Lands of Red and Gold

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Jared, Dec 16, 2008.

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  1. Seldrin Banned

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    Wooh update! Love it and can't wait for more, however I do have a question here, if the Aboriginals have a domesticated crop, does this mean that there will be less of a burn-off of the OTL semi-arid areas, meaning that plant life is more abundant and there is less soil erosion?
     
  2. Nicksplace27 Member

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    Very interesting. Good POD as well. I look forward to seeing more of this.

    Hey, since the POD is at least 20000 years ago, would any of the megafuana like these guys or these guys? Normally speaking, thier extinctions were the work of human hunting but seeing as the Native Australians will be abandoning hunter-gathering earlier, could we see marsupial and wombat cavalry meeting these dutch sailors?
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2008
  3. Geekhis Khan I'm Not Dead Yet...

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    Genius! :)
     
  4. Ed Costello Like tickling a trout in the wild

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    A very nice introduction, Jared. I'm currently trying to read DoD, and this looks like being a nice counterpoint to it - I look forward to more.
     
  5. Jared Voldemort Jnr

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    Glad you liked the PoD. The concept of a butterfly net (or butterfly trap) isn't something unique to Lands of Red and Gold, of course; it's been used on some of the other big timelines over on shw-i, such as Empty America and Bronze Age New World. Essentially, it just makes more sense to use a butterfly net in those circumstances, since otherwise it just means rewriting the history of the whole world, from scratch. Which would rather miss the point of alternative history, of course; if I wanted to write a complete history of a world from scratch, I'd just write a fantasy novel [1].

    Of course, it should go without saying that once there is contact between Australia and the broader world, the butterfly net will be lifted. Anyone who asks "How will the changed Australia affect World War Two?" will be fed to the Blobfish.

    The effects of Aboriginal burning on plant life and soil erosion are rather disputed. On the one hand burning encouraged more growth of some plants, on the other hand, grasslands are more prone to erosion, and changed vegetation patterns can have some dramatic effects. I recall reading that the usual pattern of monsoons in previous interglacial periods was for them to extend much further into northern Australia, but in the current interglacial, they didn't come back anywhere near as much. The authors of that research attributed the difference to the changed vegetation (less trees, essentially) in north-western Australia created by Aboriginal fire management practices.

    In terms of what will happen once the Aboriginal peoples get domesticated crops, well, the effects will be complex. They will get much of their food from farming, but they will also still like hunting for meat. And there will be lots more people, too, which will place other pressures on natural resources.

    Glad you like it. As I mentioned before, there's probably going to be an installment coming every fortnight or so. Having learned my lesson from DoD, I keep a buffer of a couple of posts [2] written in advance, to allow for the occasions when I'm too busy to write a new instalment for several weeks at a time.

    Tempting as the idea is, it's sadly implausible. For one thing, even Aboriginal proto-farming isn't going to start until about 10,000 years ago; as in the rest of the world, farming doesn't seem to have been practical during the Ice Ages (climatic instability, probably). For another, human hunting has been pretty devastating whenever they encountered naive megafauna anywhere in the world. The Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, northern Eurasia... I think it would take a bigger change than this to have even a couple of megafauna species surviving. And even if they survived, there's no guarantee that they would have been domesticable anyway. Most large animal species aren't domesticable, for one reason or another.

    Merci.

    Glad you like the counterpoint. I like to think that DoD has a few appealling features, but it is rather long and difficult to keep track of even for me, and I wrote the thing. Lands of Red and Gold is deliberately going to be more focused than that. I don't plan to give much if any on-screen time to parts of the world outside of Australasia [3].

    [1] Actually, I've already written a fantasy novel or three, but that's another story.

    [2] Okay, more than two posts at the moment, but that will change since I'm still writing the last instalments of DoD right now, not more of LoRaG.

    [3] Except for the Ottoman Empire. Hey, I need to earn AHP's forgiveness somehow for what I did to the Ottomans in DoD. Actually, it's just because the Ottoman Empire includes a rather large area which would benefit from Australian crops, and have an increased population as a result. That's going to produce a lot of changes.
     
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  6. mojojojo Member

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    That has to be the coolest threat ever on AH.com:D
     
  7. Atom Future Human

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    I was looking around for a plant to base D. Chelidonius off (for some reason I was seized by a desire to draw it.:confused: ), and I think that D. Transversa is probably the best bet. What do you think?

    Anyways, excellent post. I was thinking about languages (I just read a sketch of Dyirbal) and i was wondering, presumably all languages in Australia are rather different then OTLs? Are there more language branches in the south? Because in OTL theres only one branch in the south, Pama Nungyan, and 27 in the north, and I would think that with higher population densities it might have differentiated more.
     
  8. Ed Costello Like tickling a trout in the wild

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    It wasn't my intention to denigrate DoD - it's a fantastic and hugely intricate TL, and one of my favourites. It's just that ploughing through the text file makes my eyes hurt after a while.:eek: The main point of my 'counterpoint' comment was that this TL seems much less likely to be so dystopic - though we are, of course, only two posts in...
     
  9. Jared Voldemort Jnr

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    Well, we were looking for a new mascot...

    I've based the nutritional and other characteristics of the red yam off two current Australian yam species, the long yam (Dioscorea transversa) and the warran yam (Dioscorea hastifolia). There's a fair bit of information about the long yam online, and some about the warran yam as well (http://florabase.dec.wa.gov.au/search/advanced?id=1509) including some photos here. Although I have described the red yam as a bit different from either of those species - their flowers are purple, for example - but either of those species would be a reasonably close representation of the red yam.

    Languages in Australia are certainly different to what they were in OTL. Trying to figure out the relationship between language branches is difficult because the Australian languages form a Sprachbund, where even non-related languages end up sharing some features. I've even seen one thesis that Pama-Ngunyan is not a valid language family, although that seems to be a minority view.

    Anyway, the general effect of the development of agricultural societies and increasing technology will be to reduce linguistic diversity, not to increase it, as hunter-gatherers get crowded out by early agriculturalists and then increasing military technology allows the unification of broader areas. This has happened in several parts of the world - the Bantu expansion in Africa, the Indo-European expansion in Eurasia, for example - and will probably happen in Australia, too. Of course, the areas where farming doesn't work will still be as linguistically diverse as ever, including most of the north of Australia.

    I didn't read your comments as criticism, but I was pointing out that what I think is the biggest problem with DoD is that it's so big and sprawling.

    Well, the world will be different, at least. There may well be some dystopic nations arising at various points... who knows? What will be the case is that any dystopic elements outside of Australia will receive less coverage; they're not really the main focus of the timeline. With one exception, I suppose - the problem of Eurasian diseases has not gone away. The effects of this on the people of *Australia are unpleasant but predictable.
     
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  10. Dathi THorfinnsson Daði Þorfinnsson

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    Since one of your suggestions for the red yam was polyploidy - and since one source of polyploidy is hybridization (e.g. modern hexaploid wheat is a hybrid of 3? primitive diploid wheats, IIRC), possibly it originated as a sport fertile polyploid hybrid of a couple of those yams. Don't know if that's possible with yams, but...
     
  11. Jared Voldemort Jnr

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    Modern wheat has quite a complex genetic history, including at least two polyploid hybridization events. Of the two original domesticated forms of wheat (emmer and einkorn), emmer was already a tetraploid between a relative of einkorn wheat and a wild grass. Later emmer wheat hybridized with another wild grass species to produce modern bread wheat (and probably spelt, another variant of wheat).

    For yams, though, I'm not sure if that's possible. I don't have enough information to be sure. I do know that it's extremely unlikely that it happened between the two yam species mentioned, since warran yam grows only on the western coast of Australia and long yam grows in the east and north. The two species won't really meet.

    For the genetic history of red yams, polyploidy does happen occasionally within most plants, so there's no particular need for there to be a hybridization event. While I haven't specified, red yams are probably a polyploid variant of long yams, at some point back in the evolutionary past (probably around 250,000 BC). As polyploids, they wouldn't normally be interfertile with long yams, and the wild forms grow in different areas (long yams on the coast, red yams inland), but maybe there was a rare fertile hybrid at some point. Particularly once domesticated red yams spread to the east coast... that could make for some even more vigorous-growing cultivars of red yams, which could be interesting.
     
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  12. Threadmarks: Lands of Red and Gold #2: What Grows From The Earth

    Jared Voldemort Jnr

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    Lands of Red and Gold #2: What Grows From The Earth

    Stylistic note: Lands of Red and Gold is written in a variety of styles, which are mixed between posts and within posts at authorial discretion. Most of the posts will be descriptions of the world of LoRaG itself. However, there will also be considerable sections of the posts which provide relevant background information [1] to make sense of what’s happening in the timeline. And sometimes to justify what’s happening, too, particularly in areas where there are some popular misconceptions.

    * * *

    Think not of the present time, but of an older era. Step back in time, if you wish, to the time six thousand years before the birth of a man whom the world’s largest religion will credit with being divine. Far from the place of this birth, in the continent which will much later be named Australia, live a great many peoples. Long before the peoples along the Murray Valley discover how to make the earth bear regular bounties of red yams according to their needs, one other people have developed their own method of farming. One that does not involve growing plants, but rather farming eels.

    The Junditmara people [2] live in a region which in another time and place will be called south-western Victoria. Their home country includes areas which were natural wetlands, but the Junditmara have transformed the landscape to suit their needs. They construct stone dams and weirs across rivers and streams, creating man-made ponds and expanding existing swamps. They dig channels through rock and earth to join the ponds and lakes into a complex system of waterways. These waterways are naturally abundant in fish, but the Junditmara do not stop there. From the nearby ocean, they catch young eels which they release into the waterways. These eels grow for up to twenty years, and are then harvested in woven baskets which form eel traps.

    The Junditmara have, in fact, developed a system of aquaculture. The eel harvests are abundant and predictable enough to let them develop a sedentary lifestyle. They have no need to move around in search of food. With the harvests of eels, hunting of eggs and waterbirds, and collection of edible plant roots and tubers which grow along the fringes of the waters, they have more than enough food to sustain their population. Indeed, the Junditmara have such a surplus of eels that they smoke eel meat for later use, or as a valued trade good to be sent along trade routes that stretch for hundreds of kilometres.

    For in Junditmara country, Australia has its first people who build in stone. Junditmara society is a complex of hierarchical chiefdoms, with chiefs controlling the lives of their peoples, assigning them to roles and arranging all their marriages. The chiefdoms sit on a confluence of trade routes; the Junditmara export smoked eel meat and possum-skin coats, and import quartz, flints and some high-quality timber which cannot be found in their own country. Collectively, the Junditmara chiefdoms oversee the lives of some ten thousand people [3].

    Still, forget, for a moment, the people living alongside the waterways of south-western Victoria, and look further north, to the peoples who live along the Mighty Murray. When last we saw them, the Aboriginal peoples along the Murray had been harvesting red yams from the wild and turning them into Australia’s first domesticated crop. With the red yam, they have developed the idea of farming. This is not enough to create an agricultural society, not by itself, but it is a beginning.

    The gradual domestication of the red yam has turned these peoples from hunter-gatherers into hunter-gardeners. They hunt and fish for food, they gather other wild plants, and they have established gardens of red yams which they plant and tend. Red yams alone are not sufficient to let them establish permanent settlements. Wild yam tubers can be stored for up to nine months, not enough to form a year-round store of food. Instead, the peoples of the Murray establish early settlements where they reside for up to nine months out of each year, and which they leave for the remainder of the year to hunt and gather wild foods.

    Of course, these societies are not static. The population of the Murray peoples grows, and they start to develop new tools, new social structures, and new beliefs. With their growing population comes more contact with their neighbours outside the Murray Valley. Ancient trade routes connect the Murray Valley with regions both to the north and south. In a land without beasts of burden or good roads, most trade goods are passed between many hands rather than having one person move along the length of a trade route, but where goods move, sometimes ideas do, too.

    One of the major trade routes is to Junditmara country, far to the south. This brings in eel meat and other goods, but it also means that ideas move, too. With the increasing population of the Murray peoples, some of them visit their neighbours, and in time travellers bring back tales of the elaborate dams, weirs and channels of the Junditmara chiefdoms. And with these tales comes inspiration.

    For one of the Murray peoples call themselves the Gunnagal [4]. Their country is around where the River Loddon flows into the Murray, in a locality which in another time and place will see the founding of a town called Swan Hill. The town would have been named for a lagoon at the joining of the two rivers, which teemed with so many waterfowl that the first European explorers who visited there could not sleep properly at night, even though they were camped half a mile away.

    The Gunnagal know nothing of these explorers from a time-that-was-not, but they do know of the lagoon that is one of their rich sources of food. Inspired by travellers’ tales, and with a population boosted by farming red yams, the Gunnagal begin constructing works of their own. They do not have the same bountiful rain which feeds the waterways of the Junditmara, but they do have a river which floods prodigiously if irregularly. With stone, wood and determination, they create their own systems of ponds and lagoons, connected with channels to the Murray and the Loddon. In most times those channels are dry, but when the rivers rise they bring enough water to the new ponds and lagoons to sustain them as standing water.

    With the new waterworks, the Gunnagal have a greatly expanded source of food. In the lagoons they hunt for swans, ducks and other waterbirds. In the waters, they lay traps to catch Murray cod, golden perch, Australian smelt, and a variety of other fish. Around the watery fringes, they harvest plants with edible tubers and leaves. On the nearby fields, they farm red yams, and in the more distant reaches, they hunt kangaroos and gather wild plants.

    Like the Junditmara before them, the Gunnagal have established a lifestyle which allows them to establish permanent settlements. Unlike the Junditmara, the Gunnagal live on a river system where these practices can spread over a wide distance. For with the establishment of yams and fishing, of agriculture and aquaculture, the Gunnagal will develop the first permanent settlement large enough to be called a city. As a people, they understand the rudiments of farming, and with their continued gathering of a wide range of wild plants, they can turn their attention to domesticating other Australian plants.

    That is, if there are any other Australian plants which can be domesticated.

    * * *

    It has been claimed that the Australian continent lacks any domesticable plants apart from the macadamia nut [5,6]. This claim has the advantage of being simple, easy to repeat, and offers a plausible explanation for why Australia did not develop any full-scale indigenous agriculture. This claim has only one major disadvantage: it is completely wrong.

    For several Australian native plants have, in fact, been domesticated. While the most widely-known native Australian domesticate is the macadamia, this was not the first Australian native plant to earn this status. That distinction belongs to the plant which today is marketed in Australia as Warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonoides), and which has been variously called Botany Bay greens, Australian spinach, New Zealand spinach, and Cook’s cabbage. This plant was brought from Australian and established in England in the later eighteenth century as a domesticated vegetable. Its leaves are harvested as a vegetable which is used in a similar manner to spinach. Another Australian plant was also taken to Britain to be domesticated. The mountain pepperbush (Tasmannia lanceolata), a plant with peppery-flavoured leaves, was established in Cornwall, domesticated as the ‘Cornish pepperleaf,’ and became a flavoursome part of Cornish cuisine. Recent selective breeding efforts have produced domesticated strains of several Australian fruits, such as quandong (Santalum acuminatum), muntries (Kunzea pomifera), and various native Australian Citrus species (relatives of oranges and limes).

    More intriguingly, there are several domesticable plant species which are native both to Australia and nearby parts of Southeast Asia. The water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) is an aquatic vegetable which is native to China, Southeast Asia and northern Australia, and which was domesticated in China. Two species of yams (Dioscorea alata and D. bulbifera) were likewise native both to Southeast Asia and northern Australia, and were domesticated in the former, but not the latter. Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a succulent plant widespread in Australia and much of the Old World, was domesticated on multiple occasions in several parts of the world as a leaf vegetable, yet was not domesticated in Australia. All of these plants are clearly domesticable, were known and used by Aboriginal peoples within Australia as wild-harvested sources of food, and yet were not domesticated on Australia’s shores [7].

    Most intriguing of all, Australia possesses native plants which are easily cultivated into staple crops. Trees of the genus Acacia are widespread throughout the tropics and subtropics of the globe, but they are most abundant in Australia. The Australian acacias, usually called wattles, are well-adapted to the harsh conditions and are widespread throughout the continent. They produce large quantities of edible seeds which are collected by Aboriginal peoples as a rich source of food. Recently, several species of wattles were introduced into various parts of tropical Africa (Acacia colei, A. torulosa, A. tumida, A. elachantha and A. saligna). The seeds from these wattles are being increasingly adopted as staple parts of the diet, and domesticated strains of wattles are being developed.

    In short, Australia actually has a variety of domesticable plants, including some which have recently been domesticated or which were domesticated millennia ago elsewhere in the world. Given this, the question which naturally arises is why these plants were not domesticated within Australia itself over the last few thousand years.

    The answer lies in the fact that there is a distinction between domesticable plants and founder crops. Domesticable plants are any plants which can be bred to human uses, but most of them first require a human population to be at least semi-sedentary and acquainted with the concept of farming. Founder crops are much rarer plants, since they possess appropriate qualities (either alone, or in a package with other crops) to enable people to move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a farming lifestyle.

    Domesticable plants are relatively common throughout the world; founder crops are much rarer, and they need to become established first before many other plants can be domesticated. The quintessential founder crops were found in the Middle East, which possessed eight Neolithic founder crops which allowed agriculture to be established there [8]. Founder crops were also found elsewhere in the world, although in most cases they needed longer to domesticate than in the Middle East [9]. Notably, however, the Middle East possessed several domesticable plants which were not domesticated until well after the Neolithic founder crops. Plants such as olives and date palms were domesticable, but the process took several thousand years after agriculture had already started.

    In Australia, historically, there were no founder crops. Australia possessed several domesticable crops, including some yams which were domesticated elsewhere in the world once agriculture had started, but never in Australia. Some yams are suitable as founder crops, such as the white and yellow yams of West Africa (Dioscorea rotunda and D. cayenensis, respectively), but others are not.

    In allohistorical Australia, the red yam (Dioscorea chelidonius) is a suitable founder crop. It is not enough to form a complete diet in itself, but it is enough to encourage a semi-sedentary lifestyle and an understanding of the basics of farming. This leads to a stationary population who are still gathering wild plants as a significant component of their diet, which in turn means that more plants will be domesticated [10]. In time, this will lead to the development of a full Australian agricultural package of crops, and the farming cultures which go along with that.

    * * *

    [1] Also known, less charitably, as infodumps.

    [2] While butterflies in this timeline have been confined to Australia until there is human contact with overseas peoples, it is inevitable that there will be changes within Australia itself. Languages and peoples have changed slightly. The ATL people known as the Junditmara were historically called the Gunditjmara.

    [3] This is one of those examples of things where I have to say “I am not making this up.” This is exactly what the Gunditjmara did, historically.

    [4] In keeping with the changed peoples within ATL Australia, the Gunnagal are not the same people who lived there in OTL. The historical inhabitants of Swan Hill and the surrounding country were the Wemba-Wemba people.

    [5] Yes, you all know of at least one author who made that claim, although he was not the only one.

    [6] To be pedantic, macadamia nuts are actually derived from two closely-related species, Macadamia integrifolia and M. tetraphylla.

    [7] There are several domesticable plant species which are common both to northern Australia and parts of Southeast Asia, and which were probably carried between the two regions by birds. The plants listed above are those which are known to have been present in Australia before European contact and which were used by Aboriginal peoples. There may well have been others (e.g. the domesticable herb and leaf vegetable common self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)), but it’s not always clear whether these arrived before or after European contact.

    [8] Even with potential founder crops, their domestication can sometimes be erratic. There is some evidence that rye was domesticated in northern Syria before the eight main founder crops (emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, barley, lentils, peas, chickpeas, bitter vetch and flax) were adopted. If so, the domestication does not seem to have been continued; rye was largely abandoned as a crop for several millennia before eventually being domesticated again in Europe. Likewise, early attempts to cultivate barley and oats in Jericho seem to have been unsuccessful. It appears that founder crops will eventually be domesticated if people live in the area for long enough, but they may not be adopted quickly.

    [9] Independent agriculture has arisen in a number of areas: definitely in Mesoamerica, China (at least once), New Guinea, the Andes, West Africa (at least once) and in eastern North America. It is also quite likely to have arisen independently in Ethiopia, in two locations in China and West Africa, and possibly in India. There have been a variety of founder crops in these areas; potatoes, squash, sunflowers, millets, sorghum and rice, among others.

    [10] The domesticability of Australian native plants is reasonable (excellent, in fact, for Acacias), but the lack of suitable founder crops meant that Aboriginal peoples did not become sedentary and domesticate them. Significant domestication efforts for Australian native plants had to wait until European arrival, since they had an established package of crops which allowed them to maintain a sedentary lifestyle. This means that there has been only a couple of centuries to explore the potential of Australian native plants. It also means that any Australian native plants need not only to be domesticable, but able to compete with long-established domesticated plants from elsewhere around the world.

    This is often a difficult challenge. The establishment of new fruit crops is hard, for instance, because wild fruits are usually small and have irregular yields. Domesticated fruit plants have had thousands of years of selective breeding for larger size and improved flavour. Establishing new cereal (or pseudocereal) crops is likewise challenging, since any new plants need to compete with long-established crops such as wheat, barley or maize which have thousands of years of cultivation for increased yields and ease of harvesting. Moreover, in twentieth century terms, most new Australian crops need to compete with plants which are mechanically harvested. The most promising Australian native staple crops, the Acacias, are quite difficult to harvest mechanically. Notwithstanding these problems, some Australian plant species have been domesticated, and work is continuing in this area. Naturally, an indigenous agricultural civilization would make more exploitation of Australian plant species since there would not be the same competition from overseas plants.

    * * *

    Thoughts?
     
  13. Seldrin Banned

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    That was an excellent background, or as you said, infodump. somewhat boring, but necesary for the story.
    Will we be seeing anymore tribal backgrounds in the future?
     
  14. Shadow Knight Grand Master of the BAM Order

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    Great work Jared.
     
  15. Geekhis Khan I'm Not Dead Yet...

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    This TL has taught me more about an area of study I'd never considered thinking about (domestication). Very well researched and very interesting to read.

    Forget Diamond...all hail the real Jared!! :D
     
  16. mojojojo Member

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    In this TL will the aborigines have developed any alcoholic beverages out of their crops? Something that might make a splash in the outside world?
     
  17. Ed Costello Like tickling a trout in the wild

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    Hey, it's better you give us the infodumps now, rather than finding a viewpoint character to do it for you *cough*HarryTurtledove*cough*
     
  18. Jared Voldemort Jnr

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    Yes, it wasn't full of drama, but what I'm trying to show in the first few posts is necessary to understand what's going on. If I didn't explain it now, then what happens later wouldn't make much sense. (And I'd also have people going "but according to Jared Diamond...", but I digress.)

    The next post will be more background; somewhat dry, but necessary to understand what's going on, particularly in terms of how the agriculture here is quite unlike anything else anywhere else in the world. Following that, there'll be three or four posts on the Gunnagal, who fill a role like the Sumerians in Eurasia or the Olmecs in Mesoamerica; essentially, the first civilization of Australia. There's going to be some detail about them precisely because they are the first; everything that follows will be affected by them.

    After that, then the description of what happens in prehistorical Australia will be more of an "overview" mode for what happens over the next few fifteen hundred years. Then there will be a snapshot of what Australia is like on 1618, i.e. the eve of European contact. This will show something of tribal backgrounds, but also a lot about the way the world is. There's a couple of sizable empires, another group of culturally united but politically distinct city-states, one decent-sized kingdom, and a few other bits and pieces. Then the timeline will start showing what happens with European contact.

    Merci.

    It was something I didn't know that much about it until I started researching it. It's also meant that I've acquired a taste for bushfood, too, but that's another story.

    Does that mean I need to change my surname to Emerald?

    Yes. Yam wine actually exists as a product today, in a very limited fashion. It comes from Jamaica, and is produced from a combination of fermented yams, citrus and various spices. Australia will probably develop something similar; it has domesticable native citrus species, and a variety of spices. This would be a decent drop, I suspect, although I've never tried the Jamaican variety.

    Australia might even be able to grow regular wine; there are native Australian grapes, but I'm not sure how domesticable they are. The other possibility is a kind of ginger wine; Australia has a ginger-like species which will be used as a spice, and which may be useful to turn into ginger wine. There are also various fruits which could be turned into fermented beverages, but I've got no idea what they would taste like.

    At least I own up to them. ;)
     
  19. Threadmarks: Lands of Red and Gold #3: Yams of Red, Trees of Gold

    Jared Voldemort Jnr

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    Lands of Red and Gold #3: Yams of Red, Trees of Gold

    Picture a time four and a half thousand years ago in a history that never was, then picture a place along the banks of the river that will now never be called the Murray. Along this river, in the region that will now never be called Swan Hill, live a people called the Gunnagal. Like many of their neighbours along this river, the Gunnagal have domesticated a plant called the red yam. An extremely valuable source of food, this crop has let the Gunnagal and other river peoples become hunter-gardeners. They establish seasonal settlements along the river to live of their yam harvest for up to nine months, then disperse for the remaining months to live off what they can hunt, fish, and gather from the earth.

    Beyond their lives as hunters and gardeners, the Gunnagal people have developed new methods. Inspired by travellers’ stories of the distant Junditmara chiefdoms, the Gunnagal have turned their attention to expanding the natural lagoon into a system of wetlands from which they can harvest fish and water plants. So successful are the Gunnagal that they can live year-round in stone dwellings and enjoy an abundance of food. With their harvests of yam and fish, they have no need to wander seasonally.

    From their first settlements, the Gunnagal begin to expand along the river, bringing their methods of yam and fish with them. They have food, they have numbers, they have prestige, and they displace and absorb many of their neighbouring river peoples. Along a length of the river of some eight hundred kilometres, the Gunnagal language becomes a lingua franca, and their culture becomes predominant. Not all of their neighbours have been expelled, but those who remain do so because they have taken up Gunnagal farming and fishing methods, and in time their speech and many of their beliefs.

    Along the river, amidst the expanded country of the Gunnagal, people still gather wild plants to supplement their regular sources of food. They have knowledge of farming, now, and a sedentary lifestyle which inclines them to replant their most favoured wild foods rather than keep moving in search of new food supplies. Selective human gathering of favoured plants started even before the Gunnagal adopted a fully sedentary lifestyle, and in time this process leads to the domestication of other crops...

    * * *

    The early Australian agricultural package consists of several plants which are native to the Murray Valley, and which show good potential for domestication:

    The red yam (Dioscorea chelidonius) is a vine with perennial rootstock and foliage which usually dies back over winter and regrows in spring, although the foliage sometimes remains year-round in warmer and wetter climates. Red yams produce an edible (and very tasty) tuber as a food store. The tubers are formed quite deep in the ground (up to a metre down), and so take a reasonable amount of digging to extract, but the tubers are large enough to justify the effort. In the wild state red yam tubers can grow up to 1 kg in weight (more in wet years); domesticated red yam tubers are often much larger. Domesticated red yams have been artificially selected both for larger tubers and for a sweeter taste [1].

    Like many (but not all) Australian wild yam species, red yams can be eaten raw but are usually roasted or cooked in other ways. In culinary terms, the red yam can be cooked in a variety of ways similar to the potato or sweet potato. It is a staple crop which for most people forms over half of their daily calorie intake. Red yams are native to the central Murray Valley, but domesticated forms can be grown without too much difficulty in regions of adequate rainfall between latitudes of about 25 to 45 degrees. Cultivation of red yams at more tropical latitudes will need to await the development of cultivars more heat-tolerant and better adapted to tropical growing seasons, which will not be quick [2].

    Wattles (Australian species of the genus Acacia) are a diverse group of shrubs and trees with nearly a thousand species across the continent. Wattles are fast-growing, can tolerate extended periods of drought, and grow even on poor soils. Indeed, they are legumes whose roots provide nitrates to revitalise the soil. They produce large numbers of protein- and vitamin-rich seeds which are a valuable source of food. Wattle seeds are pseudocereals; while not true cereals, their seeds can be used in a similar manner. Wattle seeds also remain viable for many years; over twenty years for some species.

    The early Gunnagal peoples domesticate three main species of wattle, the mystery wattle (Acacia difformis), the bramble wattle (A. victoriae) and the golden wattle (A. pycnantha). Domesticated wattles are distinguished from wild varieties by having larger seeds, more regular yields from year to year, and also for flowering reliably at around the same time each year. While each individual wattle species has its own qualities [3], their main uses are similar. Wattle seeds are used similarly to cereal grains such as wheat or barley; the seeds are ground into flour for baking into flatbreads, cakes and similar products. They have a higher protein content than most cereal grains, which is particularly valuable in a society which does not have many domesticated animals. They are extremely important as a food reserve; the long life of wattle seeds means that they are ideal for storage until drought years.

    Apart from their seeds, domesticated wattles have many other uses. They grow very quickly and can be used as a valuable source of timber. Wattle bark produces fibre which can be used for rope and clothing, and also contains tannins which can be used to tan animal leather. Their roots replenish the nitrate content of the soil, which means that they can be used in a system of crop rotation or companion planting alongside red yams and other crops. The empty seed pods and dead leaves of wattles can be used similarly as compost or mulch to maintain soil fertility; they are often mixed back in with the replaced soil after yam tubers have been dug out. Wattles produce a very useful gum, which is sweet and edible either immediately or dried as stored food, added to water to make a sweet drink, sometimes used as a kind of candy, but which also has many other uses, such as an adhesive or binding agent in paints [4]. Even the pests of wattles have their uses; the galls formed by wattle pests are edible, as are the witchetty grubs which burrow into wattle trunks and roots. In time, domesticated wattles become as important to the Murray civilization as the olive tree is for Mediterranean peoples, or the date palm is in Mesopotamia; the Gunnagal word for wattles, butitju, will also become the root of their words for “wealth” and “prosperity.”

    Murnong or yam daisy (Microseris lanceolata) is a perennial flowering plant which produces an edible radish-shaped tuber. Like the red yam, murnongs have perennial rootstock but their above-ground foliage usually dies back every winter. Murnong tubers are much smaller than those of red yams, but murnongs can be grown much closer together, and their tubers are nearer to the surface and thus require less digging. For culinary purposes, murnong tubers are treated similarly to the red yam or more familiar crops such as potatoes. In most areas, domesticated murnongs are a secondary crop when compared to red yams; they do not produce as high a food yield per hectare, but they add different flavours to the diet, and it is customary to have some land under murnong cultivation in case disease or pests affect the main yam harvest. In the highland areas of south-eastern Australia, murnongs will become a more important crop since hybrids with the related alpine murnong (M. scapigera) are better suited to upland growing conditions than most red yam cultivars.

    Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a succulent annual flowering plant which tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions, and is resistant to drought. The leaves, seeds, stems and flowers are all edible. Purslane is abundant throughout mainland Australia and much of the Old World. It has been independently domesticated on multiple occasions throughout the world. Amongst the Gunnagal, it is normally grown as a leaf vegetable; the leaves can be harvested all year round and are a useful source of some vitamins and essential dietary minerals. The seeds are also sometimes collected to be ground into flour and added to wattleseed flour.

    Spiny-headed mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia) is a perennial sedge-like plant, with many stiff leaves that grow close together and are suitable for weaving. Mat-rush is a hardy plant which can tolerate a wide variety of soils and weather conditions. Domesticated mat-rush is grown primarily as a vegetable fibre to make baskets, nets and the like. Mat-rush is occasionally used as a source of food during lean times; its seeds and the base of its leaves are edible, and its flowers are a source of nectar, but its primary role is as a non-food fibre crop.

    Scrub nettle (Urtica incisa) is a relative of the stinging nettle (U. dioica) of North America and Europe. It is a perennial plant which dies back to the ground every winter. As with its northern hemisphere relative, the leaves and flowers of scrub nettle are covered with hollow hairs loaded with formic acid, which produces a nasty stinging reaction if it comes into contact with the skin. The main use of domesticated scrub nettle is harvesting high-quality fibre from its stems, which is mostly used to make textiles, and ropes and other cordage. Scrub nettle is occasionally used as a vegetable, too; its leaves are tasty and quite nutritious, provided that they are cooked first to neutralise the formic acid.

    Native flax (Linum marginale) is a close relative of common flax (L. usitatissimum). Native flax is a perennial plant which, like many Australian plants, often dies back during winter. The wild version has long been used by Aboriginal peoples as a source of fibre and for its edible seeds. Domesticated native flax, like common flax, is used as a source of fibre for textiles; the Gunnagal will rely on linen for most of their clothing and other weaving. The seeds are edible on their own or sometimes added to wattleseed flour; they can also be used to make linseed oil, but this is rare because of its short shelf life under Australian conditions.

    * * *

    The Australian agricultural package has quite a different range of characteristics from most other agricultural packages which have arisen from other independent origins of agriculture [5]. Perhaps the most noteworthy of those is that all of the staple crops, apart from the relatively minor purslane, are perennial plants, i.e. they are planted once and then produce a harvest each year for a number of years. This is in contrast to most of the staple crops grown around the globe today and historically, which are annual plants i.e. plant once and then harvest.

    Annual plants are the basis of most modern agriculture. Staple crops such as wheat, barley, maize, rice, potatoes [6] are all harvested as annual plants. Annual plants have a variety of advantages which have made them easy to domesticate and then use. As annual plants, they have a fast generation time which enables selective breading to happen more rapidly. There are a wide variety of annual plants which are domesticable and offer good food yields. In particular, there are many annual cereal crops which produce grains which can be stored for several periods, which is vital for preventing famine during drought. Moreover, with an annual plant, if the harvest is lost due to disease, drought, flood, fire or warfare, then only a single year’s production has been lost, and it can be replanted next year.

    However, annual plants also have a number of disadvantages. They have quite high labour requirements, since the soil needs to be plowed and plants resown every year. The type of soil cover used with annual plants – light roots, soil often exposed to the weather during planting – means that topsoil erosion and other environmental damage is quite likely. The soil loss is often severe enough that annual crops can no longer be reliably grown. For example, the Greek highlands were originally deforested to plant wheat and barley; it was only after the topsoil was mostly washed away that farmers switched to perennials such as grapes and olives. Similar processes caused desertification in much of what used to be the Fertile Crescent. Apart from these problems, many annual crops also have to retain a considerable part of each harvest as seed for next year; in classical harvests of barley, wheat and other small grains, up to half the harvest had to be kept as seed grain.

    While annual plants have been the foundation of most agriculture, there is a potential alternative. Some perennial plants also offer rich sources of food. As crops, they have several advantages over annual plants. The labour requirements for collecting food are much lower, since there is no need to plow and replant each year. Perennial plants also have established root structures which allow them to take advantage of out-of-season rains or the standing water table, which is very useful in drought-prone areas such as Australia. The same established root structures, combined with much more limited plowing, and more frequent (often permanent) plant cover means that the soil takes much less damage. Since perennials do not need yearly planting, it also means that there is no need to retain large amounts of each year’s harvest for seed crops.

    Nonetheless, perennial plants also have some significant disadvantages. There are not as many easily domesticable perennial crops; a problem which is compounded by the fact that the longer generation time of perennial plants means that it takes longer to selectively breed new strains. Many perennial crops produce food which is difficult to store long enough for the next harvest; fruits are tasty but hard to preserve, as are many root crops. Probably the biggest disadvantage is the longer growing time for most perennial plants. If an annual crop is lost, more can be replanted for next year’s harvest, and a society has lost only one year’s worth of food. If a perennial crop is lost through warfare, raids, or fires, it may take fifteen or twenty years for the trees to regrow. This may make it difficult for a perennial agricultural society to feed itself in the interim.

    For these reasons, it seems that perennials are rarely used as staple crops, despite the considerable labour savings. There are a few perennial crops which have been used as staple crops, such as plantains and breadfruit, but these have usually had a limited distribution. Most agricultural societies have used annuals as their main staples, with perennial crops such as fruit trees taking on a supplementary role rather than providing the bulk of people’s daily calorie intake. There have been occasional societies which have used perennials as their main source of food, such as parts of Sardinia which used chestnuts, and lowland New Guinea and the Moluccas which used sago palms.

    The perennials which are grown in Aboriginal agriculture have some traits which minimise many of the disadvantages of perennial crops elsewhere. These plants are relatively quick-growing. Red yams and murnongs can both be planted in one year to be harvested in the same year, then keep on producing a fresh tuber every year [7]. Wattles grow quickly enough that they start to yield useful harvests of seeds within two to four years. Wattle seeds are also excellent as a food reserve for long-term storage.

    Australian perennials are also well-adapted for recovering from damage, thanks to evolving on a landscape regularly visited by flood and fire. Yams already die back during winter and regrow in spring, and they can recover from fire in the same way. Wattles have the ability to regrow from their roots after fire or other damage, which will mean that domesticated wattles can regrow if raids by neighbours means that the trees are burnt or cut down.

    The nature of Australian perennials also means that their farming methods are quite different from early farming methods elsewhere around the globe. The overall labour requirements for Aboriginal farming are lower than for most agricultural systems with annual crops. As perennials, there is minimal need for plowing. Wattles and yams are harvested at different times of the year [8], which means that farmers can rotate their work between crops without too much difficulty, and there is not the same intensity required to have all available workers available to help during the harvest. Outside of harvest time, Australian crops still need some ongoing tending – pruning of trees, tapping of gum, replacing individual plants when they die, and the like – but this can be spaced out over most of the year.

    Overall, the perennial nature of Aboriginal agriculture means that they have a much higher food yield per worker than with most annual crops. Living in a dry and uncertain climate as they do, they do not have a particularly high yield per hectare, but individual farmers are quite productive. This makes it easier for them to accumulate food surpluses for storage. In turn, this allows Aboriginal farming societies to sustain a much larger percentage of their population as urban dwellers than in most early agricultural societies. Most early agriculture needed ten or more rural farmers to support one non-farmer, be it a smith or a priest. Australian perennial agriculture means that only four or five farmers are needed to support non-farmers. This means that they can support more specialists, more division of labour, and, in time, much more besides...

    * * *

    [1] Selection for relatively sweeter varieties is common to a lot of domesticated varieties of plants. This has an additional benefit of providing a higher nutritional yield for the domesticated yams, since more of the tuber is formed from digestible starch rather than water or indigestible fibre. Domesticated varieties of red yams have a lower water content (which means that they store longer) and it also means that they provide a higher calorie intake per unit of weight.

    [2] The red yam has evolved into a form which is well-suited to the periodic droughts and semi-arid conditions along the Middle Murray. The most important of these is that red yams have evolved a process called crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), which allows plants to store atmospheric carbon dioxide in their leaves at night, and then photosynthesise during the day. This means that CAM plants keep the stomata in their leaves closed during the heat of the day, and lose much less water than non-CAM plants. This makes red yams well-suited for semi-arid conditions, and combined with their deep roots, makes them resistant even to long and persistent droughts. CAM photosynthesis comes at a price, however; CAM plants are less efficient at absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide. This means that in areas which do have higher rainfall, the red yam is likely to be out-competed by non-CAM plants. Thus, the red yam does not grow naturally in the wetter areas of Australia’s eastern coast, although domesticated red yams can grow there provided that the soil is well-drained. (Red yams, like other yam species, do not tolerate waterlogged soils very well.)

    [3] The first domesticated wattle, the mystery wattle (Acacia difformis), grows in the old Gunnagal homelands around Swan Hill. As the Gunnagal expand west along the Murray, they domesticate the tree variously known as bramble wattle, gundabluey or elegant wattle (A. victoriae). As they move east along the Murray, they domesticate the golden wattle (A. pycnantha). These three wattles form the early domesticated wattle species, although other wattles will be domesticated elsewhere in Australian when agriculture spreads.

    Of the early domesticated species, bramble wattle is tolerant of a very wide range of soil and weather conditions, grows very quickly, and usually produces the overall largest yield of seeds even in drought years. Mystery wattle produces a sizable seed yield, with very large individual seeds which are easy to harvest from their pods, tolerates a range of harsh conditions, and produces large quantities of edible gum. Golden wattle produces a tolerable crop of seeds, but it is slower-growing, and when grown in close cultivation, is more vulnerable to pests, disease and death. Domesticated golden wattles are usually planted alongside the edges of yam fields rather across whole fields. Golden wattles are on the whole less reliable as a source of food, but they have the advantage of growing much taller than other domesticates wattles, which makes them a source of longer timber. The bark of golden wattles is also an extremely rich source of tannins for animal leather, and its bark is useful for fibre.

    [4] Wattle gum is similar to gum arabic, although true gum arabic comes from related African Acacia species (A. senegal and A. seyal).

    [5] Collectively, the Australian agricultural package is most-suited to latitudes between 25 to 45 degrees at low elevations, with long-term rainfall between 300 to 500 millimetres. Their nature as perennials means that rain does not need to fall in a particular season; the plants can cope with irregular rainfall. Established plants can tolerate drought reasonably well, although a prolonged drought is likely to mean that new plantings do not grow. Growing the full package of crops with long-term rainfall below 300 millimetres is marginal; the main crops will tolerate areas where the long-term rainfall is anything above about 250 millimetres, although the yields will be lower. Rainfall above 500 millimetres can be tolerated, and to a degree this will increase the yield, but soils need to be well-drained; waterlogged soils will cause problems for yams, in particular. The plants grow best at low altitudes, although they can be grown at higher elevations, particularly at latitudes between 25 and 30 degrees. Some of the domesticated plants can grow at lower latitudes, particularly the bramble wattle, but the early agricultural package as a whole does not grow well in tropical latitudes.

    [6] Potatoes are actually perennial, but are usually grown as annuals.

    [7] Red yams can in theory be planted fresh each year from cuttings or tubers, and then harvested the same year, turning them in effect into annual plants. Such agricultural practices could be expected to give higher yields in good years, since most yam species grow more quickly with such practices than if they are left to regrow from roots with most of their food storage (i.e. a tuber) harvested. This is how yams are used in much of the world today, although not everywhere. The erratic nature of Australian rainfall, however, means that newly-planted yams would have trouble growing during drought years, since they lack the established root structures needed to draw on the water table or out of season rains. For this reason, and in line with Aboriginal gathering practices before crops, I expect that red yams will be turned into a perennial crop where they are harvested each year but where the uppermost part of the tuber and their root system is left as undisturbed as possible so that it can regrow each year.

    [8] Australian wattles as a group flower year-round; there is almost no time when there is not a wattle blooming somewhere on the continent. However, the domesticated wattles fall into two main divisions. Early-flowering wattles (such as mystery wattle) flower around August-September, and their seeds are harvested around October-November. Late-flowering wattles (such as bramble wattle) flower around November-December, and their seeds are harvested around January-February. Red yams and murnongs are harvested in late autumn, around April-May.

    * * *

    Thoughts?

    P.S. As mentioned in the post above, all of these plants (apart from red yams) exist. For those who are curious, below are some links to more information about some of them. For those who aren’t curious, Lands of Red and Gold is now moving past the “necessary background information stage” and into the actual depiction of early Australian agricultural societies, which the next few posts will be showing.

    Bramble wattle/elegant wattle:
    http://www.flindersranges.com.au/2008/08/27/the-wonder-wattle/
    http://www.aridzonetrees.com/AZT In... Index/Cut sheets/Acacia/Acacia victoriae.htm

    Golden wattle:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acacia_pycnantha
    http://asgap.org.au/a-pyc.html

    Some information on how wattles are being used as crops today (no thanks to Messr. Diamond and “no domesticable crops in Australia”):
    http://www.worldwidewattle.com/infogallery/utilisation/sehel.php

    Murnong:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microseris_lanceolata
    http://www.australianplantssa.asn.au/photo/gallery/m-lanc-gall.html

    Purslane:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portulaca_oleracea
    http://asgap.org.au/p-ole.html

    Spiny-headed mat-rush:
    http://www.anbg.gov.au/gnp/interns-2007/lomandra-longifolia.html
    http://www.wildseedtasmania.com.au/webgallery/pages/Lomandra longifolia.htm

    Scrub nettle:
    http://morwellnp.pangaean.net/cgi-bin/show_species.cgi?find_this=Urtica incisa
    http://www.utas.edu.au/docs/plant_science/field_botany/species/dicots/urticsp/urtiinci.html

    Native flax:
    http://www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/scienc...lain_Woodland/woodland_plants/linum_marginale
    http://www.anbg.gov.au/apu/plants/linumarg.html
     
    What if, Youngmarshall and zee like this.
  20. mrmandias Regent

    Joined:
    Nov 29, 2006
    Location:
    The Great Empty
    I appreciate the infodumps. Learning is a drug.
     
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