Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Evidence for Indigenous Australian Agriculture

Aboriginal village near the NSW/SA border in the 1840s.

An Aboriginal village near the NSW/SA border in the 1840s.

By Rupert Gerritsen

The assumption that indigenous Australians did not develop agriculture is highly contestable, with a body of evidence revealing that they developed food production systems and in some cases lived in large villages.

Rupert Gerritsen is a Petherick Reader at the National Library of Australia, and author of Australia and the Origins of Agriculture.

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It is a commonly held view that indigenous Australians in traditional circumstances never engaged in food production, specifically in terms of developing or adopting agriculture. Based on this assumption there has been extended debate on the supposed reasons for this (AS, March 2010, pp.19–21).

Such debates are meaningless if the initial premise is incorrect. And it may well be. Furthermore, if that assumption is incorrect it has significant implications for theories on the origins of agriculture.

Agriculture is a form of primary economic specialisation that developed at about the same time as fishing and pastoralism. In south-west Asia and China, the earliest cradles of agriculture, herding of sheep, goats and pigs and the development of fish hooks, fishing nets and fish traps accompanied the development of agriculture.

But such developments didn’t spring up overnight, and hunting and gathering continued to provide a significant part of subsistence until well into the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (see box). Moreover, the crops that were being grown as part of this Neolithic revolution – emmer and einkorn wheat, barley, rye, lentils, rice and millet – were wild, undomesticated crops for at least 1500 years.

Higher levels of sedentism, underwritten by intensive and specialised exploitation of a few key resources such as fish, nuts and grass seeds,...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.