Aboriginal Australians and Guns, Germs and Steel

This long title covers two matters that I address in this blog post. I start with a brief (completely inadequate) synopsis of the book by Professor Jared Diamond entitled Guns, Germs and Steel and variously subtitled A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, in 1997 when it was first published, or more recently in the 20th anniversary edition, The Fates of Human Societies. This book, which only recently came to my attention, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1998 and is widely considered one of the best nonfiction books of all time. I will then look at how Diamond’s theory relates to Aboriginal Australians.

Professor Diamond proposed to take a scientific look at the history of the differential development of societies across the world in an effort to explain how and why they are different. He stresses that he has taken a completely non-racist approach to this question.

Diamond’s premise is that the evolution of human societies follows a certain path. Homo sapiens started off as small groups of hunter-gatherers, becoming sedentary farmers, enabling formation of villages, towns and cities (and finally nation states) where crafts, innovation, writing and governments developed.

He argues that “Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of superior intelligence [genetic superiority], but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.” (Wikipedia)

The basic driver for the development societies was food production. Back to Wikipedia, Diamond argues “geographic, climatic and environmental characteristics which favoured early development of stable agricultural societies ultimately led to immunity to diseases endemic in agricultural animals and the development of powerful, organized states capable of dominating others”.

Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the greater availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. The basic staple crops and domesticated animals that make up the bulk of the world’s diet had their origin in the Fertile Crescent where early civilisation thrived. In those early times these plants and animal did not exist in, or could not be diffused to, other parts of the world because of different climates, growing, seasons or geographical barriers to their movement. It was only from the sixteenth century that it was possible to export these plants and animals to other parts of the world with similar conditions.

Let’s look at Australia and Aboriginal Australians.

Firstly, Diamond tells us [what we Aussies already know] that “Australia is by far the driest, smallest, flattest, most infertile, climatically most unpredictable, and biologically most impoverished continent”.

He also contends that “most laypeople would describe as the most salient feature of Native Australian societies their seeming ‘backwardness.’ Australia is the sole continent where, in modern times, all native peoples still lived without any of the hallmarks of so-called civilization—without farming, herding, metal, bows and arrows, substantial buildings, settled villages, writing, chiefdoms, or states. Instead, Australian Aborigines were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, organized into bands, living in temporary shelters or huts, and still dependent on stone tools”. The question is, why?

The simple answer is that Aboriginal Australians had no other option than to remain hunter-gatherers. There is not a single animal indigenous to Australia that could be (or has ever been) domesticated and farmed as a food source. Similarly the only plant indigenous to Australia that has ever been farmed is the macadamia. Hence the people had to live off the land as small groups of nomads. They were unable to create permanent settlements that could develop into villages, towns and cities. The other main (geographic) factor inhibiting Aboriginal Australian development was the remoteness.

Many other characteristics of how and why Aboriginal Australians lived can be explained in the approach Diamond takes in his book.  “The reason we think of Aborigines as desert people is simply that Europeans killed or drove them out of the most desirable areas, leaving the last intact Aboriginal populations only in areas that Europeans didn’t want”. The story is the same for native Americans.

Diamond also explains his theory with regards the development throughout the world in North and South America, Africa, China, Japan, Korea and South-East Asia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. The improvements in food production and the consequential “civilising” effects on the various locations and societies is a factor of geography and often the starting dates from which that process started.

Aboriginal Australians never had the opportunity to start that process before Europeans arrived.