The First Farmers

The world’s oldest grindstones dating back to 30,000 BCE, plentiful harvests as far as the eye can see and rolling pastures of green straight out of a golf course. An idyllic image bringing up the idea of an ancient civilisation straight out of the cradle of civilisation. But this isn’t some distant people and land. This is an Australian story, one of indigenous agriculture right here in Australia – the oldest story of agriculture and baking anywhere in the world.

National reconciliation week runs from May 27 to June 3 every year. It marks the two historic moments in indigenous history – the 1967 referendum recognising indigenous and the Mabo case. 50 years has passed since the 1967 referendum and now 25 since the Mabo case, so in light of these significant milestones, it makes sense to revisit the incredible and unrecognised large scale agriculture that persisted for millennia.

When Europeans first painted the Australian landscape it was and is still claimed to be romanticised. However, in recent books unearthing old writings of early explorers the idea of a green, rolling ‘gentleman’s garden‘ (seen below) is one not of romanticism but of reality. Moreover, the indigenous people were regarded by the European settlers as having a sophisticated and adept use of plants and animals in ways that would sustain large populations.

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Early European depictions of the Australian landscape (source)

Completely understandably, the newcomers from England brought with them animals and plants they new how to cultivate and species they knew were edible. Yet it is quite clear that the conditions in England – the soil, the weather, the age of the earth, are so very different to the soils and climate in Australia. The land management techniques, intensive cultivation and plant species did not suit the fragile and extremely old soils of the landscape. Much like the English that are frequently found looking like lobsters on our beaches, the species were out of place.

Hard hooved animals like sheep and cows compacted large areas of earth where early explorers had previously observed bountiful harvests of yams grown by local indigenous people.

Farmers noted the alarming drop in productivity over a mere handful of years as sheep ate out the croplands and compacted the light soils. ‘In Australia thousands of years of grass and soil changed in a few years. The spongy soil grew hard, the run-off accelerated and different grasses dominated.'”

– Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

As a brief pause – while there is a clear tale of colonial Australia subjugating the evidence of widespread indigenous agriculture in order to maintain and ‘colonisation’ narrative, it is important to celebrate the agriculture that existed and ensure that it continues to exist, rather than focus on the negative actions of these first European arrivals.

When Europeans began classifying regions and civilisations they set out five key points that defined developed agriculture:

  1. Selection of seed
  2. Soil preparation
  3. Harvest of the crop
  4. Storage of surplus crop
  5. Large populations and permanent housing

The thing worth sharing, one which is often put to the wayside, is that the indigenous people displayed all five of these characteristics of developed agriculture. Take for example the first hand evidence provided in the diary of explorer and surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell.

The grass is pulled … and piled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field … we found the ricks or hay-cocks extending for miles.”

and

… the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles.”

On villages and huts Major Mitchell estimates that a population of over a thousand would live in the area and notes:

… some huts being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.”

There are numerous diary entries of these early explorers explaining their bewilderment at finding signs of permanent residence and agriculture. Remember they had been led to believe that either no one was here, or that the only people here were uncivilised and described as savages.

Continuing the evidence of cultivation, explorer George Grey in Western Australia found wells and large fields of yams in the Gascoyne.

We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants [yams – Dioscorea hastifolia], the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives.”

George noted that:

… indeed we could with difficulty walk across it [field of yam holes] on that account whilst the tract extended east and west as far as we could see.”

Later on the next day:

After crossing a low limestone range we came upon another equally fertile warran [yams] ground … and next day passed two native villages, or as the men termed them towns … they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence.”

yam
An early drawing of a yam.

A sketch by Andrew Todd in 1835, a guard of stores at Indented Head in Victoria, shows two women harvesting the yams from their cleared field. In fact many other depictions, diaries and stories by early settlers and explorers detail the extensive harvest of yams and grains by the indigenous people.

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The records of grains production, not just yams, were so widespread that Norman Tindale compiled a map of the indigenous grain growing region. The dotted lines in the image below indicate the current major grain growing belt. Based on research into these early accounts, Bruce Pascoe concludes that yam production occurred in the high rainfall coastal plains, while grains were grown in the drier climates. Moreover, grain was treated as a commodity traded between different communities and gifted to relatives for important events in parcels.

Aboriginal grain beltWalter Smith, a bush worker and cameleer, described the careful hand casted sowing and irrigation practices of the indigenous people he observed while working in the bush. Logically, the science of grinding grain for flour and baking was associated with grain production. Richard Fullagar (Australian Museum) and Judith Furby (University of New South Wales) found grindstones at Cuddie Springs in western New South Wales. These grindstones were used to grind seeds more than 30,000 years ago rendering Indigenous Australians the oldest bakers known to man by almost 15,000 years. Just consider that – Australians predating the Egyptians as the most advanced civilisation in the world by 15,000 years. The find wasn’t even a one off. Archeologists also found a 25,000 year old grindstone in Kakadu.

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Grinding stone used to mill grains for flour locate at the Australian Museum. Fragments of a similar stone were found dating back to at least 30,000BCE (source)

On a final note, in case the above information left you wanting more, I’ll leave you with primary evidence from Captain Charles Sturt. He described the bountiful harvests of grain the Indigenous people enjoyed. A well known man with both a university and plant namesake (to name just two), Sturt said he saw:

“… grassy plains spreading out like boundless stubble field, the grass being of the kind from which the natives collect seed for subsistence at this season of the year … large heaps that had been thrashed out by the natives were piled up like haycocks.”

Further analysis of other entries leads to the conclusion that the grass described by Sturt is in fact Panicum decompositum, otherwise known as native millet or barley grass.

Conclusion

Unfortunately books from which the above evidence is drawn, are frequently cast to the wayside in spite of their well received awards and critical acclaim.

“But it hardly caused a ripple – from then till now – in dislodging common assumptions long held by many Australians, first learned in the classroom and often trotted out since.”

Profession Marcia Langton, University of Melbourne

Is it not something we should all celebrate? That Australians have the oldest millstones in the world, that indigenous Australians were not subsistence, nomads as so frequently taught in schools and believed throughout Australia. We should celebrate the incredible indigenous culture that we all share as Australian people and be incredibly proud of this unique land and its heritage.

 

Source: Cover image

The information for this article was found in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Both are fantastic reads.

If you see anything that needs correcting or adding please get in contact at: agrieducate@gmail.com. And remember if you have a story about agriculture to share get in contact too!

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