Some readers may think this question is based on a false premise. So I will begin by considering the claim that Australian Aborigines were farmers rather than hunter-gatherers before 1788 when Britain established a penal colony in New South Wales.
In 2014, Bruce Pascoe published the book entitled Dark Emu in which he argued that, in contrast to what most Australians believed, Aboriginal people were engaged in farming at the time British rule was
established. Unfortunately, Pascoe’s view remains influential despite having been debunked by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe in their book, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? which was published in 2021.
Sutton and Walshe
acknowledge that the 1788 economy was somewhere between simple hunter-gathering
and agriculture. They argue:
certain regionally specific Aboriginal economic practices as ‘incipient
agriculture’, as ‘proto-agriculture’ or as being at ‘an early stage in the
development of agriculture’ is to suggest an unfulfilled developmental journey.
We seek here to avoid this deficit model of the Old People, which is why we
prefer the term ‘hunter-gatherers-plus’. It describes people accurately without
attempting to place them in some supposed one-directional evolutionary scheme.”
Sutton and Walshe
suggest that the hunting and gathering economy in pre-colonial Australia was as
complex as gardening or farming. Even though it did not require deliberate
planting of crops, it required fine-grained knowledge of hundreds of species
and their habitats, annual cycles, names and generic classifications; of
methods for processing them and for preparing them as food, as tools, as bodily
decoration, and as ritual paraphernalia.
As documented by Sutton
and Walshe, the hunting and gathering lifestyles of Australian Aboriginals does
not conflict greatly with what I remember being taught about at school over 50
years ago. I think the main deficiency in the impression I gained was excessive
emphasis of the role of British pioneers in clearing wilderness, and
insufficient attention to the role of Aborigines in using slow-burning fires to
make the landscape more suitable for kangaroos and other grazing animals.
Bill Gammage’s book, The Biggest Estate on Earth (2012) made it abundantly obvious that European pastoralists did not need to make huge improvements to the land to make it suitable for grazing of sheep and cattle. Gammage compiled numerous descriptions of the landscape written by explorers and settlers and his book contains many landscape paintings made at the time of invasion/settlement.
The painting by Joseph Lycett at the top of this article shows people and
scenery in about 1820, somewhere near Newcastle (possibly Eleebana on Lake
Macquarie, close to where I currently live). Lycett was a convict who had been
convicted of forgery. The local authorities made good use of his skills by
encouraging him to paint what he saw.
What prevented Aborigines from farming?
and Walshe make it clear that Aborigines were botanically knowledgeable. It was
not lack of knowledge that prevented Aborigines from farming:
“Knowing—as the Old People did full well—that plants grew
from seeds and tubers, ignorance played no role in this rejection of farming.
It was cultural resistance, and loyalty to their own ways.”
Sutton and Walshe
note that Aborigines in northern Australia adopted some of the cultural
practices of Torres Strait people but did not adopt their horticultural
practices. They also note that British settlers “tediously and
repeatedly” claimed that many of the Aborigines they encountered were “averse
to hoeing, weeding and planting”.
The Aboriginal aversion to farming seems to have been
associated with religion. They saw the
practical aspects of obtaining food as “inseparable from their commitment to a
spiritual understanding of the origin of species, to conservative values in
relation to change, and to a cosmology in which economics had to be in
conformity to ancestral authority”. In their way of
thinking, the combination of “spiritual propagation” and practical resource
management made farming unnecessary.
Sutton and Walshe explain the concept of “spiritual
propagation” as including speaking to the spirits of ancestors and other
rituals at species-related sites, maintaining a rich system of totems for
various species, and handling food resources with reverence. They provide
examples of the ways in which spiritual maintenance and practical resource
management combined to characterise “the classical Aboriginal economy” in
different parts of the country.
My response to the question posed at the outset is that Australian
Aborigines were still hunter-gatherers in 1788 because they
did not have strong incentives to adopt different lifestyles. By today’s
standards their pre-1788 societies were not idyllic, but a stable equilibrium seems
to have evolved in which change-resistant cultural practices had become
That is only a partial answer to the question of why
Australian Aborigines did not become farmers. At some stage in the past, people not
far away had also been hunter-gatherers before adopting farming practices. They
must have faced different incentives. Perhaps their cultures evolved to become
less hierarchical, providing greater scope for innovative individuals to try
new ways of doing things. Perhaps they had an incentive to begin farming
because population pressures were a greater problem for them. If so, that raises
further questions. For example: Was climate change a greater problem in the
regions in which they lived? Was their mobility restricted in some way to make a
hunting and gathering lifestyle impossible to sustain?
Prior to the
establishment of a British colony in Australia in 1788, the lifestyles of Australian
Aborigines can best be described as complex hunter-gathering. Their lifestyles
required at least as much botanical knowledge as does simple gardening or farming.
Lack of botanical
knowledge certainly does not explain why Aborigines did not become farmers. Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe
suggest that Aborigines had an aversion to farming that stemmed from their
religious beliefs. As Aborigines saw it, the combination of spiritual propagation of species and practical
resource management made gardening or farming unnecessary.
Aborigines were still hunter-gatherers in 1788 because they did not have strong incentives to adopt different lifestyles. A stable equilibrium seems to have evolved in which change-resistant cultural practices had become embedded. However, that leaves open the question of why people living nearby on Torres Strait islands had stronger incentives to adopt gardening practices.