By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
An Australian town suffered an invasion of 14-foot tumbleweeds, NPR reported. The wind-blown grass disrupted daily life in the suburb as residents repeatedly needed the brush cleared away so they could leave their homes. Aboriginal Australia developed differently from other regions.
According to NPR, a surprising natural phenomenon struck a small town in Australia last week. “Winds brought so many tumbleweeds to a Melbourne suburb that people reported being trapped in their homes,” the article said. “High winds and native grass created stacks of tumbleweed in a northwest suburb of Melbourne, some as high as 14 feet.
“Residents had to clear paths to get out of their homes, only to have it all come tumbling back the next day.”
Australia was home to a million aboriginal people until the British invaded it in the early 19th century, changing the course of its history.
Life in Sahul
According to Dr. Craig G. Benjamin, Associate Professor of History in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University, the million or so Aborigines of Australia were divided into hundreds of communities that spoke 250 languages.
“The foundations of these communities and the cultures they constructed were laid down a very long time ago indeed, during the last Ice Age, when the Australian mainland was joined to the large islands of Tasmania in the south and New Guinea in the north, in a mega-island continent known as Sahul,” Dr. Benjamin said.
“Sahul was colonized by maritime peoples from Southeast Asia at least 50,000 years ago. They used watercraft to cross wide bodies of open water when Ice Age sea levels were at least 150 feet lower than present.”
Dr. Benjamin said that within 10,000 years of their arrival, humans had spread to all sustainable environments in Sahul. They proved to be remarkably adaptable to their new environments and ongoing climate change. This evidence can be found in rock art up to 30,000 years old, which shows how life changed in Sahul throughout the millennia.
“In the far northern region of Arnhem land, for example, the artists depicted the food they ate in their time, including yams and marsupials,” he said. “Later, as rising sea levels transformed the once-dry land into a region of swamps and lagoons, fish and turtles are featured instead.”
Down on the Farm … Or Not
Hunting and fishing sustained the Aborigines for a long time, though agriculture eventually found its way to the Papua New Guinea area.
“By 10,000 years ago, agriculture had emerged independently in some highland communities of Papua New Guinea, where farmers had learned to domesticate yams and taro using swidden or slash-and-burn techniques,” Dr. Benjamin said. “By 7,000 years ago, cultivation had intensified; farming communities were constructing artificial mounds and drainage channels in conjunction with ongoing swidden and the cultivation of grasslands.”
He said that these constructions imply that the implementation of an organizational hierarchy and new forms of leadership helped facilitate the large-scale farming of foods like taro, bananas, yams, sugarcane, and sweet potato. Additionally, they imply larger populations—though not large enough to become large towns or cities.
To the south, Tasmania was cut off from the other peoples of Sahul by rising sea levels. Eventually they forgot the more intricate life-sustaining practices of their neighbors and returned to simpler ways of life.
“Knowledge of sophisticated technologies like fine bone tools and organized fishing, and of complex social structures, had been lost long before the arrival of the Europeans,” Dr. Benjamin said. “This suggests that technological innovation, or even the preservation of preexisting technologies, simply cannot be sustained in small isolated populations because the potential for collective learning is too limited and the struggle for mere survival is too pressing.”
Curiously enough, Australia never transitioned to agriculture. Instead, foraging communities and eel fishing thrived in various parts of Australia, as did long-distance trade and exchange with agrarian societies.
Maybe they were too busy ridding themselves of tumbleweeds.
Dr. Craig G. Benjamin contributed to this article. Dr. Benjamin is Associate Professor of History in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), where he teaches East Asian civilization, big history, ancient Central Asian history, and historiography. He earned his undergraduate education at The Australian National University in Canberra and Macquarie University in Sydney, and his PhD in Ancient History from Macquarie University.