Ancient Indigenous Practices of Australia Kept Nature in Harmony

Ancient Indigenous Practices of Australia Kept Nature in Harmony

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For tens of thousands of years, the Aboriginal people of Australia lived in a deeply symbiotic relationship with nature. In what may seem like a contradiction, a recent study revealed how Aboriginal hunters use a particular method that increases the populations of the animals they hunt.

The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, provided insights into how the indigenous people have maintained animal populations through ecosystem engineering and the co-evolution of animals and humans.

Aboriginals use a hunting method in which they use fire to clear areas of land to improve the search for game. This promotes regrowth which enhances the habitat, leading to an increase in the numbers of animals that are being hunted. For example, the populations of monitor lizards nearly double in areas where they are heavily hunted. Where there are no hunters, fires sparked by lightning storms spread over huge distances, landscapes are more homogenous and monitor lizards are rarer.

Joseph Lycett's 1817 watercolour, Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos, depicts the innovative use of fire burning. Photo: National Library

Following the persecution of the Aboriginal people and the loss of traditional practices after Australia was colonised, there was a decline in aboriginal hunting and burning, particularly in the mid-20 th century. It is believed that this contributed to the extinction of many species that had come to depend on the traditional practices that may have been implemented for thousands of years. Similarly, Native Americans in California believe that policies preventing them from tribal burning of many types of habitat have contributed to native species decline.

"Our results show that humans can have positive impacts on other species without the need for policies of conservation and resource management," said Rebecca Bird, associate professor of anthropology at the Stanford Woods Institute. "In the case of indigenous communities, the everyday practice of subsistence might be just as effective at maintaining biodiversity as the activities of other organisms."

Martu, an aboriginal community in Australia’s Western Desert who were the focus of the study, shared information about their hunting practices. They refer to their relationship with nature as part of ‘jukurr’ (‘Dreaming’). While ‘the Dreaming’ has often been thought to guide sacred and religious belief and practices, the knowledge and the rituals are also a form of practical philosophy which in many cases have been found to be consistent with scientific understanding. According to ‘jukurr’, land must be used for life to continue.

Modern-day civilizations have a lot to learn from the indigenous populations who lived in harmony with nature for millennia. Adopting indigenous practices for land management could go a long way in conserving and restoring some of the damage that has been done to Earth’s ecosystems.

Featured image: A ceremonial meeting of Aboriginal Australians, known as a corroboree. Photo source .

    Aboriginal land management & care

    Modern Aboriginal land care methods are very different than traditional methods but address issues such as greenhouse gas emission. Bush rangers are critical for many land care tasks and highly successful.

    Last updated: 7 February 2021

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    Why indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge are vital to protecting future global biodiversity

    Photo courtesy of Coronado Sebastian Writer John Vidal
    @john_vidal Environment editor

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    November 13, 2019 &mdash To reach the U’wa villages in the cloud forests of northeastern Colombia, you must cross the plain, head into the mountains, abandon cars, take to footpaths, ford rivers and then seek permission from tribal elders. It can take weeks.

    I visited in 1997 with young California biologist Terry Freitas, one of the few westerners at that point to have been allowed in to U’wa territory to study indigenous ways to protect nature. His plan was to gain their trust, learn from them and possibly write a book.

    The U’wa were defending their land against global oil companies, and we were met on the edge of their forests by a man named Betencaro. He had been forbidden by the tribal elders to take us into the group’s core, or sacred areas, but he invited us to his home. The short walk took over an hour because Betancaro stopped every few minutes to show us how the U’wa used and protected the forest, which they had lived in and managed for centuries.

    To the outsider, the forest was dense and undisturbed. But to the U’wa, it was an all-in-one supermarket, farm and pharmacy. The root of one plant cured stomachaches, he said the leaf of another was an anesthetic that left the mouth numb in a few seconds. Betancaro pointed out shrubs that were good for food, a flower that glowed in the dark, fruit that was sweeter than honey. Everything, from vines to make ropes to leaves that served as plates, had a use.

    Betencaro explained how the U’wa protected their forest by following strict rules, only taking fallen fruit, never cutting some trees, hunting certain animals at precise times of the year and having core areas into which only shamans were allowed.

    “That way there is enough for all. Our role [on Earth] is to protect the forest,” he told us.

    Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published the most comprehensive study ever conducted into the state of the world’s nature. Drawing on some 15,000 sources, it reported to governments that some 1 million plant and animal species were threatened with extinction by human activities. It found nature declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.

    But it also recognized that indigenous peoples like the U’wa who hold traditional knowledge about how to protect nature are vital to protect future global biodiversity.

    “They are often better placed than scientists to provide information on local biodiversity and environmental change, and are important contributors to the governance of biodiversity from local to global levels,” the IPBES noted.

    Heritage of Humankind

    The United Nations estimates that around 370 million people worldwide identify themselves as indigenous. While very few live as remotely as the U’wa, very many Asian, African and Latin American communities base the way they farm or use water and other resources on ancient practices and cultures they have tried and tested over generations.

    More than 28% of the global land area is owned, used or managed by indigenous peoples, including more than 40% of terrestrial protected areas and 37% of “all remaining natural lands.” The importance of indigenous peoples for conservation is only slowly being recognized, says Stephen Garnett, a professor with the Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods group at Charles Darwin University in Australia. Garnett says he was surprised to find in his research, published in 2018, that more than 28% of the global land area is owned, used or managed by indigenous peoples, including more than 40% of terrestrial protected areas and 37% of “all remaining natural lands.”

    “Our results add to the growing evidence that recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land, benefit sharing and institutions is essential to meeting local and global conservation goals,” Garnett and colleagues write in the paper.

    Their closeness to the land has enabled indigenous communities to live sustainably, says Fikret Berkes, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and Canada Research Chair in Community-Based Resource Management.

    “Traditional knowledge is part of the heritage of humankind. It is the library of knowledge that people have of the environments they live in. We need different knowledges. Future generations will need this to survive,” he says.

    The western way to protect nature has traditionally paid little attention to indigenous people, says Eli Enns, co-chair of the Indigenous Circle of Experts, which is advising the Canadian government on how to use an indigenous approach to conservation.

    Protected areas and national parks have been created by taking land from indigenous peoples and evicting them, he says. “Indigenous people were excluded from conservation programs and even forcibly evicted from the land. They were seen as obstacles to conservation and nature protection, and their knowledge was ignored or dismissed,” says Enns.

    Who were the world's first bakers?

    Native Australian flours are being touted as the next big thing in sustainable baking. But the revival of ancient grains could have a much bigger impact than making sandwiches tastier.

    Mastering the art of making sourdough will be remembered as one of the biggest culinary trends of the Covid-19 era. But as home cooks around the world focused on producing Instagram-worthy loaves, Australian researchers were busy testing the viability of producing ancient grains for mass consumption &ndash an experiment that could have implications for everything from food security to reconciliation.

    &ldquoSee these seeds?&rdquo said Arakwal-Bundjalung woman Delta Kay as she gently cradled a seed head protruding from a Lomandra longifolia (spiny-headed mat-rush) plant growing near a popular surfing beach. &ldquoBundjalung people would grind these up to make flour for baking a flat biscuit in hot ashes.&rdquo The long, strong leaves, she added, were dried out and used for weaving baskets.

    This knowledge, which Kay shared with me on the Aboriginal walking tour she hosts in Byron Bay, in northern New South Wales, dates back tens of thousands of years. Yet it wasn&rsquot until recently that Indigenous traditions of harvesting nature&rsquos bounty, passed down over generations, have begun to reshape common views about how the nation&rsquos first people lived &ndash and cooked &ndash prior to colonisation.

    Detailing the advanced Aboriginal agricultural practices documented by white settlers, Bruce Pascoe&rsquos 2014 book, Dark Emu, effectively &ldquocancelled&rdquo the theory that Indigenous Australians led a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Indigenous Australians were among the world&rsquos first agriculturalists, Pascoe told me from his farm on Yuin Country near Mallacoota in eastern Victoria. What's more, the 1990s discovery of a grinding stone in Cuddie Springs in north-west New South Wales dated to be at least 30,000 years old &ndash followed by the 2015 discovery of a grinding stone in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory found to have been used 65,000 years ago &ndash has made him &ldquocertain&rdquo that Indigenous Australians were the world&rsquos first bakers.

    This ancient culinary staple is making a comeback

    &ldquoThe signs indicate that these grinding stones were used to make flour,&rdquo said Pascoe, who has Aboriginal ancestry. &ldquoAnd that&rsquos the first time in the world that grass seeds had been turned into flour by many thousands of years.&rdquo

    Even before the Arnhem Land discovery, said Pascoe, &ldquoThe Cuddie Springs grinding stone showed that Ngemba women [the local Aboriginal clan] were making bread from seed 18,000 years before the Egyptians.&rdquo

    Native crops once thrived in Australia, particularly in arid regions, and were once skilfully managed by Indigenous Australians using techniques such as controlled burning (a practice now being harnessed to manage Australia&rsquos notorious bushfires). But crops including grasses, the seeds of which were harvested to make flour, were decimated by the removal of Aboriginal people from their ancestral lands and the introduction of cattle.

    &ldquoThe first explorers and pioneers that went into those regions wrote about grasses higher than their saddles, but they don&rsquot exist in many of those places anymore,&rdquo said Pascoe.

    While native Australian foods have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, native grasses and other plants that can be used to make flour are still viewed by many non-Indigenous Australians as weeds. But with the help of modern science, this ancient culinary staple is making a comeback.

    While studying introduced crops for heat and drought tolerance at the University of Sydney&rsquos agricultural research station on Gamilaraay Country in north-western New South Wales, agricultural scientist Angela Pattison began to wonder if hardy native grasses had the potential to become a sustainable food source in the face of Australia&rsquos worsening droughts, which saw the nation&rsquos 2019/2020 grain harvest &ndash and exports &ndash shrink to decade lows.

    &ldquoI read Bruce Pascoe&rsquos book, and I thought, wouldn&rsquot it be great to see if we could get a paddock-to-plate production system working in a modern context,&rdquo Pattison said.

    Conducted in collaboration with Pascoe &ndash who has experimented with native grains with his own Indigenous social enterprise, Black Duck Foods &ndash along with Gamilaraay Traditional Owners (local Aboriginal custodians) and local farmers, a one-year feasibility study led by Pattison found that native millet, or panicum, had particular promise to be grown commercially.

    &ldquoThe native millet was the easiest to grow, harvest and turn into flour, and it&rsquos significantly more nutritious than wheat,&rdquo said Pattison. &ldquoIt&rsquos also high in fibre and gluten free. And it tastes good. It just ticks so many boxes.&rdquo

    Researchers also found that native grasses have myriad environmental benefits. As perennials they sequester carbon, preserve threatened habitats and support biodiversity. This wasn&rsquot exactly news, however, to the descendants of Australia&rsquos first farmers &ndash for whom the revival of native grains has more than just environmental and potential economic benefits.

    As part of the study, Pascoe joined Pattison and Gamilaraay Traditional Owners at a series of &ldquojohnny cake days&rdquo to test how various native flours held up in an Indigenous flatbread cooked over hot coals. For Rhonda Ashby, a Gamilaraay woman who has been recognised for her work helping Aboriginal people re-engage with language and culture, it wasn&rsquot just an opportunity to break bread with her kin, but also to heal.

    &ldquoWe&rsquove lost a lot of knowledge though our colonisation,&rdquo said Ashby. &ldquoSo, bringing back this traditional practice, being able to cook with our traditional ingredients, is really important for our wellbeing.&rdquo

    Native grasses aren&rsquot just a traditional food source for Gamilaraay people, she explained. They also have deep cultural significance, particularly for women.

    &ldquoThe people of western New South Wales are known as the river and grass people, and these native grasses carry important Songlines [ancient wayfaring routes across the landscape, passed down over generations by story and song] like the Seven Sisters Songline, which is one of the biggest Songlines in Australia for First Nations women,&rdquo Ashby said.

    It&rsquos high in fibre and gluten free. And it tastes good. It just ticks so many boxes.

    The Indigenous word for bread varies between language groups (there were more than 250 Indigenous languages spoken in Australia at the time of colonisation), but in English, rustic-style bread cooked in fire is most commonly known as &ldquodamper&rdquo. The word is thought to have been derived from the breadmaking technique used by a man who arrived in Australia on the First Fleet in 1788 named William Bond, who made bread in his Sydney bakery by &ldquodamping&rdquo the fire then burying the dough in the ashes. The method was later popularised by drovers, as the simple ingredients (white flour and salt) could be carried on long journeys without spoiling.

    It wasn&rsquot long before the term &ldquodamper&rdquo was immortalised in popular culture by the likes of colonial-era bush poet Banjo Paterson. Unfortunately, so too was the British recipe. By the early 19th Century, government rations for Indigenous Australians amounted to 1lb of white flour, two ounces of sugar and half an ounce of tea per day. These highly processed, low-nutrient foods wreaked havoc on Indigenous health. Even today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 4.3 times more likely to suffer from Type 2 diabetes than non-Indigenous Australians.

    Despite the many benefits linked to the revival of native grains, researchers acknowledge there are still hurdles to overcome before native flours could become mainstream. &ldquoFor one, the yield of native grains is low compared to introduced crops, and to produce any type of grains you need to be able to do it on a large scale to make it worthwhile,&rdquo said Pattison.

    Pascoe, who along with Pattison supports Indigenous leadership of the development of a native grains industry, said the acquisition of land is a continuing struggle for Indigenous Australians, whose traditional land management practices have also been historically undervalued.

    &ldquoWhole tracts of land are now unfarmable in Australia because of the damage caused by sheep,&rdquo said Pascoe. &ldquoSo, let Aboriginal people have a crack. Let us into this industry as a form of social justice as well as economic good sense.&rdquo

    In the meantime, Indigenous Australian bread and breadmaking traditions can be experienced on Indigenous tourism tours around the country. With different plants, techniques and tools traditionally used to extract flour from region to region, there&rsquos always something new to learn.

    Before heading into the mangroves of Far North Queensland to try my hand a spearing a mud crab with Walkabout Cultural Adventures, I fuelled up on fresh damper baked by company owner Juan Walker&rsquos mother Louise.

    &ldquoShe uses regular flour, but traditionally Kuku Yalanji people used many native seeds and grains to bake, such as black bean, black wattle and pandanus seeds,&rdquo Walker explained. &ldquoSome ladies still practice the treatments required to remove toxins [in the plants], but mostly for passing on knowledge.&rdquo

    On a tour of the Northern Territory&rsquos Arnhem Land with Adventure North Safaris, my guide pointed out deep grooves in a rocky outcrop made by grinding native grass seeds hundreds &ndash maybe thousands &ndash of years ago. And in his latest book, Loving Country, a lyrical travel guide to Aboriginal Australia, Pascoe touches on various places where people can experience Aboriginal baking traditions, including Brewarrina (near Cuddie Springs), best known for its ancient fish traps.

    Being able to cook with our traditional ingredients is really important for our wellbeing

    Chefs around Australia are also reviving Indigenous breadmaking traditions. Chief among them is New Zealand-born celebrity chef Ben Shewry, an advocate for the development of Indigenous-owned native food production, who has brought various iterations of native grains to the menus of his lauded Melbourne restaurant Attica.

    &ldquoThey&rsquore incredibly versatile,&rdquo said Shewry. &ldquoTake wattleseeds for example &ndash not only are they amazing ground into flour for bread, but they are also amazing boiled like barley or soaked and steamed like rice.&rdquo

    Sailors Grave Brewing in Orbost in eastern Victoria has even turned native grains into beer, which you can sample at its Slipway Lakes Entrance cellar door nearby. Brewed with native grass seeds harvested by Pascoe and roasted by a local bakery, the dark larger is &ndash fittingly &ndash called Dark Emu, after Pascoe's groundbreaking book.

    Like many non-Indigenous Australians, I have spent many a camping trip cooking damper on an open fire, unaware until recently that the tradition went back much further than Banjo&rsquos poems. So, the next time I sink my teeth into the warm, fluffy goodness of freshly baked damper drizzled with bush honey, I&rsquoll be paying my respects to the first Australians who invented it.

    And forget sourdough. If native flour hits the supermarket shelves, I&rsquoll be giving what's likely to be the world&rsquos oldest bread recipe a whirl.

    Ancient Eats is a BBC Travel series that puts trendy foods back into their &lsquoauthentic&rsquo context, exploring the cultures and traditions where they were born.

    Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.


    It is believed that early human migration to Australia was achieved when it formed part of the Sahul continent, connected to the island of New Guinea via a land bridge. [10] This would have nevertheless required crossing the sea at the so-called Wallace Line. [11] It is also possible that people came by island-hopping via an island chain between Sulawesi and New Guinea, reaching North Western Australia via Timor. [12]

    A 2021 study which mapped likely migration routes suggests that the populating of the Sahul took 5,000–6,000 years to reach Tasmania (then part of the continent), [13] with a rate of one kilometre per year, [14] after making landfall in the Kimberley region of Western Australia around 60,000 years ago. [13] The total human population could have been as high as 6.4 million, with 3 million in the area of modern Australia. [14] The modelling suggests that the path of population movement may have followed two main routes down from contemporary New Guinea, with the so-called "southern route" going into Kimberley, Pilbara and Arnhem Land, and then to the Great Sandy Desert before moving towards the centre in Lake Eyre and further on to the southeast of the continent. It also leads through another path to the southwestern parts, such as Margaret River and the Nullarbor Plain. The "northern route" meanwhile crosses over the current location of the Torres Strait and then divides into one path connecting to Arnhem Land and another leading down the East Coast. [15] The routes are similar to current highways and stock routes in Australia. [13]

    Madjedbebe is the oldest known site showing the presence of humans in Australia, with evidence suggesting that it was first occupied by humans possibly by 65,000 ± 6,000 years ago and at least by 50,000 years ago. [16] [17] The rock shelters at Madjedbebe (about 50 kilometres (31 mi) inland from the present coast) [18] and at Nauwalabila I (70 kilometres (43 mi) further south) show evidence of used pieces of ochre used by artists 60,000 years ago. Near Penrith, stone tools have been found in Cranebrook Terraces gravel sediments having dates of 45,000 to 50,000 years BP. [19] [20] A 48,000 BCE date is based on a few sites in northern Australia dated using thermoluminescence. Charles Dortch dated finds on Rottnest Island, Western Australia at 70,000 years BP in 1994. [21] [ needs update ] There is also evidence of a change in fire régimes in Australia, drawn from reef deposits in Queensland, between 70–100,000 years ago, [22] and the integration of human genomic evidence from various parts of the world also supports a date of before 60,000 years for the arrival of Australian Aboriginal people in the continent. [23] [24] [25]

    Humans reached Tasmania approximately 40,000 years ago by migrating across a land bridge from the mainland that existed during the last glacial maximum. After the seas rose about 12,000 years ago and covered the land bridge, the inhabitants there were isolated from the mainland until the arrival of European settlers. [26]

    Short-statured Aboriginal tribes inhabited the rainforests of North Queensland, of which the best known group is probably the Tjapukai of the Cairns area. [27] These rainforest people, collectively referred to as Barrineans, were once considered to be a relic of an earlier wave of Negrito migration to the Australian continent, [28] but this "Aboriginal pygmy" theory has been discredited. [29]

    Mungo Man, found near Lake Mungo in New South Wales, is the oldest human yet found in Australia. Although the exact age of Mungo Man is in dispute, the best consensus is that he is at least 40,000 years old. Stone tools also found at Lake Mungo have been estimated, based on stratigraphic association, to be about 50,000 years old. Since Lake Mungo is in south-eastern Australia, many archaeologists have concluded that humans must have arrived in north-west Australia at least several thousand years earlier.

    Changes around 4,000 years ago Edit

    The dingo reached Australia about 4,000 years ago, and around the same time there were changes in language, with the Pama-Nyungan language family spreading over most of the mainland, and stone tool technology, with the use of smaller tools. Human contact has thus been inferred, and genetic data of two kinds have been proposed to support a gene flow from India to Australia: firstly, signs of South Asian components in Aboriginal Australian genomes, reported on the basis of genome-wide SNP data and secondly, the existence of a Y chromosome (male) lineage, designated haplogroup C∗, with the most recent common ancestor around 5,000 years ago. [30]

    A 2013 study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute led by Irina Pugach, the result of large-scale genotyping, indicated that Aboriginal Australians, the indigenous peoples of New Guinea and the Mamanwa, an indigenous people of the southern Philippines are closely related, having diverged from a common origin approximately 36,000 years ago. The same study shows that Aboriginal genomes consist of up to 11% Indian DNA which is uniformly spread through Northern Australia, indicating a substantial gene flow between Indian populations and Northern Australia occurred around 4,230 years ago. Changes in tool technology and food processing appear in the archaeological record around this time, suggesting there may have been migration from India. [31] [32]

    However, a 2016 study in Current Biology by Anders Bergström et al. excluded the Y chromosome as providing evidence for recent gene flow from India into Australia. The study authors sequenced 13 Aboriginal Australian Y chromosomes using recent advances in gene sequencing technology, investigating their divergence times from Y chromosomes in other continents, including comparing the haplogroup C chromosomes. The authors concluded that, although this does not disprove the presence of any Holocene gene flow or non-genetic influences from South Asia at that time, and the appearance of the dingo does provide strong evidence for external contacts, the evidence overall is consistent with a complete lack of gene flow, and points to indigenous origins for the technological and linguistic changes. Gene flow across the island-dotted 150-kilometre (93 mi)-wide Torres Strait, is both geographically plausible and demonstrated by the data, although at this point it could not be determined from this study when within the last 10,000 years it may have occurred – newer analytical techniques have the potential to address such questions. [30]

    Geography Edit

    When the north-west of Australia, which is closest to Asia, was first occupied, the region consisted of open tropical forests and woodlands. After around 10,000 years of stable climatic conditions, by which time the Aboriginal people had settled the entire continent, temperatures began cooling and winds became stronger, leading to the beginning of an ice age. By the glacial maximum, 25,000 to 15,000 years ago, the sea level had dropped to around 140 metres below its present level. Australia was connected to New Guinea and the Kimberley region of Western Australia was separated from Southeast Asia (Wallacea) by a strait only approximately 90 km wide. [33] Rainfall was 40% to 50% lower than modern levels, depending on region, while the lower CO2 levels (half pre-industrial levels) meant that vegetation required twice as much water for photosynthesis. [34]

    The Kimberley, including the adjacent exposed continental Sahul Shelf, was covered by vast grasslands dominated by flowering plants of the family Poaceae, with woodlands and semi-arid scrub covering the shelf joining New Guinea to Australia. [35] Southeast of the Kimberley, from the Gulf of Carpentaria to northern Tasmania the land, including the western and southern margins of the now exposed continental shelves, was covered largely by extreme deserts and sand dunes. It is believed that during this period no more than 15% of Australia supported trees of any kind. While some tree cover remained in the southeast of Australia, the vegetation of the wetter coastal areas in this region was semi-arid savanna, while some tropical rainforests survived in isolated coastal areas of Queensland.

    Tasmania was covered primarily by cold steppe and alpine grasslands, with snow pines at lower altitudes. There is evidence that there may have been a significant reduction in Australian Aboriginal populations during this time, and there would seem to have been scattered "refugia" in which the modern vegetation types and Aboriginal populations were able to survive. Corridors between these refugia seem to be routes by which people kept in contact. [36] [37] [38] With the end of the ice age, strong rains returned, until around 5,500 years ago, when the wet season cycle in the north ended, bringing with it a megadrought that lasted 1,500 years. The return of reliable rains around 4,000 years BP gave Australia its current climate. [35]

    Following the Ice Age, Aboriginal people around the coast, from Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and the southwest of Western Australia, all tell stories of former territories that were drowned beneath the sea with the rising coastlines after the Ice Age. It was this event that isolated the Tasmanian Aboriginal people on their island, and probably led to the extinction of Aboriginal cultures on the Bass Strait Islands and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. [39] In the interior, the end of the Ice Age may have led to the recolonisation of the desert and semi-desert areas by Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. This in part may have been responsible for the spread of languages of the Pama–Nyungan language family and secondarily responsible for the spread of male initiation rites involving circumcision. There has been a long history of contact between Papuan peoples of the Western Province, Torres Strait Islanders and the Aboriginal people in Cape York. [39]

    The Aboriginal Australians lived through great climatic changes and adapted successfully to their changing physical environment. There is much ongoing debate about the degree to which they modified the environment. One controversy revolves around the role of indigenous people in the extinction of the marsupial megafauna (also see Australian megafauna). Some argue that natural climate change killed the megafauna. Others claim that, because the megafauna were large and slow, they were easy prey for human hunters. A third possibility is that human modification of the environment, particularly through the use of fire, indirectly led to their extinction. [ citation needed ]

    Oral history demonstrates "the continuity of culture of Indigenous Australians" for at least 10,000 years. This is shown by correlation of oral history stories with verifiable incidents including known changes in sea levels and their associated large changes in location of ocean shorelines oral records of megafauna and comets. [40] [41]

    Ecology Edit

    The introduction of the dingo, possibly as early as 3500 BCE, showed that contact with South East Asian peoples continued, as the closest genetic connection to the dingo seems to be the wild dogs of Thailand. This contact was not just one-way, as the presence of kangaroo ticks on these dogs demonstrates. Dingoes began and evolved in Asia. The earliest known dingo-like fossils are from Ban Chiang in north-east Thailand (dated at 5500 years BP) and from north Vietnam (5000 years BP). According to skull morphology, these fossils occupy a place between Asian wolves (prime candidates were the pale footed (or Indian) wolf Canis lupus pallipes and the Arabian wolf Canis lupus arabs) and modern dingoes in Australia and Thailand. [42]

    Most scientists presently believe that it was the arrival of the Australian Aboriginal people on the continent and their introduction of fire-stick farming that was responsible for these extinctions. [43] Fossil research published in 2017 indicates that Aboriginal people and megafauna coexisted for "at least 17,000 years". Aboriginal Australians used fire for a variety of purposes: to encourage the growth of edible plants and fodder for prey to reduce the risk of catastrophic bushfires to make travel easier to eliminate pests for ceremonial purposes for warfare and just to "clean up country." There is disagreement, however, about the extent to which this burning led to large-scale changes in vegetation patterns. [44]

    Food Edit

    Aboriginal Australians were limited to the range of foods occurring naturally in their area, but they knew exactly when, where and how to find everything edible. Anthropologists and nutrition experts who have studied the tribal diet in Arnhem Land found it to be well-balanced, with most of the nutrients modern dietitians recommend. But food was not obtained without effort. In some areas both men and women had to spend from half to two-thirds of each day hunting or foraging for food. Each day, the women of the group went into successive parts of one countryside with wooden digging sticks and plaited dilly bags or wooden coolamons. Larger animals and birds, such as kangaroos and emus, were speared or disabled with a thrown club, boomerang, or stone. Many Indigenous hunting devices were used to get within striking distance of prey. The men were excellent trackers and stalkers, approaching their prey running where there was cover, or 'freezing' and crawling when in the open. They were careful to stay downwind and sometimes covered themselves with mud to disguise their smell.

    Fish were sometimes taken by hand by stirring up the muddy bottom of a pool until they rose to the surface, or by placing the crushed leaves of poisonous plants in the water to stupefy them. Fish spears, nets, wicker or stone traps were also used in different areas. Lines with hooks made from bone, shell, wood or spines were used along the north and east coasts. Dugong, turtle and large fish were harpooned, the harpooner launching himself bodily from the canoe to give added weight to the thrust. Both Torres Strait Island populations and mainland aborigines were agriculturalists who supplemented their diet through the acquisition of wild foods. [45] Aboriginal Australians along the coast and rivers were also expert fishermen. Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people relied on the dingo as a companion animal, using it to assist with hunting and for warmth on cold nights.

    In present-day Victoria, for example, there were two separate communities with an economy based on eel-farming in complex and extensive irrigated pond systems one on the Murray River in the state's north, the other in the south-west near Hamilton in the territory of the Djab Wurrung, which traded with other groups from as far away as the Melbourne area (see Gunditjmara). A primary tool used in hunting is the spear, launched by a woomera or spear-thrower in some locales. Boomerangs were also used by some mainland Indigenous Australians. The non-returnable boomerang (known more correctly as a Throwing Stick), more powerful than the returning kind, could be used to injure or even kill a kangaroo.

    On mainland Australia no animal other than the dingo and the Short-finned eel were domesticated, however domestic pigs and cassowaries were utilised by Torres Strait Islanders. [46] The typical Aboriginal diet included a wide variety of foods, such as pig, kangaroo, emu, wombats, goanna, snakes, birds, many insects such as honey ants, Bogong moths and witchetty grubs. Many varieties of plant foods such as taro, coconuts, nuts, fruits and berries were also eaten.

    Banana cultivation is now known to have been present among Torres Strait Islanders. [47]

    Culture Edit

    Permanent villages were the norm for most Torres Strait Island communities. In some areas mainland Aboriginal Australians also lived in semi-permanent villages, most usually in less arid areas where fishing and agriculture [48] could provide for a settled existence, with places like Budj Bim in particular growing to comparatvely large settlements. Most Indigenous communities were semi-nomadic, moving in a regular cycle over a defined territory, following seasonal food sources and returning to the same places at the same time each year. From the examination of middens, archaeologists have shown that some localities were visited annually by Indigenous communities for thousands of years. In the more arid areas Aboriginal Australians were nomadic, ranging over wide areas in search of scarce food resources. There is evidence of substantial change in indigenous culture over time. Rock painting at several locations in northern Australia has been shown to consist of a sequence of different styles linked to different historical periods. There is also prominent rock paintings found in the Sydney basin area which date to around 5,000 years.

    Harry Lourandos has been the leading proponent of the theory that a period of agricultural intensification occurred between 3000 and 1000 BCE. Intensification involved an increase in human manipulation of the environment (for example, the construction of eel traps in Victoria), population growth, an increase in trade between groups, a more elaborate social structure, and other cultural changes. A shift in stone tool technology, involving the development of smaller and more intricate points and scrapers, occurred around this time. This was probably also associated with the introduction to the mainland of the Australian dingo.

    Many Indigenous communities also have a very complex kinship structure and in some places strict rules about marriage. In traditional societies, men are required to marry women of a specific moiety. The system is still alive in many Central Australian communities. To enable men and women to find suitable partners, many groups would come together for annual gatherings (commonly known as corroborees) at which goods were traded, news exchanged, and marriages arranged amid appropriate ceremonies. This practice both reinforced clan relationships and prevented inbreeding in a society based on small semi-nomadic groups.

    The first contact between British explorers and Indigenous Australians came in 1770, when Lieutenant James Cook interacted with the Guugu Yimithirr people around contemporary Cooktown. Cook wrote that he had claimed the east coast of Australia for what was then the Kingdom of Great Britain and named it New South Wales, while on Possession Island off the west coast of Cape York Peninsula. [49] However, it seems that no such claim was made when Cook was in Australia. [50] Cook's orders were to look for "a Continent or Land of great extent" and "with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient situations in the Country in the name of the King". [51] The British government did not view Aboriginal Australians as the owners of the land as they did not practise farming. [52] British colonisation of Australia began at Port Jackson in 1788 with the arrival of Governor Phillip and the First Fleet. [53] The Governor was instructed to "by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them" and to punish those aiming to "wantonly destroy them". [54]

    The immediate reaction of the Eora, who were first to witness it, to colonisation was at first surprise and then aggression. [55] Following this the Eora generally avoided the British for the next two years. [56] They were offended by the British entering their lands and taking advantage of their resources without asking permission, as was customary in Aboriginal society. [54] Some contacts did however occur, with both the Eora and the Tharawal at Botany Bay, including exchanges of gifts. [56] Out of the 17 encounters during the first month, only two involved the Eora entering British settlements. [56] After a year, Phillip decided to capture Indigenous people to teach them English and make them intermediaries, resulting in the kidnappings of Arabanoo and Bennelong, with Phillip getting speared by latter's companion. [54] Bennelong would eventually travel to England with Phillip and Yemmerrawanne in 1793. [57] A Kuringgai man Bungaree also made voyages with Europeans. [57] Following the lethal spearing of a huntsman, possibly by Pemulwuy, Phillip ordered 10 men (but not women or children) in Botany Bay to be captured and beheaded. [58] None were however found. [58]

    The first apparent consequence of British settlement appeared in April 1789 when a disease, which was probably smallpox, struck the Aborigines about Port Jackson. [59] Before the epidemic, the First Fleet had equalled the population of the Eora after it the settler population was equal to all Indigenous people on the Cumberland Plain and by 1820, their population of 30,000 was as much of the entire Indigenous populace of New South Wales. [60] A generation after colonization, the Eora, Dharug and Kuringgai had been greatly reduced and were mainly living in the outskirts of European society, though some Indigenous people did continue to live in the coastal regions around Sydney further on, as well as around Georges River and Botany Bay. [61] Further inland, Indigenous peoples were warned of the British invasion after the Cumberland Plain had been taken by 1815, and this information preceded them by hundreds of kilometres. [62] However, by the second generation of contact, many groups in south-eastern Australia were gone. [63] The greatest cause of death was disease, followed by settler and inter-Indigenous killings. [63] This population loss was further exacerbated by an extremely low birth rate. [64] An estimated decline of 80 percent in the population meant that traditional kinship systems and ceremonial obligations became hard to maintain and family and social relations were torn. [65] The survivors came to live on the fringes of European society, living in tents and shacks around towns and riverbanks in poor health. [66]

    Aboriginal Tasmanians first came to contact with Europeans when the Baudin expedition to Australia arrived at Adventure Bay in 1802. [67] The French explorers were more friendly to the Indigenous than the British further north. [67] Already earlier, in 1800, European whalers had been to the Bass Strait islands, were they had used kidnapped aboriginal women. [67] The local Indigenous also sold women to the sailors. [68] Later the descendants of these women would be the last survivors of Tasmanian Indigenous people. [63]

    Assimilation Edit

    The assimilation policy was first started by Governor Macquarie, who established in 1814 the Native Institution in Blacktown "to effect the Civilization of the Aborigines of New South Wales, and to render their Habits more domesticated and industrious" by enrolling children in a residential school. [69] By 1817, 17 were enrolled, one of whom, a girl called Maria, won the first prize in a school exam ahead of European children in 1819. [69] The institution was however closed soon after following Macquarie's replacement for spending. [70] Macquerie also had attempted to settle 16 Kuringgai at George's Head with land, pre-fabricated huts and other supplies, but the families had soon sold the farms and left. [70]

    Christian missions were also started at Lake Macquarie in 1827, at Wellington Valley in 1832, and in Port Phillip and Moreton Bay around 1840. [70] These involved learning Indigenous languages, with the Gospel of Luke translated into Awabakal in 1831 by a missionary and Biraban, as well as offering food and sanctuary on the frontier. [71] However, when supplies ran out, the Indigenous would often leave for pastoral stations in search of work. [71] Some missionaries would take children without consent to be taught in dormitories. [72]

    The government had started blanket distribution in the 1830s, but ended this in 1844 as a cost-saving measure. [74] It also created Indigenous paramilitary units, called the Australian native police, with these being establish in Port Phillip in 1842, New South Wales in 1848, and in Queensland 1859. [75] Exceptional among these, the Port Phillip force had police powers over white people as well. [76] The forces killed hundreds of (or in the case of Queensland, up to a thousand) Indigenous people. [77]

    In 1833, A committee of the British House of Commons, led by Fowell Buxton demanded better treatment of the Indigenous, referring to them as 'original owners', leading the British government in 1838 to create the office of the Protector of Aborigines. [78] However, this effort ended by 1857. [78] Nevertheless, the humanitarian effort did produce the Waste Land Act of 1848, which gave indigenous people certain rights and reserves on the land. [79]

    There was also some assimilation of settlers into Indigenous cultures. Living with Indigenous people was William Buckley, an escaped convict, who was with the Wautharong people near Melbourne for thirty-two years, before being found in 1835. Eliza Fraser was a Scottish woman who was aboard a ship that wrecked at an island off the coast of Queensland, Australia, on 22 May 1836, and who was taken in by the Badtjala (Butchella) people. James Morrill was an English sailor aboard the vessel Peruvian which became shipwrecked off the coast of north-eastern Australia in 1846, was taken in by a local clan of Aboriginal Australians. He adopted their language and customs and lived as a member of their society for 17 years. Indigenous peoples also adopted the European dog widely. [80]

    Conflict Edit

    On the mainland, prolonged conflict followed the frontier of European settlement. [81] A minimum of 40,000 Indigenous Australians and between 2,000 and 2,500 settlers died in the wars. However, recent scholarship on the frontier wars in what is now the state of Queensland indicates that Indigenous fatalities may have been significantly higher. Indeed, while battles and massacres occurred in a number of locations across Australia, they were particularly bloody in Queensland, owing to its comparatively larger pre-contact Indigenous population. It is estimated that up to 3,000 white people were killed by Aboriginal Australians in the frontier violence. [82] Some Indigenous people also allied with the colonists against other Indigenous people. [83] Colonization accelerated fighting between Indigenous groups by causing them to leave their traditional lands as well as by causing deaths by disease which were attributed to enemy sorcery. [84] Indigenous gun ownership was banned in New South Wales in 1840, but this was overturned by the British government as inequality before the law. [85]

    In 1790, an Aboriginal leader Pemulwuy in Sydney resisted the Europeans, [86] waging a guerrilla-style warfare on the settlers in a series of wars known as the Hawkesbury and Nepean Wars, which spanned 26 years, from 1790 to 1816. [87] After his death in 1802, his son Tedbury continued the campaign until 1810. [60] The campaign led to the banning of Aboriginal groups of more than six and forbid them from carrying weapons closer to two kilometers from settlements. [60] Beyond the Cumberland Plain, violence erupted first at Bathurst against the Wiradjuri, with martial law declared in 1822 and the 40th Regiment responding. [88] This became known as the Bathurst War.

    In Van Diemen's Land, conflict arrived in 1824 after major expansion of settler and sheep numbers, with Indigenous warriors responding by killing 24 Europeans by 1826. [88] In 1828, martial law was declared and bounty parties of settlers took vengeance. [89] On the Indigenous side, Musquito led the Oyster Bay tribe against the settlers. [75] Tarenorerer was another leader. The Black War, fought largely as a guerrilla war by both sides, claimed the lives of 600 to 900 Aboriginal people and more than 200 European colonists, nearly annihilating the island's indigenous population. [90] [91] The near-destruction of the Aboriginal Tasmanians, and the frequent incidence of mass killings, has sparked debate among historians over whether the Black War should be defined as an act of genocide. [92]

    In Swan River Colony, conflict occurred near Perth, with the government offering the use of the armoury for the settlers. [83] A punitive party was led against the Pindjarup in 1834. [83]

    Diseases Edit

    Deadly infectious diseases like smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis were always major causes of Aboriginal deaths. [93] Smallpox alone killed more than 50% of the Aboriginal population. [7] Other diseases included dysentery, scarlet fever, typhus, measles, whooping cough and influenza. [94] Sexually transmitted infections were also introduced by colonialism. [94] Health decline was also caused by increasing use of flour and sugar instead of more diverse traditional diets, resulting in malnutrition. [95] Alcohol was also first introduced by colonialism, leading to alcoholism. [96]

    In April 1789, a major outbreak of smallpox killed large numbers of Indigenous Australians between Hawkesbury River, Broken Bay, and Port Hacking. Based on information recorded in the journals of some members of the First Fleet, it has been surmised that the Aborigines of the Sydney region had never encountered the disease before and lacked immunity to it. Unable to understand or counter the sickness, they often fled, leaving the sick with some food and water to fend for themselves. As the clans fled, the epidemic spread further along the coast and into the hinterland. This had a disastrous effect on Aboriginal society with many of the productive hunters and gatherers dead, those who survived the initial outbreak began to starve. [ citation needed ]

    Some have suggested that Makasar fishermen accidentally brought smallpox to Australia's north and the virus travelled south. [97] However, given that the spread of the disease depends on high population densities, and the fact that those who succumbed were soon incapable of walking, such an outbreak was unlikely to have spread across the desert trade routes. [98] A more likely source of the disease was the "variolas matter" Surgeon John White brought with him on the First Fleet, although it is unknown how this may have been spread. [98] It has also been speculated that the vials were either accidentally or intentionally released as a "biological weapon". [99] In 2014, writing in Journal of Australian Studies, Christopher Warren concluded that British marines were most likely to have spread smallpox, possibly without informing Governor Phillip, but conceded in his conclusion that "today's evidence only provides for a balancing of probabilities and this is all that can be attempted." [100] : 79,68–86

    Economy and environment Edit

    In 1822, the British government rediced duties on Australian wool, leading to an expansion of sheep numbers, followed by increased immigration. [101] The sheep flourished in the arid western plains. [102] The settlers created an ecological revolution, as their cattle ate away local grasses and trampled waterholes, with precious food staples like murnong diminished, and with new weeds spreading. [103] Meat sources like kangaroo and the Australian brushturkey were replaced by cattle. [104] In response, Indigenous peoples would appropriate settler resources, such as taking sheep and raising their own flocks. [104] New economic products also disrupted traditional lifestyles, as for example in the case of the steel axe, which replaced the traditional stone one, resulting in a loss of authority to the older men who traditionally had access to them. [105] The new axes would be given to younger people by settlers and missionaries in exchange for work, also diminishing old trading networks. [105]

    Following the loss of lands, Indigenous people 'came in' to pastoral station, missions and towns, often forced by lack of food. [106] Tobacco, tea and sugar were also important in attracting Indigenous people to settlers. [107] After some handouts, work was demanded by the settlers in return for rations, leading to Indigenous employment in cutting timber, herding and shearing sheep, and in stock work. [108] They were also working as fishermen, water carriers, domestic servants, boatmen and whalers. [109] However, European work ethic was not part of their culture, as working beyond the amount necessary for future benefits was seen as not important. [110] Their pay was also unequal to that of settlers, being mostly rations or less than half the wage. [110] Women had previously been the main providers in Indigenous families, but their roles were diminished as men became the main recipients of wages and rations, while women could at most find European-style domestic work or prostitution, leading some to live with European men who had access to resources. [111]

    By 1850, southern Australia had been settled by the British, except for the Great Victoria Desert, Nullarbor Plain, Simpson Desert, and Channel Country. [112] European explorers had started to venture into these areas, as well as the Top End and Cape York Peninsula. [112] By 1862 they had crossed the continent and entered Kimberley and Pilbara, while consolidating colonial claims in the process. [112] Indigenous reaction to them ranged from assistance to hostility. [112] Any new lands were claimed, mapped and opened to pastoralists, with North Queensland settled in the 1860's, Central Australia and the Northern Territory in the 1870's, Kimberley in the 1880's, and the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges after 1900. [112] [113] This again led to violent confrontation with the Indigenous peoples. [112] However, because of the dryness and remoteness of the new frontier, settlement and economic development were slower. [114] The European population therefore remained small and consequently more fearful, with few police protecting the Indigenous population. [114] It is estimated that in North Queensland 15 percent of the first wave of pastoralists were killed in Indigenous attacks, while 10 times more of the other side met the same fate. [115] In the Gulf Country, over 400 violent Indigenous deaths were recorded 1872 to 1903. [116]

    In the earlier settled southern parts of Australia, only 20,000 Indigenous individuals (10 percent of the total at the beginning of colonization), remained by the 1920's, with half being of mixed ancestry. [117] There about 7000 in New South Wales, 5000 in southern Queensland, 2500 in south-west Western Australia, 1000 in southern South Australia, 500 in Victoria, and under 200 in Tasmania (mostly on Cape Barren Island). [117] One fifth lived in reserves, while most of the rest were in camps around country towns, with small numbers owning farms or living in towns or capital cities. [117] In the country as a whole, there were about 60,000 Indigenous people in 1930. [118]

    The Defence Act of 1903 only allowed those of "European origin or descent" to enlist in military service. [119] However, in 1914 around 800 Aboriginal people answered the call to arms to fight in World War I. [120] As the war continued, these restrictions were relaxed as more recruits were needed. [ citation needed ] Many enlisted by claiming they were Māori or Indian. [121] During World War II, after the threat of Japanese invasion of Australia, Indigenous enlistment was accepted. [122] Up to 3000 individuals of mixed descent served in the military, including Reg Saunders, the first indigenous officer. [123] The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit, and the Snake Bay Patrol were also established. Another 3000 civilians worked in labour corps. [123]

    Employment, wagelessness and resistance Edit

    Nevertheless, Indigenous workers in the north were able to find jobs better than in south since there was no cheap convict labour available, though they were not paid in wages and were abused. [124] There was a widely held belief that white people could not work in Northern Australia. [125] Pearl hunting employed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers, though many were coerced into it. [126] By the 1880's, the introduction of diving suits had reduced Indigenous workers to deckhands. [127] Otherwise Indigenous people congregated at settlements such as Broome (servicing luggers) or Darwin (where 20 percent of the Northern Territory's Indigenous workers were employed). [125] However, in Darwin the Indigenous workers were kept locked up at night. [128] Most of the Indigenous workers in North Queensland, the Northern Territory, and the Kimberley were employed by the cattle industry. [128] Wage payment varied by state. In Queensland, wages were paid from 1901 onwards, being set at a third of white wages in 1911, two-thirds in 1918, and equal in 1930. [129] However, some of the wages were deposited on trust accounts, from which they could be stolen. [129] In the Northern Territory, there was no requirement to pay a wage. [129] Overall, up to the Second World War about half of the Indigenous stockmen received wages, and if so, they were well below the white level. [130] There was also physical abuse of the workers, sometimes including by the police. [131]

    On 4 February 1939, Jack Patten led a strike at Cummeragunja Station in New South Wales. The people of Cummeragunja were protesting their harsh treatment under what was a draconian system. A once successful farming enterprise was taken from their control, and residents were forced to subsist on meagre rations. Approximately 200 people left their homes, taking part in the Cummeragunja walk-off, and the majority crossed the border into Victoria, never to return home. [132] Following the rising threat from Empire of Japan, the Australian Army came to the north in the early 1940's, bringing new people and ideas while employing Indigenous workers in defence projects. [133] They were paid a wage and mixed with the regular troops. [133] This led the Northern Territory administration to investigate and recommend paying wages, though it was never enforced. [133] Following meetings held by the white communist Don McLeod in 1942, Indigenous groups in Pilbara decided to go on strike, which they did after the end of the war in the 1946 Pilbara strike. [134] In 1949, they finally won a wage double the size of their original demand, and were encouraged to start their own co-operative based on the mining they had been doing while on strike. [135] Along the war, this event also helped reduce the abuse of Indigenous workers. [136]

    Racism and the early civil rights movement Edit

    As scientific racism developed from Darwinism (with Charles Darwin himself having claimed after visiting New South Wales that the death of "the Aboriginal" was a consequence of natural selection), the popular view of Indigenous Australians started to see them as inferior. [137] Indigenous Australians were considered in the global scientific community as the world's most primitive humans, leading to trade of human remains and relics. [138] This was especially true of Indigenous Tasmanians, with 120 books and articles written by scholars around the world by the late 19th century. [139] Some Indigenous people were also toured and exhibited around the world as spectacles. [140] However, in the 1930s, physical anthropology was taken over by cultural anthropology, which focused cultural difference over inferiority. [141] Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, the father of modern social anthropology, published his Social Organization of Australian Tribes in 1931. [142]

    By 1900 most white Australians held racist views of the Indigenous peoples, and the Constitution of Australia of that year did not count them alongside other Australians in the census. [143] Racist treatment was also encoded in special Acts governing Indigenous peoples separately from the rest of society. [144] Racism also manifested itself in everyday discrimination, which was termed the 'colour bar' or the 'caste barrier'. [145] This affected life in most settled parts of Australia, though not that much in the capital cities. [145] For example, from the 1890s to 1949, the New South Wales government removed Indigenous children from state schools if non-Indigenous parents objected to their presence, placing them instead to reserve schools with worse education. [145] The same policy was in place in Western Australia, as well, where only one percent of Indigenous children attended state schools. [145] Indigenous residents of New South Wales were also not permitted to buy or drink alcohol. [145] These kinds of restrictions did not apply in Victoria, with a smaller Indigenous population and an assimilationist policy. [145] Furthermore, Indigenous people were often excluded from organisations, businesses, and sports or recreational facilities, such as pools. [145] Employment and housing was difficult to find for them. [145]

    Women's groups, such as the Australian Federation of Women Voters and the National Council of Women of Australia, became advocates for Indigenous issues in the 1920s. [146] The first Indigenous political organisation was the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association, established in 1924, with 11 branches and over 500 Indigenous members in a year. [147] It had been partly inspired by Marcus Garvey. [147] In 1926, the Native Union in Western Australia was founded. [148] White advocate groups emerged in the 1930s. [146] Other Indigenous organisations included the Euralian Association set up in 1934, the Australian Aborigines' League in 1934, and the Aborigines Progressive Association in 1937. [148] The latter marked Invasion Day on the 150th anniversary of the First Fleet's landing. [148]

    Reserves and protection boards Edit

    The only known treaty between Indigenous and European Australians was Batman's Treaty, signed by Billibellary. His son, Simon Wonga, and other Kulin nation leaders requested land in 1859 for cultivation, and were granted 1820 hectares in the Acheron River by the Victorian government. [149] In 1860, the same government established Aboriginal reserves in Coranderrk, Framlingham, Lake Condah, Ebenezer, Ramahyuck, as well as Lake Tyers. [150] Corranderrk was notably successful, becoming practically self-sufficient and winning the first prize for their hops at the Melbourne International Exhibition. [151] Nevertheless, the inhabitants were refused to be given individual land titles or be paid wages. [152] In South Australia, Raukkan and Poonindie were also set up as communities for Indigenous peoples. [153] In New South Wales, such communities included Maloga, Brungle, Warangesda, and Cummeragunja. [154]

    However, the reserve system also gave authorities power over Indigenous people, with the Aboriginal Protection Board exercising control over work and wages, adult movement, and child removal in Victoria from 1869 onwards. [155] With the Half-Caste Act of 1886, the Victorian government started removing those with partial European ancestry from the reserves, with the claimed aim to "merge the half-caste population into the general community", which was also followed in New South Wales with the Aborigines Protection Act 1909. [156] This had deleterious consequences for the viability of the communities, leading to their decline. [156] The Queensland Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897 became a model for Indigenous legislation in Western Australia (1905), South Australia (1911), and the Northern Territory (1911), which gave the authorities power over anyone deemed 'Aboriginal' in regards to placing them or their children in reserves, denying voting rights or the ability to buy alcohol, as well as prohibiting interracial sexual relations (requiring a ministerial permission for interracial marriage). [157]

    The reserves were subsequently mostly reduced, closed and sold off by the 1920's. [158] Meanwhile, the Protection Boards became more powerful in 1915 in New South Wales after new legislation gave them the power to remove children of mixed ancestry without parental or court approval. [159] Later research shows that the authorities aimed to reunite white families without doing so foe Indigenous ones. [159] Overall Indigenous communities in south-eastern Australia became increasingly under government control, with a dependence on weekly rations instead of agricultural work. [160] The 1897 Queensland Act and its subsequent amendments gave reserve superintendents the right to search people and their dwellings or belongings, to confiscate their property and read their mail, as well as to expel them to other reserves, among other powers. [144] The inhabitants had to work 32 hours a week without pay, and were subject to verbal abuse, while their traditions were prohibited. [144]

    World War II led to improvements and new opportunities in Indigenous lives through employment in the services and war time industries. [161] After the war, full employment continued, with 96 percent of New South Wales' Indigenous population being employed in 1948. [161] The Commonwealth Child Endowment, as well as the Invalid and Old Age Pensions, were expanded to Indigenous people outside of reserves during the war, though full inclusiveness only followed by 1966. [161] The 1940's also saw individuals given the ability to apply for freedom from Aboriginal Acts, though onerous conditions kept the numbers relatively low. [162] The Nationality and Citizenship Act of 1948 also gave citizenship to any Indigenous people born in Australia. [162] In 1949, the right to vote in federal elections was extended to Indigenous Australians who had served in the armed forces, or were enrolled to vote in state elections.

    The postwar era also saw the increased removal of children under assimilationist policies, with between 10 and 33 percent of Aboriginal children being removed from their families between 1910 and 1970. [163] The number may have been over 70,000 across 70 years. [163] By 1961, the Aboriginal population had risen to 106,000. [164] This went hand-in-hand with urbanization, with the population in capital cities increasing by the 1960's with 12,000 in Sydney, 5000 in Brisbane and 2000 in Melbourne. [164]

    In 1962, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders started advocating for wage equality, successfully pressuring the Australian Council of Trade Unions to join the cause. [165] As a result, in 1965 the Australian Industrial Relations Commission declared that there should be no discrimination in Australian industrial relations law. [166] However, after this pastoralists began to mechanize their operations with fencing and helicopters, as well as stating to employ white Australians. [167] By 1971, Indigenous labour had reduced by 30 percent in some places. [167] Unemployment rose massively during the rest of the decade, with Indigenous people being pushed off pastoral properties and gathering in northern towns such as Katherine, Tennant Creek, Halls Creek, Fitzroy Crossing, Broome and Derby. [168]

    Indigenous people generally had very poor economic opportunities, with 81 percent of workers being unskilled, 18 percent semi-skilled, and just 1 percent skilled in New South Wales in the mid-'60s. [169] Health differences to the general population were massive, with many times worse infant mortality rates and child health, especially in the Northern Territory. [170] Issues of malnutrition, poverty and poor sanitation led to health effects on children potentially affecting school success. [171] The lack of skills in New South Wales was accompanied with only 4 percent having finished secondary or apprentice training. [172] Heavy drinking was also widespread. [173]

    Notable Indigenous individuals during the post-war era included activist Douglas Nicholls, artist Albert Namatjira, opera singer Harold Blair, and actor Robert Tudawali. [174] Many Indigenous people were also successful in sports, with 30 national and 5 commonwealth boxing champions by 1980. [175] Lionel Rose had become the world bantamweight champion in 1968. [175] In tennis, Evonne Goolagong Cawley won 11 Grand Slams in the 1970s. [175] Notable players in rugby and Australian rules football included Polly Farmer, Arthur Beetson, Mark Ella, Glen Ella, Gary Ella. [176]

    Activism Edit

    In the 1950's, new political activism for Indigenous rights emerged with 'advancement leagues', which were biracial coalitions. [177] These included the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship in Sydney and the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League. [177] Similar leagues existed in Perth and Brisbane. [178] A national federation for them was established in 1958 in the form of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. [178] Conflict over white and Indigenous power within the organisations led to their decline by the 1970's. [179]

    Following the Sharpeville massacre, racial issues became a bigger part of student politics, with an educational assistance program called ABSCHOL established by the National Union of Students. [177] In 1965, Charles Perkins organised the Freedom Ride with University of Sydney students, inspired by the American Freedom Riders. [180] The reaction by locals was often violent. [180]

    Political rights Edit

    All Indigenous Australians were given the right to vote in Commonwealth elections in Australia by the Menzies government in 1962. [181] The first federal election in which all Aboriginal Australians could vote was held in November 1963. The right to vote in state elections was granted in Western Australia in 1962 and Queensland was the last state to do so in 1965.

    The 1967 referendum, passed with a 90% majority, allowed Indigenous Australians to be included in the Commonwealth parliament's power to make special laws for specific races, and to be included in counts to determine electoral representation. This has been the largest affirmative vote in the history of Australia's referenda.

    In 1971, Yolngu people at Yirrkala sought an injunction against Nabalco to cease mining on their traditional land. In the resulting historic and controversial Gove land rights case, Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia had been terra nullius before European settlement, and that no concept of Native title existed in Australian law. Although the Yolngu people were defeated in this action, the effect was to highlight the absurdity of the law, which led first to the Woodward Commission, and then to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

    In 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra, in response to the sentiment among Indigenous Australians that they were "strangers in their own country". A Tent Embassy still exists on the same site.

    In 1975, the Whitlam government drafted the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which aimed to restore traditional lands to Indigenous people. After the dismissal of the Whitlam government by the Governor-General, a reduced-scope version of the Act (known as the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976) was introduced by the coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser. While its application was limited to the Northern Territory, it did grant "inalienable" freehold title to some traditional lands.

    In 1984, a group of Pintupi people who were living a traditional hunter-gatherer desert-dwelling life were tracked down in the Gibson Desert in Western Australia and brought into a settlement. They are believed to have been the last uncontacted tribe in Australia. [182]

    A 1987 federal government report described the history of the "Aboriginal Homelands Movement" or "Return to Country movement" as "a concerted attempt by Aboriginal people in the 'remote' areas of Australia to leave government settlements, reserves, missions and non-Aboriginal townships and to re-occupy their traditional country". [183]

    In 1992, the Australian High Court handed down its decision in the Mabo Case, declaring the previous legal concept of terra nullius to be invalid. This decision legally recognised certain land claims of Indigenous Australians in Australia prior to British Settlement. Legislation was subsequently enacted and later amended to recognise Native Title claims over land in Australia.

    In 1998, as the result of an inquiry into the forced removal of Indigenous children (see Stolen generation) from their families, a National Sorry Day was instituted, to acknowledge the wrong that had been done to Indigenous families. Many politicians, from both sides of the house, participated, with the notable exception of the Prime Minister, John Howard.

    In 1999 a referendum was held to change the Australian Constitution to include a preamble that, amongst other topics, recognised the occupation of Australia by Indigenous Australians prior to British Settlement. This referendum was defeated, though the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the preamble was not a major issue in the referendum discussion, and the preamble question attracted minor attention compared to the question of becoming a republic.

    In 2004, the Australian Government abolished The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which had been Australia's top Indigenous organisation. The Commonwealth cited corruption and, in particular, made allegations concerning the misuse of public funds by ATSIC's chairman, Geoff Clark, as the principal reason. Indigenous specific programmes have been mainstreamed, that is, reintegrated and transferred to departments and agencies serving the general population. The Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination was established within the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, and now with the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs to co-ordinate a "whole of government" effort. Funding was withdrawn from remote homelands (outstations). [184]

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    Traditional Lifestyle and Disease

    The Aborigines led extremely healthy lifestyles and their diet comprised of a wide array of vegetables and fruits they gathered from the ground. They ate fish and animal meat to balance their way of life. Before the arrival of the Europeans settlers, the locals hardly suffered from diseases. Some of the minor ailments they suffered from were environmental related such as fire burns, skin irritations, snake bites, physical injuries as a result of walking on the rugged terrain and the quality of nourishment. Such ailments were treated via traditional ways that included the use of indigenous medicinal plants.

    Eye irritations affected the indigenous people the most as a result of the landscape and lifestyle which exposed them to glare and lots of dust.

    The robust health among the Aborigines worked against them upon the arrival of Europeans. The locals lacked natural resistance to the diseases brought by the settling of Europeans.

    Among the most devastating effects of British colonisation was the introduction of diseases such as whooping cough, pneumonia, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, influenza, typhoid, and measles. Many Eora people who resided on the foreshores of the Sydney Habour succumbed to smallpox in the formative years of colonisation, even though the genesis of the disease is a source of dispute among historians.


    In addition to the devastating impacts of disease, the Australia’s First Nations Peoples suffered from malnutrition as consequence of the burgeoning European settlement. The local population began falling into two categories: those who aimed to retain their traditional lifestyle and those who started working for the Europeans.

    The Europeans built new industries that required personnel. Government run ventures and livestock farms resulted in the creation of positions where the locals used to work for food. Sadly, this food was inadequate compared to the more traditional diets. Tea, sugar, periodic meat and flour were payment for a day’s work. The rations were insufficient, and some supplemented with the food they obtained from the land. For some, it was all they had.

    For those who depended on the land, faced problems as a result of developments brought about by the white settlers because much of the land was destroyed and food supply was cut short. Loss of land meant the Aborigines were unable to hunt, gather food as they had always done. Plants were destroyed, large animals fled on seeing people and waterways were dirtied. All these combined reduced the amount of food the locals could obtain, leading to malnutrition and starvation in some areas.

    The Aborigines that dwelt near the coast could access greater amounts of fish and food which allowed them to retain their traditional diet long after the arrival of the white settlers.

    Many lost family and friends as a result of diseases and malnutrition. The strong kinship system, their will to live and links to their ancestors suffered a great deal as well. Most of the traditions were discarded as a result, and birth rates plummeted as well.

    Pemulway and Yagan Resistance (1790 – 1810)

    Phillip’s tolerance for the local people didn’t last long. The warrior Pemulwuy from the Bidjigal nation, situated in today’s western Sydney, is said to have killed a borderline man in 1790 as retribution for murdering the Bidjigal people. Such an act would have been punishable in the pre-contact tribal society. Governor Phillip hit back by ordering his personnel to execute ten indigenous people and the capture of two to halt further retributions.

    Fifty servicemen and two surgeons were sent for the expedition however, they failed to catch anyone. The Bidjigal and Eora people, spearheaded by Pemulway, undertook a major crusade of resistance against the colonisers in a succession of guerilla attacks that lasted from 1790 to 1810.

    In 1797 Pemulway and his men were engaged in a fierce battle close to the town of Parramatta, and he ended up being severely wounded. Pemulway had his legs cast in irons and was hospitalised. A month later he escaped making people believe firearms were incapable of killing him.

    The Governor grew increasingly frustrated by Pemulway, and he promised to pardon any prisoner who would bring him the Warriors head. In 1802, Pemulway was killed. He was decapitated and had his head sent to England for research purposes since a lot had been said about Indigenous Australians, but none had ever been seen. Despite all this, the Governor had deep respect for Pemulway for his acts of bravery, and he referred to him as ‘Altho’ – a pest to the colony but one who was an independent, daring and active leader of his tribe.


    Yagan hailed from the Nyungar tribe located in the south-western part of Western Australia. He’s described a lanky man, well over 1.8 metres, and was admired and feared at the same time by the colonial masters. In the beginning, the Nyungar tribe co-existed in harmony with the settlers who had built a colony at Swan River in 1829. Inevitably, disputes arose over resources and land. The settlers interpreted the Nyungar’s tradition of burning land as an act of hostility. In 1831 a tribe member was gunned down while picking potatoes from a settler’s garden. The British settler saw this as larceny while the Nyungar felt he was justified to pick the vegetables since he viewed it as land resources which he was entitled to take. Yagan vowed to revenge, the killing, and he did. After numerous battles with the settlers, a bounty was put on his head.

    When he was captured, one Robert Lyon fought to spare his life. Lyon admired Yagan’s bravery and wanted him to study. Yagan was then exiled to a rocky island but managed to flee after 6-weeks. This greatly angered the colonists, and as retribution, Yagan’s brother and father were killed, and the bounty on his head was increased. He managed to evade capture and fight for his tribesmen. Sometime in July of 1833, he met two shepherds who he asked for flour. With his back turned, one of the shepherds, William Keats, shot him dead. Keats was rewarded for this act of treachery.

    In 1835, upon beheading, Yagan’s head was taken to England. His hair was combed with red and black cockatoo feathers were smartly tied on his head as ornamentation. The head was put on display in Liverpool until 1964, roughly 170 years after being taken to England, it was returned home for a proper burial.

    Impact of missions and reserves today

    Today many Indigenous people still experience the effects of the missions and reserves. Some are living with the trauma of growing up in these often abusive environments. ₍₁₂₎ Others have been displaced from land and family as a result of the reserve system. Other impacts include intergenerational transmission of poverty as a long term result of poor nutrition, inadequate education and health care, few assets or a lack of opportunities for previous generations living on missions and reserves.

    Indigenous people and nature: a tradition of conservation

    In the culture of the Maori people of New Zealand, humans are deeply connected with nature the two are equal and interdependent, even kin. The idea is reflected in the Maori word ‘kaitiakitanga’, which means guarding and protecting the environment in order to respect the ancestors and secure the future.

    The Maoris’ intimate relationship with their lands and the natural world is shared by many other indigenous peoples around the world, and highlights why these often marginalized groups are gaining recognition as vital stewards of our environment and its fast-depleting resources.

    The world’s 370 million indigenous people are only 5 per cent of the total population but they officially hold 18 per cent of the land and lay claim to far more. Their home areas across 70 countries from the Arctic to the South Pacific include many of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots.

    Their traditions and belief systems often mean that they regard nature with deep respect, and they have a strong sense of place and belonging. This sustains knowledge and ways of life that match up well with modern notions of nature conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.

    Unsurprisingly, indigenous peoples have been stout opponents of development imposed from beyond their communities. They defend their lands against illegal encroachments and destructive exploitation, from mega-dams across their rivers to logging and mining in their forests.

    That can make them ideal custodians of the landscapes and ecosystems that are also central to efforts to limit climate change and adapt to its effects. But it also makes them targets. Communities who stand up against powerful economic and political interests remain under intense pressure in many parts of the world.

    According to the campaigning group Global Witness, 185 people across 16 countries were killed defending their land, forests and rivers against destructive industries in 2015 alone, many of them from indigenous communities.

    Among the subsequent victims was Berta Cáceres, a campaigner against the construction of dams in the lands of her native Lenca people in Honduras, who was murdered in March 2016. In December, Cáceres was recognized posthumously with the UN’s highest environmental award.

    “No one should fear for their life because they call for the Earth’s resources to be used carefully and in a way that respects their communities,” Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment, said at the time. “Everyone has the right to stand up for their environment.”

    After decades of discrimination and neglect, the role indigenous peoples play as custodians of the land and the traditional knowledge that underpins it, is gaining recognition along with their rights to ancestral lands and the resources they contain.

    For example, in Canada, this year’s host country for World Environment Day, indigenous ‘First Nation’ communities have in recent years taken back control of an expanse of boreal forest to the east of Lake Winnipeg. Along with the provincial and national governments, the First Nations this year asked UNESCO to recognize the 29,000 square kilometre area, known as Pimachiowin Aki or “The land that gives life”, as a World Heritage Site.

    Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in March that creating indigenous protected areas were a way for Canada to meet its goal of conserving 17 per cent of its land by 2020 and also to respond to “the desire of indigenous peoples to determine how best to create healthier, more prosperous communities while protecting their land."

    In Kenya, community-led conservation programs such as the Il Ngwesi conservancy in the Laikipia region have succeeded by reserving part of commonly held lands for wildlife, and using them to support eco-tourism ventures. The extra income more than offsets the restrictions on animal herding and increases the resilience of their land.

    A report by the World Resources Institute last year identified securing the land rights of indigenous people and other local communities in the Amazon region as a low-cost way to counter global deforestation and climate change.

    For example, deforestation rates inside tenured indigenous forests were 2-3 times lower than outside in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia from 2000-2012. Yet indigenous peoples and communities globally have secured tenure for only a fraction of their lands, the report said.

    Many indigenous peoples and local communities “cannot imagine their life divorced from nature and their interest in the sustainable use of resources is strong," said Eva Müller, Director of the Forestry Policy and Resources Division at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

    "Empowerment of these groups combined with their knowledge and long-term planning skills is essential to ensure the survival of future generations - of both humans and wildlife," Müller said on this year’s World Wildlife Day.

    This critical role has not always been acknowledged.

    Applying a model rolled out in the United States’ famed national parks, indigenous peoples have been excluded from ancestral lands across the planet in the name of protecting nature. Leading conservation groups who backed this approach stand accused of creating millions of “conservation refugees.”

    Since then, conservationists have come to understand that the landscapes they considered ‘wildnerness’ have been influenced and protected by local and indigenous communities, and that these groups have useful knowledge on how to manage them.

    The rights of indigenous people are now enshrined in documents such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, now approaching its 10th anniversary, and reflected in the policies of governments and the strategies of conservation organizations.

    Many of those peoples want more say in how to address the environmental challenges that we all face.

    “We have been here forever and we know the natural cycle of things,” said Maori leader Catherine Davis. “We know when there is a blip, we know when there is a glitch. We know when something is going down in terms of sustainability. So we need to be heard more clearly.”


    Human occupation of Australia dates back to at least 65,000 years. Aboriginal ontologies incorporate deep memories of this past, at times accompanied by a conviction that Aboriginal people have always been there. This poses a problem for historians and archaeologists: how to construct meaningful histories that extend across such a long duration of space and time. While earlier generations of scholars interpreted pre-colonial Aboriginal history as static and unchanging, marked by isolation and cultural conservatism, recent historical scholarship presents Australia's deep past as dynamic and often at the cutting-edge of human technological innovation. This historiographical shift places Aboriginal people at the centre of pre-colonial history by incorporating Aboriginal oral histories and material culture, as well as ethnographic and anthropological accounts. This review considers some of the debates within this expansive and expanding field, focusing in particular on questions relating to Aboriginal agriculture and land management and connections between Aboriginal communities and their Southeast Asian neighbours. At the same time, the study of Australia's deep past has become a venue for confronting colonial legacies, while also providing a new disciplinary approach to the question of reconciliation and the future of Aboriginal sovereignty in Australia.

    In recent years, the intensification of human-induced climate change and the associated rise to prominence of the concept of the Anthropocene has prompted historians to start to think on bigger scales, Footnote 1 just as climate change has also led to a deeper appreciation among scholars of Indigenous environmental practices and land management. Footnote 2 Nowhere are these two factors more evident than in Australia, a continent with a history steeped in deep time and an environment shaped by tens of thousands of years of Indigenous ecological interventions. Footnote 3 In 2017, archaeologists used luminescence dating techniques on the Madjedbebe rock shelter in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, one of Australia's oldest known archaeological sites. They determined that humans had inhabited the site 65,000 years ago, establishing the earliest verifiable date confirming the presence of people on the Australian continent. Footnote 4 Many Aboriginal people eschew the obsession of Western science with trying to find the earliest date of their arrival, arguing simply that they ‘have always been here’, and that their culture is the oldest living culture on earth. Footnote 5 The extraordinary antiquity of their history continues to challenge long-held assumptions about human societies and the relationship between humans and the environments they inhabited over many millennia.

    Telling a meaningful history that stretches across many tens of thousands of years has presented considerable methodological challenges for historians of Australia's deep past. At the same time, the history of Australia's deep past has been unable to escape the legacies of a colonial past and a continuing colonial present. The British colonization of Australia, which began in 1788, initiated a period of frontier violence and dispossession. Aboriginal people were massacred by white settlers, exposed to devastating diseases, and removed from their ancestral lands. Footnote 6 Scientific racism underpinned these acts of genocide, Footnote 7 leaving an intellectual legacy that depicted Aboriginal people as naturally and civilizationally inferior to Europeans – a ‘stone age people’ and a dying race, whose history was not worth studying. Footnote 8 Even as subsequent generations of scholars have fought to overturn these views, they remain entrenched among some sections of Australian society.

    As a result, historians and archaeologists tended over the past century to present Aboriginal culture and society as static and unchanging over the course of many millennia. In recent years, scholars have begun incorporating mixed methodologies that include Aboriginal oral histories and ethnographic and anthropological accounts alongside new archaeological techniques to challenge this view of a static culture. Footnote 9 The result has been an extraordinary flourishing of scholarship that has pushed the bounds of our knowledge about Aboriginal society, economics, culture, and religion over thousands of years prior to written records. Footnote 10 Archaeologists and historians have demonstrated that not only were Aboriginal cultures dynamic but they were also at the cutting edge of technological innovation for many millennia. Footnote 11 The journey towards these conclusions was not straightforward. Archaeologists Anna Florin and Xavier Carah note that racialized progressivist views of human evolution ‘both delayed the development of prehistoric archaeology in Australia and fuelled the research of more recent decades’ as archaeologists disproved outdated theories and demonstrated the dynamism of Aboriginal social and economic structures. Footnote 12

    For Aboriginal authors like Bruce Pascoe – as well as many Aboriginal activists and land rights campaigners – the deep history of Australia forms not only a central part of Aboriginal pride in heritage and culture but also offers exciting possibilities for a future Australia. Footnote 13 Within this context, archaeologists and historians are also confronting the need to decolonize their own practices. Ann McGrath has noted that academic historians have struggled to incorporate Aboriginal history telling into their practice, because Aboriginal views of the past are non-linear. Aboriginal conceptions of history fold both the recent and ancient past together, linking them to present connections with family and landscape. ‘Time is multi-layered and mutable. Many view the recent and ancient past as something personal, familial, geological and omnipresent…Many Indigenous Australians do not sense any great chasm dividing the present from the past.’ Footnote 14 This becomes a problem when dealing with periods of time prior to European colonization, when traditional archives do not exist, and has sometimes contributed to the representation of Aboriginal history as timeless and unchanging. Footnote 15 The new historiography of Australia's deep past has required the forging of links with Aboriginal peoples and the foregrounding of Aboriginal perspectives as well as a respect for Aboriginal ways of seeing and utilizing their own histories. Footnote 16 The study of Australia's deep past thus offers us more than an insight into the history of human migrations and changing social and economic systems over many millennia. It has also become a central focus for calls for reconciliation and the genuine acknowledgement of Aboriginal sovereignty in present-day Australia.

    This review considers some of the recent research undertaken by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and ecologists into the pre-colonial history of Australia. I begin by examining prevailing methodological and theoretical questions that researchers in these various disciplines have had to grapple with, including how to incorporate Aboriginal views of the past. I have then selected two debates within this historiography that highlight how researchers have responded to these methodological problems. The first relates to the role of agriculture in pre-colonial Aboriginal communities. Western academia has traditionally categorized Aboriginal societies as hunter-gatherers who never adopted agriculture. Footnote 17 Several recent publications have pushed the boundaries of this debate, in turn prompting debates over progressivist views of human development. The second theme questions whether Australia was an isolated continent by looking at evidence for long-term trading connections between northern Australia and maritime Southeast Asia. Debates within this field highlight tensions between historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists over the use of Aboriginal oral testimonies, while also pointing towards new multi-disciplinary approaches to old questions.

    Dating the human occupation of the Australian continent has always been at the centre of the study of Australia's deep past. The archaeological findings at Madjedbebe are significant not merely because they establish the earliest such date, but because they extend our knowledge about human migration history and the cultural evolution of Aboriginal society. The findings suggest that people co-existed with megafauna in Australia for more than 20,000 years, challenging earlier suggestions by the scientist Tim Flannery that the arrival of humans led quickly to the extinction of these species. Footnote 18 Archaeologists also uncovered ground-edge axes that accompanied the arrival of humans at Madjedbebe 65,000 years ago, which similarly fundamentally shakes our understanding of the story of human social and technological innovation. As Billy Griffiths explains, ‘A tool that was once linked to the origins of agriculture may have been part of the colonising baggage of the first Australians.’ Footnote 19 At the same time, while these finding are ground-breaking, they are not definitive. In 2018, barely a year after the Madjedbebe findings were published in Nature, new archaeological research was released regarding a 120,000-year-old coastal midden site at Moyjil, near Warrnambool in south-western Victoria. Some scientists have cautiously suggested that the site includes a human-made hearth which, if proven accurate, would almost double our estimate for the presence of human ancestors on the Australian continent and challenge many established assumptions about the history of human migration out of Africa. Footnote 20 While these suggestions remain cautious and contentious, they demonstrate that our knowledge of pre-colonial Australia – with its diverse and complex communities – is still growing.

    Australian archaeologists’ obsession with dating is partly explained by the fact that Australian archaeology began to flourish at the same time that radiocarbon dating was introduced as a ground-breaking technique for dating archaeological sites and artefacts. This coincidence allowed for rapid reassessments pushing the date of human occupation of Australia back to 40,000 years over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. Footnote 21 Yet, as Rhys Jones has pointed out, the reliance on this method also posed a problem for Australian archaeologists. Radiocarbon dating has a natural ‘plateau’ at about 50,000 years. Beyond that point, traces of carbon are not detectable. This ‘plateau’ created a stasis in findings that could only be overcome by newer techniques, including the use of luminescence dating, which have allowed archaeologists to find newer dates at places like Madjedbebe. Footnote 22

    Yet the dating of Aboriginal sites has never been a neutral question the further these dates pushed into the deep past, the more archaeologists began to confront assumptions about the nature of Aboriginal society. Billy Griffiths has adeptly narrated the evolution of Australian archaeology over the course of the twentieth century in his book Deep time Dreaming. He notes that many of the archaeological findings in Australia shook the foundational beliefs that scientists had about the primitivity of Australian Aboriginals, often leading to rigid scepticism and disbelief. In particular, the rapidly expanding antiquity of the archaeological record was questioned because it placed Aboriginal people at the ‘cutting edge of Pleistocene technology and challenged the widespread view that Australia was the last continent to be settled by modern humans’. Footnote 23 The archaeological record showed Aboriginal society to be dynamic and creative, with a sophisticated set of tools that allowed people to manage the landscape surrounding them.

    At the same time, a focus on dating archaeological sites has led to questions about how to interpret change over time within Aboriginal history. This in turn is complicated by the response of many Aboriginal people to the findings of archaeologists. While some find pride in the longevity of the archaeological record – reflected in slogans like ‘You have been here for 200 years, we for 40,000’ Footnote 24 – others reject it as irrelevant because Aboriginal people have ‘always been here’. Footnote 25 Yet both views play into a sense of stasis over time. As Lynette Russell has argued, the term ‘the oldest living culture’ suggests that Aboriginal culture was unchanging and static and conforms to some kind of ‘romantic ideal, for a harmonious society with no outside pressure to change’. Footnote 26 While these kinds of statements remain powerful as an expression of Aboriginal identity, Russell is concerned with how they are adopted into a historical framework. She argues that by framing Aboriginal history in this way – focusing only on the longevity of Aboriginal society – we run the risk of adopting a colonialist view that denies the diversity of Aboriginal culture and how it changed over time. Footnote 27

    Earlier generations of archaeologists readily found evidence for static cultures that exhibited signs of conservativism and continuity rather than change over time, reflecting dominant views of Aboriginal culture in the mid-twentieth century. More recent generations of archaeologists have been slowly unpicking many of these earlier findings. For example, Griffiths relates the case of the archaeological site at Puntutjarpa in Western Australia, where an early dig by Richard and Betsy Gould in 1969–70 concluded that an Aboriginal community emerged 10,000 years ago and adapted to the harsh desert environment through resourcefulness, conservatism, and risk minimization. Recent archaeological studies of the site have instead uncovered ‘three distinct phases of occupation over the past 12,000 years, as opposed to a single, static culture’. Footnote 28 Similar findings are repeated across different archaeological sites across Australia, emphasizing booming populations in response to changing climatic conditions following the end of the last Ice Age. Footnote 29 As Mike Smith demonstrates for Australian desert cultures, booming populations also meant an expanding social world. Groups began to confine themselves to designated areas, developing complex technological and economic tools to reap the benefits of the desert environment. One such technological development was the seed grinder. Footnote 30

    An interdisciplinary approach has helped tackle perceptions of stasis. One of the greatest challenges facing historians of pre-colonial Australia is to move past the limitations of the archaeological record in search of a fuller description of social life among Aboriginal communities. For this reason, many historians have looked towards the ethnographic record, particularly historical sources depicting Aboriginal society immediately prior to or following European settlement. Footnote 31 Yet, this raises the further problem that Aboriginal history becomes defined narrowly by the world that was witnessed at contact and limited by the worldview of those who were doing the witnessing. Nevertheless, ethnographic records do offer unique insights. Griffiths gives the example of archaeologist Josephine Flood who wrote about the seasonal gathering of bogong moths, in which hundreds of people from multiple different Aboriginal groups gathered in the Snowy Mountains to feast on this rich food source. Flood was only able to locate this tradition through oral histories and ethnographic sources, since the evidence for the practice was largely biodegradable. But this ethnography allowed her to reinterpret the archaeological records in a new light. Footnote 32

    Alongside innovative usages of the ethnographic record, scholars have urged archaeologists and historians to engage more fully with Aboriginal ways of relating and knowing history. Incorporating Aboriginal ontologies requires a flexibility that Western academia has sometimes been reluctant to adopt. Diana James issues a challenge to historians to ‘lift their eyes from the page and attune their aural senses to other ways of knowing history through song and poetic prose, and the visual performative arts of sand and body painting, dance and drama’. Footnote 33 Writing about the Anangu peoples of Uluru, she notes that the Anangu concept of history is ‘inseparable from their creation ontology’, which is written into the landscape of ‘rocks, hills, waterholes, plants, animals, people and the law of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands’. Footnote 34 History is recorded within long memorized song sagas, but is also evident in the environment through ‘the subtle signs of the human hand in the clearing of vegetation around sacred sites, stone arrangements, engraved or painted marks on rocks or cave walls’. Footnote 35 Similarly, Lynne Kelly describes the methods by which the Yolngu of Arnhem Land pass on cultural knowledge through ceremonial songs, ritual dances, and paintings. Within these varied mediums, the Yolngu have inscribed rich information about plants and animals, the tracks they leave, nests and burrows they build, and how humans can interact with and benefit from them. Different information is detailed according to the seasons, with songs rich with ‘colours, smells and sounds of flora and fauna…[and] the seasonal characteristics of an animal or plant, or on natural elements such as clouds, wind strength and direction’. Footnote 36 By these means, the Yolngu have encoded an extensive botanical knowledge of thousands of plants and how to harvest them, including sophisticated techniques that transform poisonous plants into vital sources of sustenance. Footnote 37 Songs also record place names and the histories of ancestors that occurred in each place. This is often referred to as ‘songlines’ in English, signifying songs, dances, and paintings which represent journeys across the landscape and act as navigational aids that allow the individual to travel through the land both in reality and in the mind. Footnote 38

    Archaeologists have been pushed to take Aboriginal ontologies seriously. Often this has been as a result of Aboriginal critiques of the archaeological profession, most famously represented by Rosalind Langford's 1982 article ‘Our heritage – your playground’. Langford reflected a view among many Aboriginal people at the time that archaeologists showed little respect for Aboriginal concerns and, in single-mindedly pursuing academic interests, were continuing a long history of cultural dispossession. Aboriginal people like Langford asserted their right to control and define the terms for sharing their heritage. Footnote 39 Elsewhere, Aboriginal elders like Alice Kelly in the Willandra Lakes engaged in a ‘rich knowledge exchange’ with researchers while also forcing archaeologists to take seriously their concerns around respect for ancestral remains. Footnote 40 Many archaeologists working across the world now believe that archaeological approaches need be meaningful and relevant to Indigenous communities. Footnote 41 As Ian McNiven writes, ‘This epistemological and ontological quest requires not only understanding Indigenous people's relationships with, and conceptualizations of, the past, but also how people relate to objects, sites and places in the present in the construction of contemporary identity.’ Footnote 42 Essential to this is an involvement of Indigenous people as research collaborators, leading to ‘creative and ontologically challenging insights’ that enrich the academic process while also making research more relevant to local communities. Footnote 43 Aboriginal scholars like the Ngarrindjeri archaeologist Chris Wilson are extending these principles by developing their own Aboriginal-led archaeological projects that seek to place local Aboriginal interests in their own pasts at the centre of any research agenda. Footnote 44

    Part of this process requires valuing oral traditions within research, even those traditions that extend deep into the past. Historian Karen Hughed has noted in her conversations with Aboriginal women how manifestations of deep time ‘frequently coursed through their life narratives and storytelling practice’, which she described as an ‘irruption of Dreaming’. Footnote 45 Despite this, Nunn and Reid note that until recently the established academic consensus was that oral histories could not survive longer than 500–800 years, ‘largely because the original information (core) has by then become completely obscured by the layers of narrative embellishment needed to sustain transgenerational interest in a particular story’. Footnote 46 Their own research on Aboriginal memories of the end of the last Ice Age refutes these assumptions. Nunn and Reid collected twenty-one oral histories from coastal Aboriginal communities across the full circumference of Australia, arguing that these stories collectively demonstrate historical memory of coastal inundation dating back to between 5,300 and 11,120 bc . Footnote 47 They suggest that certain characteristics of Aboriginal culture made this possible, including an insistence on telling stories exactly, cultural rules as to who has authority to tell a story, and the relationship between Aboriginal people and land which gave these histories elevated cultural significance. Nunn and Reid conclude that these stories ‘may be some of the world's earliest extant human memories’. Footnote 48 Such findings have inspired other archaeologists and scientists to bring Aboriginal Dreaming stories together with Western geological histories to demonstrate convergences between the two knowledge systems. Footnote 49

    Similarly, recent research into the biocultural history of Australia has demonstrated the accuracy of Aboriginal oral histories. For example, Maurizio Rossetto et al. have researched the role of ‘human directed dispersal’ in the current geographic spread of the Moreton Bay Chestnut tree. The seeds of this tree were used by Aboriginal people as a staple food source although the seeds are toxic, Aboriginal communities developed methods to remove the toxins and often ground the seeds into a highly nutritious meal that could be stored. The scientists were impressed by extensive ethnographic records – both historical and contemporary – that suggested the importance of the Moreton Bay Chestnut as a staple food for Aboriginal communities in northern New South Wales. The tree was also used for fish and animal traps, making spear throwers and even for toy boats for children. Importantly, the researchers used Dreaming stories that mapped Aboriginal interaction with the tree which suggested that an ancestral spirit carried seeds of the tree and left them along a songline that followed from the east coast to mountains in the west. Researchers mapped the songline along ridgelines, finding that it corresponded to the modern-day spread of the tree. Footnote 50 Research such as this demonstrates that Aboriginal oral histories deserve to be taken seriously, not least because they have the potential to fill gaps in the historical and archaeological record.

    Land and environment lie at the heart of Aboriginal culture and history and considerable research has been conducted into just how Aboriginal people managed land. Two recent works in particular have catapulted this research into public attention: Dark emu by Bruce Pascoe and The biggest estate on earth by Bill Gammage. Footnote 51 Both argue that Aboriginal land management involved such a degree of intervention into the environment that it can be described as agriculture – in Pascoe's framework – or estate management, according to Gammage. These conclusions have sparked considerable controversy and debate among historians.

    The question of whether Aboriginal people practised agriculture has long been debated. Florin and Carah note that Aboriginal Australians were often compared to their Melanesian counterparts in New Guinea, who were noted for their adoption of horticultural practices. By contrast, Indigenous Australians were deemed ‘neolithic’ and ‘hunter-gatherers’. Beginning in the 1970s, these assumptions and the presumed dichotomy between Australia and New Guinea were broken down by both ethnographic and archaeological research. It has since become less accepted to presuppose that Aboriginal people did not engage in any form of agriculture. Footnote 52 The question of agricultural practice has been linked to European notions of ‘progress’ or ‘civilizational advancement’ since the nineteenth century. At the same time, Lesley Head has argued that Western idealizations of particular types of human landscapes blinded Europeans to other examples of human environmental intervention, leading many European settlers to depict the Australian landscape as a type of untouched wilderness. Footnote 53 These racialized assumptions meant that many Europeans failed to see or respect Aboriginal land management techniques that involved a very sophisticated level of botanical and ecological knowledge which included the cultivation of crops.

    In Dark emu, Bruce Pascoe intervenes into this debate by presenting a holistic view of the Aboriginal pre-colonial economy based on early colonial ethnographic accounts combined with recent archaeological evidence. He argues that Aboriginal people practised agriculture that indeed their intervention into local ecologies fundamentally changed plant evolution. Selection of seed for harvest and trade between groups across long distances fundamentally changed the genetic structure of grains in a similar way to the domestication of plants in Africa and Eurasia. Footnote 54 ‘This process, conducted over long periods of time, is what scientists call domestication.’ Footnote 55 Aboriginal people manipulated their environment to the advantage of certain plants necessary for subsistence, while also planting and harvesting crops and developing techniques for grinding, baking, and storing supplies in between harvests. Similarly, Aboriginal people practised sophisticated forms of aquaculture, building impressive eel traps and even developing symbiotic relationships with killer whales who assisted with catching fish near Eden, along the southern coast of New South Wales. Footnote 56 Far from being itinerant and opportunistic hunter-gatherers, Pascoe notes many Aboriginal people built houses and had their own methods of storage and preservation of staple crops. Pascoe points out that evidence for Aboriginal adoption of baking predates Egyptian baking by almost 15,000 years. The world's oldest grindstones have been found near Walgett in western New South Wales, dating to 30,000 years. Grindstones of similar antiquity have been found in Kakadu in the Northern Territory. Footnote 57 For Pascoe, this evidence demonstrates that Aboriginal communities were at the cutting edge of agriculture, even if their agricultural practices do not conform exactly to practices from elsewhere in the world.

    In a similar vein, Bill Gammage looks at Aboriginal land management through the lens of fire regimes. Aboriginal use of fire was recognized by early explorers and colonists however, it did not receive serious academic attention until the mid-twentieth century. In 1969, Rhys Jones coined the term ‘fire-stick farming’ to describe the way in which Aboriginal people used fire to shape the environment around them. Footnote 58 The first full study of this practice, undertaken by Sylvia Hallam, was published in 1975. By studying a long archaeological history of Aboriginal fire use in south-west Western Australia, Hallam argued that Aboriginal people managed the environment through careful and deliberate use of fire. These traditions were recorded within songs, dances, art, and Aboriginal law. Her insights were used by others to deepen their understanding of Aboriginal botanical knowledge and the role that fire played in Australia's unique ecologies. Footnote 59 Gammage extends these arguments to a continent-wide view in his book The biggest estate on earth, where he argues that the use of fire by Aboriginal communities had common purposes across the continent, despite diverse environmental conditions.

    Gammage argues provocatively that there was not a corner of the Australian continent that was not subjected to deliberate human intervention by Aboriginal communities, who used fire as a farming technique to encourage the growth of particular plants, to control others, and to create traps for hunting kangaroo. Footnote 60 Precise botanical knowledge of how plants responded to fire allowed them to use fire very strategically to promote or control different types of plants. This use of fire was by no means uniform and ranged from seasonal burns to burns only once every five, twenty-five, or even several hundred years according to the specific needs of the environment. As a consequence, the ecology of Australia was uniquely shaped by human intervention. As Gammage argues,

    Over seventy per cent of Australia's plant species tolerate fire, many need it to seed or germinate, and eucalypts, acacias and spinifex use it to dominate the continent…Dominant perennial grasses re-sprout green after fire, which attracts animals, whereas if you burn Europe's annuals they die. Eucalypts and acacias regenerate, and with the right fire, cycads all fruit at the same time so people could gather and feast. Footnote 61

    Significantly, the removal of this form of land management after colonization has led to devastating consequences, including catastrophic bushfires and the loss of life and property. Footnote 62

    While the evidence base behind Pascoe's and Gammage's works is broadly supported by the wider research community, Footnote 63 historians and archaeologists have baulked at their provocative conclusions. Griffiths and Russell argue that Pascoe is ‘captivated by the enduring myth of progress’ that sets agriculture as a step above other ways of organizing the economy of a society. They ask, ‘What is “mere” about a hunter-gatherer way of life?…Is it necessary to turn to Eurocentric language and ideas to acknowledge the richness and complexity of Indigenous economies? Is it meaningful to define “agriculture” as a stable category that transcends space and time?’ Footnote 64 Instead, they note alternative terms used by scholars to avoid the language of agriculture, such as the term ‘intensification’ first used by Harry Lourandos in 1987 to describe the evolution of sophisticated forms of food processing, including eel traps and holding ponds developed by Aboriginal communities in south-western Victoria. Lourandos used this term instead of agriculture, which he believed carried the baggage of European narratives of progress and denied appropriate levels of agency, sophistication, or economic complexity to hunter-gatherer societies. Footnote 65

    Much of this critique centres on language and whether the term ‘agriculture’ helps or hinders understanding of the diversity, sophistication, and dynamism of Aboriginal land management practices. Alistair Paterson, following Peter Hiscock, prefers the term ‘foragers’ to ‘agriculturalists’, Footnote 66 while Peter Veth et al. argue that the distinction between ‘foragers’ and ‘farmers’ is unhelpful and arbitrary. Instead, they argue that it is more helpful to ‘use material evidence from the past to fully consider the roles of plants in peoples' economic, social and symbolic lives’. Footnote 67 They use evidence from rock art in the Kimberley region to argue that certain plants were highly regarded and formed essential parts of subsistence across tens of thousands of years. Footnote 68 Beth Gott has used the terms ‘wild harvesting’ and ‘natural cultivation’ to describe Aboriginal deployments of fire and other methods for not only harvesting but increasing the abundance and productivity of certain plants. Footnote 69

    Gammage's continent-wide approach along with his choice to focus on the year 1788 due to his reliance on ethnohistorical sources has similarly exposed him to considerable criticism for essentializing and flattening the diversity of Aboriginal practices and ‘telescoping’ them into a single point of time. Hallam and others have argued that a more fruitful approach is to look at regional diversity and the specificities of Aboriginal burning techniques. A focus on commonality also denies the reality that some burning techniques could be environmentally destructive by encouraging erosion or altering soil nutrients. Footnote 70 Grace Karskens is critical of Gammage's adoption of nineteenth-century language of ‘estate, Eden, garden, and farm’ which she views as an example of applying the European imagination to Aboriginal land management practices. Like Hallam, she suggests that he has used localized, specific examples to make a sweeping claim about an entire continent and argues that future research should focus on accounting for local specificities. Footnote 71

    While academics continue to debate the validity of terms like agriculture and estate management, it is nevertheless true that both Pascoe and Gammage have been enormously successful in popularizing knowledge about pre-colonial Aboriginal land management practices. Their research has been effectively translated into contemporary political and scientific debates. One area where this is evident is within environmental and ecological sciences. Footnote 72 This is an example of the success of academic historians in reaching to a wider audience and manifests itself in growing public support for the reintroduction of Aboriginal land management techniques to reduce the risk of catastrophic bushfire. At the same time, appreciation has also grown for other forms of Indigenous land management and biocultural work. Paterson notes that the shift from Aboriginal modes of land management to intensive industrial farming, including introduced flora and fauna, had a significant and deleterious impact on Australia's ecology, seen through ‘deforestation, increased erosion, topsoil loss, flooding, soil degradation, increased salinity, water catchment degradation, reduced aquifer levels, degradation of natural springs, reduced water flows and poorer water quality including algal outbreaks and stagnant waters’. Footnote 73 Marcia Langton has similarly demonstrated that the introduction of livestock in particular had a dramatic impact on local ecologies, leading to the eradication of plants that both Aboriginal people and Australian fauna relied upon. Botanists contributed directly to this ecological colonization process through their study of indigenous plants for the purposes of selecting grazing crops. Footnote 74 A consequence of these debates is that it is now widely understood by sections of the public that the Australian landscape was radically changed by colonization, particularly through the elimination of traditional Aboriginal land management practices that helped to manage a combustible environment while ensuring access to a variety of edible plants and animals. Footnote 75

    Environmental scientists and ecologists are increasingly looking towards Aboriginal knowledge to develop responses to environmental changes. For example, Indigenous coastal ranger groups have been important in recording and understanding widespread changes to landscapes such as the Melaleuca dieback. Aboriginal elders are able to provide local environmental history as well as a cultural context for changes to the landscape. In northern Australia, this kind of knowledge is applied to halt saltwater intrusion into coastal environments. Footnote 76 Emilie J. Ens et al. note that ‘biological diversity is increasingly being linked to cultural diversity suggesting that combined biocultural resources are integral to the survival of life on Earth’. Footnote 77 Such an approach nevertheless requires scientists to be aware of the colonial implications for transferring Indigenous knowledge into scientific settings, at the risk of divorcing it from its Indigenous practitioners. Ens et al. note the continuation of cross-cultural tensions in the application of Indigenous land management even in jointly managed areas – tensions which they attribute to ‘the continual privileging of “Western” scientific approaches’. Footnote 78 In a similar vein Timothy Neale et al. argue that incorporating Aboriginal people and their biocultural knowledge into land management practices ‘is not some straightforward revival of a technical practice. Rather, such collaborations are open-ended social and ecological experiments in decolonising, the results and effects of which cannot be fully known in advance’. Footnote 79

    These examples demonstrate the impact that historical research into Australia's deep past has already had on contemporary Australian society. While much of this research has been conducted within a Western academic framework, researchers in this field increasingly accept that their findings will be translated into a politicized public discourse on the impacts of colonization and the future of Aboriginal sovereignty. Uncovering the deep past has also become part of a process of defining the future, as many of these debates around ecological management and climate change reveal. The importance of this for a contemporary Australia still grappling with the colonial legacy cannot be overstated. Pascoe argues that the crucial question is not really ‘whether the Aboriginal economy was a hunter-gatherer system or one of burgeoning agriculture’ but about how the contemporary Australian nation relates itself to the history of Aboriginal deep past. The labelling of Aboriginal people as hunter-gatherers and the denial of their sophisticated economic systems has ‘been used as a political tool to justify dispossession’ by suggesting that ‘the Indigenous population did not own or use the land’. Footnote 80 Although more limited in scope, Gammage's work similarly argues that Aboriginal people developed unprecedented knowledge of country, knowing every rock and tree intimately in their efforts to manage and shape the land effectively. He calls this nothing short of extraordinary: ‘Australia was not natural, but made. This was the greatest achievement in our history.’ Footnote 81

    The debate over the emergence of agriculture within Aboriginal societies is linked to arguments over how isolated Australia was from the rest of the world. The assumption of isolation – long taken for granted – has recently been challenged particularly by archaeologists and historians working in northern Australia and the Torres Strait. Over the last thousand years, contact between northern Australia and maritime Southeast Asia intensified. The most well-known example is the Macassan trepang trade that boomed along the coasts of Arnhem Land in the late eighteenth century. Footnote 82 These voyages were directed by Macassans and involved Macassan and Bugis crews who sailed aboard wooden sailing ships known as praus, beginning with the north-west monsoon in December each year. They came in search of trepang, or sea cucumber – which, by the eighteenth century, was a prized commodity in China – but also traded with Aboriginal people for pearl shells, beeswax, and ironwood. Footnote 83 They would return to Makassar when the trade winds changed in March or April. The voyage to the Kimberley region was known as Kayu Jawa, while that to Arnhem Land was known as Marege’. Footnote 84 Regina Ganter argues that this ‘history of mobility interrupts the assumptions of indigenous people as fixed and local that have been so central to colonial discourses of indigeneity’. Footnote 85 Work by historians in this field thus challenges the long-held belief that Aboriginal culture remained isolated and was essentially conservative by nature. At the same time, questions surrounding the origins, scope, and extent of cultural contact and exchange, particularly among northern Australian communities, once again reveals methodological tensions between historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists.

    Among archaeologists, Ian McNiven argues that the Macassan trade is just one example of a long history of a globalized Aboriginal Australia, which is defined by cultural contact and diffusion especially via the Torres Strait. Footnote 86 He points to the appearance of dogs on the continent 4,000 years ago, the spread of the use of the Melanesian outrigger canoe along Australian coasts 3,300 years ago, and the trade in turtle shells 500 years ago. Footnote 87 The archaeological record suggests that Torres Strait islander society changed dramatically approximately 2,600 years ago as a result of the influx of migrants from Papua New Guinea. Evidence of Lapita culture links the Torres Strait to broader developments in the migratory spread of Pacific cultures around that period. Footnote 88 Indigenous communities traded goods such as spears, ochre, and pearl and turtle shells and received in exchange canoes, drums, weapons, and other prestige items. Other research has suggested that cultural diffusion can be witnessed through the style of Torres Strait rock art, which demonstrates motifs and design elements from both mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea. Footnote 89 At the same time, new evidence is emerging to suggest that the Torres Strait remained connected to the expanding trading entrepôts such as the Maluku sultanates active in Maritime Southeast Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Torres Strait languages incorporate many Malay loan words, indicating that the cultural interaction was considerable. Footnote 90 Peter Grave and Ian McNiven have discovered pottery sherds of Chinese origin in the Torres Strait and suggest that it is possible that Chinese traders made rare trips to the Torres Strait in the sixteenth century. Footnote 91

    Although the Torres Strait offers exciting new perspectives on cultural contact between Aboriginal and Asian communities, the majority of research in this field has focused on the Macassan trade, 800 kilometres to the west. In part, this is because the presence of Macassans in northern Australia has left an indelible mark on Aboriginal communities like the Yolngu. Footnote 92 Yolngu public dances and ceremonies incorporate many symbols imported by the Macassans, including ‘flags, samurai swords, long-barrelled pipes, prayer calls to Allah and references to South-East Asian ports like Djakapura (Singapore), Djumaynga (Macassar) and Banda’. The strength of this connection is apparent within Yolngu traditions even after nearly a century since the voyages ceased. The Yolngu find a degree of pride within this history of contact with the Malay world, and over recent decades mutual expeditions of rediscovery and exchange have taken place between the Yolngu and Macassans. Footnote 93

    While the impact of this trade on Aboriginal communities is clear, historians continue to disagree on when this cultural contact began and how long it continued. The historical, archaeological, and ethnographic records all provide conflicting evidence. The pre-eminent scholar of the field, Campbell Macknight, initially dated the origins of the trade to between 1650 and 1750, but later revised this estimate forwards to the 1780s. Footnote 94 Macknight believes this latter date best reflects the point at which the trade was properly established, based on Gerrit Knaap and Heather Sutherland's research with eighteenth-century Dutch records relating to the trepang trade. Footnote 95 Macknight argues that since trepang was always a trade commodity, its appearance or absence within trade records gives an indication of when the trade began. Trepang is completely absent from Portuguese, Dutch, or English records prior to the 1780s, while British records suggest that the trepang industry accelerated in intensity at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Footnote 96 Several archaeologists have disputed these conclusions, with radiocarbon dating of fireplaces used by the trepangers returning dates ranging from 1170 to 1520, while other evidence suggests even older dates are possible. Footnote 97 Recent archaeological work done on rock art paintings relating to the trade date the artworks to between 1517 and 1664, while the discovery of two skeletons of Southeast Asian origin dated the death of these individuals to before 1730. Footnote 98

    While the debate over the timing of the trepang trade may seem largely innocuous, it in fact reveals a divide over the weight that certain scholars grant to evidence drawn from Aboriginal oral and material culture – including rock art – by comparison to European- or Asian-derived sources. Whereas Macknight views the written archive as definitive, other scholars point to anthropological evidence for pre-Macassan visitors to Arnhem Land. Known as the Bayini, these people appear within Aboriginal oral histories as a ‘copper-coloured’ people who arrived in Australia prior to the Macassan period of contact. Footnote 99 The descriptions of the Bayini provided to the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt in the 1950s suggests that they were considerably different to the later Macassan traders, having settled in Arnhem Land, bringing women with them, constructing houses, cultivating crops, and weaving cloth. Aboriginal songs record these activities, while Aboriginal people provided the Berndts with detailed topographic maps relating to the settlements of the Bayini. Some scholars have hypothesized that the Bayini may have been the Sama Bajau, who were itinerant maritime communities active in Maritime Southeast Asia in the early modern period. The Sama Bajau were an essential component to the extensive trading networks that existed across the region, and scholars like Sandra Bowdler believe that it is unlikely that these skilled and mobile trading mariners never ventured further south beyond the Indonesian archipelago. Footnote 100 Despite this, Macknight remains dismissive of these stories, arguing instead that they demonstrate a level of confusion that has entered into the oral record over time. Footnote 101

    The anthropologist Ian McIntosh suggests that present-day Aboriginal attitudes towards the Bayini sheds light on past interactions between Aboriginal people and Southeast Asian visitors. Working in particular with Dholtji elder Burramurra, McIntosh notes that many Yolngu stories relating to the Bayini idealized a pre-Macassan age as characterized by ‘equality and reciprocity, the sharing of resources and knowledge, and joint participation in sacred ceremonies honouring the land’. Footnote 102 At the same time, oral history contains evidence that the later Macassan trade was at times accompanied with violence and wreaked havoc on a number of Aboriginal communities. The introduction of diseases such as smallpox into communities likely wiped out a number of groups. McIntosh argues that Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land were able to confront these tragedies through ‘extensive cultural borrowings and innovations in the Dreamings’. Footnote 103 He suggests that the disjunction between the Bayini legends and the memory of the Macassan trepang trade probably signifies a substantial shift that occurred in the relationships between Aboriginal people and Southeast Asian visitors, which generated a view of an earlier interaction as a golden age of prosperity and peaceful cultural exchange. Footnote 104

    While historians continue to disagree on how to use and interpret Aboriginal oral histories, new research based on Aboriginal rock art provides a fresh perspective on this debate. Sally K. May et al. point to rock art as a way of understanding the impact of the Macassan trade on the material culture of Aboriginal communities. For instance, the prau painting at Malarrak in Arnhem Land shows an in depth knowledge by the artist of Macassan ships and how they sailed. Footnote 105 They also argue that the rock art of the Wellington Range demonstrated ‘a significant shift [that] occurred to take advantage of the new economy and restructured Indigenous land-use that strengthened traditional practices but also created new social capital’. This shift took place alongside the emergence of the trepang trade. Footnote 106 The Macassan trade encouraged Indigenous groups to restrict their mobility, occupying fewer sites over the course of the year. May et al. argue that this allowed them to control Macassan corridors of movement while also facilitating trade with other groups and controlling the introduction of new technologies and the flow of goods. The new technologies helped them to develop patterns of subsistence that allowed them to occupy sites for longer periods of time. The researchers believe that these changes took place rapidly. Footnote 107 At the same time, the results of this research with rock art has pushed Paul S. C. Taçon et al. towards accepting the ethnographic evidence that suggest the Bayini were Southeast Asians that came to Arnhem Land prior to the expansion of the Macassan trade. As they note,

    Ironically, archaeological excavation evidence has long pointed to this contact occurring prior to the 1700s but has generally been dismissed due to contradiction with the historical records. This reliance on historical records is unusual given that one of the strengths of archaeology is the ability to add to or contradict historical records, which are often flawed, biased, selective and missing in detail. Footnote 108

    Aboriginal traditional landowners like Ronald Lamilami of western Arnhem Land see rock art sites ‘like his people's history books’ that ‘will help wider Australia understand this shared history and give greater voice to Indigenous perceptions of this important time period’. Footnote 109 Paul Taçon and Sally May note that the study of rock art relating to the Macassan trade has as yet received relatively little attention. They suggest that future research may well reveal further contact between Australia and Southeast Asia, enlivening our understanding of a connected Aboriginal Australia not just in the past five hundred years but across several millennia:

    Indeed, there is evidence in the form of ancient stencilled objects in various parts of Arnhem Land, including the Wellington Range, that are unlike any forms of material culture known from Australian Indigenous ethnographic records. Once they are better dated and interpreted, and further genetic research highlights other forms of ancient cross-cultural encounter, a whole new picture of Aboriginal Australian contact with Asia will finally refute the long-held theory that Aboriginal Australians were isolated from the rest of the world until just a few hundred years ago. Footnote 110

    The study of Australia's deep past continues to push the boundaries of knowledge of human migration, evolutionary history, and non-European cultures and societies. It challenges historians to expand their disciplinary horizons and, most importantly, to place Aboriginal people at the heart of this story. Griffiths argues that one of the consequences of delving into the deep past of Australia's history is that ‘the Australian nation quickly becomes a shallow stratum in a richly layered Indigenous place’. Footnote 111 This is why the history of ancient Aboriginal Australia is so confronting to some Australians that are wedded to a nation-state founded on principles of European superiority. Yet, Australia's deep past reveals an Australian landscape shaped by culture. Recognizing the complexity and sophistication of Aboriginal cultures, economies, and forms of knowledge inevitably confronts the legacy of colonization. Footnote 112

    Australia's deep past has given Aboriginal campaigners space to emphasize their pride in a long, dynamic, and unique history rather than focusing only on the trauma that has accompanied centuries of dispossession and genocide. Aboriginal representatives like Bruce Pascoe and Wayne Nannup argue that this offers a new future for reconciliation in Australia, Footnote 113 while Aboriginal climate activists like Philip Winzer argue it is only Aboriginal custodians of the land that can protect the fragile Australian environment from impending climate catastrophe. Footnote 114 The recent unprecedented bushfire season that saw more than 12.6 million hectares of land burnt across the Australian continent has only amplified this conversation. Footnote 115 As one historian of Aboriginal fire regimes has provocatively argued, the Anthropocene is quickly giving way to the Pyrocene: our earth is literally on fire. Footnote 116 Within this context, Aboriginal land management practices have received heightened attention, reflecting the infiltration into popular discourse of a growing academic consensus that settler-colonial modes of agricultural and ecological management have failed in the unique Australian environment, leading to catastrophic consequences in the course of just a few generations. Footnote 117 Never before has the history of Australia's deep past been so relevant and urgent to the present – a fact that invites Australians to confront the social, political, and ecological legacy of colonization. As Pascoe argues, reconciliation is not just a matter of saying sorry for past wrongs, but also learning to say thanks: to recognize what is extraordinary, innovative, and vital in Aboriginal economic, social, and cultural histories that radically shaped the Australian landscape over millennia. Footnote 118

    Giving vs Investing

    As we welcome wisdom into our lives, let’s also remember to do it respectfully and carefully, learning and appreciating, not appropriating. It’s important to reflect on where society as a whole is heading. Especially in the western world, we live in an individualist society. A society in which the most pressing questions are, “How much money can I earn?”, “What can I get out of this?” and “What’s mine?”. It’s all about material possession, climbing the social ladder, and most importantly, ourselves. But if we were to listen to the wisdom keepers, we would adapt a collectivist mindset. A mindset of collectivity and connectivity, of receiving and giving back, even if we think we have nothing left to give. Remember how much Indigenous people have fought, and continue fighting to protect the Earth, for all of us. Indigenous people make up less than 5% of the world’s population, yet they hold more than 80% of the entire world’s biodiversity on their lands.That means something. Remember just how much the Earth gives us all. Everything we have comes from the natural world, our food, our houses, our medicine, and even technology. It is time for us to give back.

    It’s a freeing feeling - to let go of material worth and possession. To live for the sole liberating purpose of giving back to what gave you life, and to understand that we’re a part of something much bigger than ourselves. To most, this concept is so far removed from society that it’s completely alien. But it’s not outside of reach. All it takes is a simple step back, and a moment of quiet reflection to evaluate where life has taken you. And moreover, where it’s going to take you next.

    Remember that to give is to expect nothing back. This is the fundamental difference between giving and investing. You give because it’s the right thing to do, not to keep track of how much value you receive in exchange. Modern celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio adopted these principles, giving us all some hope that this age-old wisdom didn’t completely get lost to time. DiCaprio shared just last year, “I remain committed to supporting the Brazilian indigenous communities, local governments, scientists, educators and general public who are working tirelessly to secure the Amazon.” The award-winning actor spoke up during the 2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires against Brazilian president Bolsonaro, who funded and enabled this destruction. British musician and rainforest preservation advocate Sting shares a similar sentiment to DiCaprio, claiming that “[Doing nothing] is criminal negligence on a global scale, and we will all suffer the consequences.” Sting launched the Rainforest Foundation in 1987, and has worked closely with Indigenous people to protect their lands and prevent commercial exploitation.

    DiCaprio has a similar history of alliance with the Earth. In fact, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation donated $3 million to mitigate the damage of the catastrophic bushfires that raged across Australia just this year. And while it may seem difficult to give endlessly in the face of futility, that’s not the way Sting or DiCaprio see it. They’re a part of something much bigger than themselves. It’s a movement towards selflessness, and towards building an authentic connection with the Earth. It may take years, but even we can take footsteps towards a greener planet.

    Indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest living in connection with the land understand the importance of receiving and giving back to the Earth. They understand the natural cycles of the Earth, which is reflected in their everyday practices, in how they treat the land, in how they plant the seeds, in their fishing and hunting practices, and in their tireless efforts protect their land from exploitation by extractive industries.

    Economic organization

    The Aboriginal peoples’ nomadic way of life was a direct result of a major limitation of the hunter-gatherer economy: the certainty of reduced food volume and ever-greater expenditure of effort to obtain it the longer a group stayed in one place. Aboriginal people had to be intimately acquainted with all the country within their range of movement and possess detailed knowledge of the location, distribution, and characteristics of its water holes, fauna, flora, and climatic conditions. Their ability to read the ground like a map greatly improved their efficiency as hunters. Knowledge of the topography and resources of huge areas of country was also gained through religion (see below), which related closely to their economic life.

    As valuable as secular lore was, it was of a lower order in Aboriginal peoples’ worldview than religious knowledge. Aboriginal peoples believed that the Dreaming legacy gave them responsibility for and control over the fertility and reproduction of plants and animals and that it was therefore only through the use of ritual that resources were replenished and social life could continue. This heavy responsibility was claimed by senior males, though all adults shared in the maintenance of the land and its resources through ritual participation and obedience to the law.

    Before Aboriginal life was transformed as a result of the European invasion, there were two basic patterns of movement. In fertile regions there were well-established camping areas, close to water and having important mythological associations, where people always camped at certain times of the year. Camps were bases from which people made forays into the surrounding bush for food, returning in the late afternoon or spending a few days away. The second pattern involved a much larger territory in arid or desert areas across which Aboriginal peoples moved in small family groups from water hole to water hole along well-defined tracks. The whole camp moved and rarely established bases. Only in good seasons and at sizable permanent waters was it possible for a large number of people to remain for an extended period.

    These two patterns were reflected in domestic arrangements. In the north, people made bark shelters and during the monsoonal rains used caves and stilted huts as protection against flooding, mosquitoes, and sand flies. In the desert, windbreaks—bough shelters or saplings covered with brush or bark—were common. During fine weather, most Aboriginal people preferred to sleep in the open with a windbreak when it was too cold, dogs helped to provide warmth. Fires were kept burning, and, when moving from one place to another or even when hunting, people carried live fire sticks. Throughout Australia, Aboriginal people generally went naked.

    Outside the arena of religion, material objects were minimal. A useful threefold classification for Aboriginal tools was proposed by the archaeologist Richard A. Gould. Multipurpose tools, such as the digging stick or spear, were lightweight and portable. Appliances, such as large base stones on which food or ochre was ground, were left at a site and used whenever groups were in the vicinity. Instant tools, such as stone pounders or the grass cushions used by women when carrying heavy loads or wooden dishes on their heads, were fashioned as needed from raw materials available close at hand.

    Men carried spears and spear throwers and, in some areas, boomerangs. There were bark canoes and rafts and dugout log canoes, some with pandanus-mat sails. Women’s digging sticks could double as fighting weapons. Their large, deep wooden dishes held seeds, vegetables, water—or even babies. In some areas painted bark baskets, plaited pandanus bags, and net bags served the same purposes. Rarer objects were the kangaroo-skin water bags of the arid central areas and the skull drinking vessels of the Coorong in South Australia. Implements included a large selection of stone tools, wedges, bone needles, bobbins, and sharkskin files.

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