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Home > Travelogues > 2009 Travelogues Index > Tennant Creek to Mataranka > Aboriginal history
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Indigenous Agriculture - did Aborigines cultivate food crops prior to Western settlement in Australia?

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.


Extracts from Evidence for Indigenous Australian Agriculture written by Rupert Gerritsen and published in Australian Science in the July/August edition. 




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'.




Evidence of Aboringal stone housing going back to the Ice Age 9,000 years ago
Extracts from The Australian "Aboriginals were building stone houses 9,000 years ago"
Archeologists have discovered the earliest “houses” in Australia — circular stone structures on an island near Karratha that offer clues about how Aborigines lived just after the last ice age.
“Inside the houses you have separate areas — it could have been a sleeping area and a working area. There is evidence of people grinding seeds on the rock floors inside the houses as well as shell food remains,” Professor McDonald said.
Professor McDonald said similar domestic structures have been found elsewhere in Australia but none as old as this.
See more about this discovery "People inhabited Dampier Archipelago before last ice age"
See also Earliest sites of human occupancy in Australia for identified sites where evidence some degree of culture have been identified and dated including Devil's Lair in Western Australia and Mungo in New South Wales. 

Ancient Aboriginal Culture and connection with Australia


Contenders for earliest site of human occupancy in Australia


Devil’s Lair: Limestone cave south-west Western Australia – 41,000 to 46,000 years old


Lake Mungo: Dry lake basin, Willandra Billabong Creek, western NSW 43,000


Nauwalabila: Rock shelter Arnhem Land 200 kilometres east of Darwin – 40,000


Malakunanja: Rock shelter 45 kilometres north of Nauwalabila, east of Darwin – 45,000


Source Journal of Archaeological Science


Pilbara: Most recently the discovery of the artefacts of animal bone and charcoal at the Ganga Maya Cave in the Pilbara region of Western Australia are the subject of a scientific paper not yet submitted to archaeological journals. The items analysed through carbon-dating techniques indicate first use of the cave from more than 45,000 years ago. Read more:  Archaeological Cave Dig 


Barrow Island: Testing of artefacts in an island cave in northern Western Australia has established some of the oldest occupation dates recorded in Australia, proving Aboriginal Australians were living in the now largely submerged northern coast 50,000 years ago.


From the Kimberley: Archaeologists from The Australian National University (ANU) have unearthed fragments from the edge of the world's oldest-known axe, found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.  Lead archeologist Professor Sue O'Connor said the axe dates back between 46,000 and 49,000 years.


DNA confirms a 50,000 connection:  DNA analysis, published today in Nature, again confirms modern Aboriginal Australians are descended from one founding population that arrived about 50,000 years ago when the continent was still connected to New Guinea.


The analysis indicated some populations stayed in specific areas during that continental migration and have been continuously present in those same regions ever since — having connection to country for as long as 50,000 years.


"We can see a very pronounced and distinct pattern of genetic types around Australia that clearly says Aboriginal people haven't moved [from those areas]," Professor Cooper said. 



File 2009a

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

341_fish_traps_three_sisters_dsc01989.jpg 341_brewarrina_fish_traps_dscf6373c.jpg 341_brewarrina_fish_traps_dscf6380c.jpg 341_fish_traps_lillico_beach_dsc019921.jpg
Coastal Fish Traps are found in a number of sites in Tasmania, mostly along the north coast.  These relied on the tide to trap fish. While age of these is uncertain, they are thought to be several thousand years old.  Above left is at Lillico Beach, and above right at Goat Island Beach.