Some of the world’s oldest seed grinding stones dating back to 30,000 BCE and even earlier, plentiful harvests as far as the eye can see and rolling pastures of green straight out of a golf course. An idyllic image bringing up the idea of an ancient civilisation straight out of the cradle of civilisation. But this isn’t some distant people and land. This is an Australian story, one of Indigenous agriculture right here in Australia; one of the oldest stories of agriculture and baking anywhere in the world. This article is inspired by and draws on the work of Bruce Pascoe as a summary and extension, we highly encourage you to read his various works!
Archaeological evidence from what’s thought to be the world’s oldest known seed-grinding stones, and an ancient hearth (fireplace) tells us people here were also harvesting, grinding and cooking plant foods like fruit seeds, yams, and Pandanus nuts.
National reconciliation week runs from May 27 to June 3 every year . It marks two historic moments in Indigenous Australian history – the 1967 referendum recognising Indigenous Australians and the Mabo case. Over 50 years has passed since the 1967 referendum and now over 25 since the Mabo case, so in light of these significant milestones, it makes sense to revisit the incredible and unrecognised large scale agriculture that persisted for millennia.
When Europeans first painted the Australian landscape it was and is still claimed to be romanticised. However, in recent books unearthing old writings of early explorers the idea of a green, rolling ‘gentleman’s garden‘, as depicted in Jospeph Lycett’s paintings (viewable at the National Library of Australia) is one not of romanticism but of reality. Moreover, the Indigenous people were regarded by the European settlers as having a sophisticated and adept use of plants and animals in ways that would sustain large populations, as we’ll explore in more detail later in this post.
Completely understandably, the newcomers from England brought with them animals and plants they new how to cultivate and species they knew were edible. Yet it is quite clear that the conditions in England – the soil, the weather, the age of the earth, are so very different to the soils and climate in Australia. The land management techniques, intensive cultivation and plant species did not suit the fragile and extremely old soils of the landscape.
Hard hooved animals like sheep and cows compacted large areas of earth where early explorers had previously observed bountiful harvests of yams grown by local indigenous people.
“Farmers noted the alarming drop in productivity over a mere handful of years as sheep ate out the croplands and compacted the light soils. ‘In Australia thousands of years of grass and soil changed in a few years. The spongy soil grew hard, the run-off accelerated and different grasses dominated.'”
– Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu
As a brief pause – while there is a clear tale of colonial Australia subjugating the evidence of widespread Indigenous agriculture in order to maintain a ‘colonisation’ narrative, it is important to celebrate the agriculture that existed and ensure that it continues to exist, rather than focus on the negative actions of these first European arrivals.
When Europeans began classifying regions and civilisations they set out five key points that defined developed agriculture:
- Selection of seed
- Soil preparation
- Harvest of the crop
- Storage of surplus crop
- Large populations and permanent housing
The thing worth sharing, one which is often put to the wayside, is that at this time Indigenous Australians displayed all five of these European characteristics of developed agriculture. Take for example the first hand evidence provided in the diary of explorer and surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell (quoted in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu from Mitchell’s diaries).
“The grass is pulled … and piled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field … we found the ricks or hay-cocks extending for miles.” (source)
“… the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles.” (source)
On villages and huts Major Mitchell noted:
“We had this day noticed some of their huts which were of a very different construction from those of the aborigines in general being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.”
There are numerous diary entries of these early explorers explaining their bewilderment at finding signs of permanent residence and agriculture. Remember they had been led to believe that either no one was here, or that the only people here were uncivilised and described as savages.
Captain Charles Sturt noted from an expedition into central Australia that
The native habitations, at all events those of the natives of the interior, with the exception of the Cooper’s Creek tribe, had huts of a much more solid construction than those of the natives of the Murray or the Darling, although some of their huts were substantially built also. Those of the interior natives however were made of strong boughs with a thick coating of clay over leaves and grass. They were entirely impervious to wind and rain, and were really comfortable, being evidently erections of a permanent kind to which the inhabitants frequently returned. Where there were villages these huts were built in rows, the front of one hut being at the back of the other.
in another area from the same expedition (and source), Captain Sturt observed:
Paths led from this spot to almost every point of the compass, and in walking along one to the left, I came on a village consisting of nineteen huts, but there were not any signs of recent occupation. Troughs and stones for grinding seed were lying about, with broken spears and shields, but it was evident that the inhabitants were now dispersed in other places.
Continuing the evidence of cultivation, explorer George Grey in Western Australia found wells and large fields of yams in the Gascoyne.
“We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants [yams – Dioscorea hastifolia], the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives.” (source)
George noted that:
“… indeed we could with difficulty walk across it [field of yam holes] on that account whilst the tract extended east and west as far as we could see.”
Later on the next day:
“After crossing a low limestone range we came upon another equally fertile warran [yams] ground … and next day passed two native villages, or as the men termed them towns … they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence.”
The records of grains production, not just yams, were so widespread that Norman Tindale compiled a map of the indigenous grain growing region. The dotted lines in the image below indicate the current major grain growing belt. Based on research into these early accounts, Bruce Pascoe concludes that yam production occurred in the high rainfall coastal plains, while grains were grown in the drier climates. Moreover, grain was treated as a commodity traded between different communities and gifted to relatives for important events in parcels.
Walter Smith, a bush worker and cameleer, described the careful hand casted sowing and irrigation practices of the indigenous people he observed while working in the bush. Logically, the science of grinding grain for flour and baking was associated with grain production. Richard Fullagar (Australian Museum) and Judith Furby (University of New South Wales) found grindstones at Cuddie Springs in western New South Wales. These grindstones were used to grind seeds more than 30,000 years ago suggesting Indigenous Australians are the oldest bakers currently known by almost 15,000 years. Just consider that idea – Indigenous Australians predating the Egyptians as the bakers by 15,000 years. The find wasn’t even a one off. Archaeologists also found an ancient grindstone in Kakadu, used for axeheads with some of the “world’s oldest known edge-ground hatchets“.
On a final note, in case the above information left you wanting more, I’ll leave you with primary evidence from Captain Charles Sturt. He described the bountiful harvests of grain the Indigenous people enjoyed. A well known man with both a university and plant namesake (to name just two), Sturt said he saw:
“We soon passed from the grassy plains I have mentioned, to plains of still greater extent, and still finer herbage. Nothing indeed could exceed the luxuriance of the grass on these water meadows… grassy plains spreading out like boundless stubble field, the grass being of the kind from which the natives collect seed for subsistence at this season of the year … large heaps that had been thrashed out by the natives were piled up like haycocks.”
Further analysis of other entries leads suggests that the grass described by Sturt is in fact Panicum decompositum, otherwise known as native millet or barley grass.
Unfortunately books from which the above evidence is drawn, are frequently cast to the wayside in spite of their well received awards and critical acclaim.
“But it hardly caused a ripple – from then till now – in dislodging common assumptions long held by many Australians, first learned in the classroom and often trotted out since.”
Profession Marcia Langton, University of Melbourne
Is it not something we should all celebrate? That Australians have the oldest millstones in the world and some of the oldest agriculture. We should celebrate the incredible Indigenous history and be incredibly proud of this unique land and its heritage.
Source: Cover image
The information for this article was found in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Both are fantastic reads. Fortunately, many of the original expedition journals have been digitised and made freely available if you would prefer accessing the information directly from the source. The original version of Major Thomas Mitchell’s accounts can be found here with Captain Charles Sturt’s available here. Only a fragment of the texts have been quoted here, but the documents are searchable and make for interesting and eye opening reading.
If you see anything that needs correcting or adding please get in contact at: contact[at]agrieducate.com.au. And remember if you have a story about agriculture to share get in contact too!
Edit 28/05/2020: This article was updated from the original version to include additional sources, include additional evidence from those sources for clarity, correct some typos and clarify suggestions of the world’s oldest grindstones as being ‘some of the world’s oldest’. Even so, numerous sources do suggest that the world’s oldest seed grinding stones are found in Australia.
Edit 14/11/2020: Image sources and links updated. Minor typos/descriptions updated.