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Words by Bruce Pascoe
What would happen if we taught our children that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people planted crops, tilled them, irrigated them, stored and preserved surpluses, built houses and sewed their clothes? Would the sky fall in? And why would we teach them such things? Because thats what the explorers saw.
Charles Sturt’s exploration party of 1844 was saved from death when it chanced upon four hundred Aboriginal people harvesting grain on the Warburton River (South Australia), in what was to become known as Sturt’s Stony Desert. Sturt and his men were revived with cool well-water, roast duck and the best cakes Sturt had ever tasted. Once recovered, the party was offered a new house in the orderly town that lined the bank of the river.
Sturt’s saviours weren’t living on the bones of their behinds in hapless search for food; they
had an organised agricultural economy. Sturt remarked on their obvious happiness, their civility and the wonders of the evening meal preparations, sauced with song and laughter.
What would happen if our children, black and white, were taught that this is how Aboriginal people lived?
Lieutenant Grey’s beleaguered exploration party of 1839 came upon a cultivated field on the Gascoyne River (Western Australia) that reached to the horizon. Next day he found another, and then another. The people were harvesting yam. Wide pathways and wells crisscrossed this massive enterprise.
Sir Thomas Mitchell looked longingly at the warm and dry houses of the people on the Gwydir River (Queensland) in 1835, as he and his party trudged through an Aboriginal township in pouring rain. Mitchell admired the size and comfort of the houses, but also the variety and pleasing aesthetics of the designs. He estimated a population of 1000. He passed through several similar villages in the following days.
The Gwydir River fisher people, and those of the entire Murray-Darling River system, were harvesting fish in an intricate series of traps which were designed so that the catch of villages hundreds of kilometres upstream would not be impaired. Some scientists believe the traps at Brewarrina (New South Wales) are the oldest human construction on earth.
Researchers are still trying to discover how these structures could withstand the enormous floods which the district experiences. Its an engineering mystery: why haven’t we told our
children? Explorers found villages and stores of flour, grain and preserved fruit in almost every corner of the Australian continent. Some areas, such as Brewarrina and the stone fish traps and houses of Lake Condah (Victoria), used extensively engineered food procuration systems; others were more modest; but all had some features of the skills and organisation which are considered modern.
Yet why do we still insist on labelling Aboriginal people as hunters and gatherers? Does this ease our consciences at having wrested the country from an advanced civilisation? Anyone can discover these facts in the diaries of explorers and the first European squatters. Archaeologists have dated Aboriginal grindstones at 30,000 years. The next earliest to grind seed into flour were the Egyptians, 17,000 years ago. That makes the Australian Aboriginal people the world’s first bakers, and they did it 15 000 years before anyone else thought of it.
In realising obligations to the country and its entire history we will gain something to really celebrate together: the world’s oldest civilisation, the world’s first art, the world’s first bread, the world’s first civil government.
Aboriginal people are maintaining cultural heritage by celebrating their early agriculture and replanting traditional foods. When will other Australians notice?…