Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Economic Basis of Traditional Aboriginal Life in New England

Note to readers: This post is a work in progress. It is just going to take me longer to complete than I had expected. So it will probably be next weekend until I get it done. So do revisit to check progress.

Over on Personal Reflections I have been discussing the need for a new compact with Australia's indigenous peoples. In doing so I have been trying to write from a new perspective because I have found some of the discussion in recent years distorted and not especially helpful. Among other things, it distorts (at least as I see it) the teaching of Aboriginal history itself. The indigenous story itself seems to get lost in the discussion.

A few days ago I read a review of Paul Memmott's new book, Gunyar, Goondie and Wurley, an exploration of of the architectural and design methods used by our indigenous people. I bristled a little, not at the book itself (I have still to read it) but at the tone of the comments.

Surely people know this stuff, I thought. But I then thought, maybe they don't. Maybe the teaching of Aboriginal history has been as bad as I thought. Maybe my thinking has been too influenced by my own student experience at the University of New England in a period that is now starting to look more and more like something of an intellectual golden age.

The point? Memmott emphasized the sophistication of traditional Aboriginal design and architecture. I have known of this for forty years. Why is it not more widely recognised?

Given all this, I thought that I might try to bring at least some elements of traditional Aboriginal life alive in the area I know best. The material that follows does not pretend to be rigorous, although I will edit and add some links later.


In 1966 I had to select an honours thesis topic. I was part of Isabel McBryde's pioneering Australian pre-history group, I had already been on a number of digs and survey missions, and had studied the palaeolithic age as part of the foundation history course that all New England history students then had to do. As part of this, I already knew of the capacity of stone age peoples to build substantial structures.

I came from a family of economists and anthropologists. Cousin Cyril had argued against Karl Polanyi, stating that economics could be used to analyse non-money using societies. I decided to apply constructs drawn from economics to traditional Aboriginal economic life in Northern New South Wales. I did not argue that conventional economic models applied. Rather, I was interested in the application of the questions and the processes of economic analysis.

I faced a problem here. The left, especially what were then called the old left, within the history profession believed strongly that the Aborigines were in some way an example of primitive communism. The type of analysis I was doing, the questions I was asking of the material, fell well outside this view. I won't debate this further, except to say that I was happy with the outcomes of my analysis, if not with my academic results.

Information Sources

There was very little formal academic writing available. The small number of historians then interested in Australian history had ignored the indigenous story. The flowering of Australian pre-history itself was just getting underway, so there was limited archaeological material. I only became aware of the continued existence of an Aboriginal oral tradition when I read Malcolm Calley's PhD thesis on the Bandjalung fairly late in the piece.

In the absence of previous historical work, I relied on three main sources of information.

The first were previous anthropological and ethnographic studies. Unlike historians, anthropologists had written fairly extensively on the Aborigines. Further, there was a rich stream of often amateur ethnographic writing.

Many in nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia were fascinated by the Aborigines. Read today, I suspect that readers would focus on what the material said about European attitudes towards the Aborigines . While I found this interesting, I wasn't especially concerned with it beyond the need to take perceptual biases into account.

The anthropological and ethnographic studies revealed a complex pattern of economic life and social interaction across the continent, one far removed from the simple hunter-gatherer stereotype.

To test and extend this at local level, I relied on a combination of official reports and especially early settler records and reminiscences. These were often fragmentary, but in combination allowed me to build something of a picture.

The Importance of Geography

Today it is fashionable to speak about the relations between the Aborigines and the land. This is true, but I am not sure that people understand what it means.

Think about this.

Society was organised into family groups who occupied territories. Boundaries did shift, that was one question that interested me, but they were generally stable within individual lifetimes.

People walked. Of course they did, you might say. But do you know what it means?

People knew their own land. They knew where the resources were. But their vision of the land was formed by speed of movement. It was a big world. Walking through a major valley or across the plains along frequently travelled routes, they saw every variation. They knew every geographic form intimately, making it easy to attach meaning to the landscape.

Their daily life was determined by the availability of food and other resources. They knew the changing seasons and moved in harmony with them. When things went wrong, a major drought for example, they responded based on experience.

The Geography of New England

New England is an interesting area to study because it is a relatively small area with great but linked geographical diversity.

What we now call the New England Tablelands form the central geographic form. This, Australia's largest Tablelands, stretches from the northern edge of the Hunter Valley into Queensland. In Aboriginal times, this was a relatively harsh area, so population densities were lower.

To the east was found the humid coastal zone, a series of river valleys from the Tweed in the north to the Hunter. This was one of the richest, if not the richest, territories in Aboriginal Australia. There was, quite simply, an enormous amount of food. This allowed for high population densities and a relatively settled life style.

A series of rivers flow to the west of the New England Tablelands. The rivers plus the surrounding countryside also provided a rich food environment. Not as rich, however, because of climate. As the land dried out in droughts, the population concentrated on the rivers and water holes.

The Importance of Calories

Calories, the quantity of food within a territory, dominated Aboriginal life.

In general, the Aborigines did not have to work as hard as we do today to feed and cloth ourselves. I was fascinated when I first found this out from an anthropological study that charted daily life in the Northern territory, for I had really thought the opposite.

The amount of effort required to gather food varied from area to area and from time to time. When food was abundant, time could be devoted to other things. Social things. Ceremonial things. Trade. And what, today, we would call the creation of infrastructure.

Variety is the spice of life. As with any relatively wealthy community, it's not just the quantity of food that counts, but the variety and balance.

Daily life with its mixture of gathering and hunting provided variety and balance. But people also moved to take advantage of variations in food supply associated with seasonal change.

I started with the pre-conception that this type of seasonal movement was driven by the need for food. However, I quickly formed the view that the need for variety was just as important, that people moved even though other food supplies were still available.

With limited storage and food preservation, the carrying capacity - the immediate availability of food in particular areas - was critical to the pattern of life. Richer areas allowed for greater social gatherings, as did periodic food surpluses. These gatherings were important to social and economic life, including trade.

Trade and Ceremonial Exchange

Family or horde territories provided the daily staples of life. This was supplemented by trade routes and exchange cycles that spread across the continent. These had practical and ceremonial elements.

The Moore Creek axe factory near Tamworth was a significant industrial site. Axes from here have been found across a vast area of inland NSW. I could not find, I do not know if anybody has since, information about the organisation and ownership of the site or indeed of other equivalent industrial sites. So I do not know whether this was a resource controlled by a particular family group or whether it was in some way a shared resource.

While trade took place for practical reasons, there were also major ceremonial elements, with gifts exchanged at gatherings for cultural and ceremonial reasons. We know from evidence elsewhere in Australia that such artifacts could be re-exchanged, acquiring greater value in the process.

Farming, Fire Sticks and the Environment

Given that farming existed in New Guinea, I started my work wondering why agriculture had not arrived in Australia. I quickly found a far more complicated picture than I had expected.

To begin with, why farm when you don't need to? The story of agriculture is closely linked to the creation of structured societies in which the surplus extracted from the farming population

To be continued.

No comments: