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Australian Indig Agriculture pre-Euro: 2003 World Archaeol Congr#5 Washington DC

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      The Fifth World Archaeological Congress
      Washington D.C.

      Theme: Empowerment and Exploitation: North-South and South-South
      Archaeological Encounters

      Session: Inherited models and the denial of prehistory: challenging
      existing concepts of agriculture

      This paper is solely for distribution among registered participants
      of WAC-5 and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form. The
      moral rights of the author are hereby acknowledged. The views
      expressed are those of the author and not those of WAC-5, its
      organisers or sponsors.

      Agriculture: was Australia a bystander?

      Peter White,

      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.

      The ethnography

      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

      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
      we know?
      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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