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Nanda Villages of the Victoria District, Western Australia.

Nanda Villages of the Victoria District, Western Australia

Rupert Gerritsen

Intellectual Property Publications, Canberra, ?2002, iii + 31 pp, ISBN 095810450 6

Reviewed by Sylvia Hallam, University of Western Australia <>

This small publication is essentially a follow-up to Gerritsen's ten times longer book, And Their Ghosts May Be Heard ..., published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in 1994. In both publications the author makes a valiant attempt to show that what he regards as unusual aspects of Aboriginal settlement patterns in the Geraldton/Greenough region, plus many features of their economy, land management and society, are to be attributed to the influence of the relatively few Dutch mariners marooned on the central western coast of Australia in the seventeenth century.

Gerritsen shows remarkable assiduity in pursuing these themes. He has thoroughly combed the nineteenth-century literature describing what European explorers and settlers observed in the valleys of the Hutt River, the Greenough, the Chapman, the Irwin, and the Arrowsmith: groups of well-built structures ('villages'), paths converging on these nodes, deep 'wells', and yam-diggings. He has searched for field evidence, though he fails to describe the extent, density, lithology, assemblage composition, or typology of the 'lithic materials' he encountered. He has looked at the 'size of settlements' (range of numbers of huts per group), dredging the archaeological literature for methods and comparisons. He has examined the morphology of the dwellings; discussed the whole thorny question of 'sedentism', looking at a worldwide scatter of parallels and discussions; and plunged into the geographical literature of settlement typology.

What then is missing? First and foremost we miss any sense that these phenomena belong within the immense variety encompassed by their Australian contexts. Gerritsen tells us that:
 in Australian terms, such developments have, by and
 large, been ignored or treated as anomalies, curious
 exceptions to the stereotypical characterisation of
 traditional Aboriginal societies as mobile hunter-gatherers.

But it is Gerritsen himself who has looked on the social and economic structures of the mid-west as 'atypical' and 'anomalous' (e.g. Gerritsen 1994:140, 186, 205). He seems simply unaware of the interest and discussion which has gone on over the last few decades in the Australian archaeological and anthropological literature, about demographic trends and their consequences for the range of intensity of plant utilisation, and for the great diversity in Aboriginal occupance patterns observable through time and space, over the total timespan of Australian prehistory, in the various ecological zones of the continent, and in relation to specific resources (Hallam 1977, 1988; Lourandos 1987a, 1997).

Clearly, concentration and duration of domestic occupance (settlement size and sedentism) are related to concentration or dispersal, narrowness or variety, abundance or sparseness, reliability or randomness, of available resources. The groups of substantial structures in the Geraldton area reflect the extensive and reliable patches of Dioscorea hastifolia harvested by the Aboriginal population (Hallam 1986, 1989).

Gerritsen refers to nineteenth-century observations of 'seemingly permanent village-like settlements', in 'northwest NSW, northeast SA, and southwest Queensland', and in southwestern Victoria. Grey certainly regarded the Victoria District hut-groups and yam-diggings as outside his usual experience.

But over the last quarter of the twentieth century these and other structures have been put within the context of wider debates about their bearing on sedentism and the origins of agriculture (Hallam 1979, 1986, 1989), and have become part of a wider and ongoing discussion about the development of more intensive modes of resource management by Aboriginal communities over the centuries prior to European contact and colonisation. Many examples of approaches to sedentism, and their subsistence bases, have been evaluated over the last three decades--by Harry Lourandos (1980, 1987b) and by Peter Coutts (et al 1978) for eel-farming in the Lake Condah area of Victoria; by J Hall (1982) for the 'seafood supermarket' and tuber abundance, allowing 'the relative luxury of semi-permanent settlement' on Moreton Bay; by Elizabeth Williams (1984, 1987) in relation to earth mounds in the Caramut region of southwest Victoria; etc, etc. Lourandos has gathered all these (with other evidences like fish-traps, zamia-processing, grass-seed storage, and cemeteries) under the banner of 'intensification' (Lourandos 1997 and references there).

The persistence of a large group in a particular location over a span of months rather than days must always have depended on the availability of reliable, storable food supplies, usually plant staples (even if the storage was on the plant). Particular resources like bunya nuts or processed zamias might make possible relatively large (and brief) social gatherings. The variety of fruits and nuts growing from discarded seeds around domestic sites, tempting persons back to one locality again and again, could be seen as 'domiculture' (Chase 1989). But the real carbohydrate staples, which made possible continued residence for months at a time, were tubers harvested mainly around the rather moister margins of the continent, and seeds gathered rather through the semi-arid to arid zones.

Already in the early 1970s, Jack Golson (1971) had drawn up an enormous list of those plant genera which had domesticated representatives in Southeast Asia, and which were also available to Aboriginal Australians. Later accounts can be regarded as a commentary on his realisation of the commonalities linking exploitation of tubers and seeds, whether or not the usage was labelled 'agriculture'. Rhys Jones and Betty Meehan (1989) observed the harvesting of many varieties of yams in the Northern Territory, a range of species both of Ipomoea and of Dioscorea; it is clear from their descriptions and others that yam-diggers took care to ensure the vegetative reproduction of the plant, by leaving part of the tuber in place, or by replanting portions. Discarded bits encouraged new patches near their camps. Harvesting involved digging, and thus aerating the soil, adding organic mulch, and improved the future growth of the patch of plants. Any digging of tubers was inevitably, in the strict sense of the word, 'cultivation'--that is, turning of the soil.

Harvesting of Dioscorea hastifolia on the central western coast thus fits comfortably into the overall picture of Aboriginal harvesting of tuberous, bulbous and cormous plants through large parts of the continent. Their presence in the Geraldton region is part of a much wider distribution from the Murchison to the Murray, Mingenew to York (Hallam 1986, 1989). Dioscoreaceae in the centre west are no more mysterious than in the north. The evolution of forms suited to higher than tropical latitudes, with a reversal of the growing season, is parallelled by a similar season reversal in Dioscorea japonica in the northern hemisphere.

The distinctiveness of the centre west lies in the contrast between resource-rich localities where tubers form an abundant resource for several months of the year, and the surrounding resource-poor region, offering 'bugger-all'. This is very different from the situation further south on the Swan coastal plain, where persons could divide their resource usage and their time between reeds in the swamps, waterfowl on the lakes, fish in the estuaries, kangaroos in the plateau valleys, and yam-digging on the riverine alluvial terraces at the foot of the Darling Scarp. A wide variety of relatively abundant resources allowed relatively dense, but widely spread, occupance (Hallam 1988). In the Geraldton region, resource concentration necessitated concentration of individuals.

The situation described by Gerritsen did not need an external stimulus. It is part of an Australia-wide picture of a great variety of patterns of subsistence, of grouping, and of grouping changes over the year, developed as population rose and filled environmental niches. The Australian picture is part of a worldwide picture of the inescapable development, in every continent, of greater degrees of sedentism as populations approached resource capacity. Only by stringent demographic constraint could populations then evade moving further into the chores of cultivation. Sedentism led to domestication, not vice versa, as is apparent in many parts of the Eurasian landmass from the final Pleistocene onward (Nishida 2002; Yasuda 2002). Grey and Stokes observed ethnographically processes that elsewhere are evidenced only archaeologically.

Gerritsen marshals a fascinating set of observations, but they deserve to be more fully appreciated in their appropriate Australian and world context.


Chase, A.K. 1989 Domestication and domiculture in northern Australia: a social perspective. In D. Harris and G. Hillman (eds), Foraging and Farming: The evolution of plant exploitation, Unwin Hyman, London, 42-54.

Coutts, P., R.K. Frank and P.J. Hughes 1978 Aboriginal engineers of the Western District, Victoria, Records of the Victoria Archaeological Survey 4:59-73.

Golson, J. 1971 Australian Aboriginal food plants: some ecological and culture-historical implications. In D.J. Mulvaney and J. Golson (eds), Aboriginal Man and Environment in Australia, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 196-238.

Hall, J. 1982 Sitting on the crop of the bay: an historical and archaeological sketch of Aboriginal settlement and subsistence in Moreton Bay. In S. Bowdler (ed.), Coastal Archaeology in Eastern Australia: Proceedings of the Valla conference on Australian prehistory, Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, 79-95.

Hallam, S. 1977 Stone tools and topographic archaeology. In R.V.S. Wright (ed.), Stone Tools as Cultural Markers: Change, evolution and complexity, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 168-77.

--1979 Population and resource usage on the western littoral, Memoirs of the Victorian Archaeological Society: A Collection of Papers Presented to ANZAAS 1977, Section 25A, vol. 2:16-36.

--1986 Yams, alluvium and villages on the west coastal plain. In G.K. Ward (ed.), Archaeology at ANZAAS, Canberra: Proceedings of the 54th ANZAAS Congress, Canberra, Canberra Archaeological Society, Canberra, 116-32.

--1988 Coastal does not equal littoral, Australian Archaeology 25/26:10-29.

--1989 Plant usage and management in southwest Australian Aboriginal societies. In D. Harris and G. Hillman (eds), Foraging and Farming: The evolution of plant exploitation, Unwin Hyman, London, 136-51.

Jones, R. and B. Meehan 1989 Plant foods of the Gidgingali: ethnographic and archaeological perspectives from northern Australia on tuber and seed exploitation. In D. Harris and G. Hillman (eds), Foraging and Farming: The evolution of plant exploitation, Unwin Hyman, London, 121-35.

Lourandos, H. 1980 Change or stability: hydraulics, hunter-gatherers and population in temperate Australia, World Archaeology11:245-64.

--1987a Swamp managers of southwestern Victoria. In D.J. Mulvaney and J.P. White (eds), Australians to 1788, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon, Sydney, 292-307.

--1987b Pleistocene Australia: peopling a continent. In O. Soffer (ed.), The Pleistocene Old World: Inter-regional perspectives, Plenum, New York, 147-65.

--1997 Continent of Hunter-Gatherers: New perspectives in Australian prehistory, Cambridge University Press.

Nishida, M. 2002 The meaning of agriculture for humans. In Y. Yasuda (ed.), The Origins of Pottery and Agriculture, Rolli Books, New Delhi, 231-9.

Williams, E. 1984 Documentation and archaeological investigation of an Aboriginal 'village' site in southwestern Victoria, Aboriginal History 8:173-87.

--1987 Complex hunter-gatherers: a view from Australia, Antiquity 61:310-12.

Yasuda, Y. 2002 Origins of pottery and agriculture in East Asia. In Y. Yasuda (ed.), The Origins of Pottery and Agriculture, Rolli Books, New Delhi, 119-42 .
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Author:Hallam, Sylvia
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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