How First Australians Domesticated Landscapes Instead of Plants and Animals

First Footprints Part 4

SBS (2013)

Film Review

In the most fascinating episode of this series, the filmmakers dispel the myth that the first Australians were simple hunter gatherers. Archeological evidence suggests they were exposed to agriculture via Torres Strait islanders and rejected it. Instead over thousands of years, 200 distinct nations and cultures created a complex land management system spanning the entire continent.

Plant and animal domestication in greater Australia first arose in the New Guinea highlands (which was attached to the continent until rising sea levels separated the land masses 8,000 years ago). This highlands culture was unique, however, as one of the only instances in which agriculture (mainly cultivation of bananas, taro and sugar cane) didn’t give rise to city-states.

People on the Torres Strait islands adopted this style of agriculture. Yet despite robust trade that developed between these islands and northern Australia, indigenous Australians preferred their own methods of domesticating landscapes to domesticating individual plants and animals.

The filmmakers begin by exploring a permanent system of aquaculture, involving artificial canals and woven fish traps developed by the Gunditjmara in Southeastern Australia. The resulting abundance of fish and eels supported a fairly dense population that lived in permanent stone houses.

Elsewhere in Australia, most of the 200 nations used controlled burning to increase the amount of food they produced. The controlled fire setting accomplished differing purposes in different areas. Examples include

  • To help hunters ambush panicked kangaroos
  • To create grassy runs to lure kangaroos out of eucalypt forests
  • To stimulate new growth (eg berries and lizard habitat) in desert areas

The most interesting segment of part 4 concerns the first contacts of indigenous Australians with the outside world. Makassan fishermen from Indonesia, the first to visit the continent in the early 1600s, set up a robust trading system with the aboriginals.First Australians caught sea cucumbers, which they traded to China (via the Makassans) in exchange for dugout canoes with sails, detachable harpoons, tobacco pipes and brightly colored fabrics.

In 1606, sailors from the Dutch East India Company visited Australia (and as per company policy) kidnapped an indigenous woman to make her tell them where the gold was. After several men were killed on both sides, the Dutch decided Australia didn’t have any gold and sailed away. Although other Dutch ships were seen offshore for the next 200 years, none of them tried to land.

Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour would arrive in Botany Bay in 1770. Although members of the Eora nation threatened them with spears, they ran away when Cook’s crew began shooting at them. It would be 18 years later that 11 ships arrived with over 1000 passengers to set up a permanent penal colony.

 

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