Australia's first people were Australia's first farmers

Tony Stephens Sydney Morning Herald October 1st, 2011

Far from being hunters and gatherers, the first Australians may have managed the biggest farming estate on Earth, writes Tony Stephens.

The still common assumption is that Aboriginal Australians in 1788 were simple hunter-gatherers who relied on chance for survival and moulded their lives to the country where they lived. Historian Bill Gammage might have driven the last nail into the coffin of this notion.

Rather, Gammage argues, the first Australians worked a complex system of land management, with fire their biggest ally, and drew on the life cycles of plants and the natural flow of water to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods throughout the year. They managed, he says, the biggest estate on Earth.

The publishers of his new book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, say it rewrites the history of the continent. It's a big claim. But not too big, Gammage says. "When I look at the subject, I think, that's right. When I think it's my claim, I think people might regard me as a mug lair. But I believe the book will lead to a rethink of what the Aborigines did."

Henry Reynolds, the historian who has written extensively on the effect of white settlement on indigenous Australians, says in a foreword: "He [Gammage] establishes without question the scale of Aboriginal land management, the intelligence, skill and inherited knowledge which informed it."

Gammage draws striking conclusions from more than a decade's research:

The Aborigines of 1788 could not have survived recent bushfires that killed dozens of Australians and destroyed houses, flora and fauna. Uncontrolled fire could wipe out Aboriginal food. People had to prevent it or die. They worked hard to make fire work for them. They burnt off in patches, knowing the sensitivities of different plant species and that timing was crucial. Evidence strongly suggests that no devastating fires occurred.

The Aborigines farmed as an activity rather than a lifestyle. They grew crops of tubers such as yams, grain such as native millet, macadamia nuts, fruits and berries. People reared dingoes, possums, emus and cassowaries, moved caterpillars to new breeding areas and carried fish stock across country.

They knew that kangaroos preferred short grass, native bees preferred desert bloodwood, koalas tall eucalypts and rock wallabies thick growth. The Aborigines set templates to suit land, plants and animals. Explorers such as Eyre, Mitchell and Leichhardt noted how indigenous Australians fired grass to bring on short green pick to attract kangaroos and other animals. To do this they had to make sure the grass was nutritious and to provide shelter so that the kangaroos would not feel vulnerable.

There is no such thing as pristine wilderness in Australia. More trees grow in areas now known as national parks than did in 1788.

Gammage, adjunct professor in the Australian National University's humanities research centre, is best known for his ground-breaking The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War. His main sources for the new book are writing and art depicting land before Europeans changed it, anthropological and ecological accounts of Aboriginal societies, and the study of plant habitats. His huge bibliography include Abel Tasman in 1642, James Cook in 1770 and he credits researchers who sensed purpose in Aboriginal burning, including R.C.Ellis, Sylvia Hallam, Eric Rolls and Tim Flannery.

Some critics assume that early colonial artists romanticised their landscapes but Gammage says they were the photographers of their day and sought accuracy.

Joseph Lycett's painting, Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos (c.1817), depicts fire burning away from trees to a grassy area, driving kangaroos to the hunters' spears. By shaping the land carefully for grazing animals, the Aborigines paved the way for pastoral occupation.

"The more carefully they made the land, the more likely settlers were to take it," he writes. "The Dreaming taught why the world must be maintained; the land taught how. One made land care compulsory, the other made it rewarding."

Charles Darwin called indigenous Australians "harmless savages wandering about without knowing where they shall sleep at night and gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods". Gammage believes we have not learned enough from them: "Europeans defined civilisation as being like them. They thought Aborigines didn't know anything." He writes: "We have a continent to learn … we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian."

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage (Allen & Unwin, $49.99).

The Biggest Estate on Earth

Foreword by Henry Reynolds


At the time of Federation there was an upsurge of interest in the Aborigines. Scientists like Baldwin Spencer and enthusiastic amateur ethnographers like FJ Gillen, RH Mathews and AW Howitt carried out research in remote parts of Australia and examined relevant written records which had been accumulating over the previous century. There was a sense of urgency about their work. Ascendant evolutionary`
theory suggested that the Aborigines were destined to be driven to imminent extinction by the iron laws of evolution. The widely observed decline of the indigenous population appeared to confirm evolution's death sentence. The anthropological information sought by the scholars was endangered. It would soon disappear with the old tribesmen and women and be lost forever. And it was irreplaceable because it was assumed to embody evidence about the pre-historic origins of humankind, about language, religion, art, marriage and other social institutions. This gave these Australian studies international importance. Scientific journals in Europe and North America clamoured to publish their findings, and books on the Aborigines found readers among the intellectual elites, who used the raw ethnological data to weave sophisticated theories about human nature. But the scholars of this time had no interest in the actual Aboriginal communities living among the colonists in fringe camps or on sheep and cattle stations. They were seen as people who had lost both their racial purity and their pristine culture. They were also inclined to be irreverent and un-cooperative.

The twentieth century saw a slow process among settler Australians of re-assessment of Aboriginal society. Many currents came together. Evolutionary theory slowly lost its grip on Western intellectuals. Racial theories, increasingly challenged,`were totally discredited by the human disasters in Europe. De-colonisation set up a tidal wave of change, and the adoption of human rights by the fledgling United Nations challenged the whole idea of a white Australia. By the 1920s it had become obvious that Aboriginal communities in settled Australia were growing, giving rise to anxiety about xxii
the so-called 'half-caste' problem. Political activists of varying political colours took up the Aboriginal cause. Scholarship slowly and unevenly responded to these swirling currents.

In the 1930s anthropologists began working in many parts of the country. They favoured tribal society in the more remote areas but they also worked with communities that had been in close contact with Europeans for many years. The emphasis was now on the way Aboriginal society functioned rather than a search for ancient roots. Linguists followed in the anthropologists' tracks to record traditional languages. Appreciation of indigenous culture followed. Members of the Jindyworobak Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s sought to incorporate Aboriginal culture into their poetry, painting and music. The emergence of schools of traditional painting in Arnhem Land, the Central Desert and eventually in many regions of the country was one of the most extraordinary cultural developments in late twentieth-century Australia, and one which attracted international interest. From the 1960s there was a brilliant period of archaeology and in a few years the presumed date of human occupation was pushed back from 10,000 years to 40,000 and 50,000. Prehistorians celebrated the Aborigines as the discoverers and explorers of the continent. The 1970s saw historians belatedly recasting the national story and thereby ending what had been called the great Australian silence. Of even greater significance was the revolution in Australian jurisprudence carried through by the High Court in the Mabo judgment of 1992 and the Wik judgment
of 1996.

Aboriginal land management was another matter opened up for reconsideration. The common view in the early years of the twentieth century was that, given the uniquely primitive nature of indigenous society, the Aboriginal nations had moulded their way of life to the country in which they lived. This view was fortified, and sentimentalised, by a generation of white Australians who learnt of the intimate relationship which Aboriginal people had with their homelands. It was a view favoured by the emerging environmental movement, which had found a society that lived in harmony with nature and trod lightly on the land. A radically different view of Aboriginal land management began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s. The prehistorian Rhys Jones and the historian Sylvia Hallam both explored the way that Aborigines used fire to alter patterns of vegetation.

This pioneering work has been vindicated in Bill Gammage's great book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. It is the result of over ten years of reading in libraries and archives, of investigation of paintings and photographs, and travel across the continent. The amount of research is daunting. His bibliography contains over 1500 books, theses and articles. And this was only a selection of the items read as part of the project. It is the sort of research that will become increasingly rare as scholars are pressured to produce quick results from carefully directed research.

Bill manages to compress his vast amount of research into an entirely engaging narrative which has moments of memorable eloquence. His conclusions will come as a revelation to many readers. He establishes without question the scale of Aboriginal land management, the intelligence, skill and inherited knowledge which informed it. It dramatically changes the way we will in the future see Australian history. It is one of`
the half dozen or so works which in the last two generations have transformed the way`
settler Australians understand the world that existed before the European invasion. His achievement is not solely based on literary texts. Reading is only part of the endeavour. This other element is Bill's profound understanding of the Australian environment, which is rare among historians. He is able in a unique way to see the landscape historically; to read it back to what it was like in the past. Anyone who has shared a journey across any part of Australia with Bill will return with intimations about the possibility of seeing the country in a totally new way.

One big question remains. Bill's research is based on hundreds of observers who wrote about the Australian environment. He goes as far back as Abel Tasman in 1642 in his search for evidence. Much had accumulated by the middle of the nineteenth century and yet the synthesis had not been consummated. Why did it take so long to draw the obvious conclusions? The obsession with Aboriginal backwardness was just too useful to be cast aside. Bill's evidence must be the final blow to the comforting colonial conceit that the Aborigines made no use of their land. But his message is not only one of deep regret for what was lost but also a call to his contemporaries to continue the task of 'learning' the continent. His final sentence is both challenge and exhortation: If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.

Author: Bill Gammage

Biggest Estate on Earth

by Bill Gammage
ISBN 9781742377483
Author: Bill Gammage

Across Australia, early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England. Bill Gammage has discovered this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we have ever realised.

For over a decade, he has examined written and visual records of the Australian landscape. He has uncovered an extraordinarily complex system of land management using fire, the life cycles of native plants, and the natural flow of water to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods throughout the year.

We know Aboriginal people spent far less time and effort than Europeans in securing food and shelter, and now we know how they did it. With details of land-management strategies from around Australia, 'The Biggest Estate on Earth' rewrites the history of this continent, with huge implications for us today. Once Aboriginal people were no longer able to tend their country, it became overgrown and vulnerable to the hugely damaging bushfires we now experience.

... And what we think of as virgin bush in a national park is nothing of the kind.

RRP: $49.99
ISBN 13: 9781742377483
Binding: Hardcover
Pages: 384
Released: 03/10/2011

Bill Gammage works in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University (ANU), researching Aboriginal land management at the time of contact (“1788”). He grew up in Wagga and went to Wagga High School, and was an ANU undergraduate and postgraduate before teaching history at the Universities of Papua New Guinea (1966, 1972-6) and Adelaide (1977-96). He wrote The Broken Years on Australian soldiers in the Great War (1974+), An Australian in the First World War (1976), Narrandera Shire (1986), The Sky Travellers on the 1938-39 Hagen-Sepik Patrol in New Guinea (1998), and The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia (2011). Most of these books have won prizes. He co-edited the Australians 1938 volume of the Bicentennial History of Australia (1988), and three books about Australians in World War 1. He was historical adviser to Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli and to several documentaries. He served the National Museum of Australia for three years as Council member, deputy chair and acting chair.