Australia's Colonial Myth
November 5, 2018 4:15 PM   Subscribe

What omission? Well let’s look at what the explorers reported of the Aboriginal agricultural economy and see if you can remember any priest, parent or professor alluding to it. Lieutenant Grey in his 1839 ‘exploration’ of parts of Western Australia, so far unseen by Europeans, saw yam gardens more than five kilometres wide and extending a distance past the horizon and because the land had been so deeply tilled he could not walk across it. Sir Thomas Mitchell in the country that is now the Queensland–New South Wales border area rode through 17 kilometres of stooked grain that his fellows described as being like an English field of harvest. Isn’t that word ‘stook’ interesting when applied to what we thought we knew about Aboriginal history?
posted by the duck by the oboe (34 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just like in the Americas, the Europeans encountered a complex of civilizations with tens of thousands of years of history, failed to understand what they were looking at, and just destroyed everything they saw.
posted by 1adam12 at 5:12 PM on November 5 [12 favorites]


I'm curious about this: "the world’s oldest town, and oldest by many thousands of years, is found in western New South Wales". What is that referring to? I tried looking online but can only find post-European stuff.

Really I'd love to read more about all the things Pascoe writes. One of my favorite books ever is 1491 because it totally overturned my understanding of pre-Columbian history in the Americas and was just the right level of scholarly detail to inform but not overwhelm. I'd love to read something like that for Australia.
posted by Nelson at 5:13 PM on November 5 [2 favorites]


that the Australians invented bread and society. Yes, society, for the world’s oldest town, and oldest by many thousands of years, is found in western New South Wales.

Yes, these claims are truly bizarre.

Australians didn't invent bread, the oldest evidence we have of bread comes from the Levant more than 14,000 years ago using wild what, and domesticated wheat more than 9,000 years ago. The claim doesn't even make sense: wheat itself is native to the Fertile Crescent area and was first domesticated there, only spreading throughout the world much later.

The oldest town, depending on how you define town, is either in Turkey or the Fertile Crescent area, and Australians certainly didn't invent "society" or, as the article later asserts, democracy and language.

The article discusses an important topic, but why include these baffling falsehoods? I find articles of this sort do this often: make an important point but, in their zeal to show the importance of what has been wrongly overlooked or suppressed, go far beyond what is true or supportable.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:42 PM on November 5 [5 favorites]


Sangermaine, this article says "Pascoe likes to tell the story of grindstones found at Cuddie Springs in northern New South Wales that have been dated as being around 30,000 years old - evidence that Aboriginal people were grinding seeds some 15,000 years before the ancient Egyptians started using flour to bake bread." So I presume that's what the bread reference relates to.
posted by fever-trees at 5:51 PM on November 5 [18 favorites]


Via fever-trees' link, Pascoe has a book Dark Emu which looks a bit like his Australian version of 1491. I have no idea if his writingreflects consensus scholarship, well-documented revisionism (like 1491), or is something less academically rigorous. I'd be grateful if any experts in the field could comment.
posted by Nelson at 6:00 PM on November 5


Nelson, after a bit of looking around I think the "oldest town" reference might be to the Willandra Lakes region - this UNESCO page says "The drying up of the Willandra Lakes some 18,500 years BP allowed the survival of remarkable evidence of the way early people interacted with their environment. The undisturbed stratigraphy has revealed evidence of Homo sapiens sapiens in this area from nearly 50,000 years BP..."
posted by fever-trees at 6:09 PM on November 5 [8 favorites]


This conversation becomes emotionally charged very fast. Before we diminish all of Pascoe's claims because of some less-supported statements it's important to establish the key facts.

Many Aboriginal peoples were farmers. They established permanent habitation, cultivated crops, processed their harvest, and had sophisticated means of dividing work and produce. They had highly-evolved systems and tools for managing aquatic resources. They had a huge effect on shaping the landscape to increase its productivity. There is good evidence that they were doing this tens of thousands of years ago.

The European colonist perspective entirely erases this aspect of Aboriginal heritage, creating a false view that all Aboriginal people were stone-age hunter-gatherers. That view is unsupported by fact, and needs to change.
posted by Combat Wombat at 6:18 PM on November 5 [45 favorites]




I think Pascoe is referring to Lake Mungo as the oldest town. And I think in general he's calling out the hypocrisy in our vocabulary that so often finds a way to render indigenous things as more primitive or more animalistic.

Let's say you see indigenous people harvesting seeds from grasses, grinding those seeds into a fine powder, mixing that powder with water, forming the paste into disks, and placing those disks next to the fire. Do we call that bread, or do we call it a dried starchy substance made from grass seeds? What does it need in order to be called bread? The right grains, like wheat? Leavening?

Let's say there's archaeological evidence from tens of thousands of years ago showing a large concentration of people, and maybe materials that must have been imported from a long ways away. Do we call that a town, or is it a settlement? Maybe we say there was evidence of habitation? What makes it a town? The right kinds of buildings?

I think Pascoe's choice of language is a direct challenge to the assumption that Aboriginals did not invent any of this, that bread, towns, society, and so on were invented elsewhere and imported with the arrival of Europeans. It makes sense in an essay about how much Australian history has been ignored completely when it didn't fit the right narrative.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:25 PM on November 5 [56 favorites]


Dark Emu needs to be mandatory reading for all Australians.

The issue with scholarship and the history of Aboriginal agriculture is that the evidence was intentionally destroyed as part of the genocide. He has citations of documents that describe the witness accounts of early colonial settlers but this is stuff that was deliberately obscured for centuries
posted by chiquitita at 8:00 PM on November 5 [6 favorites]


"Grinding seeds" is not the same as making bread, and that is why we say that the oldest evidence of bread is from 14,000 years ago when we have evidence that people were grinding seeds even in Europe over 30,000 years ago.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:13 PM on November 5 [4 favorites]


(And that doesn't sound like a "less supported statement" to me, it sounds like a deliberately misleading one in order to make his argument sound stronger).
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:14 PM on November 5 [1 favorite]


The Non-discovery of Australia:
The Australian Aborigines were the first people to not discover Australia. There are a number of theories put forward by a number of leading experts as to why this is so. It is generally accepted that the Aborigines failed to discover Australia because they had:
    -no guns
    -no Bibles
    -no diseases such as the plague, small pox, etc.
    -no flags
    -no title deeds
    -no monarch
Furthermore, current theory is that they may have crossed over from Southeast Asia by a number of land bridges caused by the Ice Age, which would have been cheating, since all discovery had to be done by boat.
Although the essay is marked as "humor," it pretty much covers the way white colonialists "discover" lands that have been inhabited and cultivated for thousands of years.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:15 PM on November 5 [11 favorites]


"Grinding seeds" is not the same as making bread, and that is why we say that the oldest evidence of bread is from 14,000 years ago when we have evidence that people were grinding seeds even in Europe over 30,000 years ago.

Right, but my description didn't stop with grinding seeds into flour. I don't grind my own flour, but I do mix it with water, shape it, and expose it to heat. The point isn't to debate what actually counts as bread, it's to call into question why we make the distinction the way we do.

Pascoe describes sweet cakes and breads (which were described by early visitors to Australia as "bread") made from various flours. For the purposes of making a sandwich, maybe we wouldn't use a cake made from, say, starchy root flour. But the issue at hand here is the long-running assumption that Australians were backwards and primitive. What is the purpose and effect of asserting that this foodstuff does not count as bread?

Pascoe knows what he's doing, and it's not deceptive, but I suspect he knows he's going to ruffle feathers. It's an inversion of the usual colonial relationship in which other people, not Australians, have assumed the authority to decide who invented what and where. Other people, not Australians, have historically determined what counts as agriculture, what counts as a fish weir, or what counts as bread. Other people have always given themselves the authority to tell indigenous Australians their own history, going so far as to "correct" them, even if it has meant completely overlooking the historical record. So Pascoe is inverting that and forcing us to question our assumptions.

I mean, it sure is annoying when someone gives credit for an invention to their ancestors instead of recognizing what your ancestors did, isn't it?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:51 PM on November 5 [18 favorites]


I'd really like to point out that the term 'Australian' isn't appropriate here - it derives from the European colonial 'Terra Australis'. First Nations people in modern Australia are comprised of literally hundreds of nations, clans, and language groups, and often refer to themselves by these affiliations. I live on the ancestral lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and spent my childhood on Briakaulung land.

Bruce Pascoe is Bunurong man and a renowned historian of Aboriginal culture, and a descendant of a culture 40,000 years or more in this country. In the linked article, Pascoe uses 'Aboriginal' to mean the wider First Nations population and takes great care to identify clan affiliations such as Wati Wati.

First Nations people were gathering and grinding native millet, wattle seeds and other indigenous grain at least 30,000 years ago, as noted above. This is only what we have archaeological evidence for. Archaeology is by its very nature incomplete - things decay, they move, are stolen, lost, or simply never found.

The unique (and frightening, for European audiences) thing that Bruce Pascoe is doing here, and in Dark Emu, is using the evidence gathered by white explorers - founding fathers of Australia, with the kind of cultural cachét that implies - to obliterate the myth of terra nullius, which has been used to dehumanise and enslave Indigenous people in Australia, who were officially considered native fauna until 1967.

Whether or not their ground seeds were made into 'bread' is kind of beside the point.
posted by prismatic7 at 1:06 AM on November 6 [27 favorites]


Not to abuse the edit window: My statement about ancestral lands was by way of example and I am not claiming any Indigenous heritage. I am privileged to have Indigenous friends and elders in my workplace, and I offer my respects to those people and acknowledge the history of country of which they are custodians.
posted by prismatic7 at 1:11 AM on November 6 [5 favorites]


There's a good website on Noongar culture and history (Southwest Australia). "Noongar people have lived in the south-west of Western Australia for more than 45,000 years. The aim of the Kaartdijin website is to share the richness of our knowledge, culture and history in order to strengthen our community and promote wider understanding."

Be sure to read and respect their Cultural protocols around sharing. You can read about towns, meeting sites and trade in the "Country" section; I linked to the Ballardong Region as one choice.

Pascoe is inverting that and forcing us to question our assumptions. I mean, it sure is annoying when someone gives credit for an invention to their ancestors instead of recognizing what your ancestors did, isn't it?

Exactly. Colonialism infiltrated everything. They established the office of the Protector of Aborigines, which was, on its surface, meant to reduce violence towards Aboriginal peoples. From that Wikipedia article: "Matthew Moorhouse was the first Protector of Aborigines in South Australia. He led the Rufus River massacre, which slaughtered 30-to-40 Aborigines."

1adam12 up top: ...failed to understand what they were looking at.

Not at the upper levels of power, they didn't. They understood full well. I grok what you're getting at – the sheer, unmitigated cruelty and devastation – and favorited your comment, but this is one niggling misconception we descendants of colonizers would do well to challenge, and all we need are facts on hand. Where power was involved, it was never about "protection" or "understanding" except to whitewash. It was about pillaging valuable resources with as little responsibility as possible.

Regarding facts on hand: read the 1837 Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes (British settlements), following which protectors were established.

From the first pages of it: "The injuries we have inflicted, the oppression we have exercised, the cruelties we have committed, the vices we have fostered, the desolation and utter ruin we have caused..."
posted by fraula at 1:16 AM on November 6 [9 favorites]


I'd really like to point out that the term 'Australian' isn't appropriate here

Very much appreciate the correction there.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:18 AM on November 6 [2 favorites]


A small correction: the idea that Aboriginal people were classified as flora and fauna by state or national legislation is a myth and it's not mentioned in the link about the 1967 referendum cited above as a reference. The ABC recently investigated this claim in detail and rejected it, while also trying to discover its source. I mention this not to dispute the historical and ongoing genocide, injustice, discrimination and racism experienced by Aboriginal people at the hands of the Australian state, but to clarify that that particular injustice was not one of them.
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 1:50 AM on November 6 [8 favorites]


I looked up some of the primary sources that Pascoe is referring to (which are readily available on Google Books) and thought that others might be interested to see them too. They show what a big impact Aboriginal agriculture had on the appearance of the landscape:

"The Narran was full of water every where, and with this abundance of water there was also plenty of most excellent grass [..] whereof the seed ('Cooly') is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that had been pulled expressly for the purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest. I had never seen such rich natural pasturage in any other part of New South Wales. Still it was what supplied the bread of the natives; and these children of the soil were doing every thing in their power to assist me, whose wheel tracks would probably bring the white man's cattle into it." (Sir Thomas Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia, 1848)

"As we wound along the native path my wonder augmented; the path increased in breadth and in its beaten appearance, while along the side of it we found frequent wells, some of which were ten and twelve feet deep, and were altogether executed in a superior manner. We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil, quite overrun with warran [= yam] plants, the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. This was the first time we had yet seen this plant on our journey, and now for three and a half consecutive miles we traversed a fertile piece of land, literally perforated with the holes the natives had made to dig this root; indeed we could with difficulty walk across it on that account, while this tract extended east and west as far as we could see. It was now evident that we had entered the most thickly populated district of Australia that I had yet observed, and moreover one which must have been inhabited for a long series of years, for more had here been done to secure a provision from the ground by hard manual labour than I could have believed it in the power of uncivilised man to accomplish." (George Grey, Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia, 1841)

"In the neighbourhood of our camp the grass had been pulled, to a very great extent, and piled in hay-ricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field. The grass had evidently been thus laid up by the natives, but for what purpose we could not imagine. At first, I thought the heaps were only the remains of encampments, as the aborigines sometimes sleep on a little dry grass; but when we found the ricks, or hay-cocks, extending for miles, we were quite at a loss to understand why they had been made." (Sir Thomas Mitchell, Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, 1839)
posted by verstegan at 2:42 AM on November 6 [16 favorites]


A small correction: the idea that Aboriginal people were classified as flora and fauna by state or national legislation is a myth and it's not mentioned in the link about the 1967 referendum cited above as a reference
Correction taken. I apologise for perpetuating that myth.
posted by prismatic7 at 4:55 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I've got Dark Emu next in my to-read pile. I love this sort of thing, where someone takes another look at history with fresh eyes. Is 'revisionism' the right word? I don't want to call it that if it has negative implications with historians.

Thanks for this post, and for all the links in the comments as well. I'm looking forward to digging in to it all.
posted by harriet vane at 6:41 AM on November 6


the civilisation that invented bread, society, language ... This is not a noble savage sentiment, it is the iron-clad rigour from reading the true history of the country. I think Australia is capable of this rigour.

I'd love to see any kind of background to these claims, because reading them as some kind of metaphor or rhetorical trick makes no sense at all to me.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:43 AM on November 6


Fascinating write that overturns everything I've ever known about Aboriginal past lives. I must read Dark Emu--even just for the title.

Its interesting that so much ego is involved with deciding which society bake the first 'real' bread or developed the first atlatl. There must be a prize or superior status awarded.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:27 AM on November 6


I asked an academic friend for advice on books to read on recent anthropology / archeology for the Australian continent and he recommended The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by 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. Bill Gammage has discovered this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than most people have ever realized.
posted by Nelson at 3:39 PM on November 6 [6 favorites]


Were Aborigines affected by European diseases in the same way that American First Nations were?
posted by clawsoon at 5:02 PM on November 6


Introduced disease had a significant impact. I don't know the background of these numbers, but as an example:
It has been estimated that disease accounted for up to sixty percent of the Aboriginal deaths across the Port Phillip area.[i] Even before Europeans began arriving in the Melbourne area, up to a third of the population of the eastern Australian tribes had been killed by an epidemic of smallpox that spread down from Sydney.[ii]
The Aboriginal History of Yarra
posted by the agents of KAOS at 6:33 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Is 'revisionism' the right word? I don't want to call it that if it has negative implications with historians.

All good history research is revisionary - if you have nothing new to say, why even do it? But then all the Holocaust deniers and their ilk also call themselves "revisionists" in order to fake scientific legitimacy, so that's a problem. Basically, historians just go about doing their research, without really needing to call it anything. The links in this post and Dark Emu seem like "revisions" in the good sense of the word.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:14 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


Many Aboriginal peoples were farmers. They established permanent habitation, cultivated crops, processed their harvest, and had sophisticated means of dividing work and produce. They had highly-evolved systems and tools for managing aquatic resources. They had a huge effect on shaping the landscape to increase its productivity. There is good evidence that they were doing this tens of thousands of years ago.

The European colonist perspective entirely erases this aspect of Aboriginal heritage, creating a false view that all Aboriginal people were stone-age hunter-gatherers. That view is unsupported by fact, and needs to change.


As an agricultural historian, I'm utterly fascinated and delighted by any growth in our knowledge of cultivation and husbandry - and angry at the loss of this history through willful ignorance and prejudice.

That said: we shouldn't think that being an agriculturalist was better than being a hunter-gatherer. Hunter-gatherer societies are just as rich and complex as any agriculturalist society, and usually had better living conditions, as well. (Better food, less work).

I'm fascinated by all the myriad ways that homo sapiens have found to interact with their environment - and there is no human society on this planet in the last 50,000 or more years which have lived without changing their environment, whether through managed landscapes, agriculture, etc. Historians are becoming more and more aware of the ways that non-Eurasians managed their own landscapes, whether formally farming or not. Farming is one option - and one which supports more people per acre, but has lots of drawbacks as well.
posted by jb at 11:34 AM on November 7


South America also has its own lost agricultural history: agriculture in the Amazon may have supported millions of people. (I first learned about this through this lecture series - very good course)
posted by jb at 11:48 AM on November 7


jb, have you read or know something about James C. Scott's Against the Grain? If yes, what's your take on it? I'm thinking of reading it but haven't got around to it yet.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:55 AM on November 7


Haven't read that one, but Scott's work is famous, of course - and always worth a read. I've actually had the privilege of studying with him, so that's probably why I'm very skeptical on the benefits of agriculture while still interested in it as a way to access natural resources.

(I'm not in the field anymore, so I haven't kept up with the scholarly publishing, but the blurb for the book sounds perfectly reasonable. Of course, agrarian states were about control. Most states are. I've sometimes thought that Scott overestimates the ability of pre-modern states - at least the central powers thereof - to exercise that control, but he studied states in Asia which were much more effective states than the ones I am most familiar with from early modern Europe -- the English central state in c1600 was pretty incompetent and out-sourced most of it's stately control to local bigwigs.)
posted by jb at 2:11 PM on November 7


sorry - I just realized my comment sounds dismissive of Scott, which I didn't intend at all. I only think "of course states were about control" because I studied in a post-Scott world.
posted by jb at 2:13 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Thanks!
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:34 PM on November 7


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