Aboriginal - Agriculture

It has long been remarked that Australia remained a nation of nomadic hunter-gatherers while most people in the rest of the world, including New Guinea, became cultivators. Other traits of the Neolithic period, such as the domestication of animals and the use of pottery, likewise were never adopted in Australia these traits never penetrated the fifth continent.


What is surprising, in view of the arrival of the dingo from the outside world, is that more new elements did not also reach Australia at that time. The pig was probably in New Guinea by 10,000 years ago, when a neck of land still linked New Guinea and Australia, and was certainly present by 6000 years ago, yet the pig was completely absent from prehistoric Australia. The pig was not native to New Guinea but must have been brought there from mainland southeast Asia or islands such as Java or Sulawesi, where it was indigenous. The other major element found in New Guinea at an early date but absent from Australia was agriculture. Agriculture was being practiced in New Guinea by 9000 years ago. The evidence comes from the work of Jack Gilson, Doug Yen and others in the Wangi Valley, near Mount Hagen, in the Central Highlands. In the late 1960s, when some tea planters drained a swamp, they discovered ancient wooden paddle-shaped spades, digging sticks and stone axes.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

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These were associated with many water-control ditches, which were probably dug to aid the growing of taro, cultivated for its edible, starchy, tuberous root. The oldest ditch, 2 meters wide by 1 meter deep at least 450 meters long, was radiocarbon-dated to about 9000 years old. Taro, like the pig, is not native to New Guinea, so it must also have been introduced. Other evidence in New Guinea, shows that by 6000 to 5000 years ago, plant cultivation, based on both native and non-native species, forest clearance, relatively permanent village settlements, and complex water management systems had already developed.

Possible reasons put forward to explain why Australian Aborigines did not become farmers have been lack of contact with agricultural groups, cultural conservatism, hostility to newcomers, lack of suitable plants and animals to domesticate, and deliberate choice.


At the time of the drowning of the land bridge across Torres Strait, about 6500 years ago, subsistence throughout the region was based on hunting and gathering. Although agriculture developed early in New Guinea, it only became intensive in some regions, and wild food continued, until the present day, to make a large contribution to the diet in many areas.

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In lowland Papua, north of the Torres Strait, there was a blend of limited agriculture with foraging (hunting and gathering). The system in the northern Torres Strait islands was similar, but further south, in the southern Torres Strait islands and Cape York Peninsula, subsistence was based on wild plant and animal food. These differences cannot be due simply to climatic differences, since across the 1000 kilometres from Oriomo to Cooktown, the climate is relatively uniform, with a markedly seasonal rainfall. Yet across this tract there is a gradient from the horticulturalists of New Guinea, with their pottery, pigs and fenced gardens, to the nomadic hunter-gatherers of Australia, with none of those things. The Torres Strait islands form a set of stepping stones between Papua and Cape York and thus hold the key to discovering how much contact and what sort of contact there was between prehistoric Australia and the outside world. fortunately, a considerable amount of research on Torres Strait has been done over the last decade.

Agriculture was not practised on all the Torres Strait islands. The western islands are generally high islands, composed of old volcanic rocks, surrounded by shallow seas, reefs and sandbanks that provide a home for innumerable fish, shellfish, turtles and dugong. The land provided a variety of plant food, particularly yams and the fruits of the mangrove, the same nutritious species that was used on Cape York. In this rich environment thee was normally no need to engage in the labour of gardening. But in times of stress, when there was a shortage of turtles, gardens of yams were planted as a standby. There were dingoes on the islands but no pigs, another contrast with Papua New Guinea.

North of this Prince of Wales group of islands, agriculture was more firmly established. Yams were apparently the main root crop grown, and taro, sweet potato, banana and sugar cane were also important. The crops were usually grown in plots cleared by slash and bun. The wild vegetation was cleared from an area with the aid of fire and the seeds scattered over or planted in the disturbed ground. The eastern islands in Torres Strait, which are small and low, with rich soils but less rich marine resources than their western neighbours, practised agriculture extensively, Agriculture is an intensification of food procurement and it is very possible that it began on the Torres Strait islands because of population pressure resulting from the enormous loss of land as the Sahul shelf was flooded by post-glacial rising seas, which crowded the previously widespread population onto islands. However, this is speculation; no archaeological evidence is available to indicate how long these islands have been inhabited. Stone tools, stone arrangements, middens and fish traps have been found on the islands, but no site has yet been excavated to provide an idea of length of occupation.


On Cape York islets, there are indications that shellfish were an important part of the diet, at least over the last 1000 years. The existence of huge shell mounds on the west side of Cape York, at Weipa, has been known since 2902. Archeological investigations, by Geoffrey Bailey in particular, have shown that the mounds were of human, not natural, origin. Doubts about the human origin of the Weipa mounds and other mounds, both in Australia and globally, were raised by Tim Stone in 1989, and he was still arguing in 1993 that 'natural processes of shell deposition explain the origins of the Weipa shell mounds ... the unusual shapes and heights of many of the Weipa shell deposits can be explained by the mound-building b behaviour of the Orange-Footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt.' Other authorities disagree with Stone, and according to Roger Cribb, his hypothesis is 'strictly for the birds'! Excavation of sections of two of the larger mounds revealed the presence of charcoal layers, bone and stone - all distinguishing marks of midden deposits. and the shells are predominantly of a single species: cockle shell (Anadar granosa).

There are about 500 shell mounds along the banks of the four rivers that flow into the bay where the modern bauxite mining town of Weipa stands. Thanks to their remoteness in the early days of European settlement, and more recently to the conservation policy of Comalco, this magnificent series is one of the few major groups of shell middens in Australia to be still almost intact (see plate 30). The mounds generally occur in clusters. Most are only 1 to 2 metres high, but some reach a height of 9 metres, and the tallest is no less than 13 metres high.

It has been calculated that the largest mound has a volume of 9400 cubic metres, and that the 500 mounds contain 200,000 tonnes of shell, or about 9000 million cockles! radiocarbon dates from the base of the excavations show that the mounds began to accumulate about 1200 years ago. This means that at Weipa 9 million cockles were collected each year, yielding about 27 tonnes of meat: enough to feed eighteen people for the whole year. The main artefacts found were a few ground, polished boned points, of the type bound to wooden handles for use as spear barbs. Broken pieces from stingray barbs, presumably used for a similar purpose, were also present in the middens. Several wallaby incisor teeth had been artificially split to form a cutting edge, forming a toothed scraper, probably used for sharpening spear tips. One of the puzzles about the cockle shell mounds was that more than half the cockle shells appeared to be intact and unopened. This conundrum was solved by local Aborigines, who showed that heat is traditionally used to open the shells, and the meat is removed without having to break the shell, which then closes again. (The live shells are placed in a pile on the ground and a small fire of leaves and twigs is made above them, which creates enough heat to open the valves.)

Aboriginal at Ayers Rock, Australia

The other puzzle about the middens of Cape York and Arnhem Land is why they were so much larger and more steep-sides than the middens of the southern half of the continent. The answer would seem to be the wet season of tropical Australia, which turns low-lying land into a swamp or floodplain. Bailey revisited the Weipa mounds recently in the wet season and found a very good reason for their existence - they were the only things in the landscape above water! The tall, steep-sided mounds at Weipa are all on flattish, open ground or on isolated ridges clear of woodland, whereas on the higher ground among the trees, the mounds are lower. The reason for developing some mounds on waterlogged open ground would seem to be the desire to have dry camping places above water, to be near the cockle beds and to escape the insect pests, which at times make life in the woodlands intolerable. Shell mounds in fact make excellent living sites; they are dry, good heat insulators, comfortable to sleep on with the aid of a few sheets of bark, and they afford the chance of a sea breeze and a strategic lookout for defensive purposes.

The Weipa mounds are not unique on Cape York as originally thought, but similar huge shell middens have been studied by Beaton and Chappell on the eastern side of the cape, in the Princess charlotte bay-Bathurst Head area. The shell middens occur in clusters, as at Weipa, and consist mainly of cockle shells, and some are of similar dimensions. The mounds dated so far all belong to the Holocene. In the same region, dugong hunting sites, bone points, shell ornaments and many rock paintings have been found. The subjects of the colourful rock art reflect the marine environment; they are mainly sharks, porpoises, turtles, trepang, starfish, dugong and canoes. Other unusual motifs are winged insects, probably moths or butterflies.

Torres Strait has often been seen as a clear-cut frontier between the gardeners of New Guinea and the hunter-gatherers of Australia, but even this brief look at the evidence shows that there is no frontier but, rather, a complex situation, with considerable variety within a similar type of economy extending right across the Strait. Different islanders achieved different balances between wild food and cultivated food, and between a more nomadic and more sedentary type of existence, but none of them were the pig-keeping, pottery-using, gardening, villagers who practised 'agriculture' in New Guinea. We know that Australian Aborigines had some contact with some of the Torres Strait islanders and with Macassan fishermen from Indonesia, but they may have seen little horticulture being carried out. So although there was contact with cultivators, there was probably not much prolonged contact. 


The argument that Aborigines were too conservative to adopt agriculture is hard to sustain in view of all the other elements in Aboriginal culture adopted from overseas. These include outrigger canoes, platform disposal of the dead, wooden sculpture, fish-hooks, complex netting techniques, and various art designs, myths and rituals. The main influences in the Kimberley and Arnhem Land seem to have come from Indonesia - such as the meander-type design found on pearl shell ornaments in the Kimberley - and the carved figures, opium-type smoking pipe and dugout canoe with sails of Arnhem Land. New Guinean influences can also be seen in Arnhem Land, for example painted grave posts, wooden gongs, painted skulls, string figures, arrow-like reed spears, and bark mourning armlets and belts.

Australia - Aboriginals receiving food rations from the white homestead

In Cape York there is undoubted Papua New Guinean influence on technology, ritual, art, mythology, language and physical characteristics. The Cape York Aborigines possessed skin drums, bamboo smoking pipes, tobacco and double outrigger canoes. And in physical characteristics, New Guinean traits were marked at the north of the peninsula but declined steadily to the south. There was certainly contact and marriage with outsiders and adoption of some of their ideas and technology, although this seems to have come about through trade and raids rather than by any settlement voyaging down the Cape York coast by islanders. Some material items were imported, others made locally in imitation of Papuan prototypes. The Cape Yorkers had some large, double outrigger dugout canoes, up to 18long, which had originally been made in the Fly River region of Papua New Guinea and had been acquired through trade or as 'cast-offs', but most of their canoes were similar but much smaller double or single outriggers. The Aborigines were not head-hunters, so they did not participate in the extensive trade in canoes organised in Torres Strait by the head-hunters.


Something that has long puzzled cultural historians is why the bow and arrow were never used in Australia. If mainland Australia, like Tasmania, had been completely isolated from the outside world since their invention, their absence would be explicable, but this is less easily explained when other items, such as outrigger canoes, were adopted by Aborigines. The bow and arrow were in use in every inhabited continent except Australia during the post-glacial period. It has usually been assumed to be a more efficient hunting and fighting weapon than the spear, but in the case of Australia, at least, this assumption would appear to be wrong. The bow and arrow were used in Papua and in the Torres Strait islands, and they were seen by Captain Cook on small islands immediately off Cape York, but they were not used by Australian Aborigines. It seems that not only Cape York Aborigines but also the islanders regarded the mainland spears and spear-throwers as superior weapons for fighting, hunting and fishing. The main items traded by Cape York Aborigines were spears, which were eagerly sought after in the western Torres Strait islands as far north as Mabuiag, Spear-throwers were also traded to the islands and were used in spear-fishing for dugong. The two main types of spear traded were the fishing spear with four bone barbs, and the fighting spear with a bone lashed on to form both a barb and a point (see figure 16.2). Spears were probably Australia's first export goods.

Australia - Aboriginal Chief, Workii Tribe, 1900

A spear, particularly with its range and penetrating power increased by the extra leverage of a spear-thrower, was doubtless more effective than an arrow against the large marsupials found in Australia. Arrows were used to hunt the largest Papuan wallaby, Macropus agilis, in the trans-Fly River region, but much larger animals exist in Cape York and other parts of Australia, with tougher hides, against which an arrow would have little effect. It appears that the Australian Aborigines were selective, taking what was mot useful or most appealing from overseas, but rejecting other items. That they had, and have, a great capacity for change is apparent. Both in prehistoric and historic times, people successfully adapted their technology and lifestyle to the changing environment. For example, when, for the first time, Tasmanian Aborigines encountered dogs, they rapidly acquired them and turned them into effective hunting dogs. It should also be pointed out that conservatism - or at least a very slow rate of change - is the normal state of affairs in human societies. Conservatism only seems exceptional to us because we live in a period of immense change and tend automatically to equate progress with change. Thus what should surprise us about prehistoric Aboriginal society is not how little change there  was but how much.


It has been suggested that new elements, such as agriculture, did not penetrate prehistoric Australia because of hostility on the part of Aborigines to newcomers. The main way that an archaeological site can tell us about relations between two peoples is when traded items are present. In any case, Aboriginal relations with the outside world varied tremendously from region to region and from time to time. This seems to be the case with relations between Aborigines and the Indonesian fishermen, who sailed their praus from Macassar to northern Australia each year in search of trepang, also called 'beche de mer' or 'sea slug'. The trepang industry began in AD 1720, according to Campbell MacKnight, the major authority on the Macassans. It was largely controlled by Chinese merchants resident in Macassar, who exported the dried sea slugs to China, where they were highly valued for making soup and as an aphrodisiac. Trepang fishing involved catching the animals by hand or net or by spearing, then boiling, gutting, recooking with mangrove bark to give flavour and colour, then drying and smoking. The end result looked like 'sausages which been rolled in mud and then thrown up the chimney' according to naturalist Alfred Wallace.

Australia - Aboriginal Hunter

This complex processing necessitated lengthy stays on shore and the setting-up of camps, stone fireplaces with huge, iron boiling-down cauldrons, smoke houses, and wells for drinking water. Along the coast of Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys, trades still remain of Macassan visits, the last of which took place in 1907. The remains include broken pieces of pottery and glass, and tall, green tamarind trees, sprung from the seeds of the astringent tamarind fruit brought by prau from Indonesia. The Macassan camps were situated in positions that could be readily defended, such as small islands or promontories. Historical records from Indonesia testify to hostility from Aborigines and numerous massacres of prau crews. Yet, at times, relations were friendly, and the Aborigines even travelled overseas to Macassar on praus. The Arnhem-Landers adopted Macassan words as well as new items into their material culture, notably smoking pipes and small dugout sailing canoes. The Indonesian name for the canoes, 'lepa-lepa', became 'lippa-lippa' in Arnhem Land.

The trepang fishermen did not attempt permanent settlement and kept to the shore, never penetrating far beyond th4e mangroves fringing the coast. foreign intruders who did try to traverse the interior in northern Australia often did not live to tell the tale. This hostility to foreigners may well have been one reason why farmers or even their ideas did not penetrate prehistoric Australia. 


In assessing the suitability of prehistoric Australia for agriculture, the question of the possible domestication of Australian mammals is easily answered: thee were no native marsupials suitable for domestication. None of the animals that were domesticated in other countries existed in Australia in prehistoric times, there were no pigs, cows, sheep, goats or chickens in Australia then. However, other native birds, such as geese, pelicans or scrub turkeys, might have been domesticated by a people so inclined. In northern Australia, plants are gathered which are cultivated on the other side of Torres Strait. One such food plant found at a few places along the eastern coast of Cape York in prehistoric times was the coconut palm, which probably established itself naturally following chance dispersal of coconuts across the sea as flotsam. There is no evidence that Aborigines deliberately planted or tended coconuts before the arrival of Europeans. 

The yam (Dioscorea species) was a staple in both areas, and also present were other tubers: taro (Colocasia species) and 'Polynesian arrowroot' (Tacca species). However, it is not just the presence of a food plant that is important; its relative abundance or scarcity and its ease or otherwise of cultivation must also be considered. A large number of food plants that grow wild in Cape York, but which are domesticated in Asia, are adapted to regular rainfall and have a limited distribution in the infertile soils and seasonally dry climate of Cape York. The plants that flourish in the steady rain of tropical New Guinea would need much more effort in northern Australia. The soils most favourable to agriculture in Cape York were occupied by rainforest. This could have been cleared by would-be farmers with the aid of fire, but motivation would have had to be strong to undertake such labour. Unlike the islanders, the mainland Aborigines could respond to good shortages by moving elsewhere, so the motivation to cultivate gardens was unlikely ever to be strong. The seasonally dry monsoon climate and poor soils of Cape York have been seen as the main barrier to the spread of Papuan species into Australia.

Australia - Aged Aboriginal King,
New South Wales c. 1901

The economy of one coastal group in northern Arnhem Land has been studied in depth by researchers and in a year spent with the Anbara of the Gidjingali language group, they recorded every facet of the economy: what people ate, how many hours and how far they walked each day on the food quest, what artefacts were used for each activity, how often they moved camp, what refuse was left behind, and so on. This type of study, in which the researcher studies a living human society on the field to gather data that help archaeologists to understand the past, is known as 'living archaeology' or 'ethnoarchaeology'. The important part played by Aboriginal women has been brought out by research work. In Aboriginal society there is a strong division of labour. The women generally gather plant food, shellfish and small animals, while the men hunt and fish the larger game. Women's contribution to the diet is less spectacular but more reliable, and they provide the basic regular food. 

These hunter-gatherers, on one of the world's riches coastlines, have two semi-agricultural practices. The first concern yams, one of the principal starch-yielding staples of tropical Australia. For the Anbara, the parsnip yam Dioscorea transversa was particular important. When yams were dug out, the top of the tuber was left still attached to the tendril in the ground so that the yam would grow again. The same practice has been recorded from other parts of Arnhem Land and from Cape York. At Lockhart, on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula, the vines were marked as a sign of '[ownership. Yams were also planted on offshore islands to extend their distribution and to ensure a 'reserve' supply. This is certainly plant tending and management, if not quite agriculture. True agriculture would have produced a higher yield per plant, but would have involved the labour of tilling the ground.
The other semi-agricultural practice of the Anbara was the deliberate spitting out of fruit tree seeds into the debris of fish remains and shells in refuse heaps at the edge of a camp. These midden soils, with their compost of decaying organic matter and lime from shells, provided an ideal environment for tree growth, so in a few years the camp site would be well supplied with fruit trees. Indeed, there is a consistent association between old camp sites and trees with edible fruit. This meant that stands of native fruit trees can be used by archaeologists to discover prehistoric sites, in the same way that the presence of exotic trees often leads the colonial archaeologist to the ruins of a historic building.
Although prehistoric Australia was not endowed with the corn that formed the basis of agriculture in Mexico and Meso-America, or the wheat and barley of the Middle East, it does have one native cereal grain, which became the major food in parts of arid inland Australia. This was wild millet (Panicum decompositum). Panicum and one of the main grasses utilised, the Setaria species, are closely related members of the same plant families, which in other parts of the world produced the domesticated common panicum (Panicum miliaceum) and Italian millet (Setaria italica).
Australian Aboriginal camp - Lake Tyers, Victoria PU 1905
Cereal gathering was predominantly an adaptation to the arid lands of the dry heart of Australia, in areas that received rainfall of 300 millimetres or less. In better watered areas in the north and around the coasts, the fruits, nuts and tubers of plants provided the main vegetable food rather than seeds. The seed-collecting economy of Aborigines of the Darling Basin of western New south Wales has been studied in some detail by Harry Allen. Until the 1880s, the semiarid basin of the Darling River was inhabited by Aborigines of the Bagundji language group. The Bagundji, or 'river people', lived on both sides of the large, slow-flowing Darling River, and practised a riverine economy based mainly on aquatic foods, such as fish, shellfish, ducks and bulrush roots, and on the collection of cereals. In spring and summer food was usually plentiful, but winter was a time of stress, when the river was less productive of food. Then the people dispersed in smaller groups into the back country, where they collected wattle and flax seeds, lured emus emus into net traps by means of a decoy horn that imitated the cry of a female, and drove kangaroos into nets, using a team of bearers or a few men firing the grass. Pools of rainwater provided drinking water in winter, but in the scorching heat of summer these soon evaporated, and the only water available away from the river was that stored in the roots of some plants or carried in kangaroo skin bags.
In summer the main vegetable food was the seeds of the native millet, which grows only in summer and seeds between December and March. One of the main problems with gathering wild cereals is that the seeds tend to ripen at different times, making it difficult to harvest large quantities of grain at any onetime. The Bagundji cleverly overcame this problems by gathering the grass when the seed was full but the grass still green. The grass was then stacked in heaps and the seeds left to dry and ripen, when they were threshed so that the seeds all fell to the ground in one place. This harvesting of grass seed was done on a large scale. When the explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell was travelling down the Darling River in 1835, he reported that 'the grass had been pulled, to a great extent, and pilled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of hayfield ... we found the ricks, or hay-cocks, extending for miles ... the grass was of one kind, a species Panicum ... and not a spike of it was left in the soil, over the whole of the ground ... the grass was beautifully green beneath the heaps and full of seed.' Mitchell made his observations in July, and what he saw was a method of 'in-field' storage of seeds that must have been harvested at least three months earlier.
The harvesting was done b y pulling up the cereal grasses by the roots and pulling the stalks off, or just pulling the seed off into a bark dish, the usual method in Central Australia. In one area, cooper's Creek, in southwestern Queensland, a stone knife was used for reaping. Stone knives were also used for reaping in the early days of cereal growing in the Middle East, so this important evidence of semi-agricultural practices in inland Australia. It also shows the archaeologists what to search for at sites, for reaping grass stalks with stone knives produces a distinctive type of sheen on the edge of the tool, called 'use-polish'. Seed-grinding stones are distinctive, as they are larger, flatter and smoother than stones used to grind up other plant foods, such as fruits and nuts (figure 17.1). In fact seed-grinding stones should really be called millstones, since they are used for the milling of flour. Such millstones were found in some of the Darling basin sites. And analysis of the distribution of all grindstones from New South Wales in the Australian Museum in Sydney shoed a correlation between the presence of grindstones and that of a wild mullet.
Archaeological evidence from the Darling basin shows a strong continuity in lifestyle but also some changes, such as the adoption of the specialised small tools about 2000 years ago. Thirty thousand years ago the Mungo people lived on fish, shellfish, small mammals, reptiles, birds and emu eggs. Fifteen thousand years ago the lakes dried up[ and the focus of occupation shifted to the rivers, but the diet remained essentially unchanged, except for the addition of grass seeds. Seed-grinding stones are associated with middens post-dating the final drying up of the Willandra Lakes, and the same economy based on fish, shellfish, small mammals and cereals still exited in the nineteenth century. Why did the cereal gatherers not become cereal cultivators? They had all the 'pre-adaptations' generally considered necessary: they ate a broad spectrum of wild foods, they had grindstone technology and storage facilities. The semiarid river basis and humid Western slopes of inland New south Wales offer similar environments to those of Mexico and Mesopotamia, there agriculture did develop although the latter two regions have more varied terrain and probably suffer less disastrous droughts and floods than inland Australia.

Contemporary Australia -- The famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House!

It may be that hunter-gatherers in Australia were so affluent that they had no need to increase the yield of food plants or to store food. This affluence may have been achieved by the establishment of an equilibrium, in which population was kept below the level the country could support - its carrying capacity. In other words, the available food could have bed far more mouths than actually had to be fed. There would thus have been no stimulus to increase the food supply by developing agriculture, unless some environmental or population stress were experienced. This seems to be the most plausible explanation for the absence of agriculture from prehistoric Australia. The people had no need to increase the food supply, because they kept their own population in balance with their environment. The return from their highly efficient foraging was so great that expenditure of additional effort on cultivating crops was not worthwhile. The Badundji were in some form of equilibrium with their food supply; their relatively low population density was due largely to the incidence of droughts. During bad seasons newborn children were killed, but there is no evidence that droughts caused deaths in the rest of the population. Thus the number of mouths to feed was regulated by bad seasons, and little effort was needed to find enough food during normal or good seasons.
Agriculture implies the production of food surpluses, which are often stored. Some storage of grass seed was practised both in the Darling basin and Central Australia. The seed was stored in skin bags or wrapped up in grass and coated with mud. In Central Australia wooden sides might be sued, and one store of seed was found in which an estimated 1000 kilograms of grain were held in seventeen huge wooden dishes, about 30 centrimetres deep and 1.5 metres long. Storage of food was also practised elsewhere in Australia. The nuts of the bunya-bunya pine were sometimes buried to be eaten later, and the nuts of the cycad palm were sliced, wrapped in paperbark and placed in grass-lined trenches, which were then filled with earth. These trenches were as much as 6 metres long and formed probably the largest Aboriginal larder so far recorded in Australia. The tubers of waterlilies and yams were occasionally stored in Cape York, and in Arnhem Land yams were placed in stacks ready for the lean winter months. These yams were probably protected from animal predators by the poison they contained, which could only be leached out of the yams by complex processing, as was the case with cycad nuts.
Long-term preservation of many foods, however, presented serious problems. Indeed, the difficulties of food storage in the Australian environment may be of prime importance in understanding why food surpluses sere not produced. The combination of high temperatures and pronounced seasonality of rainfall made food storage difficult in tropical Australian, not only for Aborigines but also for early European settlers. Early explores, even with the benefit of salting and smoking techniques unknown to Aborigines, often found that the game they killed went bad within a few hours. In many of the food preservation techniques used in other parts of the world boiling was an essential part of the process, but Aborigines had no way of boiling food. On the Torres Strait islands, almost within sight of the tip of Cape York, large shells were used to boil up slices of turtle meat, which were then stuck on skewers and dried in the sun. This preserved meat provided food for canoe voyages lasting several weeks. In contrast, on Cape York, shells were used as water containers but not for boiling, cooking was done in ground ovens or by broiling, grilling or roasting.
Generally, Aborigines made no attempt to store meat, fish or shellfish, but one remarkable exception has been found. Near Lake Victoria, in western New South Wales, a heap of freshwater mussels buried in a sand dune was exposed by wind erosion. Close examination of the hoard of 360 shells revealed that they had been stacked in neat layers and were still alive when buried. It seems that mussels can live for weeks or even months deep in moist sand, so the hoard acted as a 'living larder', like a tank in a gourmet restaurant containing live lobsters. While grain and other plant food is much less prone to going bad, there are still many hazards, such as damage from water, insects - especially termites - birds, diseases, locusts, dingoes and burrowing animals. Dingoes are particularly persistent. In some parts of the Australian bush, the graves of Aborigines and early settlers can be seen heaped with large stones to keep the dingoes off. Dingoes have even been observed opening food tins with their teeth and extracting the contents with their long tongues.
The other main factor operating against food storage was the traditional nomadism of Australian Aborigines. Groups might stay for several months at the same camp in a rich environment, but no groups stayed in the same place all year round. Where food was less abundant, they would move camp more often. A few items, such as heavy grindstones, might be left behind, but hunter-gatherers carried all their basic equipment along with them. and of course babies and young children also had to be carried. Comparison of the material culture of different regions has shown that the largest range of material goods is owned by those in rich environments, where there is little nomadism. Thus the Bagundji of the Darling River had far more material possessions and more elaborate huts than Aborigines of the southeastern highlands, who had to move camp much more often. Another type of food storage was practised, which is quite invisible in the archaeological record but was probably of considerable importance in those parts of the continent that were less rich in food and where preservation of food in the extreme heat was a real problem. This type of food storage is the concept of a 'living larder', or refuge area. In the desert and semidesert regions of Central Australia, there are a few favoured environments centred on permanent water in rock holes or in soakages in otherwise dry river beds. Such places were not used for regular foraging, but were kept as last retreats in time of drought. Examples of such 'gavem reserves are Partjar, in Clutterbuck Hills, Western Australia, and the Finke River at Hermannsburg Mission, west of Alice Springs. In these refuge areas, Aborigines at times increased the amount of game by moving kangaroos and other animals into them.
In the Western desert, Aborigines possess the technology to prepare and store many of their staple plant foods, but 'it is hard to imagine what advantage these people would gain from industriously gathering, processing and storing large amount of plant staples that are often available in a sort of de facto storage in the wild caused by natural desiccation. In particular, the quandong fruit remains available for long periods on the ground, in a sun-dried, desiccated condition, as long as the weather remains dry. This makes it an important food ruin drought years, and it is a highly nutritious fruit, with twice the vitamin C of an orange. Some plant foods were stored in desert Australia, such as the fruits of the Solanum and the wild fig, which keep well and were packed up into balls of ochre the size of a basketball and stored in trees. There are also more quandongs growing around old Aboriginal camp sites than elsewhere; in some places, water has been diverted into small channels to water the plants. This would seem to be casual cultivation of the type also practised with fruit trees in northern Australia.
The idea of restraint in taking animal and other food is supported by the system of taboos, making certain foods forbidden fare for particular people in a tribe. Thus in the southeastern highlands and on the central Murrumbidgee River, the eating of emu flesh was forbidden until the age of manhood; as the explorer Charles Sturt commented, 'This evidently is a law of policy and necessity, for if the emus were allowed to be indiscriminately slaughtered, they would soon become extinct. Among the Walgalu tribe of the Tumut Valley it was forbidden to eat emu eggs, which must have been conservation measure in this highland area, where emus can never have been plentiful and are now reduced to two small flocks at the northern and southern ends of the Kosciusko National Park. The maintenance and increased of the food supply was also the subject of a great deal of ritual, involving complies and lengthy 'increase ceremonies'. These ceremonies ensure the continued fertility of growth human and non-human populations by re-creating the founding drama to renew the life-force in living things. In Central Australia, about 20 percent of plants have special increase ceremonies with associated songs. Some are women's ceremonies, some men's, and some are joint. Such ceremonies were to transmit to the next generation vital information about the location of water sources and food plants and the habits and movements of game. In a society without written records or books, information is transmitted by example and experience and in stories, art, songs and ceremonies. This traditional life has been put on record recently by workers.
The main reason that agriculture, with its sedentary lifestyle and increased material possessions, did not develop in Australia was probably affluence. In the tropical north the abundance of wild food meant that Aborigines had no need to adopt the more laborious gardening pracitised on some Torres Strait islands. Once this choice had been made in the north, where there would have been knowledge of the islanders' methods of food production, intensive cultivation techniques were unlikely to spread further south in the continent. In the centre and south of the continent there were virtually no foods that could have been domesticated except the wild millet of the Darling river and cooper's Creek basins, which was exploited intensively but not stored on a large scale or planted. The people of these inland riverine plains were, therefore, really the only people in temperate Australia who could have become cereal farmers. Their exploitation of wild millet has been called 'incipient agriculture', and it provided about 30 percent of their diet, but they did not take the final steps of tilling the soil, planting seeds and storing the surplus food produced. No doubt the labour involved in tilling and planting outweighed the possible advantages. 'The Bagundji round, after a long period of experimentation, that by hunting and gathering a wide range of foods and by using a sophisticated array of highly specialised techniques, their labours ensured a maximum return of food. When food was difficult to obtain, the food quest simply required more time and effort rather than new strategies. There was also little pressure on the amount of land available, in strong contrast to the Middle east and the narrow neck of Mexico. Thus when times were hard, the people could simply move more often and rfu5ther afield. In the toughest environment of all, the Western desert, journeys of 400 to 500 kilometres were common, especially during droughts. In recent times it has been recorded that the people from Tikatika moved nine times in three months, foraging over an area of almost 2600 square kilometres.
Australia is the world's direst and probably most capricious continent. Sometimes there is abundance, sometimes disaster - such as the interminable drought in the 1960s which brought the last desert people to seek water at the boreholes of the white people. Conditions and rainfall are most unpredictable in the Centre, but even in the lush tropics, food sources available in profusion one year can be wiped out the next. This happened on the Arnhem Land coast, where an influx of fresh water from unusually heavy monsoon rain wiped out whole beds of one-shell species, which in the previous year had contributed 61 percent of the total weight of shellfish eaten. Such shortages were infrequent but unpredictable and severe. The Anbara can cope with such losses because they have a varied, broad-based economy, and do not rely on one or two foods. In this situation it is wiser not to have all your eggs in one basket. The typical Australian clan's economy is flexible, with a wide variety of foods being sought and advantage being taken of seasonal abundance or chance events, such as the stranding of a whale. Such a broad-based system minimises risks and overcomes shortages of any one type of food much better than can an agricultural community that relies on more restricted food sources. Aboriginal Australia was not vulnerable to famine though the failure of one crop.
The Aboriginal population was controlled by the food resources available, which in turn were related to water resources: the areas with the highest rainfall were generally richest in food. The number of mouths that could be fed was regulated by the food available at the leanest time of year. In temperate regions this was usually winter. The summer abundance of food was used not to feed more people by collecting and storing surplus food, but as a time when there was more leisure for intellectual life. In a rich environment the food quest will only occupy an hour or two each day in the good season; in the poorest environment of the western Desert, it generally requires less than six or seven hours of work for a woman each day. Even during drought, only two or three hours of collecting by the women will provide a day's food for the whole group. Not only did Aboriginal men and women living a traditional life have more leisure than is available. To the average farmer or office-worker, but they also generally ate better. The diet of those groups whose economy has been recorded in detail emerges as more balanced, varied and nutritious than that of many white people. The Anbara have an average intake of about 2400 kilocalories a day, of which 4-0 to 50 percent comes from the flesh of fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and about fifty species of land animals and birds. Since the recommended energy intake for adults is about 2000 kilocalories, the Anbara are feeding well. Their economy is based on the eating of meat (used in the broad sense to include the flesh of fish and shellfish also), but many plant and insect foods are also high in nutritional value. Mulga seeds contain more protein than peanut butter; yams can grow to the size of a man's head and are equivalent to sweet potatoes in food value, and one witchetty grub yields the same amount of protein as a pork chop.
The quality of life and the amount of leisure available in traditional Aboriginal communities were remarkably high. Those who are not convinced would probably have their doubts dispelled by comparing the physical and spiritual health of a group leading a traditional life, such as the Anbara, with the pitiful state of those living on tinned food and soft drinks in some government settlements. Archaeological evidence ahs shown that the Australian economic system of a varied rather than specialised diet obtained by seasonal movement has great antiquity. The diet of people at Mungo 30,000 years ago is similar to that of the Bagundji in the nineteenth century, except for the addition of grass seeds. A similar, equally broad-based, diet seems to have existed 20,000 years ago at Devil's Lair and Miriwun in western Australia. The same species of shellfish, seals, fish, birds, mammals, bracken roots and grass-tree pith were being eaten at rocky Cape in Tasmania 8000 years ago as those on the southeastern Australian coast when Captain cook arrived. It seems that the basic adaptation to the Australian environment took place when the continent was first occupied, indeed, the environment was, to a remarkable degree, modified by its prehistoric occupants. Once the nomadic way of life had become firmly established, with its consequent need to travel lightly, it was unlikely that agriculture, pottery and a sedentary life would be adopted. The nomads corned by early white settlers were poor in material possessions but rich in spirit, leading a secure and healthy life ideally suited to their environment. Captain cook perceived this as long ago as 1770. Emphasising the dignity, simplicity and self-sufficiency of "Aboriginal society, Cook wrote:
From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans. They live in a Tranquility which is not disturb'd by the Inequality of condition: the Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &. ca, they lie in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome air, so that they have very little need of clothing and this they seem to be fully sensible of, for many to whom we gave cloth &. ca to, left it carelessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seem'd to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.

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