Hunter/gatherers vs the farmers


The little children are clever, Part Three (and final). See our archive for Parts One and Two.
Another bit of cultural baggage around Aborigines, education and work is the assumption that individual effort results in individual gain.  This is based on a farmer model of economic activity. This is one of the Big Ones. Pay attention here, because I am attempting to make visible some baggage you may have been carrying around for your lifetime. The invisible is very powerful, as it is unobserved and thus unchallenged. You keep carrying it, and meeting people unencumbered sends strange shocks into your mind: they demonstrate that there are other ways to live. Whitefellas are not at some pinnacle of evolution that all other cultures seek to attain. When we meet Aboriginal people, it becomes uncomfortably evident exactly what have we given up for what we have gained.
When I talk about cultural baggage, most of it comes from our ancestors undertaking farming as a means of production of life’s necessities for the last 10,000 years.  Then came the hyperdrive of the Industrial Revolution over the last 200. It’s no surprise to me that alcohol was the earliest and most essential technology developed by the farmers, and coffee by the Industrialists. The alcohol made it possible for big predators to live together by reducing stress.  Coffee matches the tempo of the new industrial era.
The people in central Australia are hunter/gatherers, and that system has completely different priorities. Their baggage is only what makes sense to carry through the desert.  In this part of the series, I will write about the sources of the two systems of values, and the consequences of their interplay. I am grateful to Paul Quinlivan, one of the great original thinkers in this region, and Andrew Stojanovski who had the wisdom to write Paul’s insights down in his excellent and amusing book Dog Ear Café (Hybrid Publishers, p 75). This model of analysis makes comprehensible so much that is otherwise incomprehensible about Indigenous economic practices. I attribute to it my own longevity in an arena that can burn people up. I give copies of Dog Ear Café: How the Mt Theo Program beat the curse of petrol sniffing to workers setting out beyond the boundary into that special centre of Australia that has always been Aboriginal country.
So farmers invest on a yearly cycle to produce the food they will live on throughout the year, and especially over winter.  Should a stranger arrive, they will not be welcomed as they represent another mouth to feed out of the finite resources gathered over the year. The farmers are protective of their resources, and sharing is counterproductive.
Let’s quantify the amount of personal investment needed to be a farmer. It’s hard work when it is time to prepare the field, sow the crops, harvest the crops. The rest of the year is pretty cruisy. There are ongoing chores, including feeding the domesticated animals, but there’s lots of time just hanging out with a ‘nonny nonny no’.
Work got much more intrusive once machines were created. As the plants and animals domesticated the farmers, the machines turned the farmers into robots to serve them. People now work more than in any other age.  We work more than the slaves of the Roman empire, but also look after ourselves. Our masters don’t even have to keep us any more: we keep ourselves. They don’t even have to enslave us: we do it to ourselves with debt. We are selling our souls wholesale, and it’s a buyers’ market.
A hunter/gatherer has a different relationship to sharing.  Any resources gathered will not keep.  A kangaroo means feasting for a few days, but another one is needed after that.  An extra person is another hunter, another set of eyes, which improves the group’s chances of survival. Sharing increases the group’s chances of survival. The clever kids know this.  When their family has resources, they share with family, and when they do not, they are supported by family. Strangers are welcomed.  The boundary around Aboriginal families is permeable, and in fact, actively tries to draw you in. When they are humbugging you for a cigarette, they are hoping you may want to become part of their family. They are performing their most fundamental economic activity.
Let’s quantify the amount of personal investment in hunting and gathering needed to feed the family from a desert ecosystem, pre-whitefella. Anthropologists estimate four hours for men, eight for women. Per week.
It’s just not that hard to be a high order predator.  Look at lions and tigers. They sleep 20 hours per day. I have been hunting with Aboriginal men on many occasions.  On one, we had just gone for a walk to the nearby hill when we surprised a rock wallaby.  It was so frightened by our dogs that it dropped dead.  Lunch had just presented itself to us within a short walk from camp.  We carried it home – well, I did – and we made a fire.  While we were out, the women and kids had been strolling around picking up food. They found a lizard cache in a sand dune, and had pulled a few big sleeping ones out of a sand dune. Not too many. Mulga, the dominant tree form in the region, was producing seeds, so we had more home ground peanut butter than anyone could eat. The women got a few honey ants too but the kids ate them all. They got back by the time we had cooked the roo and we all settled down for some serious snacking. There was nothing else we needed to do for a few days, so we all chilled.
This was the baseline of Aboriginal economic activity before whitefellas.  Can you see why they might not be so keen on working nine to five, five days per week, week after week after year after year. As someone in Kintore said when asked about why they were not coming to work: “We tried work.  We didn’t like it.”
The cultural imperative is to share. If Jungala goes out to work with a shovel for the week, on Friday he is required to share his wages with the group. This is expected, and breach of this arrangement is considered the worst sort of greed and selfishness. As such, when Monday rolls around, Jungala may be inclined to let someone else go pick up the shovel.
I have heard Indigenous people talking about quitting work in the local store so they could “make room” for others who might want the work. The individual model of work to improve one’s personal position makes no sense in this context, and reliance on self-interest as a motivating force is consequently doomed.
No wonder the clever kids find whitefella exhortations to work and save for one’s own ambitions to be the worst form of short-sighted selfishness. They know the food they eat comes to them through family, not commerce. To them the connection they have with others is the strongest force in their universe, not attenuated to almost nothing as it is amongst the whitefellas.
You could say that the Aboriginal safety net was great at holding people up in the desert years, but now it holds people down. You can moralise about this fact, but there it is, for better or worse. A real understanding of this fact could prevent the endless recycling of failed ideas that become manifest at the cultural boundary, as we try to assimilate them while they try to assimilate us.
Maybe their ancestors were right about the whitefellas they first saw coming in on boats: they are ghosts. Souls sold to their masters, living to work and working to live, like the original zombie slaves of the Caribbean.
So the clever kids know what they would have to give up to become a whitefella, and embrace lifelong debt and wage slavery.  All they have to do is harden their heart and deny family. And it’s just not worth it. So they’re going to do it on their terms, bringing their families along with them as they all rise up together. Watch and see …


  1. “Yeh, and if anybody was wondering why we’ve failed to advance the cause of Aboriginal Australians over the past 50 years, Blair’s articles are a blatant demonstration on the Paternalistic garbage that preoccupies the minds of many disaffected souls who are attracted to and occupy important offices of many Aboriginal institutions.
    People don’t arrive in this world with built in culture or life styles, those things is learned behaviour! Why on earth would any decent human being isolate and teach only a long extinct way of life to their children, leaving them struggling to cope with the world into which they were born?
    Do you have children, would you do that to them? The little children certainly are clever – that’s because they are real live human beings with every bit as much talent and potential to build themselves a wonderful life in the world and time to which they were born, as you and yours!
    They are the children of the 21st century! Equal Australians! As such they have a fundamental right to an education than in turn will allow them to make their “own” choices about what kind of life style they will participate in. Like the words of the immortal Pink Floyd song says “Leave them kids alone.”

  2. “We tried work. We didn’t like it.”
    Sub-text to read: “But for all you poor wage-slave bastards who don’t object to lending a hand, don’t think we don’t like the clothes on our backs, the food on our tables, the toys our children play with and the motokars we drive.
    “Oh, and a special thanks to all you mugs working in the breweries and vineyards. Really like your work, guys.”
    And the doctors who patch them up? And the lawyers who bail them out? What self-deception these bludgers indulge in.

  3. Blair McFarland: “They know the food they eat comes to them through family, not commerce.”
    Few of my extended family in their homelands live far from stores, even those who do regularly visit stores, arrange deliveries, or move closer to them.
    Families did not move from established communities to smaller villages until was clear food would be coming.
    Outer villages depended on transport of food, back and forth.
    Camp out remains fun, but few prepared to live out.
    Relatives elsewhere had it easier, they also choosing benefits, sometimes without recognizing costs.
    One dear deceased marutju would say “we became prisoners of flour, sugar and tea” in next breath freely admitting he was not prepared to give them up, for him, they were improvements of great value, well worth most other problems arising.
    Those marutju, waputju, kapali, tjampati, tjamu and others on their “outstations” walking all the way in for more tea, billy cans, flour, tinned meat, and biscuits, whenever felt we had not come soon enough.
    The challenge for all communities is to enable youth to find ways they can improve things themselves, with fewer arguments, hope for this keeps them trying.
    Opportunities are there, perhaps Blair fails to see them, most opportunities start with small gains, slowly bigger gains appear as you build from the smaller.
    Hope things improve lasts, though may fade away, without sparks of chance gradually these youths will slip away, to elsewhere or worse.

  4. Sorry, but this whole article makes me want to puke. I know the Aboriginals have lived this lifestyle for thousands of years, great for them, but the majority of us have moved on over many centuries of development of our particular culture.
    Moved on into a lifestyle that fits into our modern society very well. If the Aboriginals do not want our lifestyle, they have that choice, but do not expect the rest of us to support them in this for ever.
    As with all those who refuse to move forward, their society will eventually disappear, and as I see it, this is their choice.

  5. I really must get out more. Perhaps I’ll start by looking around areas in Alice Springs I haven’t been to in a while and see if I’m unlucky enough stumble across the alternate universe occupied by Blair and the hunters and gatherers he fondly reminisces about.
    In the universe I occupy there are no hunters and gatherers.
    But Blair seems to think it’s OK for some of those who can claim a very distant link to a hunter/gatherer society to (1) do as little as they can to survive and then put their hand out for money for those things a hunter/gatherer society could never provide – like houses, ATMs, casinos, fridges, TV’s, electricity, cars and roads to drive them on, stores that supply junk food, etc.; and (2) by denying the importance of school and individual achievement, condemn their kids to do the same. Why help kids realise their potential when it will only open them to unbearable humbugging?
    In Blair’s universe, the obligation to provide for his fictional hunters and gathers falls to those of us who “tried work”, liked it and do it and those of us who “tried work, didn’t like it” but still do it anyway because we have commitments and responsibilities.
    With the Federal Government’s emphasis on indigenous employment, I wonder if the government agencies that fund Blair’s CAYLUS are reading his contributions and are beginning to question their judgement.

  6. Passage to humanity
    The latest research has the human specie migrating out of Africa over 1.7 million years ago. Early migrations by Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis gave rise to Neanderthals in Europe, Denisovans in central Asia and the Homo floresiensis in South East Asia.
    They migrated across Asia and into Australia in multiple waves. The Aborigines are a mixed race. Some have much more Denisovan DNA than others. The biggest change happened about 6,000 years ago when the dingo arrived and Aborigines acquired more modern tools.
    New DNA research suggests a recent genetic relationship between Australia’s Indigenous people and migrating from India, which blended together long after Asiatic populations also descended to the continent.
    So what invasion are we talking about? The truth is there never was any invasion. All sorts of people have been coming to Australia for many thousands of years and it hasn’t stopped yet.
    Aside from the Neanderthals and the Hobbits, all other Homo erectus keep migrating, keep breeding and kept evolving on a constant track. Eventually they evolved into Homo sapiens.
    At some stage in the last 850,000 years (or longer), either Homo erectus or Homo sapiens made the crossing from Java to Australia. These hominins were the ancestors of Mungo Man. It would not have been a difficult crossing to make. Rats are believed to have made the crossing 2 million years ago.
    200,000 years ago, females from an African tribe started spreading their genes through the entire arc between Australia and Africa. This spreading of female genes could have occurred as a result of a nomadic African tribe emerging from Africa and breeding throughout Asia. It could also have occurred as a result of an Asian tribe going to Africa, and forcibly taking women back to Asia. (*Although evidence indicates that all humans might have had a female African ancestor 200,000 years ago, there is no evidence to show a male ancestor.)
    60,000 years ago, Homo sapiens with African ancestors started migrating into Australia, and joined Mungo Man. The first group of Africans were known as Robust due to their heavy-boned physique. This group was significantly different from the slender body shaped Gracile of Mungo Man. The Robust soon came to dominate Australia. Either they killed most of the Gracile or they bred most of them out of existence. Many thousands of years later, more Gracile either migrated to Australia, or a group of Gracile that survived the Robust invasion starting dominating the Robust. Aborigines today have a Gracile body shape that is like the 62,000-year-old Mungo Man but unlike the 10,000-year-old Kow Swamp people.
    If Out-of-Africa is to be believed, then human occupation of Australia has to be less than 200,000 years. Exactly when humans arrived would have been determined by how long it took Homo sapiens emerging from Africa to cause the extinction of the Homo erectus tribes spread throughout Asia. If Multiple Regions is to be believed, the length of human occupation of Australia can be greatly extended. Homo erectus was known to be in the Indonesian archipelago 850,000 years ago. If they had made the crossing to Australia, then hominin occupation of Australia could be anywhere up to 850,000 years.

  7. “No wonder the clever kids find whitefella exhortations to work and save for one’s own ambitions to be the worst form of short-sighted selfishness. They know the food they eat comes to them through family, not commerce.”
    You can moralise, but the food comes from the store and in the majority of cases through a welfare benefit provided by commerce, including taxpaying farmers.
    The hunter/gatherer tradition is not part of that heritage, but in pre-welfare days, lots of indigenous worked on farms, including farming cattle.
    I agree that extended family is an important indigenous social structure and for my money, an improvement on the nuclear model, but the former safety net has large holes in its fabric as indigenous cultures try to integrate with the metanarrative of commerce.
    Noel Pearson refers to it as a necessary challenge between culture and modern development: between symbolic gestures and the practical.
    Baggage is not just what you carry around to survive in the desert. It’s also knowledge-based and applicable to a situation where modernism holds sway.
    Some clever kids know this very well and they want it badly enough. Closing the Hub won’t help.

  8. Many years ago I was made aware of an experiment, or perhaps it was an experience, carried out by a lecturer from Deakin Uni. I think her field was nutrition, but it really was many years ago.
    Anyway, she had gone “walkabout” with a group in the Kimberley area. Traditional way – no carrying tucker or water, just relying on what could be found. This lasted about a week or 10 days, with sometimes plenty, sometimes not. At the end of that time they came upon, or they walked to, a bush store.
    And guess what? Not one of them was willing to so much as move one footstep from the certainty of tucker that that store represented.
    And what put those stores on the shelf of that bush store? The WORK of others.

  9. I often wonder how we would survive out here without our manufactured world and its high energy use.
    Would we late-comers cope in a hunter-gatherer world now? Obvioulsy our ancestors did eons ago. The comfort for some of us is knowing that quite possibly if they had to, the Aboriginal people would still be able to survive as hunter-gatherers.
    I just hope that if the corporate bubble we live in ever bursts, my Aboriginal “family” would adopt me despite my bad eyesight and office-grown lack of physical fitness.
    And to that end, I help them out in my world, in the hope that if it ever comes to it, they will help me in theirs. That’s what life is really about after all. Helping each other to survive all comers.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here