Saturday, December 26, 2015

Reprint from1995: Economics of the Dreamtime

Showing for one night only: Aboriginal Economics. Have you ever wondered what the Australian economy was like before all the whities arrived?

I've just been reading a book by our great economic historian, the late Professor Noel Butlin of the Australian National University - Economics and the Dreamtime: a Hypothetical History, published posthumously by Cambridge University Press in 1993.

Though for many years it was believed there were only about 300,000 Aborigines in the land before the First Fleet arrived in 1788, Professor Butlin calculates that it was much higher: between 1 million and 1.5 million.

They lived as bands of hunters and gatherers, ranging in size up to about 40 people. So did they have what you could call an economy? Of course they did - though, naturally, it was very different to ours. There was no money or markets and not much trade between the bands.

But decisions were made about production and consumption, there were rules of distribution, forms of property rights, a division of labour and efforts to raise productivity.

One researcher, Marshall Sahlins, has argued that Aborigines deliberately sought a low standard of living in terms of food, shelter and clothing. But, accepting this, they were "the original affluent society".

Reports from the early explorers suggest that Aboriginal bands hunted and gathered for only four to six hours a day, but frequently appeared to have plenty of food in their camps. They seemed to spend a great deal of their time gossiping, playing or sleeping.

Sahlins's purpose was to combat the modern assumption that material wants are infinite and the old view that hunter-gatherers were exposed to continuous risks of starvation and needed to work long hours each day.

That's fine, but Professor Butlin rejects the corollary that Aborigines failed to develop an advanced culture because of idleness. His argument is that what may seem to be leisure or idleness to Western eyes was actually economic activity to the Aborigines.

For one thing, in a culture without writing, talking is the main way of communicating information. A lot of talking has to take place to preserve and pass on the group's knowledge of how the world works.

He speculates that much of the "gossip" could have been meetings of the band's production planning committee: discussions about what game to hunt, what food to gather, where to look for it, when to move on and so forth.

What has been seen by Europeans as merely leisure-time activities, in which children participate in games of skill and agility, is important as education. "Reputed games of a form of 'football', organised throwing of small spears or boomerangs, climbing and wrestling could all transmit skills; and adult oversight of these activities could appear to be indolence," he says.

And time spent in ritual and ceremony was accorded far more value than mere leisure. Ceremonial activity served the purpose of preserving identity and order within the group, and so preserved economic efficiency and equity.

The general division of labour was that men hunted and women gathered. This fitted their "comparative advantage" since women were responsible for carrying or caring for children. Certain styles of hunting, by tracking and chasing larger animals or by tree climbing and chopping, required the hunter to be unencumbered. Gathering of plants, seafoods or eggs was more suitable for encumbered members of the group.

Some production, including fishing, occurred at night - which would explain why "shift-workers" slept during the day.

Production of capital goods was limited and they were often nondurable. Even so, there was a demand for clothing, bedding, stone tools and myriad wooden and fibre implements, as well as items needed for long-stay and short-stay dwellings, canoes or rafts.

On occasions when the bands joined in tribal meetings, large numbers of men (maybe several hundred), together with dogs, took part in great kangaroo hunting drives. "Efficiency derived from the ability to contain animal movements, more quickly capture wounded animals, share in transportation back to camp and so on," he says.

So this is an example of the pursuit of economies of scale in production. The most striking example of the use of capital equipment to increase production was the development in Western Victoria of massive networks of eel canals, directing and restricting the movement of eels in rivers.

The provision and maintenance of this asset, which entailed a great deal of communal effort, not only increased the yield per person but also enhanced the supply.

Another production technique was "fire-stick farming". The burning of limited areas (which required great skill and effort to limit the area) was used to capture game (in conjunction with net fences) or to expose other foods, including eggs, slow-moving creatures and yam fields.

It can be argued that burning raised the productivity of the land and this is part of Professor Butlin's claim that the Aborigines weren't just hunters and gatherers but "resource managers".

Their moving from place to place was partly dictated by seasonal crops and by drought. But "Aborigines appear to have been concerned with long-term viability and with a degree of resource management that would ensure their ability to return to any location, not merely to 'mine' one and leave it".

There is evidence also of technological advance. Stone tools became smaller, finer and possibly more precise. The exploitation of fine stone spear tips would have improved killing efficiency.

The advent of the hafted fine-stone chisel or adze greatly improved efficiency in the hollowing of logs, the shaping of spear-throwers, the construction of shields and the removal of bark for canoes, housing or artistic products, including all forms of carving.

One technological breakthrough, however, was imported. The dingo arrived with the trepang fishermen from Sulawesi. It appears to have spread rapidly throughout Australia and enabled a great increase in hunting efficiency.

What does all this prove? Well, just for once, it doesn't have to prove anything. But it does show that, to an economist, economics is everywhere.