From what I've gathered at a glance, Aborigine Australians have about 50000 years of history on their continent, roughly equivalent to that of people on other continents. Yet from what I can gather, aborigine civilizations had less advanced technology than their Old World counterparts.

While Jared Diamond argues that agriculture was not as easily possible, a cursory Wikipedia search at Agriculture in Australia suggests that the temperate and subtropical climate areas are plentiful in the country.

I'm not much of a geography expert, but if I were to apply the concept of a "hot, dry" climate, then the Arab world comes to mind, and the Arab world had plenty of ancient civilizations that were able to develop agriculture.

Were there any other sources of troubles for Aborigines that prevented their discovering other technologies? Isolation might've certainly been a factor, but even then, if we were to take ancient Japan, civilization developed at a more rapid pace there even before seafaring was discovered.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 18:31
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    I wanted to just add this as a comment, but I don't have enough reputation. Budj Bim is a UNESCO world heritage site representing a very old eel farm, a solid point of evidence supporting the other "they did have agriculture" answers, see whc.unesco.org/en/list/1577
    – abb
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 4:44
  • I think that @abb comment might force us to rewrite all our answers.
    – Santiago
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 12:11
  • Worth watching on this subject: How Aboriginals Made Australia by Cogito.
    – aloisdg
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 12:46
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    Honestly, it sounds like all of these answers are really stretching to downplay the differences in refinement between European and Australian civilizations in a way that is consistent with very recent academic dogma falsely predicated on some imagined egalitarian utopia. Not a single answer even mentions the effect that 50000 years of divergent evolution can have on a group of humans. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 15:14

8 Answers 8


Everyone else is referencing Guns Germs and Steel, but I'm going to give the answer from The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage.

Gammage suggests that not only did Indigenous Australians discover a form of agriculture, they developed an agricultural technology that Europeans didn't even realise was possible.

The development of technology is not necessarily a linear progression with cavemen at the bottom and Englishmen at the top, but the early English settlers of Australia were sure it was. So they were unable to see the evidence of indigenous technology even when it was used right before their eyes.

One settler (in the east, which is not a desert) might wonder at how "well gee, this landscape looks more like an English lord's estate than a natural wilderness" and the next day joke "gosh the natives love setting fires everywhere they're so funny" and not realise that, in fact, one of these things actually explains the other.

The landscape looked like a park because Indigenous Australians controlled the entire ecosystem by using lots of different kinds of fire: different patterns of burning, different heat intensity, different season, different length of time between burnings. All of these factors change which plants will thrive in an area. Grass recovers faster from destruction by fire than forest does, but trees are more resistant to low intensity fire than grass. Some native plants actually cannot breed unless their seed pods are roasted. And so on. Which animals live where will depend on the amount and type of vegetation, and of course fires can be used to drive wild animals between locations too.

In this way they were able to control which plants and animals could live where over vast areas of land with relatively little labour. And they used this to make nice grassland to walk through, with occasional trees for shade, and combinations of edible plants in close proximity that would not naturally be found together. They left patches of forest cover, and trees along the river bank, to cultivate the conditions for prey animals to live, which they would hunt. Over long periods of time they would be able to move the patches of forest as they saw fit.

Arguably this makes the entire land their farm. Europeans blundered in and thought they didn't have farms, but what they really didn't have (aside from the obvious, like ploughs and fences) was the belief that any part of the world wasn't everybody's farm.

Since we came in and stopped them setting fires, some areas have become dense forest now that weren't forest at all in the 1700s. The patterns of vegetation in 1788 were in many places more man made than true wilderness.

And I'm sure people would sometimes spread the seeds of plants they liked to eat, too. They just didn't tend them in little plots with fences.

What appeared to be natural bridges created by trees falling over streams could be created deliberately by digging out the roots on the river-facing side of the tree. Another way they controlled the landscape in a way that was invisible to European settlers.

(Here ends the part I got from The Biggest Estate on Earth; now for some other random observations about indigenous innovation)

Other cultures invented mnemonic devices like epic poetry to preserve cultural knowledge before literacy. Indigenous Australians invented an even more advanced form of this mnemonic technology; their songlines are songs that tell you how to get from A to B (including major landmarks and sources of food and water along the way) in the format of a religious narrative that might also teach other cultural lessons, and the routes cross so the combination of multiple songlines forms a complete 2D map of your people's territory. I think that's actually really clever. Imagine how great it would be if all the parts of your brain that you use to remember pop song lyrics were instead holding a detailed and accurate map!

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    I can't remember the term for it, but manipulating the environment to encourage the growth of useful plants is generally considered a form of "proto-farming". ("Proto-farming" because it permits higher population densities than straight gathering, but less than all-out Eurasian-style farming.)
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 8:44
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    Also check out Bruce Pascoe's 'Dark Emu' for references to crop harvesting, grain storage,and eel farming. Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 9:02
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    This also probably happened in North America. When the first "explorers" arrived, they were fascinated by the environment, which to them seemed like a beautiful garden, which in turn helped the many references to the New World being Paradise. It didn't even occur to them that it wasn't natural - that the inhabitants cultivated the land to make it that way, just like we did back in Europe, because the natives were "so obviously primitive" (they didn't even know the Christian God, right?). Humans are that way sometimes.
    – Luaan
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 7:38
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    An australian tour guide told our group, when we were walking around the Uluru, that the Native Australians never gathered from the plants in close vicinity of the Uluru, since when heavy rainfall occurs, the water will transport the seeds of the plants from the Uluru far out into the land, thus spreading the seed further than manual seeding could achieve. Such behaviour can be considered to be some sort of farming.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 8:23
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    @Mark exactly. This answer makes it look as if Australians had some sort of super advanced technology that was beyond the understanding of Europeans. In reality they've used inefficient farming methods that have been long forgotten in Europe precisely because they're not efficient. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 21:24

This is a class of question we here on History.SE called a Guns, Germs, and Steel question. This is because we get a lot of them, and even though the question details may be different, the answers to all of them are almost identical, and could be penned by anyone who has read that book. We don't have a "required reading list", but if we did, GG&S would be on it. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy at your favorite book source.

But first off, the original title of the question implied that Native Australians weren't even at the Paleolithic level. That's egregiously wrong. The entire Genus of our species started using stone tools 3.3 million years ago. Its essentially what defines us. Native Australians were not only using stone tools (Paleolithic), but stone tipped projectiles and boats (Mesolithic).*

The requirement for jumping from Mesolithic to Neolithic is domesticating crops and/or livestock. Obviously this depends on the availability of domesticable flora and fauna. This is where Australia poses problems. It has no native plant or animal species that humanity has found to be of any real domesticable use. To a certain extent this is understandable, as the continent is rather small compared to Eurasia or the Americas, and a huge percentage of what little it does have is desert.

It does have an interesting and unusual variety of fauna, but little of it resembles the fauna humanity has domesticated elsewhere in the world. All the large mammals humans have domesticated elsewhere are placentals within a certain small niche of behavior. There are loads of useful-looking animals humans can't domesticate (Diamond's examples are zebras and cheetahs). Only a very few species can be domesticated, and Australia had very poor luck in that regard. Their luck hasn't improved any by the importation of Europeans; all the domesticated species used in Australia today were brought in by immigrants.

* - If this was an honest mistake on your part, well now you know. But it happens to be one that is rather insulting to the people it describes, implying they aren't even really humans, so its a suspicious one. If someone told you this, they put you in a very awkward position by putting this idea in your head, so I'd highly suggest protecting yourself in the future by not paying attention to anything they tell you.

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    If I may, you should also mention how much GG&S gets criticized. And address why you disagree with the criticisms that relate to the points you're wielding it to explain, when you mention it. It would make the answers you post that reference it less dogmatic, and IMHO more convincing. I sincerely mean no offense, but your uncritically bringing it up has a lot of resemblance with hard core communists from the past century who would throw Marx' Capital at every opportunity to explain things. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 18:54
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    @DenisdeBernardy - Generally the criticisms of it are on the mild side, more of the nature of "Well I'd have emphasized {thing x} a bit more and {thing y} a bit less", not "This is 100% wrong, and shouldn't be read". Yes, its not without flaw, but perhaps a comment such as yours is sufficient to point that out? If the question was directly about that book, getting into the arguments would be more worth the real-estate it would waste.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 19:02
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 19:37
  • 1
    Extra comments deleted. I will ask users to please respect the move to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 14:03

A proper rephrasing of the question title now is of course: Why didn't Australians invent Eurasian agriculture before the Europeans came to them?

Sounds non-sensical? It is not!

The obvious answer to the frame defining title in its rephrased form is of course that they weren't Eurasians in Eurasia.

That is the effect of not properly defining "what is agriculture?".

Is it characterised by herding milk-producing livestock, just something different than living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Is it inventing the most strange idea of "land can have individual ownership"?

The provocative thesis is: Aboriginal Australians invented agriculture before anyone else on this planet. That is arguably a more valid direct assertion than the indirect assumption informing the title question.

A hunter-gatherer goes out hunting if she is hungry or collects seeds and fruits if she is in the mood when these can be harvested. When resources run out both move on to greener non-pastures.

And what did Australians do? Naked barbarians living from nothing but what they find and from hand to mouth?

They manipulated the landscape and the flora and fauna for their own profit. That is the exact equivalent to European harvest: making "gathering" a more predictable thing within a smaller area to oversee. Then stockpiled this for future use, near their houses.

We see in more detail the hallmarks of a culture and civilisation, if one goes back to universally applicable analytical definitions that are not culturally dependent but operationalised.

The great advantage of Aboriginal crops is that they have been developed through seed selection, direct planting and weeding for the harsh conditions of Australia. Many of the grains grow on sand and require minimal irrigation. The good news is that the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation has been studying some of these grains with a view to incorporating them in the modern agriculture of Australia.

Latz says that, ‘the nutritional value of the seeds from the desert species is equal to or better than that of the cultivated grains’.95 These indigenous plants promise a huge economic bounty for the country and our future prosperity demands they be given serious consideration.

Many early observers commented on the aesthetic proportions, tasteful positioning and social harmony of the townships. Sturt described one town as evening fell:

the natives … sat up to a late hour at their own camp, the women being employed beating the seed for cakes, between two stones, and the noise they made was exactly like the working of a loom factory. The whole encampment, with the long line of fires, looked exceedingly pretty, and the dusky figures of the natives standing by them, or moving from one hut to the other, had the effect of a fine scene in a play. At eleven all was still, and you would not have known that you were in such close contiguity to so large an assemblage of people.137

The smaller huts attached to the dwellings of this and other clans were full of stored produce. Yards attached to these store houses were used as animal holding pens. People here were not clinging on to survival in the desert; they were thriving and engaged in a rich and joyful life.

Pottery is one of the tests applied by Western archaeologists to the developmental level reached by civilisations. Australian Aboriginals would, at first glance, appear to have failed this test. The superb glazed and kiln-fired pottery of China, Greece or Rome has not been found here; however, clay vessels were made. While most were relatively crude sun-dried bowls, some were baked beside the fire; others, particularly small clay figurines, were fired on charcoal beds and some were glazed with mineral washes.

The tests applied in this way simply test how similar a group is to European and Asian civilisations and may not reflect their success in other areas such as social cohesion, resistance to warfare or sustainable use of resources.
This chapter looks at elements of Australian pottery and food preservation because the perceived lack of them in Australia has been used as an indicator of social backwardness. This attitude prejudices opinion about the level of development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To point out that Indigenous Australia did indeed use baked clay vessels and preserved food is not an attempt to claim distinction for the First Australians, but simply to point out that if that were the only test for development it cannot be seen as completely absent from this country.

According to the earliest records, the use of clay to render houses or make storage vessels was witnessed in most parts of Australia although the crude drying and firing methods may have resulted in the remaining fragments being overlooked by later surveys. Stores of food were seen across the continent too; although most disappeared quickly, some ossified caches have been found in stone chambers, preserved by the tight fitting stone plugs.

Gerritsen suggests the storage of food surpluses is one of the indicators of agricultural nations and defines three types of food storage used in Australia: ‘caching, stockpiling and … direct storage’.

— Bruce Pascoe: "Dark emu: black seeds agriculture or accident?", Magabala Books: Broome, 2014.

Rethinking Indigenous Australia's agricultural past
Evidence for Indigenous Australian Agriculture
Bush tucker
Bush bread
Indigenous Australian food groups
Australian Aboriginal plant foods: a consideration of their nutritional composition and health implications
Fire and Water: Aspects of Australian Aboriginal Management of Cycads

At face value it is therefore:

Q Why didn't Aboriginal Australians discover agriculture?

Because that wasn't allowed to have taken place in the grand narrative of European settlers. The Australians did discover agriculture, early and on their own, but the evidence that was available was systematically ignored.

As to what prevented "them" from discovering "other technologies": nothing "prevented" them. Technology gets invented and innovated upon by opportunity and necessity. That is the valid core of Diamond's hypothesis. If those two factors get low values, new technology simply isn't worth the bother.

And that seems to be the root of an egregious misreading of Diamond: That sweet grasses of Eurasia would be the great opportunity to start grain based civilisation not found elsewhere. But if you compare barley to teosinte and teff it should become clear that this is a greatly overgeneralised theory. That puny and meagre teosinte was bred into impressive maize cobs shows that human ingenuity could achieve satisfactory results from the most unlikely starting point. Teff shows that the grains themselves could remain tiny, even difficult to handle from sowing to eating (teff meaning: easy to loose) and still form the staple food of a society.

Nothing in Diamond's theory affords to be used as a deterministic teleology and no such generalisable effect can be applied to Australian populations. Only in retrospect we like to find and see certain path dependencies.

One example when both factors of opportunity and necessity did came together would be hunting equipment improvements:

— Harry Allen: "Thomson’s Spears: Innovation and change in eastern Arnhem Land projectile technology", 2011.
— Harry Allen & Kim Akerman: "Innovation and change in northern Australian Aboriginal spear technologies: the case for reed spears", 2015.


T.E.D. answer is correct from my point of view (I also agree with Diamond theory regarding to availability of plants and animals as a must for civilized life). But, to give a little bit more context. Maybe we can divide the answer in two:

1. Domestication of crops and animals as a basic requirement for civilized life.

This is one of the pillars in Diamond theory. As far as we know, there are few examples of advanced civilization in cultures before neolithic (neolithic means that farming is developed), only Göbekli Tepe comes to my mind (to build something like that you need an organization that is not avaible in small societies of hunter/gatherers). Once farming is available, people can be sedentary. From here diversification of work is possible and social life can change. Since we're talking about a theory, and we have a single Earth, no more samples are available to confirm it.
Summary: The theory says that for civilized life you need first animals/plants domesticated. If we agree with that, we can jump to next point.

2. Availability of crops and animals suitable for domestication in Australia.

This is the main issue. As long as I know, not a single plant or animal has ever been domesticated in Australia. But this does not mean that there are not plants or animals available, after all, native australians had to eat something.
So, since nowadays edible plants are available for grow at home, the question is: Why native australians did not became farmers using those plants? Maybe this question belongs more to gardening instead of history, I only can suppose that those plants did not give enough calories in exchange of the effort required to grow them in first place.

If we agree with the first answer. Then we must search whether the second answer is correct. Even though Göbekli Tepe might be an example that is not covered by Diamond theory.

Another theory belongs to Toynbee, who says that only a challenge to the lifestyle (for example, an invasion or a climate change) causes a change in people's mind. A change in the mind of people is a must in order to change your lifestyle, to force a society to change to a sedentary style for example.
If we do not know any case of climate change in Australia at the end of last glaciar age (neolithic started after that in Eurasia), in the same fashion that happened in Eurasia, then that challenge was not present in Australia.


One way to approach the question would be anthropological. There is a dissertation with the title, “Why Foragers Do Not Become Farmers,” which you can download for free. It's based on work done in the Philippines, which might nevertheless generalize to Australia.

It's been some years since I read the research, and the author offers a number of potential explanations. But the one that sticks in my mind was the following: since foraging for food is an uncertain business, in order for a community to survive it's necessary to share resources freely. If I find a yam, I share it automatically with whoever is around me; and I know that they will reciprocate if they find a yam. (I don't recall if this is a universal; someone may be able to correct me. But it was certainly true of his group.) So if a forager tries a new thing, and raises a field of crops... everyone s/he knows will show up expecting his/her share of the produce. So all of that work is distributed among the community. At the individual level, then, there's no real incentive to perform the laborious work of farming. It's a lot of work, and you don't get ahead in your culture.

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    I understand this to be true with Indigenous Australians. There is a very deep cultural expectation that one will share what one has with ones kin and extended family.
    – s3raph86
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 11:38
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    This is similar to how Gypsies in Eastern Europe are so difficult to integrate. Many are living in clan-like societies, which is a nice thing during hardship as they share everything and help each other, but it dis-incentivizes them from studying in order to apply to higher-paying jobs: "why should I work so hard if all I earn will have to be shared with the others who stay home and at most only do temporary jobs?"
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 20:09
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    @vsz For bonus points, those higher-paying jobs are usually a complete waste of time as soon as you leave the society that depends on them; they spend loads of resources and time learning something that only has value while they stay in the city, working in the office building, away from their extended families. Studying to be a carpenter is fine - it's useful even if civilisation disappears overnight. But studying something like machining essentially means you need to disconnect from your way of life forever. It doesn't help that vocational training in general keeps gettings worse.
    – Luaan
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 7:45
  • @vsz Just so you know, "Gypsy" is an exonym and is widely considered to be derogatory. The proper name for the ethnicity is Roma.
    – creeon
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 19:08
  • @creeon : where I live most of them never even heard the term "Roma", and definitely don't use it to identify themselves.
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 19:18

A quick search reveals articles such as Evidence for Indigenous Australian Agriculture which contest the very premise of your question. There seems to be evidence of domesticated plants, and the population density of some settlements suggests that food production of the surrounding territory exceeded the level that could be expected from wild plants alone.

More to the point, agriculture is developed as a response to challenging life conditions. People don't start domesticating plants for fun, they do it because they see no other way to sustain a rising population density with existing food resources. If the problem can be solved in a different way (e.g. by expansion or through frequent conflicts reducing the population), they may forego agriculture for a long period.

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    Pretty good answer here. Upvoted.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 13:27

How come Aboriginal Australians didn't manage to raise their civilization levels to that of other continents?

It might be a fine point but, GG&S was more about competition between civilizations rather than whether one civilization advanced or not. In fact GG&S was rather silent on scientific advanced civilizations except when it came to 3 specific technologies which became important when two civilizations clashed. Those technologies were

  • how early or if they developed Guns,
  • how early or if they developed steel.
  • how strong their germs were
    • whether they domesticated animals, dependent upon whether animals suitable for domestication were present on their continent,
    • latitudinal width of their home continent

Aboriginal Australians likely didn't advance as fast as other civilizations because their was no pressure on them too. Australia is a big isolated place and the first Australians had abundance of water, food, game and land all wrapped up on a temperate climate. They didn't need to innovate. Didn't need to pressure themselves to survive or outcompete one another for resources or even overcome invaders.

Also they didn't benefit from other cultures innovations like civilizations which grew up proximal to other civilizations did in Eurasia. In Eurasia's community of nations one civilization invents the wheel, bronze, iron, gunpowder and it spreads to multiple civilizations through trade. Aboriginal Australians didn't benefit from such proximity.

More on GG&S
Guns Germs and Steel assembles a collections of ideas over why Britain or England rose militarily and was able to basically conquer and dominate a global empire relative to Papua New Guinea. An island about the same size as England which didn't have the same military successes. More broadly why Eurasian civilizations when they came in contact with North Central South American, African, and Australian civilizations invariable came out on top. The answer notes that diseases did the majority of the killing when such Civilizations met; Eurasia civilizations have more plentiful germs given their wide longitudinal span, and abundance of domesticated animals which lived in close proximity to the populations ( horse, ox, mule, cow etc ). That and how quickly they developed steel and gunpowder were additional factors.

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    While I like the book you mention (and also "Collapse" by the same author), it's just so easy to point out over-simplifications made there. I tried to explain my POV in detail here in case you're interested. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 8:51

Why didn't Aboriginal Australians invent agriculture?

They did.

Indigenous Australians were farming eels over 6000 years ago.

These traps involved building channels, dam walls, pond areas for aquaculture and cover a significant ground area (stretching over a 30km length).

Hundreds of tonnes of basalt blocks were moved to create a 200m long fish trap channel: enter image description here

First reports of these channels and ponds, by government explorers in 1841, were ignored or dismissed as evidence of irrigation by an earlier, more advanced people living in Australia prior to the appearance of the Aborigines. This may have contributed to the erroneous belief that Indigenous Australians didn't invent agriculture.

Recent interest may possibly lead to eel farming, fishing and selling on a commercial basis.

  • Welcome to History:SE. Your answer would be greatly improved if you edited it to include the main points from that article. To quote from our Help Centre, "Always quote the most relevant part of an important link, in case the target site is unreachable or goes permanently offline". Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 19:50

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