Review of Australia and the Origins of Agriculture by Rupert Gerritsen

01st June 2010

Gerritsen 2008Australia and the Origins of Agriculture by Rupert Gerritsen. British Archaeological Reports International Series S1874, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2008, iii+205pp, ISBN 9781407303543.

Reviewed by Harry Lourandos

81 Outlook Crescent, Bardon Qld 4065, Australia

In this detailed book, Gerritsen’s argument is quite clear: that agriculture can be identified in at least two of the traditional regions of Indigenous Australia, and that in one of these its origins are clearly local developments. As this can be perceived as a somewhat provocative and controversial claim, as he acknowledges, it needs to be examined in some detail. On what evidence and arguments are these claims based? Essentially Gerritsen’s approach is ethnohistorical, or ‘reconstructive ethnography’ as he refers to it, with only scant archaeological contributions. His study areas include the central west coast of Western Australia (Nhanda), the Darling Basin and the ‘Corners’ region of central eastern Australia, so-called because it includes the corners of several states – Queensland, the Northern Territory, New South Wales and South Australia. The latter region incorporates Cooper Creek, the Thompson, Diamantina, Georgina and Mulligan Rivers and also Warburton Creek. Two further study areas included are southwestern Victoria and the Coorong coast of South Australia. This material is discussed in quite a detailed way, immersing the reader in the data and taking them on an unfolding journey through these past Indigenous landscapes. Its purpose appears to be to allow the reader to confront the data before the material is subjected to more rigorous examination. This is quite a powerful method and would have served well in a more popular book; one whose purpose was to persuade the reader that what she or he was seeing was something quite different to what they had experienced before in Australia, and that indeed this might be agriculture itself. But is this result achieved here?

Firstly, a good deal of this material – though by no means all – has appeared before and, unfortunately, is presented here under-referenced. I felt an uneasy sense of deja vu as I read the chapter on southwestern Victoria and also those including the Darling Basin and Cooper Creek; and puzzled why reference to the researchers who had generated this, or similar, information was either very minimal or non-existent. It is not until the very end of the book (p.162) that mention is made of ‘commendable reconstructive studies’ carried out in the above three regions; but again these are unreferenced and unnamed. There is a further problem. These are not just primary data. This ethnohistorical material was generated and embedded within the matrix of a series of debates, including the Australian ‘intensification’ debate. Use of the data, therefore, required entering the debates. But this he avoids. In other words, he has used the Australian material and dodged the debate.

Gerritsen reveals his theoretical position quite slowly and only in Chapter 8 is the issue of ‘complex hunter-gatherers’ discussed, where he appears to acknowledge that herein might lie the crux of the arguments concerning ‘intensification’ and ‘rudimentary agriculture’ (p.124). If this discussion had preceded the ethnohistorical coverage it would have enabled him to more clearly establish his arguments and then put them to work. This is so also for the discussion of the ‘origins of agriculture’ that only appears in the second last chapter (10). This lack of a clear theoretical context at the start of the book leads to a fragmentation of argument and considerable repetition that makes for a bumpy, and at times frustrating, ‘ride’ through the material.

Gerritsen’s case for agriculture, however, rests upon the ‘Corners’ example and also the Nhanda. This is the strongest part of the book, detailed and extending earlier discussions of the material. His arguments focus upon the extent of planting, broadcasting, tending, harvesting and storage of seeds, and their importance in the economy; as well as division of labour, exchange and levels of sedentism. Socio-political complexity is also considered. The scale of seeded and planted areas and their location, for example on fertile alluvial soils, are cornerstones of his arguments. The Nhanda example, in contrast, is of vast ‘planted’ areas of yams on rich alluvial soils that may have been influenced by early European – Dutch – visitors. Much of this material, however, with the exception of the Nhanda, is broadly similar to that discussed previously by others, and during the Australian ‘intensification’ debate. So how does Gerritsen distinguish his assessment from these? He employs comparisons – models – drawn largely from Eurasian ‘agricultural’ contexts and discussions. The problem here is that all such assessments are arbitrary in their assignment of category, such as ‘complex hunter-gatherer’, ‘agriculturalist’ and the like. This issue re-emerges when he compares Australian societies, such as those of southwestern Victoria, to ‘food producers’; a model that fits other ‘complex hunter-gatherers’ also, as he admits (p.134). But, once again, in what way are the latter to be distinguished from still other ‘food producers’ such as ‘agriculturalists’? The question remains, therefore: how is agriculture to be distinguished from other economies?

His main argument, however, emerges later (p.162) that the Australian material has been viewed from within a ‘hunter-gatherer’ theoretical framework, thus limiting the possibility of observing an ‘agricultural’ practice on the continent. Presumably his own perspective is different to this and appears to come out of the ‘agricultural debate’, rather than from the ‘hunter-gatherer debates’. This is demonstrated in his use of the literature, theoretical and also archaeological, coming predominantly from the Eurasian-American debates. Information from New Guinea, both anthropological and archaeological, is also largely sidestepped (except on p.157).

Presumably, therefore, he is arguing that while a ‘hunter-gatherer’ perspective allows us to see a version of ‘hunting-gathering’ in the Australian material discussed here; a more ‘agriculturally-attuned’ perspective permits us to observe an ‘agricultural’ formation. Even so, are we not still observing largely the same or similar phenomena as detailed in the above discussion of the ethnohistorical material? We have not been presented with information that is substantially different to that discussed by others previously. As he has not engaged with the Australian debates incorporating this material, he has not clearly differentiated his ideas from those of previous researchers covering similar material. The debates and the data go hand-in-hand. The main difference here appears to be the labels employed. Has this complex of arguments, then, been reduced to labelling?

Towards the end of the book (p.156), Gerritsen introduces a universal, predictive model for the development of agriculture. Put simply, the model generally associates world centres of agricultural development with regions of high biogeographic fertility and high levels of information gain. The reinterpreted Australian material, he argues, conforms to the predictions established by the model. This biogeographic-functionalist model may have its merits, but in relation to the arguments presented here, it could just as easily have represented the Australian material within the ‘complex hunter-gatherer’ frame rather than the ‘agricultural’; and still conform to prediction. For, as argued here, the only significant difference is the labelling; the details remain essentially the same.

This serves to highlight a central issue: that these arbitrary categories of ‘hunter-gatherer’ and ‘agriculturalist’ lie in a ‘grey area’ or indefinite place; and that this has been at the core of the Australian debates, whether archaeological, anthropological, ethnohistorical or ethnobotanical. Rather than enter these debates from the start, if he were to use the material embedded within them, Gerritsen has stood aside, arguing from within the more traditional Old World ‘agricultural’ debates. To establish the connection with ‘agriculture’, he could have asked a different question, such as: in what ways are the Australian examples different from so-called ‘incipient agriculturalists’ or ‘agriculturalists’? This would have allowed him to explore these possibilities more fully. That is, it was not necessary to relabel the Australian material as it clearly lies in the ‘grey area’. At present, in world debates, a main dividing line between definitions of ‘agriculture’ and ‘hunting-gathering’ is the ‘domestication’ of plants and animals and how to recognise this; as many of the other features of ‘complexity’ are shared between ethnographic examples of both ‘hunter-gatherers’ and ‘agriculturalists’. The focus of attention should remain therefore, on the ‘grey areas’ lying between the two categories, and not on labelling, that only creates boundaries. Rather than classification, therefore, the issue, apart from ‘domestication’, also should concern ‘process’, and therefore the dynamics of these social formations and their landscapes. In these ways we can hope to understand these societies at all levels, including the biological and sociocultural, and how these are connected.

This leads us to the important question of how to understand ‘managed’ landscapes and resources, and their roles in past traditional Indigenous societies. This takes us also to the core of the debate: how to understand ‘social constructions’ of landscape and the difficult question of presumed ‘natural’ landscapes. At issue here are to what extent, and how, people interacted with the ‘natural’ world, and with each other. Here, we are left wondering what exactly we are observing when we face hectares of planted and dug-up ‘fields’ of yams, as in the case of the Nhanda; or the planting and tending of seed-bearing grasses along rich alluvial flats, extending for kilometres, in the ‘Corners’ example. Just how ‘managed’ or ‘natural’ are these phenomena? They obviously are both. That both examples appear to coincide with zones of high ‘natural’ fertility does not exclude their ‘cultural’ nature. Given the social practices involved: for example, planting, broadcasting, irrigating, firing and intensive harvesting and storage of seeds; we are left pondering. To what extent are these dense, extensive yam and seed fields also products of Indigenous ‘management’ strategies? Once again we are back to ‘labels’, all of which carry culturally-loaded assumptions.

It is little wonder that such debates fell prey to criticism directed from a number of quarters: that they represented colonial prejudices, and Eurocentric historical concepts embedded in unilinear or determinist evolutionary models; and that they also avoided Indigenous constructions of their past, as Gerritsen argues also. Surely it is time to move away from these now and view these phenomena once again from a wider range of perspectives including the Indigenous. After all, we are only seeking to understand and appreciate these past Indigenous worlds and landscapes, as much as those of the present. But the labels, along with their cultural baggage, only impede our progress.

Harry Lourandos
Review of Australia and the Origins of Agriculture by Rupert Gerritsen
June 2010
Book Reviews
You must be a member to download the attachment ( Login / Sign up )