Tuesday, February 16, 2021

"The Future Eaters"

"It makes an enormous amount of sense... to see the lack of agriculture by Australian Aborigines as a fine-tuned adaptation to a unique set of environmental problems, rather than as a sign of 'primitiveness.'" -- The Future Eaters, p. 282

My previous review is here:
The Future Eaters
Imagine a human society that became stable tens of thousands of years ago in an environment that differs widely from that of the European or North American temperate climate zones. Members of this society own no fertile fields where grain grows, no large domestic animals raised for food like pigs or cows, and no great forests. Small bands of these humans hunt exotic game such as large lizards or marsupials -- the limited resources of the Australian continent. Until European settlers arrived, several years after the 1770 visit of James Cook and his ship Endeavor, these bands of highly adapted people managed the continent. They utilized the available resources in an efficient but unexpected way that's hard for us to grasp. 

Rereading the 1994 book The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People by Tim Flannery made me think about how totally this unfamiliar reality differs from ours  -- a whole way of life that seems more like fiction than like history.

Members of the small bands of people throughout Australia during the 60,000 years or so of their history lived by gathering bush foods from a variety of sparse woodlands and scrublands in the large territories that belonged to them. They managed the game and the growth of the woodlands by "firestick" -- that is, controlled burns of the forest, which over thousands of years had evolved to ensure the continuity of plant and animal species that they depended on. These were not plentiful, so as my initial quote mentions, agriculture, with its intensive use of localized resources, would not have been practical as an extension of their culture.

Although these bands of people lived in widely dispersed areas, they would gather from time to time to celebrate, to socialize, and to finalize marriages between couples who had long ago (even before they were born) been destined for each other. Individuals in one area might know the family tree of another group living a thousand miles away. This activity, like most of the things they did, contributed to the survival of their way of life, adding to the genetic diversity and collective wisdom of each separated group.

The lifecycles of animals and plants used by these groups were partly dependent on the seasons, as they are in the Northern Hemisphere. However, there were other cycles, often less predictable. Because the vegetation in the extremely dry territories grew very slowly, some plants produced edible fruits only every several years. Animal lifecycles could also vary; for example, one breed of sea lions -- a possible prey species for seacoast dwellers -- had their young every 15 months; that is, at varying times of the seasonal year. The most critical non-seasonal variation in Australia was the periodic drought caused by changes in Pacific Ocean currents: the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which to this day affects the Australian continent drastically. 

Living in this environment for such an eternity (compared to our few thousand years of settled agriculture and what we call civilization) the Australians were very much in tune with the resources that they needed, and they manipulated many things. They used controlled fires, and they paid careful attention to the life cycles of the species that they depended on. They had religious prohibitions on hunting in certain sacred places, for example, which gave some prey animals a chance to breed undisturbed, and thus prevented over-hunting. 

In 1845, the explorer Edward John Eyre made a prediction which Flannery finds very accurate. He wrote that Aboriginal culture was:
"so varied in detail, though so similar in general outline and character, that it will require the lapse of years, and the labours of many individuals, to detect and exhibit the links which form the chain of connection in the habits and history of tribes so remotely separated; and it will be long before any one can attempt to give to the world a complete and well-drawn outline of the whole." -- The Future Eaters, p. 271.

Explaining the extraordinary extent of the Aboriginals' coexistence with their natural environment is the central, eye-opening subject of Flannery's book, which also includes much more information. He covered the pre-human evolution of Australia. He documented the early era of humans in Australia, during which the newly arriving Aboriginals disrupted the prior status quo, and in fact drove a number of native species to extinction. Further, he provided a general history of the human settlement of the lands of the South Pacific. Finally, Flannery described the tragic destruction that occurred when the English took over the continent.

Some of the scientific basis for this book has probably changed since it was written in 1994. I'm sure that the much more accurate methods of gene sequencing that have been developed since then will have added much, and perhaps changed interpretations of natural and human history. The chapters about the way that present-day Australians cope with the special features of their environment have no doubt also been made somewhat obsolete by the drastic nature of climate change as we have experienced it since publication; also by the greater impact on Australia of our warming world. Despite these doubts about the continued accuracy of the book, I think it is most fascinating. I'm glad I have reread it, as I have often thought about it in the years since I first became acquainted with it.

I dedicate this blog post to my Australian blog friends, including Sherry, Francesca, Johanna, and all the others. I very much hope I can again visit Australia and see some of the landscapes and animals that are described in the book.

Review © 2021 mae sander. 


Debra Eliotseats said...

Fascinating review. Not sure I would pick this up to read (and for a second time) but your review is thought provoking (as always). It's a topic I would never have thought about so thank you.

DVArtist said...

Wow! This is a book I would like to read. You gave an outstanding review. Thank you.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

There is so much to learn from their natural way of life. Much like our San here from whom we've learnt so much. Thanks for sharing this Mae, stay safe!

Iris Flavia said...

Yes. If they kept the Fire-Stick-Farming the horrible fires hadn´t happened.
But it´s not a nice sight for tourists, hence government stopped the controlled burning, how dumb.
They build houses, they build Aborigine-villages, like Finke, and what did we find.
They sit in front of the houses, they hate white people (I had to ask for the way).
And I understand. The lost generation was a horror.
Some good things happened, but you cannot change the people.

Good thing: Once a little Aborigine boy - he could barely walk, so little he was still, came over to us. Pointed at me: "You... GIRL!", then to Hubby, "You... BOY!", Sooooo cute. His parents had soft drinks.

Sherry's Pickings said...

thanks for the mention Mae. Tim Flannery is fabulous! Have you also read Dark Emu by bruce pascoe? His book has been very popular over the last few years here in OZ. we are learning so much more about the indigenous peoples lately which is wonderful. take care

Kitchen Riffs said...

Sounds like such an interesting book! Currently reading a book on the Lewis and Clark expedition. In their interactions with Native Americans, it's really apparent these guys didn't get their culture at all (some of their practices -- controlled burns, for example -- are similar to what you discuss). Thanks for the review!

David M. Gascoigne, said...

I should try to my hands on this book. I know I would find it interesting.

Johanna GGG said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I love that you have read it twice and love your reflections on how it might be received today. Have you read Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu - I found that fascinating in the discussion of agriculture of the Australian Aboriginal people - and it is a far more recent book so I would also like to hear Flannery's opinion. One of the changes since 1994 is ABoriginal people wanting to tell their stories and I think we are starting to listen more but that is still a challenge. I hope you will be able to revisit Australia too - we are really missing our international tourists!