Famine and ill weather

8 Sep 2017

Geoffrey Parker, in 'Global Crisis:Wars, Climate Change and Catastrophism in the 17th Century' on page 480, turns his attention to Australia - and the Aborigines coping with drought and lack of food. Australia had one of the lowest population densities in the world as it is predominantly dry. Only in the SE and SW corners is there a temperate climate with fertile soils. Desert and semi arid outback covers two thirds of Australia.

However, the climate is also affected by ENSO - the occurrence of El Nino/La Nina events in the Pacific and the Southern Ocean Oscillation. It affects monsoon rates in China and climate in SE Asia and Indonesia as well as Australia and India. A doubled frequency of El Nino events in the 17th century would have affected Aborigines to a great degree. These people long ago adapted to the drying continent of Australia. They exploited a unique fauna and flora. Many Australian plants have evolved and adapted to aridity by developing, for example, deep roots and a resistance to landscape fires. The red kangaroo has evolved to eat vegetation high in moisture and therefore they can survive for long periods without actually drinking any water. Kangaroos also hop which allows them to reach high speeds without excessive levels of energy. The reproductive system is also interesting as they can carry three babies at different stages of development at the same time - which allows a rapid increase in population as soon as drought ends. 

How do humans fare in the evolutionary stakes. It seems Aborigines used their brain and cunning and developed strategies to adapt to the seasonal outback environment. The cycle begins in the wet season between December and February (late summer) with thunderstorms and torrential rain. It provided lots of water but no immediate food supply. Familg groups in the wetlands were however able to move out of their high summer homes (in areas away from the glare of the Sun) to take advantage of areas from last season that had not been harvested. The first fruits began to appear in March and April and family groups moved around until seeds, root crops and fruit had become ripe and large enough to pluck or dig out of the soil. At this stage they tended to settle around waterholes and harvested plants etc. Later in the year temperatures rose rapidly and the landscape dried out and men set fire to the plains in order to trap game but also to improve the yield of seeds and tubers the following year. They were in effect managing the wild plants - and the game (much as has been noted in other parts of the world during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods). The women of the tribe had the job of storing the vegetables in order to sustain the group during the rest of the season - the period known as the hungry time (high summer). People retreated to rocky places in search of shade from the heat of the sun and they remained their for a couple of months.Here they lived on the supplies they had accumulated during the earlier seasons. Drought and heat tend to limit foraging trips, just to areas close to their shady retreats in the rocks and hills. Her they remained until the wet season kicked in once more - but what happened in the 17th century when El Ninos occurred twice as often as in normal times. Droughts would have lasted several years at a time - droughts that were more precipitous than the normal droughts the Aborigines had adapted themselves to. 

Aborigines in the western desert used 120 different plants, 70 of which were edible and 40 of which produced seeds. The women would husk, winnow, and grind them into a paste to be heated on an open fire or eaten raw. Tubers and bulbs were easier to prepare and were just roasted whole. Game ws gutted and grilled - and small game such as birds, lizards and snakes were baked. When the wet season failed in some years (very often as a result of El Nino) some of the group would have died from lack of enough food. This was an extension of the hungry gap and when it occurred over a few years members of the group became combatant and fights broke out over meagre resources. The same kind of thing happened between groups - inter tribal warfare. Aborigines had weapons that were lethal. Spears used with spear throwers could reach a velocity of 100mph - with pretty good accuracy. Boomerangs and clubs studded with shells and sharp stones were capable of inflicting serious wounds - and a clout on the head was a serious affair. These weapons were devised to down game - but were also used in war against other humans. It is likely that war between tribes was common in the 17th century as resources were restricted by the climate change - that was global in extent. Although unrecorded we may assume populations declined in numbers - possibly by as much as a third. This compares with famine and death in agricultural communities around the world in the same century - and there was probably a similar loss of life in central Asia, northern Europe and across Africa at the same time.