Monday, August 14, 2023

Why were Australian Aborigines still hunter-gatherers in 1788?

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.

The Dark Emu debate

 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:

“Referring to 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?

 Sutton 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 embedded.

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. 


Philip Eliason said...

There are many cases where due to various pressures, eg extended drought, warfare etc, the boundaries between sedentary ag and transhumance shifted. Today's demographic/ethnic boundaries in Niger and Mali reflect this interaction in a low technology cultural interface. Some societies have powerful social divisions between pastoralists and farmers, or between high caste and low caste where the higher status would not stoop to farm or carry a trade. I saw and see this in the MENA region. That dynamic equilibrium as a feature of pre-1788 hunting and gathering would have created a 'why bother' approach to farming or to see farming as available but not acceptable is not too surprising. Perhaps the jump in calorie production and consumption was not large enough to create a convincing "demonstration farm" before 1788.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comment Phillip.

Anonymous said...

Winton, Not on topic but are you going to write something on The Voice?

Winton Bates said...

Hi Anon, I am trying not to think about the Voice - too much anguish, acrimony, and ultimately disappointment no matter which side wins.