The practice of architecture, land management, enterprise, astronomy, mathematics and physics existed long before Europeans settled Australia. For many years, the sophistication of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures across Australia has remained a secret history, not widely shared, acknowledged, or appreciated.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had complex architectural and agricultural practices, contrary to the common narrative that they were primitive and nomadic.
The remnants of 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, crafted over by the Gunditjmara people to hunt for eel. For thousands of years eels were caught in traps, cured in Mallee gum smoke and traded for flint. This intersection of hunting, of enterprise and of architecture is just one example of the complexity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
In Dark Emu Bruce Pascoe 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. He also identifies Brewarrina was one of the largest aquaculture systems in the world and, according to some scientists, it is 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, there's evidence of vast yam pastures treated as crops by the local Aboriginal people. 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.
Yam diggers at Intended Head, Victoria, 1835. JH Wedge
Further, in the diary of George Grey, explorer of Western Australia (1839), there are reports 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.
Further, 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.
Gammage points to evidence of the intensive and systematic management of land by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including through selectively distributing plants, and using fire to control ecosystems. This was in part achieved through the use of totems. Totems link a person to the physical universe: to land, water, geographical features, and animals. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, individuals are accountable to their totems and must ensure they are protected and passed on to future generations. This system underwrote the ecological arrangement of Australia, creating an entire continent managed under Law for the sake of biodiversity.
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.
Some suggest that the myth of the 'simple nomadic, hunter-gatherer Aborigine' was constructed to suit the imperialist agenda of eighteenth century British colonials. Unless pre-colonial Aboriginal inhabitance of Australia was painted as backward and primitive, terra nullius (land belonging to no one) could not be enforced and upheld in a way that sanctioned British colonisation. But the myth has been disproven.
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
And why else did it take so long for non-Indigenous Australians to recognise the complexity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture? Bill Gammage explains:
Put simply, farming peoples [Europeans] see differently. Like our draught horses, we wear the blinkers agriculture imposes. Australia is not like the northern Europe from which most early settlers came... farmers don’t think like hunter-gatherers. For us “wilderness” lies just beyond our boundaries; for them wilderness does not exist. Fences on the ground make fences in the mind.
The complexity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the oldest living culture on earth, shouldn’t be Australia’s secret history, but common knowledge that is shared and celebrated. 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.