Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lorenzo and the economic complexity of traditional Aboriginal life

Over on Skepticslawyer, Lorenzo's post Norm failure annoyed me sufficiently that I tried to leave a somewhat tart comment this morning. Whether the spam trap ate it or I just hit the wrong button I don't know. I do know that it wasn't censorship, for that blog doesn't generally censor comments unless obscene or very nasty in some way. Rereading, I may have misread some things, but I still want to call Lorenzo on a few things.

This post focuses on traditional Aboriginal life at the time of the arrival of the Europeans. It probably should appear on my history blog.  I am putting it here because Lorenzo's interpretation of the past feeds into his analysis of the present. This is not a detailed critique of Lorenzo's views as they appear in this and other posts. Some elements I agree with, others I challenge. Rather, I want to pose and answer a few simple questions that bear upon Lorenzo's arguments.

Was Aboriginal culture and society static or did it change?

The archaeological record shows considerable pattern of change and especially in the last few thousand years. The Aborigines were not an unchanging people living in an unchanging land.

Were food and other resources shared equally on the lines so beloved once by the exponents of "primitive Communism"?  And, no, Lorenzo is not a believer in primitive communism!

No. Different people were entitled to different shares of resources depending on their position in society and skills.

Did private property exist?

Yes, although the form is of property ownership is always culturally specific, as is inheritance. We have recorded examples of a variety of ownership forms.

 Did the Aborigines invest in what economists call fixed capital. In other words, could they invest for the future?

Yes. Some of this was ceremonial, some purely economic. They built and maintained structures and systems that must have involved thousands of hours of effort each year.

Was there economic specialisation in labour?

Yes, although it was obviously simpler in a less economically complex society. Beyond gender specialisation, we have examples of craft or even industrial specialisation.

Did the Aborigines have what today we might call industrial technology?

Yes. Apart from the quarries, mines and industrial food sites such as eel traps and farms, they developed techniques that involved the modification of raw material to make it easier to work with such as the heating of stone to change its chemical composition.

Did the Aborigines trade? 

Yes. There were strong ceremonial or fashion aspects to that trade but, hey, what's new? Talk to my daughters! Trade routes spanned the country and could carry items for thousands of kilometres.

Was trade influence by varying factor endowments?

Yes. Pituri came from certain locations, was carefully packed and carried long distances for trade purposes. Ochre or particular types of stone tools could spread widely from particular depending on what else was available.

Were the Aborigines interested in labour saving activities?

Too right, as we would say in Australia. They spread particular possessions across multiple camp sites so that they did not have to carry them. They developed new tools suitable to particular areas that would make daily life easier.

 Could the Aborigines cooperate in larger scale activities to achieve particular ends?

Yes. Many activities required larger groups to deliver. Leaving aside war, always a human preoccupation, or ceremonial gatherings, many Aboriginal economic activities required cooperation among larger groups than the local band.

Did the Aborigines store food?

Yes. Absence of refrigeration and limitations in what could be carried created difficulties, but the Aborigines did store things like grain. This was quite useful for some early European explorers who pinched it for stock feed!

Did the Aborigines modify the Australian landscape?

Yes. Over many millennia, they greatly modified it to meet their needs.

Did the Aborigines farm? If not, why not?

The answer to this question depends on the meaning attached to the word farming. They certainly used what we would call farming techniques. But they never became farmers in the way Lorenzo would use the word. Why should they? The evidence that I have seen suggest that in 1788, the Aboriginal calorie intake was higher than for the ordinary person in the UK. Why bother when you can feed yourself in many hours less than the working hours of industrialising England? Who wants to work a ten or twelve hour day?

Importantly, the extra time made available could be used for other personal, ceremonial and industrial activities.

Was traditional Aboriginal life idyllic?

No. All societies are organised in particular ways. Modern Australians would regard aspects of Aboriginal life and social organisation as quite repellant.

How did the Aborigines initially adjust to the arrival of the Europeans? What does this tell us about the potential flexibility of a hunter fisher community?

This is a sad and complex story. The spread of diseases such as small pox beyond the frontier caused a catastrophic collapse in Aboriginal populations. If we put that aside, how did Aboriginal society adapt? 

The short answer is that incorporated those things that they thought were good into life. European axes spread beyond the frontier; they were useful. Creoles, mixed languages, emerged to facilitate communication. European clothes remained irrelevant, at least immediately.

But there was not time for adjustment. Maybe there never could have been. But wool sealed the Aborigines immediate fate. The things that then happened are another story. But not the story that you will read in the history books.


Noric Dilanchian said...

Sic 'em Jim!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Noric, and thanks for the retweet too! I should note, by the way, that I have a very high opinion of Lorenzo's writing and also of his general historical knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting comments Jim, but if I may be allowed to express some points of 'intellectual annoyance' with both this post and the comments attached to Lorenzo's post:

1. The lack of references to studies which support assersions being made. (Makes it impossible to do anything other than accept what is stated at face value, only to have to backtrack and reconsider when another poster's refutation provides actual support via reference)

2. The use of different 'markers' to refute or dispute opinions. (e.g. writer #1 uses life expectancy; writer #2 uses infant mortality; #3 spouts about diabetes. All again usually without references being given.)

3. The use of anecdote to 'prove' or dispute a particular point. (As opposed to anecdote as illustration of wider issue, it is used as a sort of 'case solved' technique. Worse still IRL it is sometimes used as the primary reason for legislation.)

4. The concentration upon a particular issue when a post is far wider in its framing. (I spent a lot of time reading Lorenzo's post, and my takeaway was that he was addressing worldwide indigenous outcome failures, not simply Australia's particular experience.)

5. The lack of concrete follow through to suggested solution, or at the very least, improvement in the highlighted problems. (Still waiting for anyone to provide alternative strategies, here or elsewhere, to those which seem endlessly demonstrated to be not working. The discussion always seems to stop short of what I would have thought to be the primary purpose of raising the problem in the first place.)

6. Very few posters seem able to easily acknowledge the limits of their own expertise; what is so hard about saying "I don't know" instead of obfuscating, or talking past another poster's point?

General comment:

The above is not particularly aimed at either yourself or Lorenzo or indeed any particular contributor on this or Lorenzo's post. More simply a cry in the wilderness, if you will, for some sort of consistent framework, some order of proceedings, in considering any problem. Over at Catallaxy there was a similar post which demonstrates similar issues, similar misdirections, similar derailments.

It just makes it very hard sometimes, and can be quite frustrating.

ps have a nice day!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd and thanks. I will come back with more detailed comments tonight. I deliberately didn't provide evidence in this post. Do I have the evidence? Yes; some you have already seen.

Anonymous said...

Jim, the above comments (regarding lack of references) were not directed to your post in particular, I do assure you. Years of reading your thoughts makes me comfortable with the fact that you know exactly what you are talking about in this area and - yes - I do remember earlier posts of yours which reference studies of the things you are summarising here, so please don't waste time locating your references on my account.

And for what it's worth, you seem to be almost alone in being willing to acknowledge your sometimes lack of indepth understanding of some issues; most seem more than comfortable in claiming to be expert in all things, it seems to me.

This I actually regard as a huge plus in your favour - and also Winston's fwiw.


Jim Belshaw said...

I knew where you were coming from, kvd. But a few follow up comments before I submerge for the day.

Lorenzo has a hunter gatherer vs farmer model that he has used before. While it provides a useful starting point for discussion, it is dangerous when applied to specific cases.

I agree with your point re the general (Lorenzo's piece) and some of the specific responses. At the same time, L's argument here does not compare like with like and mixes various things together.

The drift in comments into specific discussion of policies towards Australia's Aboriginal peoples raised my ire. I have written so much on this trying to disentangle the issues and, in particular, the need to challenge universal statements and national generalisations based upon particular examples. The often implicit mental frames used in policy analysis and commentary are just so hard to break!