Plants before farming: The deep history of plant-use and representation in the rock art of Australia's Kimberley region

Peter Veth, Cecilia Myers, Pauline Heaney, Sven Ouzman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


The orthodox notion of agriculture cumulatively and inevitably developing from foragers' gathering practices is increasingly untenable. Recent archaeological, botanical and genetic research from Asia and Australia show precocious manipulation of plant resources that continue for millennia within a forager
ideology and practice without culminating in ‘agriculture’. Australia's Kimberley is an especially productive research region with a wide range of environmental niches on a topographically varied landscape that has had human settlement spanning over the last 50,000 years. Previously characterised as ‘foragers’
until contact with travellers from Indonesia and then Europeans over the last few hundred years; new research questions this simplistic characterisation of Aboriginal people, and suggests instead a particularly complex and enduring set of people-plant relationships. This complexity is given material witness
in the form of Kimberley rock art, which stands out globally in having an enormous body of direct and indirect depictions of plants, including: grasses, trees, tubers; pigment-soaked plants imprinted on rock shelter walls; anthropomorphism of plants; and plant-based material culture such as digging sticks, dilly bags, and wood-hafted stone axe. These are more than simple illustrations of a forager economic base. Instead, rock art is a primary record of long-term sophisticated physical and symbolic manipulation of
plants that fits neither into the simplistic categories of ‘foraging’ or of ‘agriculture’. Rather, we have a society in which people actively chose not to pursue orthodox agriculture while according plants a
central place in their lives.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-45
Number of pages20
JournalQuaternary International
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2018


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