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

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

History Revisited - ice factor in ancient lives

COUNTRY CHANGES: A clue as to why the Aborigines did not use the bow and arrow can be found in the Danish National Museum. The spear was a more efficient weapon in open terrain. 
Have you ever wondered why the Australian Aborigines never adopted the bow and arrow? They had access to the technology, for the bow and arrow was used by New Guinea peoples with whom the Aborigines on Cape York had regular contact.

On the surface, adoption of bow and arrow would seem to have made great sense. It’s a fearsome weapon, useful in hunting as well as warfare. In fact, the Aborigines probably rejected it on a purely practical grounds.

While I had always suspected this, I hadn’t properly realised why until my visit to the Danish National Museum.

There I found that the heavy glaciers that had covered much of Denmark since the onset of the Late Glacial Maximum began to retreat around 13,000 years ago. As they did, human beings moved back into previously ice covered territories that became first tundra and then light forest. The still sparse human populations survived by hunting reindeer and gathering what vegetable foods were available.

Around 8,300 years ago, temperatures rose sharply. The reindeer moved north, to be replaced by elks and aurochs, a now extinct wild ox. Both are seriously big animals. Looking at the skeletal remains in the museum, my first thought was just how hard and dangerous the hunt must have been.

As temperatures rose, the previous open forest was replaced by dense forest of aspen, birch and pine. This was the point at which bows and arrows appear to have replaced spears as the primary hunting weapon and for purely practical reasons. In thick bush, a bow and arrow was a more effective weapon than a spear.

The position in Australia was very different. There the more open terrain in combination with animal size made the spear, throwing stick and boomerang more efficient weapons.

This is also where regular burning emerged as a cultivation device. Down on the Liverpool Plains, for example, fire kept the country open, encouraging the animals that the Aborigines liked to hunt.

The Danish experience also throws light on the reasons why the Aborigines did not adopt farming.

We know that the Aborigines knew about garden cultivation in New Guinea. We know that Aboriginal management of land resources became quite intense, especially during that period of change called intensification that began 6-5,000 years ago when population seem to have grown quite rapidly. And yet agriculture did not emerge.

If we now look at the Danish experience, we find that the hunter-fisher culture survived for millennia in co-existence with emerging agricultural communities further south. The reason was quite simple. Why bother?

The Danish hunter-fisher communities could make a decent living from their traditional life style. They could also and did trade with the emerging agricultural communities, providing raw materials in return for goods. There was no need to change; they were doing quite well as it was.

Something similar applied in Australia. Why trade an open life for sedentary life with its long hours and risks when you were doing quite well as it was? It just didn’t make sense!
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 28 October 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 for2014, here for 2015.

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