Use your browser back button to return to the page you were reading
Historical accounts, oral traditions and ethnographic observations reveal that at the time of the British colonisation of Australia at least 19 different species of plant were being cultivated by at least 21 different identifiable indigenous groups. These included species of yam, sweet potato and its relatives (such as the "bush potato"), "native millet", ngardu, "bush tomatoes" and "bush onions".
When explorer George Grey first entered the Victoria District of the central west coast of Western Australia in 1839, he noted yam fields of square kilometres in extent. One tract "extended east and west as far as we could see". Further south he recorded that "the whole of this valley is an extensive warran [yam] ground".
Grey also reported four villages in the region, two of which he observed at Hutt River the day after encountering the yam fields. These villages comprised dwellings that were "very nicely plastered over the outside with clay, and clods of turf," and which Grey thought "were evidently intended for fixed places of residence".
In the Corners Region of eastern central Australia, in an arc from western New South Wales through south-west Queensland, north-east South Australia and the southeast of the Northern Territory - a similar pattern was evident when Europeans began to intrude into those areas. Here there is evidence that native millet, ngardu and bush onions were sown by broadcast seeding.
Augustus Gregory in south-west Queensland in 1864: "Fields of 1,000 acres [400 hectares] are there met with growing this cereal. The natives cut it down by means of stone knives, cutting down the stalk half way, beat out the seed leaving the straw which is often met with in large heaps."
Surveyor Lewis made a similar observation in 1875 about the "nardoo flats" of the Mulligan River in south-west Queensland "extending northward as far as the eye could reach". Likewise John Davis, who was searching for Burke and Wills in the Strzelecki Desert in 1861, noted that ngardu "is procured in almost any quantities in the flooded flats by sweeping it up into heaps".
Sturt, another explorer of some note, recorded in his journal on the upper Darling River on 5 February 1829: "Early in the day we passed a group of seventy huts, capable of holding twelve to fifteen men each. They appeared to be permanent habitations, and all of them fronted the same point of the compass." If fully occupied, such a "permanent" settlement would have had a population of 800-1000 residents.
Other explorers also recorded agriculture and village living.
When Major Thomas Mitchell first made his way through the Port Phillip district in winter of 1836 he was struck by how much some of the landscape resembled Europe.
"The world of the Australians was as moulded by conscious human action as were the hedgerowed fields of England. If one used the plough and the iron axe to shape their world, the other used fire and the stone axe."
According to archaeologist, Heather Builth:
"The Gunditjmara weren’t just catching eels, their whole society was based around eels. The villages associated with the Lake Condah fish farm were actually more like company towns, with dwellings built to house the people who worked the farms. It’s like you have your council houses for the factory. That’s what was going on here."
"This system was used to farm huge quantities of eel, enough to feed up to 10,000 people."
Extracts from State Library of Victoria Indigenous land use.
The findings, by the anthropologist and architect Dr Paul Memmot, of the University of Queensland, discredit a commonly held view in Australia that Aborigines were completely nomadic before the arrival of Europeans 200 years ago.
Dwellings were constructed in various styles, depending on the climate. Most common were dome-like structures made of cane reeds with roofs thatched with palm leaves.
Some of the houses were interconnected, allowing native people to interact during long periods spent indoors during the wet season.
In western Victoria, Aborigines built circular stone walls more than a metre high, constructing dome roofs over the top with earth or sod cladding.
Extracts from The Guardian Scientist debunks nomadic Aborigine 'myth'.
What is the oldest known structure in Australia?
Fish traps are found in waters through Australia, but no others recorded are as old as those at Brewarrina in New South Wales.
The Brewarrina fish traps are estimated to be over 40,000 years
old and one of the oldest man-made structures on earth. This elaborate network of rock weirs and pools stretches for around half a
kilometre along the riverbed. From Visit New South Wales.
The intricate design of the dry-stone rock weirs and pens allowed large numbers of fish to be herded and caught, particularly during spring migrations. The design also allowed the fish traps to resist damage during both high and low river flows.
See this and more on National Heritage Places.