I recently read that the Australian Aborigines numbered close to a million during the time of Botany Bay and comprised of ~250 tribes/nations. The Native Americans of North America also boasted impressive numbers of between 5 and 20 million people. Given these numbers, I wonder why their societies did not evolve up from hunter-gatherers to establish civilisation as we know it.

Could it be because of the size of their respective continents? While the Indigenous Australians were isolated, the Native (North) Americans were not. Civilisation sprung up not too far away in Central and South America. [I'm assuming - perhaps naïvely - that the Mayans, Toltecs, Aztecs, and Incas were decidedly distinct from the Native American tribes with limited contact between the two. Even if they are related, it still begs the question as to why only some nations decided to establish cities etc.]

Thank you for your time!

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    Ever read guns, germs, and steel? They try to explain it, but they put little focus on shipping, we have a question like this already, here: history.stackexchange.com/questions/94/…
    – Russell
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 17:01
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    It's not exacally the same (so I wont vote to close it), but the answers can be reused. Welcome to Historyoverflow.
    – Russell
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 17:02
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    There was some significant cities in North America as well, before Columbus. But they have been ignored both because the US colonizers didn't want Indians to be civilized, and because they usually didn't build out of stone (because they had cheaper materials at hand). There are at least superficial cultural similarities between the american cultures, so some contact happened, although probably indirectly. Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 8:07
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    @LennartRegebro Could you point to some information on these N.A cities? I've been reading convictcreations.com/aborigines/cities.htm which loosely suggests that there could have been aboriginal cities in the past. But the rest is consistent with the agriculture theory. Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 14:17
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cahokia is probably the largest of them. Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


Australian cultures did not have access to good starter crops. This is explored at depth in an allo-history available here: http://alternatehistory.net/discussion/showthread.php?t=110941 on the topic of what crops could have been good starter crops.

Indigenous Australian cultures were highly developed, including development of aquacultural structures and land management through burning and swamp development. These cultures did not support urbanisation, settlement or the development of states.

Urbanisation occurred in North America.

I'd suggest in both cases the reason for a lack of development of city states would be the comparatively low food productivity of the cultures and thus the lack of population mass supporting a centralised armed urban elite.

  • Further research has highlighted equalitarian farming and storage (Worlds greatest park / Dark emu). Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 2:55
  • Instead of a cryptic comment this answer would really benefit from incorporating findings from these two books. They'd add a whole nother dimension that if not contextualised by the author would almost read like a contradiction to the present text. Please update this answer. Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 20:43
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    This is quite a vague answer. "Why do the crops matter so much for urbanisation", "what were they actually using". "why weren't the crops imported by (say) vikings/indonesians". (Iceland was quite developed, and the vikings did reach north america - so it's not illogical they could've brought crops to at least test settlement like they did in Iceland - and the natives could've taken those crops and used).
    – paul23
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 12:49

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