, many will say, because Australian
Aborigines were never agriculturalists (cf. White 1971, Yen 1995
(which inspired the title)). I want to suggest that the situation may
not be quite so simple.
I refer first to some of the very early ethnographic records
which detail the complexity of some Aboriginal economic patterns. The
nature and extent of some of the plants on which these societies
relied is then noted, and finally I bring the discussion back to
questions of what our research is actually looking for and some of
the problems in looking for it. I suggest that the classic
ethnographic contrast between the mobile hunter-gatherers of
Australia and the sedentary New Guinean agriculturalists may have
over-dominated our view of the past and thus our research directions.
Over the last 30 years the simple characterisation which contrasted
mobile hunter-gatherer Australia with a clearly agricultural
sedentary New Guinea has been challenged from both sides of the
Torres Strait. Since New Guinea is already being well discussed here,
I focus mostly on Australia.
Australia has been regarded as full of hunter-gatherers ever
since Captain Cook in 1770 described them as having '..no fixed
habitation but move about from place to place like wild Beasts in
search of food.[and]..we never saw one Inch of Cultivated land in the
whole country'. Research over the past 30 years has shown that while
there may have been some truth in this characterisation among the
Aboriginal groups Cook encountered, in other areas of the country
things were different. Because of Australia's history, only the very
earliest observations can be used, along with some archaeological
One of the best studied of the very early European accounts
of Australian situations is Hallam's synthesis of southwest
Australian ethnography (Hallam 1989). In the early Nineteenth
Century, a number of alluvial river flats, spread over several
hundred km north from Perth, were noted as having 'superior huts,
well marked roads, deeply sunk wells and extensive warran [yam]
grounds'. Early observers remarked upon the relative permanence of
occupation, with its concomitant proprietary rights to areas for
gardening. Firing the country away from yam gardens was frequent, but
the rights to this were also carefully controlled.
We rarely have such detail elsewhere in Australia, although
the elaborate water-control systems for eeling (Lourandos 1987,
Coutts et al. 1978), with their large-scale trenching and banking and
their ethnographically described (if archaeologically hard to detect:
Clarke 1994) villages clearly imply similarly low mobility and
landscape reorganisation. In other areas, increases in the proportion
of useful plants in a vegetation community are known, but without
accompanying elaborate landscape modification or (semi-) sedentism
(e.g. Hynes and Chase 1982, Chase 1989).
There is strong evidence that similar styles of economic
behaviour existed elsewhere before contact, but have either gone
unreported or the implications have not been fully explored. The most
obvious case is the Central and Lower Murray Valley (Pardoe 1994,
1995). Pardoe's remarkable synthesis of riverine evolution and
skeletal biology, along with evidence of the development and nature
of cemeteries (Pardoe 1988, Littleton 1990, Pretty 1977) argues
strongly for very high population densities and a territorial
organisation based on strongly exclusionary principles. This is
supported by Webb's (1984, 1995) research on tooth wear, pathologies,
stress and decrease in stature, all of which lead him to describe the
Central Murray communities as 'very settled', and consisting of
a 'large, sedentary population intensifying its economy to feed
itself' (1995: 280). Proprietary rights to plant food sources and the
elaborate manipulation of these may be legitimately inferred in
contexts in which pathologies and diets of the past are so similar to
those of many agricultural communities. The start of this complexity
can be traced into at least the early-mid Holocene.
The plants relied on as staples by the societies mentioned here are
notably tubers (roots, rhizomes). In West Australia, Dioscorea
hastifolia grows further south than any other yam. Yen (1995), in a
typically enigmatic statement, I think suggests that the cultivated
plants may now be hard to distinguish from their wild forbears (or
successors). Elsewhere he notes (1989:59) that the environments in
which yams were primarily grown by Aborigines were very different
from those of its natural habitat. Removal to river alluvium and
cultivation there presumably resulted in some modification to the
In southeastern Australia the daisy yam Microseris lanceolata
(formerly scapigera) was the staple food for people in many regions,
with dense concentrations of plants over large areas being recorded
by some early reporters (Gott 1982, 1983). One statement, for
instance, describes plants by the millions. Whether its morphology or
genetics were altered by Aboriginal cultivation remains to be
determined since all the fields were rapidly destroyed by sheep and
the plant is so far unidentified in archaeological contexts, . The
botanist Gott considers that it was a staple resource 'which could be
used year-round' (1982:10) and notes the various ways in which
Aboriginal treatment of the plants would have improved harvests.
What was used to sustain the very dense Murray populations is
not at all clear. Given the swampy billabong nature of the river
valley, roots and rhizomes from rush-type water plants such as
cumbungi (Typha spp.), Scirpus spp. and Triglochlin procera seem
probable (Gott 1983). This is supported by Webb's observation of
thick calculus build-up on teeth, similar to dental deposits on teeth
from the Papuan coast (Webb 1995:279-80). As with daisy yams,
Aboriginal field treatments of burning and harvesting are likely to
have changed plants and increased harvests.
I turn now to the concept of agriculture. Smith's recent interesting
discussion (2001) agrees with Yen (1989, 1995) that there can be no
agriculture without domesticated plants. But he conceptually centres
the process of domestication firmly between hunter-gatherer and
agricultural societies, encouraging us to consider societies which
are neither of these as 'low-level food producers', whether or not
domestics are present. Smith (2001:14) claims the two main
characteristics of domestication as a) species-specific genotypic and
phenotypic change and b) the reliance of these changed variants on
humans for survival. This gives us a 'clear and constant vantage
point', Agriculture is defined as relying on domesticates for >50% of
the annual calorific budget; societies whose reliance on domesticated
plants is less than this are 'low-level food-producers'. He suggests
that while determining the calorific intake of societies is
archaeologically difficult, determining changes in species should be
I have doubts as to the generality of this claim in the
Australian and New Guinean contexts. I deal with the simpler case
first. Many New Guinea societies, both highland and coastal, were, to
European eyes, agricultural when contacted. They relied heavily on a
few varieties of plants which were grown in fenced gardens. The
phenotypes of some of these plants, notably sweet potato, were
certainly changed and those forms would not survive without human
help. In some localities agricultural practices resulted in visible
changes to the landscape. As archaeologists, our primary assumption
has been that this visible agricultural endpoint has a history. I
think we have based this history far more on direct and proxy
evidence of landscape modification, inferences from settlement sizes
and the appearance of exotic domestic animals (cf. e.g. Spriggs
1996), than we have on actual plant evidence. It is certainly true
that the history of change in some tree crops is being provided by
macroscopic remains and pollen data (e.g. Lepofsky et al. 1998). But
it is also true that neither of Smith's criteria -- changes in
species nor heavy reliance on them -- are archaeologically documented
for any root crop in New Guinea (e.g. Haberle 1995 and cf. Hather
In New Guinea, in contrast to Australia, it is the
ethnographic evidence of a diverse range of reliances on plants
mostly (but cf. sago, pandanus) organised into gardens, that has
given us an end-point back from which we work. If there were no
ethnographic evidence I believe our reconstruction of agricultural
history would be much less certain. When New Guinea societies
became 'agricultural' in Smith's terms is almost impossible to
assess. Many are probably not so even today (see e.g. Guddemi 1992,
Roscoe 2002); for some Highlanders, maybe 2000 years, but how would
What then of the Australian situation? As noted above,
Australian societies have always been characterised as hunter-
gatherer. Further, it is largely on the basis of ethnographic
evidence, starting with Cook and continuing until the Twentieth
Century, that the Australians have been described as 'domesticating
the environment' rather than domesticating plants (Yen 1989). In
Smith's terms, they are located among the low-level food producers.
But the ethnographic evidence I have cited and perhaps other
Australian data, suggest that some Australian societies actually may
have been 'agro-ecosystems that limit subsistence choice because of
environmental transformation or labour demands', which Spriggs
(1996:525), following Harris and Rindos, defined as agriculture.
However, I suggest that, similarly to the New Guinea
situation, our background concept of Australian economies has been
based primarily on a gross reading of the ethnography. Thus because
Australians are 'hunter-gatherers', there has been little incentive
to investigate the archaeological record for the presence of
domestication processes (in the sense described above). Further,
since the Australian staples were roots, the archaeological evidence
will be very difficult to find, if it exists at all.
The Australian ethnographic picture is heavily obscured by
the European invasion. Until recently, the rapidity with which
Aboriginal societies were destroyed and the extent of that
destruction have been underestimated. It was accompanied by diseases,
which sometimes seem to have preceded the actual arrival of people.
Many Aboriginal societies lost 90% of their population within a very
short time, sometimes as little as a year. It is therefore likely
that complex and elaborate systems of food production, especially if
not based on much landesque capital, would have disappeared very
rapidly. The plants that were staples were either almost wiped out by
invading sheep, or reverted rapidly to a natural state, leaving no
evidence of their former state in the form of hard seeds or skins .
Perhaps Australia should not be left out of this symposium?
Maybe it wasn't just a bystander -- or not all of it anyway?
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