Indigenous Agriculture: Australia’s hidden past

When early colonial artists created images of the Australian landscape, they depicted lush, park-like scenes. Paintings featured fertile fields and mosaic-patterned forests that looked much like an English countryside. These artists are commonly accused of romanticising the Englishness of the landscape and falsely representing the land. But in Dark Emu, a recently published book based on historical records, stories and new research, Australian author Bruce Pascoe argues that this was not a romanticisation – this was indeed what Australia looked like before colonial settlement.

Bruce Pascoe. Image supplied by Bruce Pascoe

Not the ‘terra nullius’ described in Australian literature, it was a land cultivated by the people who had lived here for more than 50,000 years. The developed cultures and advanced knowledge of the 500 or so nations living on this continent led them to develop sustainable and highly successful agricultural and land management techniques.

From 1788 onwards, newcomers from England brought with them the animals, crops and agricultural methods that had served them for thousands of years in their country of birth. These practices, however, ignored the unique plants, animals, soils and weather patterns of this isolated continent south of the equator.

They also ignored the knowledge and techniques that the locals had developed after tens of thousands of years of careful observation, and were allowing communities across the continent to thrive.

Pascoe discovered these techniques while researching his own Aboriginal heritage and local history. Confused about the stark differences between the history that he had been taught in his formal education and the stories told by the people whose families had lived these experiences, he delved deeper into the journals and diaries of explorers and colonialists.

The deeper he dug, the more he discovered that these unofficial records that are the sources of mainstream Australian history confirmed the stories that the Aboriginal people he spoke with were telling: that the people who lived on this land before European settlement were incredibly sophisticated in the way they grew food. Pascoe felt compelled to reveal his discoveries to the world, so he wrote Dark Emu, an exploration of the history of pre-colonial Aboriginal agricultural and living practices.

Ruby saltbush - Enchylaena tomentosa.
Apple-berry - Billardiera scandens.

In this book, Pascoe documents the evidence of this previously unknown pre-colonial Australia with both words and imagery. Although lifestyles varied across the country depending on the area, many people lived in small towns with permanent houses and community buildings constructed using locally sourced materials in designs suited to their local conditions.

These villages were usually established close to land that was used to grow and harvest food appropriate for the soils and climate of the area.

Land management techniques were refined to suit natural conditions and community needs. They included building dams and wells, planting, irrigating, harvesting seed, preserving surplus food and storing it in houses, sheds or secure vessels. Aquaculture was practised in lakes, rivers and bays, with fishing nets with weights and floats, fences and traps and other fishing methods being used.

The stability of food supply and permanent housing allowed these communities to focus on politics, the arts, and other pursuits that are the marks of advanced cultures. So why haven’t we heard of these thriving communities and their advanced cultural practices and agricultural methods in the mainstream before now?

According to Pascoe, colonial explorers and settlers worked hard to hide their discoveries of these communities in their official correspondence.

As long as they maintained that the land they were exploring didn’t have any signs of settlement, they could morally and (according to British law) legally continue to seize land and resources for their own use. So they did, and in turn, their writings formed the basis of the history books that Australians have been reading between then and now. It’s easy to see then, how Australians have come to view the first inhabitants of this country as hunter gatherers, rather than growers and farmers.

Warrigal greens - Tetragonia tetragoniodes.
Native Rosella - Hibiscus heterophyllus.

Times are changing though, and whilst European plants and animals have been grown and farmed in Australia for the last 2oo years, there’s a movement building in support of growing indigenous plant crops and practicing farming techniques of indigenous Australians.

For example, in 2015 people from the Barkinji, Latchi Latchi and Mutti Mutti communities baked bread made from one of their traditional grains, Panicum decompositum, for the first time in 200 years at Lake Mungo in the south west of New South Wales. And Gurandgi Munjie, a group of Aboriginal men and women working to revive the traditional food plants of their culture, is growing yams, grains, vegetables, fruits and herbs on the south coast of New South Wales.

Projects like these not only allow people to revive the practices of their culture but also empower and strengthen communities. By rebuilding a bank of information on local food crops and sustainable farming techniques, the projects have the potential to increase food security, and provide Australian farmers with an alternative to traditional European agriculture. These crops and techniques are already being discussed with amongst alternative farming communities, with Bruce Pascoe regularly invited to speak at biodynamic and permaculture conferences across Australia.

The enthusiasm for indigenous food crops is not limited to the farming community – Dr Beth Gott, an ethnobotanist for Monash University, has established a garden at the university with examples of plants eaten and used by Aboriginals before colonisation, showcasing some of the estimated 6,000 edible plants of Australia. Food journalist John Newton has recently published ‘The Oldest Foods on Earth’, an exploration of the history of Australian native foods featuring recipes from notable local chefs including Clayton Donovan, Maggie Beer, Matt Stone and Kylie Kwong. The yam daisy recently made an appearance as a cultivated crop in the 2015 ABC television mini-series The Secret River, and a Yorta Yorta Yarringa Woka Yenbena Djitiga (Sun Country Aboriginal Feast) featured in the prestigious 2016 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival lineup.

These previously shunned foods are now making their way into the hearts and minds of Australians.

For the relative newcomers to Australia, with this change in knowledge of the original inhabitants and culture of this country comes a new understanding of the uniqueness and diversity of the land on which we live. In the words of John Newton in ‘The Oldest Foods on Earth’, perhaps now the time has finally come for all Australians to start living in this land, not just on it.

Dark Emu – Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? by Bruce Pascoe is available through Magabala Books.

Sunrise lime.