Why did the Australian aborigines never adopt agriculture?

by Kim Hill, Deep Green Resistance Australia

Why did the Australian aborigines never develop agriculture?

This question was posed in the process of designing an indigenous food garden, and I could hear the underlying assumptions of the enquirer in his tone. Our culture teaches that agriculture is a more desirable way to live than hunting and gathering, and agriculturalist is more intelligent and more highly evolved than a hunter gatherer.

These assumptions can only be made by someone indoctrinated by civilization. It’s a limited way to look at the world.

I was annoyed by question, and judged the person asking it as ignorant of history and other cultures, and unimaginative. Since many would fit this label, I figured I’m better off answering the question.

This only takes some basic logic and imagination, I have no background in anthropology or whatever it is that would qualify someone to claim authority on this subject. You could probably formulate an explanation by asking yourself: How and why would anyone develop agriculture?

First consider the practicalities of a transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

What plants would be domesticated? What animals? What tools would they use? How would they irrigate?

Why would anyone bother domesticating anything that is plentiful in the wild?

To domesticate a plant takes many generations (plant generations, and human generations) of selecting the strongest specimens, propagating them in one place, caring for them, protecting them from animals and people, from the rain and wind and sun, keeping the seeds safe. This would be incredibly difficult to do, it would take a lot of dedication, not just from one person but a whole tribe for generations. If your lifestyle is nomadic, because food is available in different places in different seasons, there is no reason to make the effort to domesticate a plant.

Agriculture is high-risk. There are a lot of things that could destroy a whole crop, and your whole food supply for the year, as well as your seed stock for the next. A storm, flood, fire, plague of insects, browsing mammals, neighbouring tribes, lack of rain, disease, and no doubt many other factors. A huge amount of work is invested in something that is likely to fail, which would then cause a whole community to starve, if there isn’t a back-up of plentiful food in the wild.

Agriculture is insecure. People in agricultural societies live in fear of crop failure, as this is their only source of food. The crops must be defended. The tools, food storage, water supply and houses must also be defended, and maintained. Defended from people, animals, and insects. Growing and storing all your food in one place would attract all of these. Defence requires weapons, and work.

Agriculture requires settlement. The tribe must stay in one place. They cannot leave, even briefly, as there is constant maintenance and defending to do. Settlements then need their own infrastructure: toilets, water supply, houses, trading routes as not all the food needs can be met from within the settlement. Diseases spread in settled areas.

Aboriginal people travel often, and for long periods of time. Agriculture is not compatible with this way of life.

Agriculture is a lot of work. The farmers must check on the crop regularly, destroy diseased plants, remove weeds, irrigate, replant, harvest, save seeds, and store the crop. Crops generally are harvested for only a few weeks or months in the year, and if they are a staple, must be stored safely and be accessible for the rest of the year.

Domesticated animals require fencing, or tethering, or taming. They would be selectively bred for docility, which is a weakness not a strength, so a domesticated animal would be less healthy than a wild animal.

The people too become domesticated and lose strength with the introduction of agriculture. The wild intelligence needed to hunt and gather would be lost, as would the relationships with the land and other beings.

Agriculture requires a belief in personal property, boundaries, and land ownership. Australian aborigines knew that the land owned the people, not the other way around, so would never have treated the land in this way.

Agriculture needs a social hierarchy, where some people must work for others, who have more power by having more wealth. The landowner would have the power to supply or withhold food. Living as tribal groups, aborigines probably wouldn’t have desired this social structure.

Cultivated food has less nutrition than wild food. Agriculturalists limit their diet to plants and animals that can easily be domesticated, so lose the diversity of tastes and nutrients that make for an ideal human diet. Fenced or caged animals can only eat what is fed to them, rather than forage on a variety of foods, according to their nutritional needs. Domesticated plants only access the nutrients from the soil in the field, which becomes more depleted with every season’s crop. Irrigation causes plants to not send out long roots to find water, so domesticated plants are weaker than wild plants.

Agriculture suggests a belief that the world is not good enough as it is, and humans need to change it. A land populated with gods, spirits or ancestors may not want to be damaged, dug, ploughed and irrigated.

Another thought is that agriculture may develop from a belief in scarcity – that there is not enough food and it is a resource that needs to be secured. Indigenous belief systems value food plants and animals as kin to be in relationship with, rather than resources to exploit.

Agriculture isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Indigenous tribes engage with the landscape in ways that encourage growth of food plants. People gather seeds of food plants and scatter them in places they are likely to grow. Streams are diverted to encourage plant growth. Early explorers witnessed aboriginal groups planting and irrigating wild rice. Tribes in North Queensland were in contact with Torres Strait Islanders who practiced gardening, but chose not to take this up on a large scale themselves.

A few paragraphs from Tim Low’s Wild Food Plants of Australia:

The evidence from the Torres Strait begs the question of why aborigines did not adopt agriculture. Why should they? The farming life can be one of dull routine, a monotonous grind of back-breaking labour as new fields are cleared, weeds pulled and earth upturned. The farmer’s diet is usually less varied, and not always reliable, and the risk of infectious disease is higher…It is not surprising that throughout the world many cultures spurned agriculture.

Explorer Major Mitchell wrote in 1848: ‘Such health and exemption from disease; such intensity of existence, in short, must be far beyond the enjoyments of civilized men, with all that art can do for them; and the proof of this is to be found in the failure of all attempts to persuade these free denizens of uncivilized earth to forsake it for tilled soil.’

After all this, I’m amazed that anyone ever developed agriculture. The question of why Australian aborigines never developed agriculture is easily answered and not as interesting as the question it brings up for me: why did twentieth century westerners never develop hunter-gatherer lifestyles?


From Stories of Creative Ecology January 5, 2013

8 thoughts on “Why did the Australian aborigines never adopt agriculture?”

  1. I would like to add something that is not mentioned in the article.

    “Agriculture is insecure. People in agricultural societies live in fear of crop failure, as this is their only source of food. The crops must be defended. The tools, food storage, water supply and houses must also be defended, and maintained. Defended from people, animals, and insects. Growing and storing all your food in one place would attract all of these. Defence requires weapons, and work.”

    Defending the equipment to produce agriculture, store and live demands weapons which creates hostility and war. I wish we could go back to a simpler way of life.

  2. Is it possible that there is a limited view of what agriculture is? Sowing seeds where they are likely to grow is altering your environment to produce more food. Is it possible that some indigenous food systems in which humans systematically alter their environment so that it provides more food is not recognized as agriculture because it doesn’t fit the western model of conquering nature.

    1. Hi Graeme,

      It would indeed be racist and in the interest of empire to suggest that indigenous peoples don’t cultivate food or know how to work with the land in complex ways. But DGR uses a specific definition of agriculture, as monocrops of annuals. This is inherently destructive to the land, and creates expansionist, patriarchical, militaristic societies because they continually undermine their means of growing food. Our definition of agriculture does not apply to the subsistence methods practiced by indigenous peoples worldwide.

      See Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth for more on the distinctions.

      1. Thanks. The First Peoples of the lands now known as Australia did a variety of agricultural activities.
        There is an exquisite sketch of a line of Aboriginal women, each on their knees, pulling up murnong, and removing and replanting the tops of the plants.
        The soils were so silken, that tools were not required, but this was pastures of mono-cultural murnong (daisy yams).
        Sadly, the invading sheep trampled the soils after eating out the crops.
        Although murnong are perennials, so may not fit exactly your definition od agriculture, stipulating annuals, it was the work of women, collectively harvesting and replanting, which offers an alternative to the patriarchal militarism you allude to..

        1. Thanks for that link, Graeme. Dark Emu is on my reading list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet…

          Subsistence methods are on a spectrum; it’s easy to distinguish cultures at the far ends from each other and to apply labels, but there’s often significant overlap and fuzziness. I think of practices like cultivation of yam daisies, and taro cultivation here in Hawai’i, as “horticulture,” with an intermediate level of tending and environmental modifications between “hunting and gathering” and agriculture.

          I think a crucial point from the article you linked is “The tubers of murnong for example were harvested without destroying the plant; the “grandmother” and the “child” tuber were left while the “mother” was gathered based on its edibility.” In my mind, that puts their practice in the “horticulture” portion of the spectrum.

          Two articles on the distinctions, both influenced by the writings of Jason Godesky at the now-vanished Anthropik website:

          Agriculture Vs. Rewilding
          Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

          A lot of this is semantics. Again, I fully agree with your original point that it’s racist and colonialist to assert that indigenous peoples didn’t have sophisticated methods of growing food. Their practices, in fact, require a much better understanding of how the world works, what the land needs, and how to work with natural processes than does agriculture.

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