Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Cursed Geographies - Why Australia was destined to remain backward

...prepared by the hands of the lowest race in the scale of humanity that is known to exist, the soil of these extensive regions is ready to receive the virgin impressions of civilized man. No tombs, nor temples, nor palaces, nor shrines, exist to tell of the past; the history of the land remains to be written in the future, when nations of the Anglo-Saxon race people the woods and valleys of Australia, and with their enterprise and energy cover the land with evidences of their greatness.

To the British colonial enthusiast who wrote the above in 1848, the abject nature of the Australian race was clear as day. After all, he had been trotting the globe (British colonies, to be exact), and nowhere had he found a people so primitive, so totally inept at innovation that despite thousands of years of undisturbed existence, they had not even a bow and arrow to show for it. What, other than their racial inferiority, could explain this rot ?

Cash on Delivery option available for buying Aboriginals
(An 1886 cartoon : source)

The question isn't trivial. After Australia was colonized by the British in the 18th century, this supposed inferiority of native Australians was routinely used to justify their systematic murder, rape, torture and near extermination. The local population dropped from nearly 500,000 in the 18th century, to less than 80,000 in 1933. For more than 50 years, the State followed the policy of kidnapping native children and raising them as "civilized" orphans - the Stolen Generation. Even as late as the 1960s, the Aboriginals (as the native inhabitants of Australia are called) were officially classified as animals in Australian law. 

The rise of civilizations

Before answering why native Australians remained so spectacularly backward, we have to first understand why societies advance at all. Turns out, its more or less a predictable pattern. 

All advanced cultures start with hunter-gatherers settling down to farm. Agriculture allows for a more consistent supply of food, resulting in a veritable population explosion. Unlike hunter-gatherer bands, all members of a farming village aren't your immediate family members, and it makes increasingly less sense to share the fruits of your hard labour with those other members of the village. Thus, the concept of "private property" becomes prominent for the first time. Society starts fragmenting into rich and poor, based often on pure luck (seeds gathered by one family turned out to be worse than that of another).

Disputes arise when people trespass on other's property (or more likely, their goats do). Elders are chosen to adjudicate upon such disputes. Some of these "elders" would surely be less than scrupulous, and accept bribes and gifts in return for delivering favourable judgements. In time, these gifts turn into regular tributes, and powerful families emerge. Free from having to produce food themselves, these distinguished individuals can use their wealth to buy the loyalty (and muscle power) of those below them. You have "leaders" now.

In times of drought, these leaders will be expected to provide for the group, and at least some will resort to invading nearby tribes. Spoils from such raids will be distributed among the "subjects". Those refusing to invade, will simply be replaced by those who will. Tributes from their own people, will be replaced/augmented by tributes from conquered tribes. You have "kings" now.

Not every tribe will have megalomaniacs bent on conquest, but the fact that there are such tribes, will force you to weaponize and enhance your own military technology (or be conquered instead). The cold efficiency of metal, once witnessed in the battlefield, would force metallurgy to spread like wildfire. In comes the bronze age, followed in no time1 by the iron age, and you have full-blown iron furnaces brandishing in areas that a few centuries years ago, didn't even have mud houses. 

Military technologies, like sword-making, were the catalysts for a systematic
investigation of nature, providing the foundations of chemistry and geology

Those able to improve these technologies (say, better steel for swords) are richly rewarded. resulting in the incidental development of sciences like chemistry (studying the property of metals and minerals) and geology (what materials are found where). These conquests also create a class of wealthy elites, who can then hire philosophers and poets, mathematicians and naturalists, to speculate on the nature of atoms, and the corpuscular theory of light - all very interesting, but (practically) useless curiosities. In time, these very "curiosities" would go on to form the basis of all technological progress - progress that would never have come about, had conquests not given people enough wealth to allow those scholars to pursue their fancy ideas.

Human beings have always invented things, but most of these inventions would be lost when a society collapsed. By incorporating far-off regions within a single empire, conquests also ensured that ideas and technology were able to travel from one part of the globe to another, getting modified, adapted, build upon, and generally, enriched along the way. Movable type - the fundamental technology on which printing presses are based, was invented in China, but the complex Chinese script made its use very difficult. Only when it reached Europe, where scripts were far simpler, that people realized its true revolutionary potential.

Basically, you never start off with the explicit purpose of creating vastly interconnected technologically-advanced superpowers, but human social dynamics ensure that you'll inevitably end up being in one.

So, what happened with Australia ?

As you might expect, Australians never took that crucial first step on the "civilizational" ladder - they never settled down to farm. To understand why, we need to find out why humans took to agriculture in the first place. After all, our humanoid ancestors have been walking on two feet and cooking their food for over 2 million years now. Even our own species has spent close to 2 lakh years roaming in the wilderness, and in all that time, it never occurred to us to settle down. What changed then ?

For starters, a 100,000 years old ice age ended. During that time, much of earth's water was locked away in glaciers, leading to average rainfall that is almost half of what it is today. This, combined with the fact that most crops tend to grow extremely slowly in cold weather, ensured that all experiments at farming were bound to fail during this time. Around 12,000 years ago, when temperatures rose and rainfall became more abundant, such experiments began to bear fruit (literally) for the first time.

So again, what happened with Australia? The people who populated the continent 50,000 years ago were the first humans to cross the oceans - a feat that wasn't to be repeated for another 35,000 years, when Europeans made the (relatively easier) journey into North America. Obviously not lacking in creativity and enterprise, Australians nevertheless refused to join the agricultural bandwagon when the ice age ended (and indeed, for 10,000 years since). The reason, unsurprisingly, is that farming in Australia was far less productive than hunting and gathering. Why ?

1. Worst crops ever : Wild ancestors of today's crops looked wildly different from their modern versions. Take corn, for example. Today, after thousands of years of selecting the best varieties, it looks like this :

And this is what it looked to our ancestors :

When you're a hunter-gatherer, its damn difficult to see your future in that (especially when there's a delicious deer, just around the corner). Compare it to how ancient wheat used to look and versus now :

Not a lot of difference, no? Any wonder then, that wheat (and barley), whose ancient varieties already looked promising, were among the earliest crops to be domesticated, and not maize. The region where these big crops were found - the Middle East - would go on to be the site of the world's first kingdoms and empires, and also be the birthplace of three of the most influential religions of the world - Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Not a coincidence, if you ask me.

What does that have to do with Australia ? Well, of the 56 heaviest cereal crops in the world, there are exactly 2 that are found in Australia - and that too, near the very bottom of the list. When choosing to devote time exclusively to cultivation, the incentive to try plants with such little yield, would understandably be minimum. Even modern geneticists haven't been able to cultivate any crop from locally available plants except for one (macadamia nuts). No wonder the ancient Australians weren't that keen on farming.

2. Worst animals ever : Human-like beings and animals had been co-evolving in Africa for millions of years before modern humans emerged, allowing both enough time to evolve defences against each other. Similarly in Eurasia (Europe + Asia), owing to contact with our cousins Neanderthals (which separated from homo sapiens and left Africa around 600,000 years ago), animals there too, had a pretty long time to adapt to human ways. Australia, on the other hand, wasn't so lucky.

Diprotodon - a relative of kangaroo and the size of a small truck, was one of the 90% of
megafauna (big animal) species that vanished forever with the arrival
of humans in Australia (source)

Having separated from the rest of the land more than 50 million years back, Australia hadn't seen anything even remotely like an ape. So, when (spear-throwing, sea-faring, tool-making) humans set foot 50,000 years ago, it was pretty much the most devastating slaughter in the isolated history of the continent. 90% of the Australian megafauna (large animals) was extinguished in a few thousand years. The result was that when conditions became favourable for agriculture to start, there were not a single large domesticable animals left in the entire continent.

Kangaroo is the only non-carnivorous, terrestrial mammal heavier than 45 kg
present in Australia, but not even modern experts have not
 succeeded in domesticating it (source

Why are large domesticable animals essential for agriculture ? Well, for starters, they provide protein (meat or milk). Without any knowledge of protein-rich plants, new farmers wouldn't be able to explicitly include them in their crops, resulting in a stunted population over several generations - not exactly a good advertisement for an agriculture-based life. Moreover, domesticated animals provide an easy way to till the fields which is otherwise extremely labourous. Basically, an agricultural society without domestic animals is highly improbable, if not downright impossible.

3. Worst geography ever : Australia is the lowest and the driest of all inhabited places on earth. There're no melting glaciers, no high mountains, and hence, no downstream rivers that could deliver fresh silt to the plains. Along with low volcanic activity, this results in Australia having the oldest and the most nutrient-deficient soil anywhere in the inhabited world.

And if this wasn't enough, the continent's climate lies under the influence of something called ENSO - a climate cycle characterized by sudden and unpredictable rains, followed by equally sudden and unpredictable bouts of dry weather (unlike the more or less annual seasons found elsewhere). Farmers experimenting with agriculture would have a great harvest one year, and be totally decimated the very next. It made more sense to keep moving and gathering whatever plants that were in vogue, rather than stay at a single place and invest all energy on just one or two crops.

The curse of destiny

So, agriculture was basically, a non-starter in Australia. As was "civilization".
In a hunter-gatherer society, each and every member is involved in day-to-day work, and the social hierarchy is essentially flat. This leaves little space for permanent "leaders" to arise and conquer other tribes. Without this unifying influence of proto-empires, thousands of separate tribes continue to live in isolation. Mutual contacts are few and far in between, and any technological innovation produced in one tribe would forever be confined to that tribe (and be ultimately lost with the tribe's demise). Given that hunting and gathering can only support low population densities, the pool of potential innovators is, anyways, pretty small to start with.

Ultimately, you are as good as your strongest enemy, and physical isolation from the rest of the world ensured that Australians never faced an enemy possessing anything more than stone-age technology. Hence, there was no incentive to advance military technology or to conduct a systematic exploration of (its highly abundant) metals. Even something as basic as a bow and arrow was invented, and later forgotten. 
Path taken by humans to Australia. Little did they know that
this trip would leave their descendants isolated
and technologically backward (source)

None of this implies that agriculture, and complex society would never have arisen in Australia. In fact, some fishing settlements had already arisen in the last thousand years, and harvest tools in certain areas began to eerily resemble those found at the earliest farming communities in other parts of the world. Uninterrupted, the Australians would have ultimately gone down the same road as their more (geographically) blessed cousins. 

But interrupted they were. And how!

When the first humans set their foot on this continent, little could they've imagined that this daring adventure of theirs, would one day, lead their descendants down the path of such isolation and technological stagnation, that when they reunited with the rest of the human family, racists would presume they were the missing link between man and ape.

Such, is the savage curse of geography.

Sources :

  • Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond)
  • Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Harari)