Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

History revisited - the Aborigines: comparing work place efficiency

GATHERING FOOD:  the Aborigines used tools such as fishnets to catch more food quickly and thus to spend more time on personal, ceremonial and spiritual life.
In my last column on Aboriginal New England, I suggested that the Aborigines did not have to work as hard as the later Europeans to feed and house themselves. They had more time available for other things, for companionship and ceremony.

Farming communities first emerged during the Neolithic period. In those communities, the work routine was often dawn to dusk just to feed families and gain a small surplus for later use.

In England during the first decades from 1788, working hours for many could exceed twelve hours per day. It is not surprising that one of the major industrial fights of the nineteenth century was the fight first for a ten hour and then eight hour day.

This was replicated in Australia. Down in the coal mines of the lower Hunter, Australia’s first large scale industrial activity, the miners were early concerned with what was called bank to bank, the time taken from entering to leaving the mines.

By contrast, an Aboriginal group could generally feed itself with six hours work, leaving eighteen others for other things including sleep.

The Aborigines strike me as pretty efficient. There was time spent just lazing around, something we might envy in today’s time poor world, but they also spent time making future life easier for them. Today we would probably refer to this in terms of investment and productivity gains.

Take gunyahs or housing. Often this might not be required. In other cases, the gunyah might be no more than a few sheets of bark leaning on a pole fastened a few feet up from the ground with a fire in front. However, in still other cases, far more substantial dwellings were constructed forming small villages.

On the Clarence, for example, Captain Perry in 1839 described two villages on the banks of the river with canoes moored in a line in front of the village with carefully made fishing nets, baskets, water vessels and cooking utensils on display.

I said that the Aborigines were efficient. These more substantial semi-permanent dwellings were not permanently occupied, but were built at points where food resources allowed regular group occupation at certain periods. It was therefore worth investing time to create structures for later re-use.

Time was also invested in making future food collection easier. These included the creation of standing nets in the bush to aid hunting and, more permanently, the creation of stone fish traps. The latter must have involved considerable effort, but once created gave long term gains.

Time was invested, too, in constructions connected with ceremonial and spiritual life. This included carved trees, bora rings and stone arrangements. Perhaps the most spectacular example of the last are the Serpentine standing stones, a site that must have taken considerable time to create and then maintain.

I hope that I have given you enough in these two columns to gain some feel for the complexity of traditional Aboriginal life. In later columns, I will look at the way traditional life varied across New England
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 8 April 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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