Traditional Aboriginal Hunting in Australia: A cultural heritage issue

An Aboriginal student from Strabroke Island in Australia wrote a noteworthy essay in 1993 on the question "What is cultural heritage?" He wrote that for him, and his people, all this is in the land and all that is in the knowledge about the land and the life of the people is cultural heritage. He gave as an example, the shellfish eugarie (pipi) which he had been taught by his father to gather, and which appear in the shell midden deposits accumulated by his ancestors.

Both the resources and the exploitation of those resources were a part of this man's cultural heritage. The decline in traditional food resources, and in knowledge about Aboriginal management ad exploitation techniques, are matters of some concern in Australia. Loss of cultural knowledge is not just a process that occurred in the past, when Aboriginal children were prevented from speaking their language, or were taken from their parents. It is happening now, when access to traditional resources and traditional ways of life is denied to Aboriginal people. The question of Aboriginal hunting lands in Australia is one perspective on this issue.

The debate on Aboriginal hunting in Australia, particularly in national parks, has often been dominated by those concerned with nature conservation issues. In this article it will be argued that the primary issue in the debate is the survival of indigenous culture. The geographical focus of discussion will be the Australian state of Queensland, where the government is currently considering possible legislative options for permitting indigenous communities to hunt and gather on protected lands.


Recent legislation in Queensland has paved the way for limited hunting by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Queensland Aboriginal Land Act, 1991, allows that gazettal of some national parks for claim by Aboriginal people.

Following a successful claim in these parks, Aboriginal people may be permitted to hunt traditional foods in certain circumstances and subject to controls established in a plan of management for the park and the species concerned.

The Queensland Nature Conservation Act, 1992, allows the taking of protected wildlife on private land by Aboriginal people, provided such activity is permitted by a species conservation plan and approval from the landowner has been gained.

The current debate is about whether or not to extend these rights and allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to hunt on any government-owned and-controlled land to which they have traditional links, including land reserved for conservation.

Those most vocally opposed to Aboriginal hunting rights in national parks are some biologists, and many in conservation movements, although there is considerable variety of opinion within this movement. This opposition has been supported by letter from concerned citizens in the press and in the publications of some conservation organizations.


From a review of the literature and letters to the press, there seem to be four main reasons for opposition to traditional hunting in national parks, summarized as follows: 1 National Parks exist to protect natural landscapes, natural systems, and biodiversity, not to encourage destruction of resources; 2 Allowing Aborigines to hunt in national parks will endanger species; 3 If hunting is to be permitted, Aborigines should be restricted to traditional technologies; 4 It is discriminatory. "It's one law for us and another law for them."

I will now analyze each of these objections in turn. 1 National parks exist to protect natural landscapes, natural systems, and biodiversity.

Let us consider this concept of a "natural landscape," often referred to as "pristine" or a "wilderness." Ask anyone you know "what is wilderness" and 90% of responses will be along the lines of "a place untouched by the hand of man."

But in Australia there is no such place! Aboriginal people had occupied every Australian Environment before 20,000 years ago, from the arid desert heart to the ice caps of Tasmania (Dodson, 1992). Aboriginal people have therefore been a part of all Australian environments for at least 1000 generations, and likely many more generations. During this period Aboriginal people managed the land in various ways - by the use of fire, by hunting, by water control techniques - all rooted in traditional ecological knowledge.

For the past 50,000 years or more Australia has been a hunted and a modified landscape. Present day so-called "neutral" ecosystems, and the biodiversity within them, owe their very existence to humanly created ecological processes proceeding without the influence of humans (Head, 1990; 1993).

Aboriginal land management processes have so shaped Australia's ecosystems that the abandonment of traditional land use practices is now seen as a major factor in the extinction of medium-sized mammals (Flannery, 1989; 1990b).

Clearly there is no such thing as a natural national park or "wilderness" in the sense that it is pristine and without the influence of humans.

World heritage areas listed under the category of "natural heritage," and considered by many to be largely "wilderness," are consequently problematic for Aboriginal perspectives on landscape (Ross, in press). One example is Fraser Island, recently added to the World Heritage (natural heritage) list. Some management strategies employed on Fraser Island since its listing have been criticized on the philosophical basis that they interfere with the "natural processes" on the Island. In fact some revegetation works to stabilize an eroding midden were actually removed by a local environmental activist for these reasons. Yet Fraster Island has been a cultural landscape, managed by humans and modified by fire and hunting, for at least 1500 years (McNiven and Russell, in press).

We need to reassess and redefine our western paradigm of national parks and wildernesses as sanctuaries (De Lacy, 1992:390; Stevens, 1994; Guy, in press). We need to incorporate into our thinking the concept of cultural landscapes (Ross, in press), and accept that humans have shaped the very ecological systems which drive Australia's "wildernesses."

We also need to recognize that at present "immensely important Aboriginal cultural landscapes are being conserved in the national parks and reserve systems" by biologists (Sullivan, 1992: 172). And Aboriginal people - the original managers - are being denied access both to traditional land use practices and to present day land management decisions about their land.

I believe that the problem is one of differing paradigms (Ellis, 1994), a clash of worldviews. Most white Australians, and many conservationists, have a concept of "traditional" Aborigines as archetypal conservationists, living off the land in total harmony with their surroundings. This paradism has as its corollary the view that present day Aborigines are somehow "tainted" because of contact with white culture, and incapable of looking after their land as their forebears did.

This is a simplistic view of the past. As Lesley Head has pointed out: 1 Aboriginal lifestyles were sustainable in the environment for a period of 40,000 years.... This sustainability has more to do with technological and population limitations, in association with detailed local knowledge, than with people being inherent conservationists (Head, 1990:452).

To deny Aboriginal people their role in the creation of the Australian landscape is to deny them their place in the history of Australia, and perpetuates the fiction of terra nullius - a land unowned and unmanaged (McNiven and Russell, in press). 2 Aboriginal hunting threatens the survival of endangered species.

Another argument against recognizing Aboriginal hunting rights and access to traditional resources is to imply that permitting traditional hunting will threaten the survival of endangered species. The most commonly cited examples in support of this position are the extinction of megafauna and recent cases of Aboriginal hunting which have destroyed large numbers of certain species, such as the dugong (an animal similar to a manatee).

Megafauna include several species of giant kangaroo (e.g., Protemnodon sp., Macropus titan, Sthenurus and Procoptodon), giant marsupials with no surviving descendants (e.g., Diprotodon, Zygomaturus, and Palorchestes), a predator (Thylacoleo carnifex), giant wombats, goannas, and emus. Some 60 or more species, all of which are now extinct, once roamed the Australian continent.

All these species coexisted, for a while, with Aborigines, and there are those who believe that Aboriginal hunting and firing practices were the sole causes of their extinction (Jones, 1968). However, there is no archaeological or other scientific evidence to support this notion despite targeted research (R.V.S. Wright, personal communication). In fact, many archaeologists and palaoecologists believe that, at most. Aboriginal hunting was only one of many factors in the extinctions, with climactic change probably playing the most significant role (Flannery, 1990a).

Dugong Hunting

To set this issue in its context, it is important to note that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are likely to have been fisherfolk even before their arrival on this continent (Bowdler, 1977). Fishing, as with many forms of food collecting, was never a purely "subsistence" activity; food was also used in ceremonies, at large communal gatherings, as items for exchange, and stored for famine times (Cordell, 1991; Williams, 1979). Yet subsistence was always the principal focus of food collecting (Meehan, 1982), and although [those involved in] contemporary hunting and foraging for subsistence now partake in non-Aboriginal techniques and elements, the centrality of subsistence is undiminished and continues to reinforce peoples' knowledge and connection to ancestral countries (Cordell, 1991:27).

It is easy to cast blame at modern Aboriginal hunters for the decline in the dugong population. Dugong hunting, which uses powered boats and modern hunting technology, is very visible. However there are no accurate data on the effects of Aboriginal hunting on dugong populations. Furthermore it is now widely acknowledged that there are many pressures on dugong populations.

Most specialists in this area now concur that commercial fishing practices have a far greater impact on dugong numbers than does Aboriginal hunting, but because commercial fishing practices are less visible, they are often easily overlooked: Hunting, even with guns and power boats, has insignificant impact on Dugong populations compared with the large numbers killed accidentally in the nets of commercial fishermen (Marsh, cited in Toyne and Johnston, 1991).

Overall it would appear that traditional hunting practices, which focus primarily on subsistence, do not cause pressure on endangered fauna:

Most research indicates that the effects of hunting and gathering are very localized and that rare species are not usually targeted (Figgis, ACF, cited in Hill, 1992:272).

Furthermore, many Aboriginal communities have publicly stated that their primary concern is conservation, not species destruction:

A delegation of the Cape YorkLand Council met with the main Queensland conservation groups on May 15, 1991 to discuss their concerns with the proposals for Aboriginal claims on National Parks. The Land Council assured them of its agreement that conservation should be the primary consideration in determining arrangements and use of National Parks by Aboriginal owners and that the Land Council had no problem with this requirement being legislated (Cape York Land Council, 1991:8). 3 Use of traditional technology.

The antagonism surrounding this issue appears to be linked to the paradigm of the traditional Aborigine as a primeval conservationist. Part of this paradigm involves "freeze-framing' tradition" (Cordell, 1993:11). To see Aboriginal people using nontraditional technology in the exercise of traditional hunting somehow shatters that paradigm. So we see that those opposed to traditional Aboriginal hunting are often also opposed to the use of nontraditional technology by Aboriginal hunters.

One of the main arguments used in support of "turning back the clock" on hunting technology is that, if Aboriginal people use four wheel drives and rifles, they will be able to take far more animals over much greater areas than was possible in pre-European times. For this reason, many feel that if traditional hunting, on any lands, is ever to be allowed, Aboriginal people should be restricted to using traditional technologies.

The main problem with this notion is that it fails to recognize that technology is far more than just weapons. Technology includes ecological knowledge. Our western paradigms, obsessed with material goods, may make it hard for us to recognize this (Lewis, 1993:9).

Traditional Aboriginal knowledge of ecological management is knowledge accumulated over more than 2000 generations. Our modern science of ecology is only two generations old. No wonder we have made so many ecological mistakes! Perhaps we should remove the environmental mote from our own eyes before we attempt to remove the speck from the eyes of Aboriginal hunters.

It is widely acknowledged that Aboriginal people may have enormous contributions to make to our knowledge of native species (both animal and plant) and to the management of ecosystems, whether within national parks and reserves or outside them.

Experienced Aboriginal hunters, equipped with whatever weapons, traditional or otherwise, possess a much more sophisticated, much more elaborately developed technology than contemporary, non-Aboriginal sports hunters, outfitted with the most expensive high-powered weapons, four wheel drive vehicles, and the best survival gear... Missing from the technology of such "weekend warriors" are the kinds and degrees of knowledge held by Aboriginal hunters (Lewis, 1992:18).

But if Aboriginal hunters are to be limited to using traditional weapons, we must consider what is meant by "traditional." Archaeologists have documented continual cultural change during the 50,000 years or more of Aboriginal occupation of Australia. These changes continue to the present day, and to deny these developments is to deny indigenous people their identity in the modern world. As John Cordell notes:

Indigenous people are constantly refashioning customs today, reconstructing traditions and the past to affirm cultural identity in the present (Cordell, 1993:13).

So what is it that critics mean by traditional technology? Are each of the cultural phases seen in the archaeological record to be regarded as equally traditional? And does "traditional" include changes associated with contact with outside groups, such as those who brought the dingo to the Australian continent some 4,000 years ago? Or Macassan traders of the last millennium? Or the British?

Should Aboriginal hunters be restricted to the unbarbed spears and core tools of 40,000 BP (years before present)? Or could they be allowed to include boomerangs, which only appeared after 10,000 BP? Or perhaps the stone-barbed spears of the last 4000 years could be considered? Or stone hatchets, known in southern Australia only in the last 4000 years? Or can steel hatchets, given to Aborigines by Europeans as a common means of payment, be allowed?

And if Aboriginal hunters are to be restricted in this way, should all sporting shooters also have to use their traditional weapons from the same time period?

Clearly this is nonsense. White Australia has been denying Aboriginal people the right to carry traditional weapons for 200 years. Only three years ago an Aboriginal hunter in New South Wales was charged with cruelty to animals for killing a goanna with a club, a traditional hunting weapon. There are many contradictions in this argument.

Another issue for the hunters themselves is that, without the use of motorized transport, most Aboriginal people would be unable to reach their traditional hunting areas, the only lands in Queensland they are permitted to hunt under both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal law. And it is only through the active continuation of traditional hunting practices on traditional lands that traditional ecological knowledge can survive.

As Eugene Hunn (1993:14 - 15)notes:

Just as the extinction of biological species represents a loss of genetic diversity and thus a restriction of future evolutionary options, so also does the loss of traditional ecological knowledge and the traditional cultures that generated such systems represent a reduction in the range of choices available to future generations. 4 Traditional Aboriginal hunting rights are discriminatory.

Yet another argument against the recognition of traditional Aboriginal rights to hunt to traditional lands is that such recognition discriminates against non-Aboriginal people.

In many ways this issue of "rights" can be linked to the 1992 High Court decision on Native Title. Many (and particularly some journalists and politicians) have argued that this High Court decision is, of itself, discriminatory, as the HIgh Court has "given" Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders rights to land that non-indigenous Australians do not have. The High Court has done nothing of the sort. it has simply made a declaration about the interpretation of common law in Australia, and asserted that the declaration of British sovereignty "did not automatically render Aborigines trespassers on their traditional land" (Brennan, 1993:7). In other words the HIgh Court ruling recognized that Aborigines and Torres Strati Islanders had traditional ownership rights to the land prior to British invasion, that these rights had never been surrendered (although in many cases such rights have been extinguished by subsequent actions of governments).

The Native Title issue is more than just about land rights. It is also about land use:

[Native Title] is about owning and/or having the ability to use the land occasionally or permanently within a complex web of cultural, spiritual, economic, political, and social rights and responsibilities (Duffy, 1993:2).

There is little worth in land rights if responsibilities for land management do not come with the package. These are basic rights of land ownership, and as such they are not at all discriminatory.

Let it not be said that the fair and equitable recognition of Aboriginal rights to land is discrimination. To call for the acknowledgment of the land rights of people who have never surrendered those rights is not discrimination. Certainly, what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off until tomorrow (Pope John Paul II, 1986, cited in Cape York Land Council, 1991:9).


In summary, to deny Aboriginal people their rights to traditional hunting is "a new dispossession," in the words of Toyne and Johnston (1991). Decisions are being made outside the Aboriginal community and are then being imposed upon the community, with little or no consultation (Pearson, 1988; Smyth, 1992; Wallace, 1992).

Such decisions conflict with Articles 8 and 10 of the United Nations International Convention on Biodiversity, to which Australia is a signatory. These articles call for the involvement of indigenous peoples in species management, and for the encouragement of customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices, where such practices are compatible with conservation goals.

Similar consensus exists within other international organizations. At the 1992 Fourth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas, sponsored by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), there were numerous recommendations made regarding the role of indigenous land managers in protected area management. One example is that from a workshop on people in protected areas:

IUCN should urge protected area managers to acknowledge the conservation and resource management potential of customary and indigenous tenure and further assess the implications of local property systems for sustaining biodiversity. Accordingly IUCN should develop a policy to support indigenous peoples' and other traditional communities' own tenure based resource management strategies, and initiatives to integrate their rights and interests in protected are management.

At present there is little more than token involvement of Aboriginal people in national park management in Queensland, and in several other Australian states. As Noel Pearson has observed:

The present unitary system of management is resulting in the further dispossession of Aboriginal people of their ability to, and for them to, manage their own lands (Pearson, 1988:1).

Clearly there is a need for a two-way process of management. Rosemary Hill has echoed the call of the Australian Law Reform Commission:\

Conservation goals are more likely to be achieved, not by denying Aboriginal people's rights, but by working with people whose rights have been recognized to ensure conservation is achieved. The principles established by the Law Reform Commission (1986) - that a determination of traditional should focus on the purpose of the activity, not the methods, and that where a conflict occurs between conservation and traditional practice, the former should take precedence - have been supported by Aboriginal people (Hill, 1992:272).

However I believe we should go further than this. Biological conservation is not the primary concern in the debate. The issue is the survival of Aboriginal cultural heritage. Claims regarding rights of access to traditional lands and traditional resources "should not have to pass a conservation test" (Cordell, 1993:5), and conservation goals should not take precedence over cultural and social justice concerns. Issues such as management and biological conservation must take second place in the debate.

Why should Aboriginal people not be able to make the decisions about the management of their lands? Why should governments, or biologists, or conservationists, or cultural heritage managers, have a power of veto which is not available to the main protagonists in this case - the Aboriginal people themselves!

With the passing of the Native Title Act (1994) we in Australia stand at a vital threshold. The way in which we respond to the challenge of the High Court decision on Native Title, and related issues of access to traditional subsistence resources, will decide whether or not we will ever achieve meaningful reconciliation in this country.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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