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.