Sustainable Societies: The Australian Aboriginal Example

Christine Turnbull, Paul R. Ehrlich | February 11, 2014 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Humans entered Australia some 50,000 years ago and quickly dispersed over the entire continent, developing complex cultures with an enviable capacity for living in diverse and often hostile environments. They evolved a complex spiritual life, and maintained the longest known artistic tradition on Earth reaching back approximately 45,000 years.

Aboriginal societies have been thriving in Australia despite climatic changes, which created an ice age and mega-droughts with the corresponding changes in habitable land and, most recently, despite the invasion of Europeans. Population densities no doubt increased during times of abundant food or restriction in habitat, which will have led to resource competition and warfare. Nevertheless Aboriginal societies have continuously survived for some five millennia, without destroying their resource base and while maintaining their cultural traditions. That Aboriginal culture has thrived for so long is surely a testament to its sustainability.

All this is in stark contrast to the Europeans who in a mere few hundred years profoundly altered most of the continent and, in the process, created many ecological disasters. Widespread soil salination and erosion, deforestation, over-exploitation of water resources, rampant feral animal and exotic weed infestations, extinction of many native animal populations and species, coastal pollution and over-fishing are just some of the current problems created by the Europeans and their technologies. Modern Australia will struggle to sustain its continuously increasing population

This is not to say that Aboriginals did not have substantial impacts on the ecosystems of Australia, both directly, through their use of fire, and indirectly by having a role in the demise of the Australian representatives of the Pleistocene megafauna, which included the giant kangaroos, echidnas, wombats and platypus. This role remains controversial as there were substantial changes in the Australian climate and sea levels throughout the timescale of the megafauna extinctions so that both climate and humans probably had deleterious effects on the survivorship of these large animals.

Aboriginal rock art provides clues about the contact between humans and the megafauna as a variety of paintings depict recognisable renditions of marsupial lions and Genyornis, a giant flightless bird, and careful dating suggests that humans and the megafauna co-existed in some places for many thousands of years. One painting from the NW Kimberley region shows an interaction between an Aboriginal and a marsupial lion. The Aboriginal is either defending himself from an attack using a spear, or hunting the lion. Thus cave art suggests not only the coexistence of Aboriginals with megafauna but also physical interactions with it.

Aboriginal rock art, notably in northern Australia, especially Arnhem Land, has been – and still is – a medium which was important in facilitating Aboriginal sustainability, providing  information on the type and location of food resources, medicines, poisons, and where to find sources of drinking water. Probably the world’s first maps are those which Aboriginals etched into or painted onto rocks, showing the relationships of land formations and temporary and permanent water holes.

The photos here were taken while on a tour of rock art near Injalak with a local Aboriginal guide who explained many of the images. The first reveals a freshwater fish species, the Saratoga, and a long necked turtle, indicating the availability of these delicacies and drinking water in an area that, by interpreting the time-series represented  by surrounding, carefully dated images, showed that it previously had neither. The second depicts a leech with two hand prints which is a warning to newcomers about the hazard of leeches nearby.

Aboriginal communities still use the knowledge portrayed in the ochre drawings and the oral histories passed down through the millennia. We are not so naïve as to suggest that we should all adopt their way of life, but we can learn much about the management of the land and its coastlines from them. Lessons of sustainability learned and honed through thousands of years of cultural evolution on the Australian continent are available for us all.


MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/sustainable-societies/

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  • Ariane Marcar

    The need for humans to stay in equilibrium with their environment through detailed knowledge of fauna and flora and understanding of landscape goes without saying.

    However, the above piece pre-supposes that ancient societies had no real need for direct population control. Ancient societies have as we know, used all known forms of contraception except the pill. Infanticide and avortion were often resorted to. In the case of the aborigines they developed complex initiation rites for this purpose.

    This extract from Jens Bjerre’s 1956 “The Last Cannibals…” Is a salient reminder that population management has been part of our history for millennia and that they accepted they had to make sacrifices:

    “Finally, in the early evening, before darkness fell, they performed the final initiation on a youth of fifteen or sixteen. He knew what was about to happen, and putting a stick between his teeth, so as to grind his pain into silence, he lay down on his back on top of two men, who as before were kneeling down to furnish an improvised operating table. What followed is difficult to describe outside a medical gathering. With a sharp knife they performed a deep operation which, without depriving the young man of his power of propagation, yet regulated the use of it to special occasions. A hole was pierced right through his sex organ near the root, and there was inserted into it, at either end, a splinter to keep the aperture from growing together again. The object was to ensure that henceforth the urine and the sperm would be ejected through this little hole high up on the sex organ, instead of by the normal channel. Only when the lad put a finger on the hole, and kept it there, would the fluids in future be able to pass through the proper outlet. The boy did not utter a sound while this grisly operation was performed, and only with difficulty could he stand on his feet afterwards. His body trembled, he glistened with sweat, his eyes were glazed with silent agony.

    This grotesque and revolting practice has an obvious explanation. The Australian Aborigines are probably the first primitive people to devise a wholly effective birth control. In the baking wilderness they inhabit, numbers must be kept down, for they cannot maintain large families on their low level of subsistence; and long treks would be impossible with a large family of small children and babies in arms.”

  • William E. Rees

    I wonder whether we don’t romanticize aboriginal cultures a bit. Surely all large groups of H. sapiens share the same species characteristics, including two that are common to ALL species from microbes through elephants and humans: 1) we will expand to occupy and fill all accessible habitat ; 2) we tend to use up all available resources (where, in the case of humans, “availability” is defined by prevailing technology).

    In this light, are the Aborigines really that much different from the Europeans? On arrival, Australia’s aboriginals expanded to occupy the entire continent over a period of thousands of years using whatever technologies they could employ (fire, stone-age tools) to alter ecosystems in their favour and ‘use up’ the Pleistocene megafauna–the giant kangaroos, echidnas, wombats, etc. Their populations then fluctuated ‘sustainably’ with the now reduced carrying capacity of their local habitats for thousands of years–i.e., they achieved “sustainability” only after significantly altering their habitats and then adapting culturally and spiritually to the diminished ecosystems they had created.

    Europeans did much the same thing. However, with their more advanced technologies, domestic animals, etc., their occupation of the continent (and competitive displacement of the Aboriginals) required only a couple of hundred years and the ecological damage wrought was proportionate to their greater and ever-growing technological prowess–“widespread soil salination and erosion, deforestation, over-exploitation of water resources, rampant feral animal and exotic weed infestations, extinction of many native animal populations and species, coastal pollution and over-fishing”–i.e., ecological disaster. I suppose I am arguing that the Europeans were simply more ‘competent’ than the Aboriginals at wrecking the ecosystems that sustain them.

    That said, perhaps there is one real difference. The Aboriginals (by necessity?) eventually developed a spiritual connection to the land that helped contain their resource exploitation (cultural negative feedback). By contrast, Europeans suffer from a sense of human exceptionalism, reject any spiritual allegiance to Gaia and continuously frustrate (so far, at least) all attempts at cultural ,and all forms of externally-imposed, negative feedback. In short, their rapacious expansionism will continue until the entire (global) system implodes.

  • Mary Ellen Harte

    I’m wondering if this is not a case of “sustainability” so much as survivability. During the past 5,000 years, was there ever enough rich, arable Australian land to act as the agricultural base upon which one could support fiefdom or cities that then led to civilizations that were capable of overexploitation of the environment? (For example, it sounds like such was the case in the middle east in ancient biblical times.) If not, then there wasn’t a resource base to allow overexploitation to take place — that is, enough resource density to fuel a sufficient explosion in physical numbers to develop the civilization that fuels a further explosion in the human numbers and consumptive ability necessary to really deteriorate the environment. Perhaps the aboriginal story is closer to that of the polar Inuit.

    • Phil Loring

      This “there weren’t enough of them” argument for devaluing the lessons to be found in aboriginal success stories has been critiqued multiple times in both the academic and popular literatures. Fundamentally, it is logically flawed, as an appeal to novelty (new problems require new solutions), but factually it is flawed as well (they didn’t have the opportunity to be unsustainable). It has been shown, for example, that even groups with relatively low population density can exert extraordinary pressures on their environments. Too, the population-environment regulation aspect over the course of 50,000 years is a lesson in and of itself. In other words, there are lessons both in what these groups were doing and what they were not doing.