Until the 1960’s Aboriginal culture has largely been considered ‘stagnant’ and their technology ‘primitive’. Research into Indigenous technologies and the correlation it has with environmental impacts challenge naturalist Robert Palleines’ notion that Australia was occupied by an ‘unchanging people in an unchanging land’. Over the last century, a more dynamic view has emerged, and it was realised that Aboriginal people had been adaptive to environmental circumstances.
The Extinction of Australian MegafaunaThe debate surrounding the role of Aboriginal people in the extinction of megafauna from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, is comparable to current debates about human-induced climate change. Where historian David Horton claims that megafauna became extinct largely from drought, there exists more plausible evidence that the extinctions were caused by humans.
It’s important to consider that megafauna posed a significant danger to the livelihood of Aboriginal people, and it becomes evident that the motivation to eliminate the threat of megafauna prompted significant technological changes.
An Aboriginal story from the Wadi Wadi people of Illawarra can be considered a valuable anecdote for the forces of technological change :
“A tribe of giant kangaroos were relentlessly advancing toward the (Aboriginal) people. They were defenceless and the kangaroos crushed them. The men met to devise weapons of spears, shields, clubs and boomerangs…and with the power of the great spirit with them, the men overcame the kangaroos with their weapons”.
The link between megafauna extinction and Indigenous technologies is closer than one may think. The archaeological evidence suggests that megafauna were hunted by stone tools; for example impression marks on bones. Furthermore, historian James Kohen identified that Aboriginal people 12,000 years ago used fire burning to hunt megafauna.
The use of fire by Aboriginal people not only helped to eliminate megafauna, but was also used to cultivate the growth of preferred vegetation, in what Rhys Jones called “fire-stick farming”. From fire and stone technologies the Australian environment underwent significant changes in its flora and fauna. As the title suggests, Aboriginal people were not ‘stagnant’, and their technologies had a close relation to environmental circumstances.
Stones tools through history
When considering the changes in stone tools, we can also refute the idea that Aboriginal people remained ‘stagnant’ prior to British colonisation. Kohen identified that Aboriginal stone tool innovation can be divided into two stages; an early one dominated by larger choppers and scrapers, and another that took place over the last 2000 years where a variety of smaller stone technologies had evolved.
Hatchets are some of the earliest and largest stone tools dating back to 22,000 years ago and are roughly 12cm. These were followed by Horse-hoof for scraping and smoothing, but were much smaller than hatchet stones at approximately 3cm. The rate of innovation for stone tools begins to intensify around 5,000 years ago, where Backed Blade tools appear, which resemble small knives being only 1cm wide. Then in some areas of Australia, smaller 3-5mm stone flakes were set in a gum and attached to a spear to form ‘Death Spears’. Each had its own catalyst for development; perhaps most fascinating are the ‘Death Spears’, as Aboriginal stories discuss their use in conflict between tribes.
The impact of these tool developments is best understood when considering the increase in Aboriginal population. Archaeologist Harry Lourandos pointed out that Aboriginal groups ordinarily numbered between 20 to 200, but then increased to support from 400 to 1,000 individuals. New technologies, such as stone tools, as well as fire burning, resulted in more effective ways of harnessing food, and these additional resources were able to support the growing population.
And then the white people came
Technological adaptation and modification continued through the early colonial period from 1788 to 1850 despite significant changes to the Australian environment. European control over land and resources necessitated response in Aboriginal people, and so British technologies alongside raw materials were integrated into the Aboriginal ‘tool kit’. Material transitions are particularly evident across metal and glass.
It was the early 19th century when Aboriginal people moved away from their fishing spears, and began to trade a share of their catch in exchange for the use of metal fishhooks and European boats.
Even more symbolic of their adaptive nature was their use of glass, as Aboriginal people made spear points out of European glass bottles. Glass became increasingly preferred over equivalent stone technologies, as it had similar properties to stone but was less likely to fracture.
When considering technological innovations across the last 50,000 years, from stone tool transitions, to fishing technologies, fire-sticks, and glass modification, their innovative and adaptive nature is apparent. Early characterisations that Aboriginal people were ‘stagnant’ and ‘primitive’, may likely be based on 20th century conceptions of the pace at which technology changes. This view could be based on the significance agriculture or farming had as a marker of a ‘progressive’ civilisation, however little on the Australian continent could be herded or domesticated.
Aboriginal people were not bound or submissive to environmental changes, but were both driven by, and drove, environmental circumstances.
Chris Tinworth. Contact the Author here [firstname.lastname@example.org].
David Horton, Lancefield Swamp and the extinction of the Australian megafauna, 1978.
James Kohen, Aboriginal Environmental Impacts, 1995.
Harry Lourandos, Change or Stability?: hydraulics, hunter-gatherers and population in temperate Australia, 1980.