Australia's first farmers

THE still common assumption is that Aboriginal Australians in 1788 were simple hunter-gatherers who relied on chance for survival and moulded their lives to the country where they lived. Historian Bill Gammage might have driven the last nail into the coffin of this notion. 

Working the land ... Joseph Lycett's c.1817 watercolour, Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos, depicts the innovative use of fire burning [Credit: National Library]
Rather, Gammage argues, the first Australians worked a complex system of land management, with fire their biggest ally, and drew on the life cycles of plants and the natural flow of water to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods throughout the year. They managed, he says, the biggest estate on Earth. 

The publishers of his new book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, say it rewrites the history of the continent. It's a big claim. But not too big, Gammage says. ''When I look at the subject, I think, that's right. When I think it's my claim, I think people might regard me as a mug lair. But I believe the book will lead to a rethink of what the Aborigines did.'' 

Henry Reynolds, the historian who has written extensively on the effect of white settlement on indigenous Australians, says in a foreword: ''He [Gammage] establishes without question the scale of Aboriginal land management, the intelligence, skill and inherited knowledge which informed it.'' 

Gammage draws striking conclusions from more than a decade's research:

  • The Aborigines of 1788 could not have survived recent bushfires that killed dozens of Australians and destroyed houses, flora and fauna. Uncontrolled fire could wipe out Aboriginal food. People had to prevent it or die. They worked hard to make fire work for them. They burnt off in patches, knowing the sensitivities of different plant species and that timing was crucial. Evidence strongly suggests that no devastating fires occurred. 
  • The Aborigines farmed as an activity rather than a lifestyle. They grew crops of tubers such as yams, grain such as native millet, macadamia nuts, fruits and berries. People reared dingoes, possums, emus and cassowaries, moved caterpillars to new breeding areas and carried fish stock across country. 
  • They knew that kangaroos preferred short grass, native bees preferred desert bloodwood, koalas tall eucalypts and rock wallabies thick growth. The Aborigines set templates to suit land, plants and animals. Explorers such as Eyre, Mitchell and Leichhardt noted how indigenous Australians fired grass to bring on short green pick to attract kangaroos and other animals. To do this they had to make sure the grass was nutritious and to provide shelter so that the kangaroos would not feel vulnerable. 
  • There is no such thing as pristine wilderness in Australia. More trees grow in areas now known as national parks than did in 1788.
Gammage, adjunct professor in the Australian National University's humanities research centre, is best known for his ground-breaking The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War. His main sources for the new book are writing and art depicting land before Europeans changed it, anthropological and ecological accounts of Aboriginal societies, and the study of plant habitats. His huge bibliography include Abel Tasman in 1642, James Cook in 1770 and he credits researchers who sensed purpose in Aboriginal burning, including R.C.Ellis, Sylvia Hallam, Eric Rolls and Tim Flannery. 

Some critics assume that early colonial artists romanticised their landscapes but Gammage says they were the photographers of their day and sought accuracy. 

Joseph Lycett's painting, Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos (c.1817), depicts fire burning away from trees to a grassy area, driving kangaroos to the hunters' spears. By shaping the land carefully for grazing animals, the Aborigines paved the way for pastoral occupation. 

''The more carefully they made the land, the more likely settlers were to take it,'' he writes. ''The Dreaming taught why the world must be maintained; the land taught how. One made land care compulsory, the other made it rewarding.'' 

Charles Darwin called indigenous Australians ''harmless savages wandering about without knowing where they shall sleep at night and gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods''. Gammage believes we have not learned enough from them: ''Europeans defined civilisation as being like them. They thought Aborigines didn't know anything.'' He writes: ''We have a continent to learn … we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.'' 

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage (Allen & Unwin, $49.99). 

Author: Tony Stephens | Source: The Brisbane Times [October 01, 2011]

Posted by TANN on 1:30 PM. Filed under , , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

0 comments for Australia's first farmers

Leave comment

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Designed by SimplexDesign 2010. All Rights Reserved.