For Want of a Yam

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Jared, Feb 13, 2008.

  1. Jared Voldemort Jnr

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2004
    Location:
    Kingdom of Australia
    The continent of Australia suffers from a dearth of domesticable plants and animals. As pointed out by Jared Diamond (and others), Australia has produced the total of one plant [1] which is become a significant food crop: the macadamia nut. Tasty as those nuts are, the basis of an agricultural civilization they do not make. For this reason, Australia was the only habitable continent where the inhabitants did not develop major farming societies before European arrival [2]. There were other factors which inhibited the development of a farming society in Australia, such as the extreme aridity of much of the continent, and irregular droughts even in the fertile areas. Nevertheless, the lack of domesticable crops and animals was a substantial restriction on the development of farming societies in Australia.

    Since farming was not practical, the large majority of Australia’s pre-European population lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The population density was quite low in comparison to most of the world, even in the more fertile areas. While estimates of the pre-European population of Australia are considerably varied, it seems to have been no more than a million, possibly less. The demographic effects of European colonisation were devastating; a combination of disease, warfare and other factors reduced the indigenous population to somewhere around 100,000 (again, estimates vary) by 1900. While the population has recovered somewhat since that time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders still form a small minority of Australia’s population; about 450,000 or 2.4% of the total population as of the 2001 census.

    However, it seems perfectly plausible to find a way to have a much larger pre-European indigenous population in Australia. In nearby New Zealand, the Maori had a farming society based around only one domesticated crop – the kumara or sweet potato. They still supplemented their diet with a wide variety of wild plants and with hunting, but the kumara formed a major component of their diet, acted as a food store, and allowed the establishment of a farming culture.

    In Australia itself, there many land management practices and a wide variety of plants which were harvested and sometimes replanted. But due to the various characteristics of these plants, none of them turned into a truly domesticated crop, although there are some recent efforts along those lines. In its native crops, Australia notably has several species of yams, which in other parts of the world were turned into domesticated crops. The Australian varieties (Ipomoea costata and several species of Dioscorea) weren’t fully domesticated, although they were certainly harvested and re-used. By a fluke of biology, Australia lacked any species of yams which could be quickly domesticated [3].

    This being alternative history, let’s roll the dice again. *Australia has a new plant species when the first Australians arrive. Call it Dioscorea chelidonius, the Red Yam. Like other yam species, D. chelidonius is a perennial vine which produces an edible (and very tasty) tuberous root as a food store. In its wild state, D. chelidonius produces tubers which produce up to 1 kg of edible material. Like those of other yam species, the tubers of D. chelidonius can be stored without refrigeration for up to six months; very handy in an environment where food is often scarce. They can be eaten raw (like some, but not all OTL Australian yam species) but are most preferred when roasted. Although sweet, they are still quite healthy, and will provide a substantial proportion of a person’s daily nutritional intake.

    D. chelidonius grows wild in the Murray River valley, in (OTL) southern New South Wales and northern Victoria. It is quickly harvested by the first Australians when they arrive, and eventually it will be domesticated. Even with its more favourable properties, this process of domestication will still take some time. But by around 1,500 years ago, a domesticated version of the Red Yam has been developed in northern Victoria. Many more breeds will be developed to suit local conditions, and the Red Yam spreads throughout much of Australia. Trade contact will eventually bring it is far west as the fertile areas of south-western Australia (around Perth), and north as far as southern Queensland. D. chelidonius is naturally a subtropical, not tropical species, and it will not readily grow much further north than the Tropic of Capricorn. It will take over a thousand years of selective breeding before the first varieties of the Red Yam are developed which can grow in tropical conditions, and these will spread into northern Queensland over the next few hundred years.

    Now, having the grand total of one (1) major domesticated crop will place considerable limitations on the development of farming societies in *Australia. Much like contemporary Maori culture in New Zealand, there will still be a need for protein in the diet, which has to come from hunting in one form or another. The Murray Valley will probably see much more expanded eel-farming, not just Red Yams. It’s quite possible that some other Australian native crops will start down the road to domestication; without the Red Yam as a “founder crop”, no society in OTL could put the effort into domesticating them effectively [4]. Macadamias will almost certainly be domesticated, for instance. But if these crops are domesticated at all, they will be only a relatively small part of the daily calorie intake of the farmers; most of that will come from Red Yams.

    So, given this premise, what sort of farming societies are likely to develop in *Australia? There are still several limitations. Intermittent droughts will still be a part of life. There’s no handy large domesticable animals, so no beasts of burden. But one thing’s for sure: the population of *Australia will be a lot higher. There will be established villages and towns all along the east coast and in the southwest, although probably not much in the way of large cities. By the time the first wandering Dutchmen sight the western coast, the total population of *Australia is going to be around 5 million. Even assuming Europeans colonise the continent, and allowing for the spread of diseases and warfare, the *Aboriginal population is going to bottom out somewhere around 1 million people and recover from there. Depending on how heavily the continent is colonised, the *Aboriginals may not be the majority of the population, but they’ll certainly be a significant minority.

    Thoughts?

    Jared

    --

    [1] To be nitpicky, there’s two species of commercially exploited macadamia nuts, but the differences between them aren’t significant for these purposes.

    [2] There were some farming societies in Australia, such as communities in parts of modern Victoria who were eel and yam harvesters. The Aboriginal peoples used a complex system of land management (usually called “firestick farming”) to sustain their food supply. But without domesticated crops, their population density remained relatively low.

    [3] Some of the yam species may have been domesticated eventually, particularly those in modern Victoria which were associated with sedentary eel-farming communities. But they weren’t easy to domesticate, and it looks like it would have taken a while longer.

    [4] There are a number of Australian native plant species whose potential is now being explored; they were harvested wild by the Aboriginal peoples but are not easily domesticable.
     
    Ameck16 likes this.
  2. The Federalist Petty Partisan Pamphleteer

    Joined:
    Dec 7, 2006
    Who knew you could build such a great TL on Yams?
     
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  3. MrP Enemy of the people

    Joined:
    Apr 6, 2005
    Location:
    Emirate of Cheshire
    Dashed interesting idea, this, old boy. I fear I can't contribute anything of substance, but I'll be watching with interest!
     
  4. Roberto FREE SUSAN O.

    Joined:
    Aug 22, 2007
    Location:
    The Impenetrable Fortress of Kr'Rundor
    Another TL? About yams?
     
  5. 83gemini Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    May 30, 2007
    Advance *Islamic Australia Fair!
     
  6. corourke Member Donor

    Joined:
    Jan 1, 2004
    So we have the yams reaching the tropics around 1500AD?

    Any kind of society will produce trade goods, and I think that it's quite likely that trade will occur between New Guinea and *Australia once the *Australian societies have spread far enough north.

    This will probably cause *Australia to be integrated into the SE Asian economy that existed at the time. We could probably see some Dutch trading posts / colonial activity.
     
  7. Analytical Engine Monarchist Collectivist Federalist

    Joined:
    Mar 12, 2007
    Location:
    UK, EU (for the moment), Earth
    Finally... a reason of the Dutch to have a huge part of Australia... :D
     
  8. Hnau free radical

    Joined:
    Aug 13, 2007
    Location:
    Salt Lake City, Utah
    Higher human population means more competition for animal meat. Maybe they'll have more sophisticated weaponry by the time of contact?
     
  9. Nekromans Mernber

    Joined:
    Mar 25, 2006
    Location:
    Leicester
    A TL with gunned Aborigines would be interesting, to say the least.
     
  10. David bar Elias Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    May 17, 2006
    Looks cool. :) :cool:
     
  11. MarkA MarkA

    Joined:
    Apr 28, 2005
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Are yams, particularly domesticated varieties, susceptible to disease? I am thinking of something like the potato blight that affected the crop in Ireland. If they are then one outbreak could spell disaster.

    Even if they are not it still seems a rather limited base for the development of a settled urban culture. Still, as pointed out the Maori managed to do it. If the eel farmers in southern Australia had their diet complemented with yams it would make a huge difference to the chances of urbanization in their clan group. What other bush tucker species grow in that area that has the potential to be domesticated? A varied crop of even a few domesticated species would be advantageous to trade as well as the local development of an urban culture.

    A lack of domestic animals, except for the dingo of course, is a great disadvantage. Could significant technical and social advances take place without beasts of burden? Would the lack of such animals mean that any aboriginal proto urban culture be limited to the level of the near eastern first farmers? The first farmers of course had domesticated animals as well as cereal crops.

    In relation to the yam spreading north, it would appear to be unlikely that it could form the basis for an urban culture. After all, northern Europe remained ‘barbarian’ for centuries because its soils and climate was unsuitable for the types of crops considered the basis for civilization. More advanced aboriginal civilizations that developed in the south could conceivably found colonies or trading posts all the way up the coast. But the Murray Valley is a LONG way from northern Australia.

    Aboriginal Australians reached the Murray Valley area relatively soon after their ancestors arrived. If such a yam existed, it would be eaten by what was at the time the most advanced culture on the planet. I would expect this to lead to the establishment of an urban-based culture very early indeed, particularly if fish farming and the domestication of other suitable plants proceeded apace. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that a city civilization would exist long before Sumer.

    This all presumes that the yam can indeed provide the basis for settled, densely populated civilization.

    Congratulations on a very interesting thread and one of the better ones on here.
     
  12. zoomar Curmudgeon

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2004
    Location:
    Occupied Sequoyah, CSA (Okla)
    I doubt that the presence of a domesticable species of yam in Australia would have had much effect, unless you couple that with other environmental or cultural factors. Rarely do hunter-gatherers adopt horticulture (especially intensive horticulture) unless they find themselves in environmentally constrained situations facing overpopulation. Never in human history have people voluntarily adandoned a hunting gathering economy unless they have to. Agriculture takes more effort, requires more energy, and requires more complex social and economic rules. Nobody like that, least of all hunter-gatherers.

    To make this idea work, you need to create reasons aboriginal population would increase to the point where it places strains on the ability of the natural habitat to sustain it...or change history and have the first aborigines migrate to the continent with a pre-existing knowldge of practical agriculture. After all, the Maoris did not develop agriculture in New Zealand, they came from places where agriculture was already a major element of the subsistence pattern.

    If you did get this to happen, I would tend to imagine the agricultural tribes would probably occupy the wet tropical north, where societies not unlike those in New Guinea would evolve. One might then imagine a situation where these groups would then reach population densities forcing the development of more stuctured and heirarchical socities, especially if they attempted to expand into the more arid areas where irrigation and other collaborative intensive agricultural practices are necessary.
     
  13. MarkA MarkA

    Joined:
    Apr 28, 2005
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    There is evidence that the artifacts originally described as fish traps in the Murray Valley area were in fact primitive attempts to farm fish, particularly eels. That they worked is shown by the centuries of use. This may well indicate that the pressures you mentioned had occured and this was the response. It could also mean that the theory is wrong and that when humans discover a particularly delicious food source they attempt to farm it.

    It is now generally accepted that climate change was the trigger for the development of agriculture in the Middle East. Such changes have occured in Australia as well. With the existence of a viable species of domesticable and edible plant, the possibility of urban development is likely. It happened all over the world after all except in Australia and most probably because of the absence of the equivilent of a cereal crop.
     
  14. zoomar Curmudgeon

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2004
    Location:
    Occupied Sequoyah, CSA (Okla)

    You are correct. Climate change can often result in increased pressures on an existing population to prompt greater dependence on intensive agriculture.
     
  15. Nicksplace27 Member

    Joined:
    Jul 18, 2005
    Location:
    minnesota
    Very interesting Jared. I look forward to what you have in store for this TL. But how densely populated could Australia get with just better food? And the tech gap will still be quite large with simply the length of Eurasia and all that Guns Germs and Steel stuff. You've read the book I hope and I'll just trust you'll make it plausible.

    PS so this will replace DoD?
     
  16. randomkeith Banned

    Joined:
    Nov 15, 2007
    Location:
    Minjar

    Maybe this was already happening there is evidence to suggest that Australias desertification was caused by thousands of years of fire stick hunting. (Setting fire to the bush and killing the things that ran way from the flames)

    In the North West espesially aroung Kalbarri the Abboriginals were actually growing crops. This is largly thought to have been the influence of Dutch sailors shipwrecked on the West coast in the 1600's. As the Abborigals are the only ones in the entire contenant who cultivated a crop.
     
  17. CalBear Your Ursus arctos californicus Moderator Moderator Donor

    Joined:
    Oct 4, 2005
    Love PODs from a seemingly minor change!:)

    I do, unfortunately, have to disagree with you regarding the percentage of native die off from imported European diseases. Western Hemisphere experiences indicate a die off more on the order of 90%+, especially in areas with some population density.

    One of the biggest killers would be measles, which proved to be just as lethal to virgin populations as Small Pox (although small pox gets all the ink!)
     
  18. Glen ASB & Left Hand of IAN Moderator

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    Pennsylvania
    Yams are hardly a minor change!
     
  19. Riain Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Feb 17, 2007
    Location:
    Straya
    I've been thinking about pre-European Australia and contact in the last few days, and the society in the Condah swamp. Here are links which give a bit of info about the area, basically the Gundijimara built up stone wiers etc to make the swamp into an eel farming area, and lived a resonably sedentary, structured lifestyle.
    www.eniar.org/news/stones.html
    www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/s806276.htm
    If you throw 'red yams' into the mix and all of a sudden you have the ability to carry large populations in selected areas. Perhaps this combination of improved wetlands and 'red yams' would result in something similar to one of the American societies, pre Columbus.
     
  20. Glen ASB & Left Hand of IAN Moderator

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    Apr 20, 2005
    Location:
    Pennsylvania
    Interesting thoughts.:)