Manus, Nauru way worse than Pezzullo texts

By Jane Salmon All the hyperbole about Pezzullo's fall from grace is…

From my "To read" list comes nothing but…

Now, how do I tackle this? Do I use the information in…

Cruel Prerogatives: Braverman on Refugees at the AEI

Suella Braverman has made beastliness a trait in British politics. The UK…

Dictator Dan Quits And Victoria Is Free...

With the resignation of Dan Andrews, Victorians can once again go to…

Tech Council of Australia Supports Indigenous Voice to…

Media Alert Canberra: Following the announcement of the referendum date, the Tech Council…

The Legacy of Daniel Andrews: Recognising the Good…

Today the impending retirement of Daniel Andrews – Labor Premier of Victoria…

Study reveals most common forms of coercive control…

Media Release A new study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and…

Great Expectations from the Summit of the G-77…

By Denis Bright The prospects for commitment to UN General Assembly’s sustainment development…


Indigenous Australians know this land, and how to use it

If we attempt to compare Aboriginal land use with that of the early settlers, we should broaden the meaning of ‘land use’. We should move away from the narrow European notion of agriculture and horticulture, to one which includes religious and cultural associations with the land, and one which allows the skills and the bounty of hunting and gathering to enter the picture.

Another difficulty is that Indigenous Australians, although sharing the same continent, and some cultural traditions, were not all alike. Regional differences in a land so large were bound to be great, though identification with, and care for, the land seems to have been practically universal. With that in mind, Aboriginal attitudes to their land will be treated as roughly uniform.

The common misconception about life in Australia prior to the arrival of the whites, and one which dates back to the time of Captain Cook, is of a race of hungry nomads, constantly ranging over an inhospitable land in search of game, victims of their own lack of industry, and incidentally unfit to lay claim to the land.

This view is now under constant attack, as evidence mounts to show the active participation of the Aboriginal Australians, not only in the management of their own survival, but as agents for change in the greater environment.

As the white arrivals would eventually do, the original inhabitants had built up an economic system which delivered regular surpluses, and allowed the population to grow, albeit at a sustainable rate. ‘They exploited the resources available to them, making the continent into a gigantic farm, but a farm which they worked with an eye to the future.’ (Bolton 1981, p. 8)

Using fire

Fire is the most versatile and important tool that a society of hunter gatherers can use. The original Australians used fire extensively, and as well as flushing out game which sought shelter in scrub, the fire served the purpose of thinning the bush, burning off the old feed, and promoting new growth. This new growth attracted more game next season. Different fire regimes were used throughout the country, with adaptations made for the needs of each locality. (Flood 1983)

Fire was not only used for flushing and attracting game, however. It transformed the landscape, though there is debate as to how much forethought went into that transformation. Major Mitchell, an early explorer, suggested that the Aborigines worked on their ‘runs’, which happened to carry kangaroos and other native species, in much the same way that the later pastoralists would clear ground, and improve pasture for their stock. (Bolton 1981)

The Aborigines actively used fire to promote the growth of ‘crops’ for their own consumption. (Kirk 1981) They also used it to extend the range of, for instance, cycad nuts, by clearing competing vegetation. (Flood 1983)

What did they live on?

The Aborigines did not depend on meat alone to feed them. In a normal year the population in most regions obtained at least half of its energy needs from plant foods. (Blainey 1982)

The methods they used to sustain life were adapted to the ecology of the region in which they lived. These ranged from hunting fat moths in the mountains to catching seals on the coast, from trapping eels in Victoria to cycad harvesting in the north.

They were gifted hunter gatherers. They manipulated their environment so ingeniously that they were able to lead a semi-sedentary life, with regular tribal gatherings and religious festivals. (Flood 1983) It is a long way from the picture of starving wretches stalking kangaroos, for their very survival.

They knew their land intimately, and all that it produced. Their knowledge had been accumulated over sixty thousand years, and their knowledge of botany was arguably their most refined. This may explain how they were able to survive in such a seemingly hostile environment with such aplomb. (Blainey 1982)

A common criticism of their culture decries the ‘fact’ that they never developed formal agriculture. A counter to that criticism is that they were so well-off that they had no need to increase the yield of their foods; nor did they need to store it.

This goes some way toward explaining the feelings that Aborigines have toward their land. They were provided with bounty, as long as they did their duty to the land. For the great unifying theme in Aboriginal Australian life was religion, and the core of that religion was man’s close, symbiotic relationship with the land. As Blainey so eloquently states,

‘Their knowledge of the land and all which it grew was supplemented by a spiritual belief that the earth would not continue to be productive unless they obeyed its rules and its deities. One aim of their religious ceremonies and many of their taboos was to maintain the fertility of the land and its creatures.’ (Blainey 1983, p. 202)

What did white land use look like?

The members of the First Fleet and those who followed them had no such tenderness for the land, or indeed for its original inhabitants. As the Aborigines followed the dictates of their religion, so could the Europeans be seen to be following theirs. As the Bible exhorted them to go forth and multiply, it also provided them with an attitude which separated them from nature, and made them masters of the natural world.

They were the products of a society which held the belief that it was man’s duty to enhance the productivity of the soil. In fact, the notion of the right to own property was inextricably linked to the end use to which that property was put. (Butcher & Turnbull 1988)

This served a dual purpose – it legitimised their own exploitation of the land, and it robbed the Aborigines of any claim they might have made to the land, because the imprint of a black hand on the landscape was so subtle.

With legal and moral matters of ownership of the land apparently sorted out, the white invaders then proceeded to ‘farm’ the continent. They were not conspicuously successful to begin with. The Administration at Sydney Cove was sorely pressed to feed all the mouths in the colony. The problem was exacerbated by the urban background of most of the convicts, and of the guards.

They were poor overseers of the land, often because they lacked adequate financial resources and more importantly, they lacked even the most rudimentary rural skills. They had no prospect of learning them either, except by trial and error. Happily the destruction of the environment was limited by their technology. If they did possess any farming experience, it was mostly irrelevant or misleading under local conditions.

They did not realise that the Aborigines’ knowledge and exploitative methods were geared precisely to local conditions, and were the result of thousands of years of study. The land, though seeming to conform to their vision of benign nature, tamed for man’s use, appeared so by virtue of careful husbandry and sustainable use. (Bolton 1981)

The profit motive was present from the beginning, and once mere survival was assured, the principles of capitalist farming were applied. Though they were not ecologically disastrous when used in Britain, Australia’s older soils and specialised flora were no match for the rapacious appetites of 19th century capitalists.

The introduction of exotic species was disastrous

The introduction of cattle and sheep was the beginning of catastrophe for the Australian environment. The first and most significant change was in the texture of the soil. The cloven hooves of the whites’ livestock destroyed the mulch of aeons in a decade. (Rolls 1981)

The vegetation changed, with the native grasses, used to the gentler feeding of the macropods, being destroyed by the different feeding habits of the sheep, especially. Men responded with ‘pasture improvement’, ploughing out the native grasses, using fertiliser and sowing inappropriate exotics. (Rolls 1981)

The trees were the next to go. They were seen as a nuisance by the first settlers, fit only to be cleared, and used for building or farming. Until the gold rushes of the 1850s the destruction was confined mainly to the coastal valleys of New South Wales, but domestic demand for building timbers increased greatly.

The economic imperative

Improving transport opened up the prospect for the exporting of hardwoods; additionally, from the 1860s pastoralists began ring-barking on an unprecedented scale. By 1892 clearance for farms and ring-barking for grazing were the major causes of deforestation. The bush was re-shaped irrevocably to accommodate the interests of graziers and their stock.

The native fauna was also profoundly affected. A quarter of a century after the arrival of the white man, many species faced extinction. Others prospered unnaturally – the balance was upset. The introduction of the domestic dog and cat was calamitous, as was the introduction of goats, pigs, brumbies, foxes and last, but not least, the ubiquitous rabbit.

It is unnecessary to describe the degradation of the environment around towns and cities, but it was at least as complete as that affected by the pastoralists. The gold-fields were even worse, creating waste-lands for miles around. All in all, the impact of the whites on the environment was catastrophic, with most of the damage still with us.

19th century white settlers were not wilful or wanton destroyers of the land. Most of the ecological damage occurred as a result of ignorance, and as a by-product of unthinking agrarian capitalism. There was a mistaken belief that the land was so bountiful as to be inexhaustible.

By contrast the original inhabitants had known all along that the ecology was a delicate thing, which had finite limits. They were not perfect custodians, but their reign of sixty thousand plus years was solicitous and successful. In just over two centuries we have undone much of that good work, and we appear not to be learning anything.

Recent reports of the state of the environment are alarming. Messages are often contradictory. On the one hand lots of hand – wringing from governments intent on demonstrating their environmental bona-fides, clash with draconian laws which criminalise protesters who dare to question logging and land clearing.

It is getting close to midnight when we look at how degraded our country has become, and both sides of politics appear to be in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry. It is an excellent time to actually recognise the need for action, and to end the hypocrisy. Again, “poor fellow my country” needs our collective help.


Like what we do at The AIMN?

You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.

Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!

Your contribution to help with the running costs of this site will be gratefully accepted.

You can donate through PayPal or credit card via the button below, or donate via bank transfer: BSB: 062500; A/c no: 10495969

Donate Button


Login here Register here
  1. Phil Pryor

    Nearly two and half centuries of scraping, chopping, abusing, pocking, pitting, plundering and pauperising this Australia, we have to join, talk, debate, plan, enact and achieve some remedial work sucessfully. We have been guilty of many evils. It was and is a delicate environment, with so much denudation, erosion, wholesale obliteration. We must do better, despite the enemies, profiteers, ruthless and ignorant exploiters, Our future is not for us, It must be cherished and we are being warned seriously now, with climate alarms, degradations being publicised, our delights of reef and bush and wetlands threatened.

  2. Mark Buckley

    “Australia is a lucky country, led by second rate people.” We need to be led, and shamed, by our young. They seem to have the sense of urgency we lack.

  3. Harry Lime

    We are not just sleepwalking into an avoidable catastrophe,it is wilful ignorance given the mountains of freely available evidence.We are in the vicelike grip of materialism,which is blasted at us 24/7 by all the garbage media.The rich don’t give a fuck..they imagine they will be cossetted by their wealth.Most of the rest of us find it too disturbing to contemplate.We are at another world changing tipping point in history,with weak,hypocritical governments,too afraid to make the necessary,unpopular moves that are required.Wars over food and water are almost certain,let alone wars of expansion by latter day,would be emperors.The ferocious dislocation of climate change has barely begun.

  4. Mark Buckley

    I agree Harry. Sleepwalking is the perfect description.

  5. Canguro

    Mark B, I see you made a number of citations – Blainey, Rolls, Flood, Kirk, Bolton – Eric Rolls is the only one that I’m familiar with, per his seminal work, They All Ran Wild. Would it be useful to cite the actual works attributed to these authors? I read Rolls many years ago, an impressive piece of authorship which accurately detailed the enormous damage due to introduced species in this country.

    I offer Loudon Wainwright’s take on the ‘situation’…given that a sense of black humour is sometimes the best way to cope with the insurmountable. Only a year or two ago the optimistic slant was that ‘Yes, we can limit global warming to 1 degree C, 1.5 max’. Now it’s, ‘We’re on track to blast through to three degrees by the end of the century’. Anyone who’s been paying attention will know that that prediction spells the end; mass catastrophe guaranteed; food chains destroyed, crop failures, armageddons en-masse of species small and large, oceans uninhabitable, snow peaks and glaciers gone, and more – the floods, fires, hurricanes, droughts, famines & diseases…. it won’t be pretty and anyone who thinks optimistically that we’ll figure out a solution is, I’m afraid, kidding themselves… it’s too late for Alice in Wonderland and the Fairy Godmother to come waltzing by and, hey presto, all’s well again.

    In a certain way, I get why the denialists do what they do. It’s too damn confronting to take the alternative view on board. And we’ve always been the unique species that’s preferenced lies and illusions; whereas my personal view is that it’s better to be disillusioned, literally. But as more and more commentators within these pages and elsewhere are acknowledging, we’ve overcooked our goose; once golden but now charred and blackened.

  6. RoadKillCafe

    Yes, Canguro, the four horsemen ride, languidly, knowing the gifts they bestow, no need for urgency, the die is cast, we’ve fucked it, a fucking tragedy. Fuck. Time to talk of neo-cons and the associated bullshit, the death of democracy, the economy, no mate, prepare the braindead for shit hitting fan. From what I understand from some climate scientists, they have the shits, big time, over some of their brethren purposefully minimising their knowledge, their communication over the impacts we will experience. Don’t want to scare the horses.
    Experience the beauty, the wonder now, while you still can, of this magnificent planet, our home.
    Our beautiful home and we’ve shit on it. Well fucking done. Are we proud of ourselves?

  7. Michael Taylor

    There’s a huuuge difference between the white fella’s attitude to the land compared to the Blackfulla. The whities own the land, whereas the Blackfulla will say that the land owns them: They’re just the custodians looking after the place.

    The attitudes to the land, the animals and the vegetation are a world apart. For example, you’d be stretching to find an Aboriginal home with a lawn. It doesn’t make sense to grow a lawn if the only thing you’ll do with it is regularly chop its head off. If you wanted to kill it, why not just shoot it?

    PS: Josephine Flood I’m very familiar with. Her book; Archaeology of the Dreamtime was one of my uni text books when doing Aboriginal Archaeology.

  8. Michael Taylor

    Canguro, you might appreciate this:

    At the Umoona community near Coober Pedy the council thought they’d do a good thing and replant the football oval.

    The Umoona blokes hated it.

    They prefer to play footy without boots – or socks – and use their toes to grip into the bare soil. When the oval was replanted they found themselves slipping and sliding all over the place.

    I saw a Blackfulla in Berri – playing on grass – take his boots off to kick for goal. Sixty metres out, on the boundary line, in bare feet did a drop kick that sailed over the goal umpire’s head. It brought the house down.

  9. Harry Lime

    Hey Michael,I kicked a goal from 150 metres out on an extremely muddy City oval in Ballarat…it started out as a torp, but slid the last 127 metres.The only reason it wasn’t intercepted was the opposition kept falling over and punching one another…shades of the current Opposition.

  10. Michael Taylor

    You ain’t seen nuthin’, Harry.

    I was kicking goals when kicking in from fullback. 😁

    Nah. Not really. I was a fast leading, high leaping, long kicking full forward.

  11. Mark Buckley

    Just research done for an undergraduate degree 30 years ago. I am reticent to cite references, as it makes it too ‘academic’. Trust me, they are all ‘good faith’ references, but I can provide the sources.

  12. Canguro

    Thanks Mark, no worries. 🙂 A useful essay and salient reminder of the inevitable costs of ignorance when inappropriate methodologies are applied. In my early years of employment I worked on the land in the north-east of South Aust; sheep country, saltbush and bluebush dominant landscapes. Early settlement of these districts imposed no cap on stocking rates and it was the norm for these pastoral properties to carry far more sheep than the land could accommodate, with the inevitable result that the land was flogged, perennial flora placed under great stress, soil erosion a result, the problems exacerbated by the spread of rabbits and their utter destruction of plant species keeping the fragile topsoils intact; a hundred and fifty years later, even with newly-gained knowledge and caps on stocking rates, many of these areas have never recovered or regenerated.

    And in the Flinders Ranges, one evening as I drove through a particular gorge, I stopped to look more closely at something odd; I couldn’t understand what it was I was seeing. The whole of a hillside seemed to be shimmering. Rabbits. In their thousands, I suspect. Post myxomatosis, pre-calicivirus, late sixties. I became sensitised to environmental damage at an early age. It breaks my heart.

  13. Michael Taylor


    In the Flinders Ranges you would have been in my mob’s land; Adnyamathanha.

    Adnyamathanha means either “rock people” or “people from the hills.”

    PS: The Aboriginal map of all the mobs has a typo: instead of Adnyamathanha it has Andyamathanha.

  14. B Sullivan

    The first known arrival of humans in Australia coincides with the extinction of numerous species of Australia’s unique mega fauna. The loss of these giants would have profoundly disturbed the ecosystem causing the extinction of other species dependent upon the existence of the megafauna and starting a domino effect. The universal human practice of burning forests to facilitate hunting or to allow the growth of preferred food bearing plants exacerbated the extinction of Australia’s unique flora already under threat from drier conditions due to natural but slow climate change. And with the loss of that flora there also went the extinction of all those species that were dependent upon it.

    Then as now the principal cause of extinction is habitat loss. Over millions of years species evolve to adapt to natural fires or even evolve to depend upon them. Managed fires increase habitat loss. Unwanted habitats for humans but vital to other forms of life that share the planet with us. Countless species lost without ever being known or appreciated for their biological value, all because of the introduction (invasion if you prefer) of human beings into the Australian environment.

    Indigenous Australians kept no record of this never intended ecocide, but it has been revealed by modern science which has the capability of looking back through time with paleontology and archaeology.

    The first indigenous Australian’s would have had no awareness of how damaging their actions were to the environment, no real understanding of ecology and the interconnectedness of species in the complex web of life. How could they possibly know? They hunted and they gathered those things that mattered to them. If any did have the luxury to study the life cycles and behaviour of other plants and animals that they didn’t prey upon they had no way of recording and transmitting their knowledge that was not severely limited by the fallibility of human memory and the inability to communicate to others beyond their own small communities.

    They would have lived their lives in profound ignorance of the ecology of the Australian environment which has only recently begun to be revealed by the light of modern science, an endeavor that requires far more observation, discourse and communication over many, many lifetimes than was available to early Australian humans.

    The first people to arrive in Australia were physically and mentally absolutely no different from any of the people living on the planet today. There is no inherent difference between the first Australians and modern people. The only difference is that people today are much less ignorant of the way the world works thanks to thousands of years of writing, recording and transmitting information about how the world works. In a primitive society practically all of the observations and insights of the most ingenious minds are lost upon their deaths.

    Indigeneity does not automatically confer knowledge of the land. Respect and care for the land depends on cultural not genetic factors. Scientists, people who seek to know, have the best knowledge of the land and how it needs to be cared for and it doesn’t matter whether they are native to the land or from far distant shores.

    It may be a galling thought for an indigenous Australian to accept, but the botanist Joseph Banks knew and understood more about the species of plant that is named after him and was able to transmit that knowledge to far more people than sixty thousand years of indigenous but illiterate culture ever could. He was able to use the botanical knowledge accumulated by collective science to aid his efforts and he could publish his work so that it could be shared, assessed and corrected.

    So, encourage indigenous Australians to study environmental science, because only then will they know the best way to use the land without biologically degrading it. It is not a good idea to rely on any cultural beliefs. Science is just another word for knowledge. Belief submits to ignorance.

  15. L.S.Roberts

    While I respect indigenous land practices where it was all sacred; We have 25 million mouths to feed and a climate crisis.
    We will almost certainly have to go hydroponic.

  16. leefe

    B Sullivan:

    One does not need to have a written list of fancy latin names for species to understand the impact of one’s use of natural resources. It is merely a matter of doing, observing, remembering and passing on the knowledge. Aboriginal people did that on this continent for at least 65,000 years and, in that time, developed a system of land use that, while not perfect, allowed them to live in balance with their environment. Inevitably, during the learning period there were negative impacts. But they did learn. They did change their practices.

    Given the massive damage done in the following 250 years – procedures and attitudes behind which are still the standard modus operandi – your claim of greater knowledge belonging to our modern society is laughable. Scientific knowledge is considerable, no argument; but there is not a concommitant practical application of that knowledge and a true understanding of what Dirk Tgentili refered to as “the basic interconnectedness of all things” is most assuredly lacking.

    You cannot compare the impact of 65,000 years with the far greater impact of 250 years and expect to be taken seriously.

  17. Canguro


    As you’d know, the Flinders Ranges has a feature called Chambers Gorge, [Marlawadinha Inbiri; Wiki], which along with Mt Chambers lies to the north-east of Blinman. In the mid-sixties my high school Field Naturalist club went up there on an excursion; camping, walking, exploring, climbing. We saw Yellow-footed Rock Wallabies and Euros. We did not see aboriginal artefacts or petroglyphs, photos of which can be viewed if one googles ‘chambers gorge’ and then follows the link on the RHS of the page in the review section. We climbed the mount, from where Lake Frome could be seen to the east.

    Twenty years later I returned, a second visit.

    Naturally one carries a certain type of memory of the initial visit, but the return to that region was dominated by the impression of how much the landscape had been degraded over those two decades by the impact of feral goats and their destruction of the flora.

    In 1969, I left school in July and after the brief stint at Coober Pedy worked as a rouseabout in a shearing team on stations north of Blinman. The shearers took me out one weekend to a spot on one of the properties where we pulled up, jumped a fence and walked a short way to a depression, which turned out to be an entrance to an underground stream, some ~5 or so metres underground. The men had torches, they’d been there before… and in the light of the torch beams we could see that this stream extended into the distant darkness. There were small fish visible in the crystal clear water, which may have been around 50-80cm deep; fish that lived, essentially, in the dark.

    I’m guessing that stream is not well known, but I imagine the Aboriginal people would have been well aware of it.

    On a side note, my seventeenth birthday was celebrated in the Blinman pub on a Saturday night, taken in by the shearers who insisted I come along. The pub was packed. I had a beer sitting on the bar. The local policeman came in to rub shoulders and check things out, and he picked up my schooner and asked no-one in particular, ‘Is this my beer?’, to which one of the shearers replied, pointing to me, ‘No, constable, it’s his’. He then said, ‘It’s his birthday, he’s 21 today’. The cop looked at me, and handing me the glass said, ‘Happy Birthday, son’. I had young features… I could have been mistaken for a 15 or 16 year-old. A good cop!

  18. Phil Pryor

    The irritable contest about the old and new ways may lead to better if we compromise, advance, reconsider. Much damage has been done to every area of Australia’s environment, perhaps mostly by those who learned nothing of the old indigenous cultures, and did not read or comprehend Joseph Banks and his followers. We should harness the skills of our tertiary trained experts, empower them, listen and accept what is possible socially and financially, and, get on with a restoration process. Less political stupidity and greed and ambition…

  19. Michael Taylor

    Oddly, Canguro, I only spent a few years there and even then those years were work-related, spending my time at Leigh Creek, Copley, and the Aboriginal communities at Nepabunna, Iga Warta, and a place I can’t spell but it’s something like Kacklephrana.

    It was at Nepabunna that RM Williams got the idea of his famous boots (from the Adnyamathanha people). He always acknowledged the mob at Nepabunna as the original inventors of his boots. There is a small RM Williams museum there.

  20. B Sullivan

    Leefe: “One does not need to have a written list of fancy latin names for species to understand the impact of one’s use of natural resources. It is merely a matter of doing, observing, remembering and passing on the knowledge.”

    Without writing passing on knowledge is limited by the fallibility of human memory. That is why humans isolated in Australia remained in a primitive state without changing for so long. No matter what brilliant insights a person had it was bound to die with them. Nor could they test the veracity of their observations with others. Scientific discourse took centuries to develop and was only possible thanks to writing and increased contact between minds. We know about the exploits of Pliny the Elder, sometimes called the father of Natural History because it was written down and people can see from those writings just how wildly mistaken he was in his observations and conclusions thousands of years later.

    Today we can look at the magnificent art and written descriptions that Joseph Bank’s scientific expedition published and learn a great deal more than anything that was known to or passed on by the illiterate pre-colonial indigenous society. You try and memorise a single page of all that work without writing anything down and see how hard it is. Furthermore you then need to persuade your kids to make the effort of memorising it as well and then they have persuade successive generations to go on memorising it, word for word. Homer’s Illiad was composed during a time of illiteracy and was only written down centuries later. It is the written version that survived for thousands of years, and no-one knows how accurate it is to Homer’s original poem. The effect of burning land to make it easier to catch prey is an immediate effect, immediately noticed. The disappearance of some species and the increase of others over many lifetimes of burning the land would go completely unnoticed. To the younger generations it was always so. How could they observe that things had only changed since their ancesters time? They wouldn’t have observed the connection between cause and effect.

    We’re not discussing 65 thousand years of accumulated wisdom. We are fantasising about an illiterate society that was unable to pass on all the wisdom of 65 thousand years of lifetimes and so remained unchanged until outsiders came along and broke their isolation and introduced them to a vast world of knowledge and experience that was utterly beyond their comprehension. What does any one really know about precolonial/preliterate life in Australia that has not been discovered, deduced or confirmed by archaeology? What can today’s indiginous elders tell us about the people they call the Gwion Gwion who mysteriously left their distinctive art all over the Kimberly as proof that there was another long forgotten people living in Australia? Was it they who hunted the megafauna to extinction? Did they then disappear because they couldn’t adapt to a life without megafauna? Why isn’t the history of the Gwion Gwion being taught in Australian schools? Because it has been forgotten and only their neglected and vandalised art remains to show they even existed. Or is it because Australians are incapable of recognising and celebrating two indigenous cultures.

    Humans are usually too pre-occupied with other interests than to study the natural world even when they live as part of it. What did primitive humans know about the roll that insects play in pollinating plants, or the microscopic life that forests depend upon if they are to thrive that live just beneath the the soil? How obvious is it to humans that their practice of burning has an effect on species they don’t even know exist? Hardly anyone knew one species from another, no one spent years studying animal behaviour or grew plants just to understand how they grew. No one was singlehandedly capable of comprehending the intricacy of the web of ecology in isolation of other connected species that went unobserved. Unlike those who could read and write and could make and consult lists that got longer and longer as more species were discovered and who could compare those lists with other observers and share knowledge and accumulate understanding of the nature and importance of the vast variety of life on Earth. You can’t even hope to just rely on memorising all that knowledge let alone hope to accurately pass it on.

    Joseph Banks would have had an early microscope with him in Australia thanks to the work of long dead Robert Hooke who he was able to learn so much from because Hooke’s knowledge had been recorded, disseminated, examined and assessed and Banks could read it and learn from it a century later. He didn’t have to rely on whatever smatterings of information Hooke’s descendents could remember. He could examine plants in minute detail to aid in understanding them, seeing things that no-one in Australia, or even the world, had ever seen before.

    You see most humans don’t observe, and fewer than that ever understand the way things work or the usefulness of passing on that comprehension. Those who do make the effort to know things are called scientists from the Greek word for knowledge – science. Scientists, especially natural scientists, are the ones who know best how to look after the natural world, because they make the effort to know how the natural world actually works. Being indigenous does not make people inherently knowledgeable about the world they are born into. Nor does it prevent them from becoming great scientific authorities about the world they are born into, provided they pursue true knowledge instead of indulging in whatever they would rather believe.

    We have all collectively learned far more about the Australian environment in the last sixty five years than was learned by sixty five thousand previous years of human occupation of this continent. And the lesson we are perhaps only just learning is just how unthinkingly destructive human beings have always been to their environment throughout their entire existence.

    By the way, latin names aren’t fancy, they are informative. They indicate the relationship between species and assure studiers of natural history that they are comparing observations of the same species instead of confusing different species that have similar common names. What do think of when you hear the word buffalo? What shape are its horns? Where do they live? Africa, Asia, Australia, America? Every different species has a different latin name to avoid confusion.

  21. leefe


    You are judging pre-colonisation Aboriginal society through the lens of the modern western mindset, and with a profound ignorance of the depth and breadth of their knowledge and practice. The development of complex, continent-wide land management systems, suitably modified to deal with local variations, is proof that those pre-colonisation Aborigiinal peoples were more than capable of remembering and passing along massive amounts of their observations and knowledge. Otherwise they would not have survived; every generation would have had to rediscover what worked.

    Oh, and thanks for the mansplain re trinomials.
    The problem wiith much of our western scientific knowledge is that it is theoretical. It doesn’t tell us what works although it is good at finding out why.

  22. Mark Buckley

    B.Sullivan: You really don’t like pre-literate societies, do you? Father to son, to son, to son seems an adequate way to pass on practical methods of land care. In all of Banks’ cataloguing I fail to find any day to day husbandry. I would rather practical advice, for practical problems, any day.
    Banks’ colleagues within the scientific community knew nothing of Australian conditions, no matter the depth of their classical educations, and the doughty English farmers who did know a thing or two, were conspicuously absent from the first fleets, and the geniuses who now lead state environmental departments are guilty of wrong-headed interventions into land care.
    I find your obsession with book learning to be disingenuous, and possibly cynical. And off-topic, to be frank.

  23. Canguro

    Possibly off-topic, or perhaps simply digressive:

    re. the comment from one of the above interlocutors; ‘Without writing passing on knowledge is limited by the fallibility of human memory’ … I’d suggest, what a load of crock!

    Michael might correct me on this, but it’s believed that at the time of whitey’s arrival there existed more than 500 separate Aboriginal tribes; this figure is open for discussion; various sources suggest 260 language groups, 500 dialects, population numbers ranging from 300,000 to 950,000.

    What’s not in dispute is that the indigenous people, the original inhabitants of this vast continent, lived, essentially, across the entire range of landscapes from desert to tropical to wet & dry schlerophyll to alpine, sub-alpine, temperate and cool climate, and that they not only survived but thrived in conditions that would defeat white explorers who set out to map the land after the advent of colonisation. This implies, directly, the possession of knowledge, possibly necessarily local, of the most intimate nature of their environments; animal behaviour, insects too, what plants were edible, which were not, which poisonous plants could be modified through cooking or other practices to strip out or nullify/alter the toxins within those plants.

    All Aboriginal communities, it must be recognised, engaged in the time-old tradition of passing on knowledge via the essentially human tradition of elders to the young. Initiation ceremonies; the transmission of secret knowledge, mothers to daughters, fathers to sons; none of this was trivial, for survival depended on the accuracy of the transmission of time-tested truths; knowledge which, as mentioned above, was lacking in the colonists (despite their literacy and possession of book knowledge) and saw them (the colonists) suffer and struggle under conditions in which the local inhabitants simply existed and got on with their lives as they’d done for millennia.

    As for the interlocutor’s reference to the Gwion Gwion, it seems to me to be a classical red herring comment. I don’t see how separate communities who spoke different languages and dialects can be expected to also carry an encyclopaedic knowledge of all of the other existing cultures; the Kimberley region being just one among many tribal areas and regions. Tribal groups were not only separated by language differences but also by geographic boundaries; a distinction that was made, I believe, in Rolf de Heer’s 2006 movie Ten Canoes.

    These observations on our local indigenous peoples equally apply to similar people from across the planet; the ~400 indigenous tribes of the Amazon, comprising around a million people living in the most complex ecosystem on earth and possessing a brilliant system of knowledge as to what plants are able to serve what purpose; food, medicine, sources of toxins to be used in hunting, plants that contain psychoactive materials which are used for spiritual and healing means; all of this intricate knowledge being passed on generation to generation without the benefit of a written language and all of it across the span of the Amazonian disparate communities with their separate languages.

    The same observations can be applied to other global indigenous groups, without exception, whether in Africa, Asia, North America, Melanesia. All, without exception, and without recourse to fixing their knowledge and belief systems in the form of written language, survived and thrived across millennia.

    To suggest that knowledge only became significant after the advent of written language is nothing else than a gross fallacy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 2 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here

Return to home page
%d bloggers like this: