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7 AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL

CIVILIZATION

AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL
CIVILIZATION ON A SECLUDED CONTINENT

By Craig Benjamin

Even as vast agrarian civilizations began to appear in Afro-Eurasia and the Americas, other parts of the world pursued more traditional lifeways. In Australia, Aboriginal people continued the foraging life of their ancestors until European colonists arrived late in the 18th century.
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The foraging life


For the first 240,000 years of our existence, all humans pursued nomadic foraging for their survival. Around 11,000 years ago, some communities began to adopt agriculture and live in one place. This agricultural revolution sent human history spiraling along different paths. In those regions where agriculture appeared, population densities increased. Early agrarianera villages evolved into towns and cities, and by 3000 BCE complex states started to emerge in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Over the centuries that followed, the increasingly powerful leaders of these early states learned to control larger regions and more and more resources, until huge agrarian civilizations covered large regions of the Afro-Eurasian world zone and, later, the Americas. In many other places on Earth, however, humans continued to follow the foraging, nomadic lifeways of our ancestors, neither adopting agriculture nor building states and civilizations. In regions dominated by agrarian civilizations, historical change began to occur at a faster and more intense pace than in those parts of the world that never adopted farming. In Australia, Aboriginal people continued to pursue their perfectly adapted foraging lifeways until European colonists turned up on the continent just 250 years ago.

Lifeways in the Australasian world zone


The Australasian world zone consists of the mountainous and heavily vegetated island of New Guinea, the vast continent of Australia, and the large island of Tasmania, all located along the southwestern edge of the Pacific Basin. In the jungles of New Guinea, first occupied 60,000 years ago, humans began to occupy 60,000 years ago, humans pursued foraging lifeways until small-scale farming started to appear around 5000 BCE. Hundreds of villages were built in the forests close to the farms, but none of these evolved into towns or

states, and power in these communities remained consensual rather than coercive. Yet the agricultural practices pursued there were sophisticated: New Guinea farmers appear to have understood the principles of crop rotation, mulching, and tilling the soil long before Eurasian farmers did. In Australia, the ancestors of the Aboriginal people arrived by sea from South East Asia somewhere between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago. Even at the height of the last ice age, when sea levels were lower, this migration to Australia required the crossing of several wide ocean straits. So the first Aboriginal people advanced boat-building and navigational skills that made them among the most technologically sophisticated people on Earth at that time. During the Era of Agrarian Civilizations (roughly 2000 BCE to 1000 CE), the Aboriginal population probably numbered somewhere between 300,000 and 750,000, with the densest concentrations living in the southeast of the continent. They spoke up to 750 different dialects but similarities suggest that all of these languages had a common origin. Such a variety of dialects might suggest a wide range of lifeways, but virtually all indigenous Australian communities engaged in very similar cultural practices. Whether in the harsh interior of Australia, in the great tracts of eastern bushland, or along the coasts, the overwhelming majority of Aboriginals remained seminomadic foragers from the time they first migrated to the continent until the arrival of Europeans at the end of the 18th century. Each group had its own traditional territories, which were defined by geographic markers like rivers, mountains, and lakes, and the well-being of these lands was fundamental to the success of the people. Aboriginal foragers fished with fishbone-tipped spears, hunted kangaroos with wooden weapons like the boomerang or woomera (a spear-thrower), and used wooden and stone digging sticks to access nutritious roots and insects living just below ground. At sacred sites across the landscape, elders passed on oral creation stories from the Dreamtime (or the Dreaming), when humans, animals, and spirits all emerged and populated the land. Indigenous Australians cared for their environments in the manner of foraging peoples everywhere, although paleo-Aboriginals were unwittingly responsible for the extinction of many large animal species in Australia, and their practice of firestick farming (using fire to control vegetation and encourage habitats for certain game animals) contributed to the eventual desertification of the continent.

Music and dance were critical to the spiritual practices of Aboriginals. Both men and women gathered together regularly to perform ritualized dancelike ceremonies, accompanied by vocalists, percussionists, and musicians, at large ceremonial gatherings called corroborees. Corroborees had to be held where resources were plentiful, such as in the foothills of the Australian Alps when the large Bogong moth swarmed between September and November. By feasting on the moths, the people of the region were able to hold big gatherings at which they exchanged ideas and information, formed marriages, engaged with seldom seen acquaintances, conducted rituals, and played games. Gifts were also exchanged, because gift giving was an important way of cementing social relations within these larger networks, using the principle of reciprocity to maintain strong ties. These corroborees helped ensure survival and ongoing communal relationships through exchanges of materials and ideas. One exception to this nomadic lifeway was the Gunditjmara people of the Murray-Darling Basin in the southeast of the continent, who appear to have supported a sedentary culture through eel farming. The Gunditjmara are an excellent example of an affluent foraging lifeway a community that lives in such a resource-rich region that it is able to abandon nomadism and become sedentary while still pursuing foraging. Archaeologists have found evidence of the remains of hundreds of permanent huts, 75 square kilometers (45 square miles) of artificial channels and ponds for farming eels, and trees used for smoking the meat to facilitate its transportation to other parts of southeastern Australia. The Gunditjmara lived in large, permanent villages and had powerful chiefs. In other words, even though they were not agriculturists, they adopted many of the social and political features of agrarian society. These discoveries have seriously challenged some of the more traditional understanding of Aboriginal lifeways. Despite this example of affluent foraging, and the relative proximity of northern Australia to farmers in New Guinea and nearby islands, Australian Aboriginals never made the transition to agriculture. A range of geographic, climatic, and social theories, none of them wholly convincing, have been promoted to try and explain the fact that when European explorers arrived in Australia, the continent was populated entirely by foragers. The most likely explanation is that Aboriginal Australians lived in a land of relative plenty,

and that with such an abundance of resources there was simply no attraction in abandoning a successful nomadic lifeway for a more demanding and stressful lifeway based, for example, on the cultivation of yams and taro. To this day some traditional aboriginal groups enjoy foraging and prefer the taste of bush tucker (foraged foods) to commercial, processed foods. So, although resource abundance and well-adapted technologies definitely led to some local examples of affluent foraging, this alone was insufficient to tip these communities over into full-scale farming.

Australian Aboriginal cave art


Australian Aboriginal rock art dates back to at least 40,000 BCE, and perhaps earlier. Recent research suggests that there was no gradual evolution of technique, but rather that artistic ability appeared suddenly and explosively. Although specialists have been able to sequence chronologically the thousands of known examples, aboriginal rock art sites tend to be dynamic and represent images accumulated over thousands of years. In western Arnhem Land, local environmental and climatic changes are clearly represented in

the art. A dry era is represented by depictions of extinct ancient crocodiles; the subsequent wetter Estuarine-era art shows rising river levels, barramundi, saltwater crocodiles, and the extraordinary Rainbow Serpent; and the later Freshwater period features images of geese and goose feathers. Sometime in the last 3,000 years, Aboriginal artists began painting X-ray images of freshwater fauna, revealing the internal anatomy of various birds and reptiles. The Aboriginal people of western Arnhem have their own more spiritual sequence for the rock art. They attribute the oldest images to the Mimi people, who they believe inhabited the land during the Dreaming, before the Rainbow Serpent created the people. The Mimi taught the Aboriginals how to survive in the region, and then became spirit beings. Aboriginals themselves created the more recent art. The Wandjina paintings of the Kimberley depict the powerful creator spirits, who control the elemental forces of nature such as the wind, storms, and floods. These gods are shown in human form, but with large bodies outlined in red, having huge dark eyes and no mouths, and wearing halos of clouds and lightning.

should not necessarily think of these changes as signs of technological decline, for they might also have represented clever adaptations to climatic changes and to trying to survive in social isolation. Abandoning fishing and focusing instead on acquiring foodstuffs richer in fats, including seals and seabirds, might have been a smart ecological choice. The same is true of all the Aboriginal communities isolated from the rest of the world on the vast Australian island-continent. It would be a mistake simply to think of Aboriginals as somehow stuck in a Paleolithic time warp. Archaeological research in Australia reveals a long history of innovative adaptations to changes, including climate change. The rock art we discussed above clearly shows us that lifeways changed profoundly in response to changing climate conditions. The experience of the Gunditjmara suggests that the transition to sedentism was occurring in Southeast Australia in ways similar to that which preceded the emergence of agriculture in other parts of the world like the Fertile Crescent. There is also evidence that the Aboriginal population might have doubled or even tripled during the last 2,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. New types of tools appeared during this period, notably fishhooks made of shells in regions where fishing became more intensive. There is also growing evidence of increasing interconnections over large areas: Materials from southern Queensland, and stone axes from the Mount Isa range, turn up in sites in southern Australia. Ochre mines in western Australia produced so much ochre that interregional trade, rather than local demand, must have driven production. When we consider the lifeways of Australian Aboriginals during the Era of Agrarian Civilizations, we are not so much observing humans trapped in Paleolithic times as communities practicing sophisticated adaptations to a range of environments and changing climates. We dont know how this culture would have evolved had Europeans not arrived suddenly to interrupt the flow of collective learning and historical change.

Paleolithic lifeways in the Era of Agrarian Civilizations


Tasmania, a large island off the south coast of eastern Australia, was once connected geologically to the mainland. The experience of Aboriginal Tasmanians provides valuable insight into the reason foraging lifeways persisted for so long in Australia. Once sea levels rose and isolated Tasmanian populations, smaller, simpler social structures quickly appeared there. Archaeology shows us that some technologies that existed earlier in the islands history, such as the use of needles and other bone tools, and fishing, seem to have vanished in the thousand years or so before the arrival of Europeans. One reason might be that innovating and even preserving complex technologies is much harder to do within small, isolated populations simply because collective learning is much more limited. But we

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Sources
Bellwood, Peter, and Peter Hiscock. The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005. Callaway, Ewen. 2011. First Aboriginal Genome Sequenced. Nature, September 22. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110922/full/ news.2011.551.html.doi:10.1038/news.2011.551 Edwards, W.H. An Introduction to Aboriginal Societies. 2nd ed. Sydney: Social Science Press. 2004. The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society, and Culture. Edited by David Horton. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994. University of Copenhagen. 2011. Aboriginal Australians: The First Explorers. Science Daily. September 22. http://www.sciencedaily.com / releases/2011/09/110922141858.htm

Image credits
Australian Aboriginal sculpture, National Museum of Australia A 1930 photograph of an Australian Aborigine E.O. Hopp/CORBIS Aboriginal rock painting of Dreamtime figures Charles & Josette Lenars/CORBIS Aboriginal rock painting of barramundi fish Charles & Josette Lenars/CORBIS

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