Someone handling a wallaby. Artist uncredited.
Its becoming increasingly understood that Aboriginal Australians had farming societies (Gerritsen 2008, Gammage 2011), which included both typical agriculture of yams, millets and bush tomatoes and onions as well as more exotic means of production like fire-stick farming and aquaculture. The latter two in particular rely upon the manipulation of animals, raising the question as to whereas several stapples of Australian “wildlife” can actually be considered domesticates or semi-domesticates.
Dingo by Bob Tamayo. Dogs have been carried over to Australia in the second major wave of pre-colonial migrations 8000-6000 years BC. For the purposes of this article they do not count, since we’re talking about endemic animals.
Domestication isn’t just keeping animals around as your pals/food, its also “sustained multi-generational relationship in which one group of organisms assumes a significant degree of influence over the reproduction and care of another group to secure a more predictable supply of resources from that second group”. Surprisingly, quite a few Australian animals do fit this description.
Short-finned eel by Rudie H. Kuiter.
South Australia has seen the rise of an unique aquaculture of short-finned eels (Anguilla australis) that essentially substituted for conventional agriculture in the region. Starting circa 8000 years BC, local cultures began to trap eels in artificial wetlands and forcing them to pass through unique funnel-shaped baskets, allowing smaller eels to survive but trapping larger ones which would then be smoked and eaten.
Eel trap seen here.
So efficient was the population management of eels and their production that the Dhauwurd Wurrung (also known as Gunditjmara) people were capable of living in sedentary lifestyles much like any farmer, and in fact their settlements are “several hundred houses” worth built continuously for several thousands of years (Chai 2017), and other people neighbouring them might have similarly lived semi-sedentary lives (Mallett 2002). The largest of these aquaculture lakes, Budj Bim, has thankfully been recognised recently as a world wonder.
As these people were actively selecting for larger, meatier eels, I think its fair to say that the short-finned eel is a true domesticated animal.
Cassowary chick and its human “friends” in the New Guinean Highlands. Author uncredited.
Infamous for being the world’s deadliest bird, the cassowary should be more fmaous for also being one of the very few semi-domesticated animals in Oceania. Papuan and Northern Australian tribes regularly capture young birds and allow them to roam as poultry until they’re slaughtered. So prized are cassowaries they they’re exchanged as gifts between tribes (Bourke 2009) and its even possible that cassowaries were introduced by human beings into areas where they were previously absent (Davies 2002).
The question here is whereas cassowaries breed in captivity. If they don’t, they can be more accurately be described as “tamed” rather than true domesticated animals.
Kangaroo hunt by Joseph Lycett. But was it a hunt……………………………. OR A SLAUGHTER!!!!!!111111111!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!!666!!!!!!!!!!!!!!?????????
Kangaroos are not typically thought off as domesticated animals. But the Aboriginal Australian practise of fire-stick farming is essentially the art of imprisoning a kangaroo inside its own mind, modifying the natural environment as to create the ideal habitat for these critters to prosper and stay in (Gammage 2011).
Fire-stick farming is frequently described as “without fences”, using the kangaroo’s natural prefferences much as other people would keep livestock in enclosures. Aboriginals are thus actively manipulating kangaroos to suit their needs, which is pretty in line with what a domesticated animal is supposed to be.
If you think about it, there are no true wild kangaroos left; they have been constantly modified to suit Aboriginal needs for thousands of years. Only feral ones, much like the pig and horse escapees wandering the outback.
Quolls, Tasmanian Devils and Thylacines
Thylacines in a barn. No artist credited because colonialists deserve to burn in hell.
Now we’re getting into the more speculative side of things. There are several annecdotes that document the taming if not domestication of several of Australia’s carnivorous marsupials.
Thylacines are noted to have been ridiculously docile. As dogs were never brought to Tasmania and the local Aboriginals were, contrary to racist beliefs in them losing fire, actually using fire-stick farming to the point of spreading several grass species (thus meaning that they were actually an agricultural society!), I wonder if thylacines weren’t domesticated outright. Would explain their temperament.
Tasmanian devils and quolls have also been reported as having been kept as pets by Aboriginals on some sources, but I can’t find an in-depth exploration on this subject. In any case, they were mostly likely simply tamed, as they don’t seem to have been altered to be too friendly to humans.
‘Old Tom’ telling his finned friend to grab something. See above picture.
The Yuin people developed an unique relationship with orcas. Though this is best documented by the relationship of a single individual (nicknamed “Old Tom”), its possible that this practise might span as far back in time as 10,000 BC.
In essence, Yuin fishermen tricked killers whales into thinking they were weak, thus prompting them to help subdue large whales. In exchange, the whales would eat the tongue and lips of the victim, while humans got the rest of the carcass.
The best way to describe this relationship is as mutualism rather than full blown domestication or even taming. Still, it represents one of the most ingenious animal-human relationships that have ever existed, comparable to the cooperation between fishermen and dolphins seen in other regions of the globe.
No matter how much colonists attempted to dismiss Aboriginal Australian civilization, the fact of the matter is that a diverse set of technologies was in place before the arrival of europeans. This includes domestication, a “mark of the civilized man” that was clearly present across the peoples of Australia.
Now let me dream of about my thylacine pet.
Rupert Gerritsen, Australia and the Origins of Agriculture, 2008
Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, 2011
Chai, Paul (27 January 2017). “On a mission: Uncovering the past of Victoria’s Gunditjmara country”. Traveller.com.au.
Mallett, Ashley (2002). The Black Lords of Summer: The Story of the 1868 Aboriginal Tour of England and Beyond. University of Queensland Press. pp. 169–175. ISBN 978-0-702-23262-6.
Davies, S. J. J. F. (2002). Ratites and Tinamous. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-854996-2.