When a group of urban university students are asked, “What springs to mind when you think of Aboriginal Australia, past and present?”, a mostly ignorant but well-intentioned chorus respond with those familiar ramblings related to “nomadic life”, conjuring colonial visions of the primitive Other.
Architecture, land cultivation and land management, enterprise and the practice of astronomy, mathematics and physics existed long before Europeans settled. For so long, the sophistication of Aboriginal cultures across Australia remained a secret history, one that was hidden away so not to undermine the legitimacy of our true foundational doctrine, terra nullius.
Tentative voices in this group of uni students tread carefully around issues that typify the stereotype of contemporary Aboriginality, swallowing and suffocating those Aboriginal identities that exist outside of the parameters of dysfunction and poverty. Earlier historical textbooks for white Australians utilised language of primitivism surrounding Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal lives defined by a lack of cultural industrialism and therefore evolutionary inferiority.
These texts books were wrong, or at least conveniently misinformed. In fact, a lot of what non-Aboriginal Australia knows about its Aboriginal history, from before and after European settlement is often misinformed.
Myths are powerful. They influence the way we think about things of which we might not have direct experience. The most difficult relationship is not between black and white people but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors. Most Australians do not know how to relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists.
Marcia Langton Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne
There is not a single kind of Aboriginality in Australia. Not before white settlement, or after it. There are over 250 different language groups that stretch across this vast continent. Like the distance between Yolngu peoples of the top end and the Wiradjuri of the South, the difference in culture and practices is immense. For example, pre-colonial Aboriginal architecture was diverse and dependent on local climates. In some areas, small townships and campsites were occupied throughout the year, while in less hospitable climates, camps were transient and occupied at the right time of year.
Disproving the primitive narrative
The remnants of these ancient architectural foundations are still present at Tyrendarra in Victoria, where thousands of Gunditjmara people lived all year round for millennia. These homes exist alongside some of the oldest hunting mechanisms in the world, where the Gunditjmara people lived in villages and hunted for eel. Hunting mechanisms had been crafted and perfected over time, changing and complex, unlike that static image of the “hunter gatherer”, perpetuated in the Australian narrative for centuries. For thousands of years these eel were cured in Mallee gum smoke and traded for flint. Here the intersection of the hunt, of enterprise and of architecture demonstrates complexity in culture, which does not align with the colonial narrative of primitive and simple nomadism.
The myth of the “hunter-gatherer Aborigine” was constructed to suit the imperialist agenda of eighteenth century British colonials. Questioning the colonial narrative even lightly reveals some serious plot holes, which alludes to ulterior motives. Unless pre-colonial Aboriginal inhabitance of Australia was painted as backward and primitive, terra nullius could not be enforced and upheld in a way that sanctioned British colonization.
In Dark Emu Bruce Pascoe skillfully tackles the colonial narrative and explores the agricultural practices undertaken by Aboriginal people long before white settlement. Pascoe examined early white explorers’ journals and found that Aboriginal people had not only been irrigating, growing and harvesting grain, but had ground it into flour – potentially being the first people on earth to bake bread. While Brewarrina there was one of the biggest aquaculture systems in the world and some scientists are saying it’s the oldest human construction on earth.
The use of 'agriculture' in relation to Australian Aboriginal people is not something many Australians would have heard. However, if we go back to the country's very first records of European occupation we discover some extraordinary observations which provide a picture of what the Australian explorers and pioneers witnessed and how that contests the notion that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers
In a colonial account from Victoria, evidence of vast yam pastures treated as crops further deconstructing the over-simplified portrayals of First Australians. The following sketch from 1835 depicts a line of Wathaurong women digging for Murnong (yams - a sweet potato that was a staple vegetable) across a stretch of field that had been cleared of timber and managed to ensure a prosperous crop.
Further, in the Dairy of explorer George Grey in Western Australia (1839) there is evidence of large buildings of 'very superior construction';
We passed two native villages, or as the men termed them, towns - the huts of which they composed differed from those in the southern districts, in being built, and very nicely plastered over the outside with clay, and clods of turf, so that although now uninhabited they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence.
Throughout Dark Emu - Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident? Pascoe explores many more examples of grain stores, alongside inhabited buildings built all across Australia prior to colonisation.
In his book The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage highlights the complexity of Aboriginal land management that existed before European invasion. The land was managed in a way that ensured sustainability and was abundant in harvest.
what the ecosystem needed, it got
Astronomy, physics and mathematics
Astronomy, physics and mathematics were not confined to the realms of western technology either. Yolngu people knew how the tides were connected to the moon, and Euahayi people used the stars to navigate their way across Australia for trade. Mathematical patterns and relationships were utilised in everyday life, demonstrated in the complexities of various kinship systems that exist to this day. These patterns were a form of governance. The boomerang represents an incredible feat of physics using aerodynamics that had not yet been mastered by great European minds.
This shouldn’t be Australia’s secret history, it should be common knowledge. The concept of the “nomadic Aborigine” has been disproved time and time again. It’s time to acknowledge this truth and pay homage to the people who cared for this land and for themselves for millennia before settlement.