A not so stagnant society; transitions in Aboriginal technology and correlation to environmental impacts

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 Megafauna 

Re-creation of extinct Diprotodon [Megafaunal Wombat]

The 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.

Conclusions

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 [tinworth@gmail.com].

 

Further reading:

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.

Advertisements

8 comments on “A not so stagnant society; transitions in Aboriginal technology and correlation to environmental impacts

  1. dominiccutajar says:

    I found this blog post very effective in terms of stimulating my interest for the topic. The idea behind the project, as well as the general structure of it were very complimentary and made for a pleasant reading experience. Having studied anthropology in the past, this topic is especially enticing due to the fact that most people would reconstruct pre-contact Indigenous societies as nomadic and thus a part of the ecosystem.

    Presenting the Aboriginal population as having a significant and somewhat detrimental effect (when regarding their impact on the extinction of various megafauna), this was very interesting. Lastly, the addition of a “contact the author” section was especially striking and indeed a very effective feature in making your blog post seem more professional and accessible.

    • ctinworth says:

      I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed reading my post. Although I haven’t studied the perspective of an anthropologist on Aboriginal people it sounds as though being adaptive to an ecosystem are key features. In my paper I make it clear that Aboriginal people were not submissive to their environment, and that the vision of this population as stagnant, or primitive is a problematic assessment.

      Thanks for responding Dominic.

  2. I felt blown away by this post! I must be the only person who didn’t go to an Austrailan high school and therefore didn’t learn aboriginal history in the classroom.

    What really struck me was the preconceptions I have had and how they might not actually be based on fact at all but a historical narrative supported and produced by certain groups. Your argument against a stagnant society really takes shape for me through what you showed in their hunting equipment, e.g. the kangaroo hunting.

    I remember once being told by a (unlearned?) mate who said that the best thing that could happen for the aboriginies is modern technology and medicine. Your writing would make me ponder as to whether this is so espiecially considering the death rate which was occuring in places like Liverpool, England in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    I reckon you have a topic which could really make people think Chris, I would considering going further with it. Is that something you are considering?

    I couldn’t get your contact me bit at the end to work, but maybe that’s a system thing?

    The history which you span in tracking the ‘megafauna’ and the aboriginals hunting blew me away. To think that over 12,000 years ago they hunted using fire and stones which could kill ‘megafauna’, I definitely have learnt a lot. My question would be is this something which is widely known or taught through the education system here? Because if not I reckon it could make a fantastic mini series of documenatries or something spanning the ancient times and showing the evolution of the hunting techniques – could pull in the blokes!

    Great stuff Chris, you range thousands of years and keep the writing interesting and it flows. I enjoyed it thoroughly, well done!

    • ctinworth says:

      Thank you Cameron.

      I think anybody engaging with Australian, environmental or Indigenous history should recognise Aboriginal people as an adaptive society. Which is why it pleases me to hear that you found it valuable.

      This is such a stimulating and broad topic, which is ripe for a PhD, especially if it considered comparative death rates and the correlation to medicine amongst Aboriginal people during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, I think I’ll leave somebody else to continue the topic further.

      Sadly this sort of environmental history was not taught to myself in high school, and i’m not entirely sure if thats the case now, or will be with the new national curriculum. However, simply because it’s such a fascinating topic that genuinely highlights how Aboriginal people are not ‘stagnant’ I feel it should be included. But boy would it make a fascinating documentary, I can already imagine the scenes where they talk to key historians in the field!

      NB: the contact me is likely only compatible with Computers running either Macintosh Mail or Outlook, however it works on iPhones.

      Again, Thank your for spending the time reading and commenting on my work.

      Chris Tinworth

  3. pmtilley says:

    I too found this blog really interesting because it told me something about Aboriginal history before British settlement. You don’t often find this history, and as a consequence there is this idea out there that Aborigines were not very dynamic before Europeans arrived. There more that is written about Aboriginal history and identity can only help to improve current perceptions of the worth of their unique culture and consequently recognising their place as the first Australians and how much has been taken away by European notions of ‘progress’. You’ve offered persuasive evidence Aborigines had significantly impacted on the environment for the benefit of their societies. Its sad to think that Aborigines offered colonists the benefit of their knowledge to learn how to live and move about what for the newcomers was a very strange environment, but ultimately tried to exclude their very existence from the nation’s history. It makes one question which identity was really the civilised one?

    • ctinworth says:

      Thanks for the response, I appreciate the thought you put into it. You raise a great question about ‘who really is civilised’, and throughout my research for the early colonial period I came across many instances where the knowledge and survival skills of Aboriginal people were used by Europeans to sustain themselves in the Australian environment. I’m pleased to hear you found my argument convincing, and your comments like those above reveal environmental history deserves a wider audience.

      Chris.

  4. SS says:

    Hi, im a little confused to your claims of Aborignal people hunting and causing mega fauna to become extinct, from my understanding their is no evidence of butcher marks found on any mega fauna skeletons, seems a little odd considering the large amounts roaming the landscape, Aboriginal people wouldnt hunt animals they used to see in abundance and were then very rare, I have heard this claim many times without any supporting evidence, since the arrival of europeans we have seen a mass extinction of many animals and plants, those animals and plants were not exploited by humans, so the only reasoning would point to environmental change, we are now trying to save many plants and animals with little gains regardless of our awareness and modern technologys, If you could please direct me towards the evidence to support this claim, Artefacts associated with mega fauna bones says nothing, when Aboriginals try to associate very old carbon dates with artefacts in the same occupation layer they are quickly dismissed as un-supported, but when its non Aborignal people making claims they are legitimate even though there is no supporting evidence, I fear that in Australia we will never gain a true understanding while every research project has already made their conclusions and tailored thier methodology to suit the outcome they are looking for, its like climate science, people cherry pick the facts that suit while we have organisations like NASA who spend decades acumilating data, I know whos climate science I would believe, I understand mega fauna bones have been found in the same area as artefacts and human bones but it says nothing, If hundreds of thousands were hunted I would assume thier would be butcher marks?

    Still a great post that got me engaged, thanks

    • ctinworth says:

      Hi there,

      Thank you for your interesting post, you raise some great points. To answer your question about the available evidence, it is White and O’Connell (A Prehistory of Australia) that argue bones had likely been struck by Indigenous weaponry. I would like to highlight that I am not an archaeologist, that said I would have enjoyed studying megafaunal bones in person, however time did not permit. In response to your argument that people ‘cherry pick’ their information, I would argue that most, as I attempted, tried to become well versed in the available data. In many cases a certain perspective is trying to be argued, as a result information may be omitted. I don’t feel this takes away from the information being delivered, but stimulates discussions (such as the responses above), which ultimately helps contribute to everyones understanding of the topic.

      Cheers

      Chris Tinworth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s