|Whoever heard of Aborigines living in stone houses, congregating in villages, planting crops, developing grasslands for animals and storing food?||The evidence for all these aspects of Aboriginal life has been around for many years. But not even scholars, let alone land-grabbing graziers and governments, wanted to accept it.|
Such lifestyles perhaps would make Aborigines appear a sophisticated race living in a planned and complex society. Better to believe they were primitive, stone-age creatures who really did not use the land and therefore it was free for the taking by the white man.
However, studies by archaeologists -- notably the management archaeologist with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Ms Anne Ross; a New England University expert,Dr Harry Lourandos; and the Austra1ian National University's Ms Elizabeth Williams - have overturned the preferred white Australian view of Aborigines.
A thesis recently completed by Ms Ross brings together new evidence and largely ignored facts from the past to cast a new light on Aboriginal lifestyles before the arrival of Europeans in Australia.
A fascinating fact to emerge is that some Aborigines built stone houses with thatched roofs and chimney vents.
When Ms. Ross mentioned the existence in western Victoria of the stone remains of these houses in a recent address to a conference of Architects, loan planners and landscape architects, the assembled body of habitation experts were astounded.
Like most white Australians, their image was of Aborigines,living under skimpy bark and leaf whirlie shelters. Had they not been taught at School that the Aborigines did not build houses?
Yet the first evidence of the stone houses on the rocky slopes near Hamilton - Malcolm Fraser territory - in western Victoria was disclosed by the Victorian Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robertson, in the 1840's.
He drew pictures of the houses in his journals which have been tucked away in the Mitchell Library of NSW for years. They remained there unexplained because most whites and anthropologists were not receptive to the idea that Aborigines could build houses.
Modern archeologists have studied the stone remains in recent years. Now, as other evidence appears of Aborigines living much more sedentary and complex lifestyles than previously imagined, the stone houses of western Victoria call no longer be ignored.
Ms Ross said archaeologists and historians had begun taking an interest and re-assessing such evidence only in the past decade.
For example, recent studies of skeletal material had produced evidence of sedentary occupation by Aborigines living in villages along the Murray River, she said.
Stephen Webb, of the Australian National University, discovered that Murray River Aborigines had suffered anaemia, ear infections and other dietary diseases, indicating this they had undergone periods of malnutrition in poor seasons as a result of remaining in riverside villages.
However, they did not starve. Therefore, they did something about their food shortages.Evidence suggests that they planted crops of yams and grass along the Murray.
The white man has conveniently forgotten the evidence of Aborigines planting crops. But Governor Grey, of Western Australia, whose boat on one occasion was wrecked on a river trip, described seeing acres of yam fields.
Ms Ross said there was ample evidence of desert Aborigines, after gathering grass seeds for flour-making, then scattering seeds on the ground for new growth next season. In Arnhem Land, Aborigines habitually left yam tubers in the ground for next year's harvest.
Archaeologists have found evidence of food storage by Aborigines in the Sydney region. The Sydney tribes salted and dried fish and meat and hung it in trees away from dogs.
Visitors to Brewarrina in western NSW can see for themselves the intricate rock fish trap maze built by the Aborigines of the Barwon River.
But one of the most spectacular Aboriginal food harvesting systems involves the irrigation channels of Toolondo near Horsham in Victoria.
The Aborigines or that area built 2 km. long ditches from one side of the Great Dividing Range to the other, connecting swamps to ensure that they did not dry. At the same time, the channels contained a series of traps for the harvesting of eels.
In the eel season, large gatherings of up to 1000 people came to the site and lived together for periods of a month or more.
"The fact that large groups could congregate and that people could travel to join the eel ceremony, meant that the Aborigines had a well organised social system", Ms Ross said.
"Clearly, there must have been trading, marriage ties and legal system to allow people to travel to this centre. And, of course, they must have had means of food production. They did not live on eels alone.
White people have long believed that the Aborigines hardly touched the landscape of Australia. Archaeologists have found otherwise.
When Europeans arrrived 200 years ago,they were not seeing virgin land, as they thought.
The first Furopeans described the Sydney region as an open-forested grassland arae through which horses could be ridden. Indeed, they regarded it as ideal fox-hunting land.
They did not realise that it was like this, to a large extent, because is was a man-made landscape created and managed by the Aborigines.
The Aborigines for thousands of year had been burning the land, or "firestick farming", as Rees Jones described it.
These fires created grasslands for kangaroos and thus provided a readily accessible supply of meat.
"The Aborigines were not the ultimate conservationists living in complete harmony with nature as many Europeans like to think," Ross said. "They burned the vegetation every two years or so to provide kangaroo grasslands."
'The early settlers in Tasmania found superb grasslands for their sheep. They were mystified when, after a few years, the forest grew back over the land. They did not realise that in hunting off the Aborigines, they had stopped the land management by fire. It was the Aborigines who maintained the grasslands.'
Of course, the Aborigines were not changing the landscape to the extent which the Europeans soon did with wholesale clearing of the forests and the damming of rivers. But they were land managers whose activities were altering the environment.
Indeed, the extent of fire-stick farming was so great that soil erosion and slope instability has been traced to their practices.
Ms Ross said a large increase in habitation sites and a greater intensity of their use about 4000 years ago indicated that the Aborigines had a well developed and complex society.
This would have been necessary to cope with the population explosion at that period, especially when this happened at a time of declining resources.
About 4,000 years ago, Australia experienced a drying period after a time of warm and moist conditions. The level of lakes fell and vegetation zones contracted as temperatures increased.
This was not an ideal time for populations to increase. Europeans have believed that Aborigines restricted their population in times of adversity by sexual abstinence, birth control, infanticide and abortion.
'On the contrary, the archaeological evidence of an increase up to tenfold in habitation sites and greater usage in certain areas shows at this very time the Aboriginal population increased dramatically and that they expanded into arid and semi-arid areas,' Ms. Ross said.
Aborigines must have been able to lift their food production to cope with the increase. Gardening practices probably developed and expanded about this time.
The population increase also would have required changes to the legal system. Broader contact between tribes meant that provision would have had to be made for wider marriage ties.
'This demonstrates that Aborigines were people well capable of changes,' Ms. Ross said.
'The traditional view has been that they did not change their ways.
'But in fact the Aborigines' social, legal and trading systems probably changed as much as those of the Europeans. Their culture was evolving at the time the whites arrived in Australia.'
Ms. Ross said the Aboriginal population 200 years ago was not known. There was no evidence to support the guess of the early anthropologist, Radcliffe-Brown, that the number was about 300,000. Later evidence suggests that it could well have been 1 million, throughout Australia. But serious epidemics of smallpox and chicken pox in 1789 and in the 1830's made it almost impossible to estimate their numbers.
However, archaeological evidence suggests that there were huge networks of tribes throughout the country 4000 years ago. Nations were being formed, bringing together tribes speaking different languages.
Aborigines may not have lived in the one place or shelter for years, but they did not move far from their tribal territory.Members of the Cadigal clan, for example, were always found in the Concord area.
The Cammeraygal lived in the Cammeray district and conductcd initiation ceremonies for all the clans of the Sydney region.
"There is a great deal Of evidence to show that Aborigines were almost sedentary in their living habits rather than nomads," Ms. Ross said.
"There is evidence to demonstrate that they lived in villages in extended families, and managed the land. Reports written in 1881 even describe Aboriginal huts with internal room compartments.
"The traditional European view has been that the Aborigines were Children of nature, who never really owned the land. The land could be taken from them because they did not use it. The European attitude is that land must be intensively cultivated. But there is ample evidence to show that Aborigines lived in certain areas and owned their territories.
The Aborigines are not surprised by the results of this re-evaluation of their lifestyles. A typical response is response is, 'We have been telling you buggers this for years,but you would not believe us.'
Ms Ross said early anthropologists and archaeologists had done a great disservice to the Aborigines by ignoring the evidence all these years.
"The history of white settlement in Australia might have been different if the complex culture of the Aborigines had been recognised earlier, she said.
Back to Stan's Reading List.
Back to AAR Homepage
text marked up by Sarah Peckham, 21/5/96.