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Oldest Culture
The myth of the world's oldest culture


Mungo Man

Bradshaw PaintingsThe lost world of the Bradshaws

CitiesWhy no cities or villages?

DreamtimeThe Dreamtime

Megafauna
The extinction of the Megafauna

Migrant Flora and Fauna in AustraliaMigrantion of flora and fauna

wrestling and reconciliation
Wrestling and reconciliation

Retreat of rainforests in AustraliaRainforest Retreat

Aboriginal values


Red Earth Blue Sky

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Russel Drysdale The Ruins

Why didn't Aborigines build cities?

"Native Australia had no farmers or herders, no writing, no metal tools, and no political organization beyond the level of the tribe or band. Those, of course, are the reasons why European guns and germs destroyed Aboriginal Australian society. But why had all Native Australians remained hunter/gatherers? "-Jared Diamond

Australia is the only inhabited continent that lacked cities and even villages until European colonisation. Understanding why villages and cities never developed reveals something about the challenges of agriculture in Australia but may also hint at the possibility of agriculture developing in the past.

The main reason why villages did not exist at the time of European colonisation was that the Australian continent lacked a high-yield agricultural crop. In North and South America, civilisations were built around corn. In Asia, they were built around rice. In Europe and North Africa, they were built around wheat. In the Pacific, smaller communities were built around sweet potatoes and yams. Because sweet potatoes were introduced to Papua New Guinea from South America and rice was introduced to Indonesia from China, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that prehistoric humans were in the habit of transporting agriucltural crops over large distances. Therefore, it is probable that a high yield agricultural crop was introduced to Australia at some stage but it died out.

One reason for the extinction of introduced crops might be that northern Australia is fire-prone during the dry season and its soils suffers nutrient leaching during the wet season. Areas of the northern hemisphere that are similar distances from the equator don’t suffer the same problems because the vegetation is not as fire prone. Not only does this mean that communities don’t suffer a bushfire threat every summer, but significant amounts of vegetation are always decomposing slowly to replenish soils. As an added benefit, greater quantities of vegetation increase rainfall, and lock up more moisture in an ecosystem during the wet system where it is slowly released in the dry.

Aside from being more fire-prone, another challenge for farming in northern Australia would have been Australian marsupials. Kangaroos, wombats and possums would have decimated small gardens and wiped the crops out. Unlike animals of other continents, the Australian animals are difficult to exclude using fences because they can go over the top or underneath. Furthermore, because they are nocturnal, they do most of their garden raids by night when humans are not awake to defend their crops. For humans lacking guns or the inclination to eradicate the marsupials entirely, even elephants would easier to defend against.

As well as lacking a high yield agricultural crop, Australia lacked docile herd animals like cows, sheep, pigs and goats that could be enclosed in pens. Kangaroos, wombats, and possums would not have been suitable because that could not have been enclosed in rudimentary pens and could not be herded. (Even today, kangaroos are not farmed and only wild kangaroo meat is sold in shops.)

Because the pig was introduced to Papua New Guinea, potentially, it could have been introduced to Australia by the same humans that brought the ancestor of the dingo; however, perhaps it would have been targeted by the thylacines (Tasmanian Tiger), marsupial lions (Thylacoleo carnifex) and tasmanian devils that were once common on mainland Australia.

On the walls of the Kimberley are paintings of deer. The Bradshaw Foundation has explained the painting as likely to be of Sambar, which still exist in Borneo. It argued that the paintings are evidence that Bradshaw artists sailed between Asia and Australia. While there are no fossils to indicate they ever brought the deer with them to farm, the paintings should also be seen as possible evidence that they might have.

Deer painting - Bradshaws

Prehistoric painting of a line of deers in north Australia

Although the environmental conditions of Australia in 1788 were not conducive to the formation of villages or cities, conditions in the past may have been more favourable and there is some evidence that agriculture may have developed. Specifically, northern Australia was not always the fire-prone barren landscape it is today. When humans first arrived, it was covered in lush rainforest and was perhaps like Southern China and South America. During this time, high yield agricultural crops may have been part of the ecosystem. Kangaroos and wombats would still have been a threat, but high numbers of predators probably would have greatly reduced their number.

Not only did the rainforest make northern Australia suitable for agriculture, it also brought rain through central Australia. In a rainforest, up to 50% of rain that falls will be sucked up by trees, be transpired and fall again on the forest as rain. In Australia, the more that the rainforests retreated, the less water recycling that occurred. The tipping point seemed to be 40,000 years when rainforests that had existed for almost 100 million years were lost forever. Whereas once the Nullarbor Plain was home to forests and tree dwelling kangaroos, desert took over. Likewise, Lake Eyre, formerly a deep-water lake in Australia's interior, became a huge salt flat only occasionally covered by ephemeral floods.

Tarkine Rainforest

The Kimberley of Northern Australia is a relatively barren fire-prone region; however, 50,000 years ago it was covered in rainforest. Remnant rainforest clung on in gorges and shelters that protected them from fire and can still be experienced today. Sandstone domes have provided some protection from fire, thus allowing rainforest to hold on where shrub and fire prone woodland has taken over elsewhere.

Cuddle Springs in north central NSW is one place where there is some evidence that farming may have developed. Excavations by a team from the University of Sydney have found evidence of grinding stones and possibly megafauna living alongside humans for 10,000 years. (2) The presence of 30,000-year-old grinding stones is quite unusual because they predate all other grinding stones around the world by 20,000 years. They also suggest that there was a grain that had high nutrient value that was sustaining people in the region.

Another unusual feature of Cuddle Springs excavations were bones of the now-extinct Diprotodon, which showed evidence of being butchered by people. Weighing 32 times as much as a Red Kangaroo, the Diprotodon could have been enclosed in a pen and humans could have fed on its blood, milk and flesh. The Genyornis was another animal that was found to have lived alongside humans and being butchered by them. A flightless bird four times larger than an Emu, it could have been enclosed in a pens and humans could have fed on its eggs, and flesh. Either of the animals would have been sufficient to build small villages around.

The Lake Condah region of western Victoria is another place where the begginings of a civilisation may have emerged. Dr Heather Builth from Monash University found evidence that artificial ponds were constructed across the grassy wetlands. Channels were dug to connect them and eel traps were placed in the channels. Builth estimated that these farms could have produced enough eels to sustain 10,000 people. (3) Some circular rock foundations also indicated the possibility that stone dwellings were built and people lived in villages.

Although there is archaeological evidence of eel farming and stone dwellings, no English settlers ever recorded visits to Aboriginal villages, or seeing Aborgines live in villages. Considering that the English would have been excited to find a village of 10,000 people, and English values of the time placed great virtue on a settled existence, the lack of written records indicate that had a village existed, it would have fallen into ruin prior to the arrival of Europeans. It is possible that raiders could not have been kept away or perhaps droughts forced a return to a nomadic existence. Any village lacking diversity in food production would have been very susceptible to climatic variances, and would have found it difficult to grow beyond a basic level. It's possible that tribes lived a settled existence in times of plenty, but returned to hunter-gathering when the rains failed or some kind of ocean distrubance affected eel migration. Alternatively, many of the nomadic tribes may have fought for control of the eel farms in the good times, maintained them, then abandoned them when the droughts came. As the eel farms have been dated back 8,000 years, a cycle of villages forming and then busting could have continued for thousands of years. As a result, the villages never got beyond stone huts.

Aside from grinding stones, the butchered remains of extinct megafauna and stone huts around eel traps, some evidence of agricultural formation comes with the Bradshaw paintings of the Kimberly. The paintings are excess of 17,500 years old but unlike most Palaeolithic by hunter gatherers that have animals as the chief subject matter, the art has humans as the main subject and seems to show the hierarchical value systems found in agricultural societies. Like the hieroglyphics of Egypt and South America, these paintings may have also been a form of iconography. (The exact age of the paintings is unknown. All that is known for certain is that they are more than 17,000-years-old. They could be 50,000-years-old.)

When Europeans first arrived in Australia, they also found farming to be very difficult as well. In 1788, six cows, a bull and a bull calf were released on some average looking grass. Rather than stay put, the cows just wandered off in search of greener pasture and were lost for seven years. Grapevines wilted in the heat. Wheat fields were raided by Kangaroos and Wombats. Bushfires destroyed entire crops, houses and communities. Colonists noted the absence of fruit bearing trees and found it very difficult to find food in the Australian bush.

Today, even with the onset of modern technology, rural communities have not thrived as they have around the world. The macadamia nut remains one of the few native plants that is commercially harvested. Crocodile is one of the few native animals that is farmed. Both are great, but not sufficient to build civilizations around.

As for farming foreign produce, most of Australia's farms have failed. The Land and Water Resources Audit (1996-97) found that 80 per cent of Australia's agricultural profits are derived from less than 0.8 per cent of its agricultural land. To put it another way, 99 per cent of Australia's agricultural land makes little contribution to Australia's economy. Many of the farms, even the profitable ones, are not sustainable with the land. Many of these farms will not exist in 100 years, let alone thousands of years like some farms in Asia. Other farms only continue to exist because the federal government has provided welfare in times of drought.

Ironically, the difficulty in farming has now made Australia one of the most urban societies on earth, with 70 per cent of the population living in the 10 largest cities. Living off the Australian land is just too difficult to build a community around.

 

1)Burning caused megafauna extinction (http://info.anu.edu.au/ovc/Media/Media_Releases/_2005/_July/_080705magee.asp)

2)Dinnertime at Cuddie Springs: hunting and butchering megafauna? http://acl.arts.usyd.edu.au/research/cuddie/cuddie.html

3)Life was not a walkabout for Victoria's Aborigines - www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/03/12/1047431092972.html

 

 

 

[Top]

"They look ancient but at 10,000 years of age they’re much younger than the lightly built Mungo people. How could that be? " Mungo Man

"The Bradshaw Paintings are incredibly sophisticated, yet they are not recent creations but originate from an unknown past period which some suggest could have been 50,000 years ago." Bradshaws

"The reduction of plant diversity, however it came about, would have led to the extinction of specialized herbivores and indirectly to the extinction of their non-human predators." Megafauna extinction

" Is the keelback’s ability to coexist with toads a function of its ancestral Asian origins, or a consequence of rapid adaptation since cane toads arrived in Australia?" Migrant flora and fauna

"I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? (Jared Diamond)" Why didn't Aborigines build cities?

"It then dawned on the old man lizard that the lesson to be learnt by watching the kangaroos, was that death need not be the outcome of the fight." Wrestling and reconciliation