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The Future Eaters

An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People

by Tim Flannery

Grove Press, 2002
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The Future Eaters describes the geography, flora and fauna of Australasia and the long history of how it has been changed and consumed by the Aborigine, Maori, Polynesian, and European peoples over a period of 60,000 years.

Flannery describes three waves of human migration Australasia. The first wave was the migration to Australia and New Guinea from south-east Asia approximately 40,000-60,000 years ago. The second was Polynesian migration to New Zealand and surrounding islands 800-3,500 years ago. The third and final wave is European colonisation at the end of the eighteenth century.

Perhaps Flannery's most controversial hypothesis regards early Australian Aboriginal history. New sediment core studies show that the continent up until 100,000 years ago had much greater expanses of rainforest than after Aboriginal arrival. He poses the possibility that Aborigines altered the ecology of Australian flora and fauna through firestick farming. Flannery also argues that at current population growth rate levels, Australasia is living beyond its population carrying capacity.

Praise for The Future Eaters

"[Flannery] tells his beautiful story in plain language, science popularising at its Antipodean best."--Times Literary Supplement

"An original, very important thesis that gives us a powerful insight into our current destructive path."--David Suzuki

"Tim Flannery . . . reminds me of Indiana Jones--but with the credibility to match the flair."--ABC Science Show

The Future Eaters was made into a documentary series for ABC Television and was republished in 2002.

Quotes from The Future Eaters

"Most people are still unaware that Australia has been inhabited by modern humans for longer--indeed possibly twice as long--as Western Europe. Most people are also unaware of the different histories of other Australasian people. Many, for example, think of Australian Aborigines and New Zealand Maoris as both being indigenous people with similar origins. Yet who is more similar to whom? Aborigines arrived in Australia from South- East Asia at least 40,000 and more probably 60,000 years ago. They travelled on the most basic of watercraft and arrived without domesticated plants or animals. Maoris arrived in New Zealand from elsewhere in Polynesia between 1,000 and 800 years ago aboard superb ocean-going vessels, which made landfall after a long and deliberate voyage of discovery. They brought along their domestic plants, dogs and rats, which had been gathered from such diverse places as China, South-East Asia and South America. Maoris were followed some 650-450 years later by Europeans who, while they possessed inferior ocean-going craft (Cook himself admired the faster, longer and superbly maneuverable Polynesian catamarans when compared with his own Endeavor, also arrived on deliberate voyages of discovery. Within 200 years they too had settled New Zealand and populated it with their own diverse domesticated plants and animals."

. . .

"In the Australia of 100,000 years ago there were over 50 species of medium to large specialized herbivorous marsupials. There were also several gigantic herbivorous birds and turtles. Each species would doubtless have had its own favorite food type. Working in concert, their browsing and grazing probably maintained a complex vegetational mosaic which supported all of them and allowed a diversity of plants to coexist.

"What is more, whenever an animal ate a plant, the nutrients were returned quickly to the vegetation, for within a day or so they would reappear, composted and laced with nitrates, in the form of dung. If the large animal communities that exist elsewhere are any guide, this dung would have been the lifeblood of guilds of now-extinct Australian dung beetles. Fighting avidly for their share, the dung beetles would have buried and consumed the droppings, hastening the recycling of nutrients to the plants.

"In such an ecosystem nutrients can be recycled spectacularly quickly. Thus, even though the soil may be relatively poor, the rapid turnover of nutrients compensates. Because rapid turnover of nutrients is critical to the success of the system, it is not in the plant's interest to lace its leaves with toxins which would inhibit herbivores, for it is far better to keep the nutrients moving. Even more critically, very few nutrients are lost in this process. It is a tight, fast and self-contained nutrient-recycling system.

"When compared to the coevolved guilds of large herbivores, fire is a far inferior way of recycling nutrients. It promotes plants that originated in the nutrient-starved heaths. There, plants must lace their leaves with chemicals in order to defend from browsing herbivores the few nutrients which they have accumulated. These toxins may also inhibit the breakdown of plant matter by decomposition so nutrients are recycled much more slowly than in other environments, being released from dead plant matter only by fire.

"Because of this, extremely poor soils promote a nutrient- hoarding strategy, which in turn encourages fire. Even worse, when fire does finally consume the plant matter, making its nutrients available to living plants, the nutrients leak out of the system. It has been estimated, for example, that for every hectare of grassland burned in the Katherine region of the Northern Territory, four and on half kilograms of nitrogen is lost as nitrous oxide due to combustion. On Fraser Island it has been calculated that between 30 percent and 51 percent of sulphur is lost through volatilization from sclerophyll forest as a result of fire. Other nutrients are lost because they are converted into inorganic compounds in the ash and, if heavy rain follows fire, any remaining nutrients are easily washed into watercourses and carried off. Worse, the nutrients are not alone in being vulnerable to loss through water transport. For after a fire has bared the soil, wind can strip it away in massive sheet erosion."

. . .

Sixty thousand or more years ago human technology was developing at what we would consider to be an imperceptible pace. Yet it was fast enough to give the first Australasians complete mastery over the ‘new lands’. Freed from the ecological constraints of their homeland and armed with weapons honed in the relentless arms race of Eurasia, the colonisers of the ‘new lands’ were poised to become the world’s first future eaters.

. . .

"The Aboriginal people who occupied Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and the islands of Bass Strait, represent one extreme in the process of the land shaping a people. Beginning about 12,000 years ago they found themselves cut off by rising sea-levels. Because they lacked a seaworthy vessels they were completely isolated. Their story is a most extraordinary one, for the relatively small size of their island homes drove their evolution in a particular, inexorable and fateful direction.

"The outcome of this local evolution was depressing; for all populations, with the exception of the Tasmanian Aborigines, were to become extinct thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans."

"The sole surviving Aboriginal population inhabiting a temperate Australian island was that living in Tasmania. Tasmania is large enough to support some 5,000 Aborigines living traditional lifestyles. This is some 10 times more than the absolute minimum size necessary for long-term survival. But is a population of 5,000 large enough to maintain a complex material culture? Recent archeological discoveries suggest that it was not.

"When the first reports of the Tasmanian Aborigines reached Europe they created intense interest. Europeans thought that their simple tool kit and lifestyle meant that they were a very primitive people. For a very long time after, it was widely believed that these apparently truly primitive people had survived in their remote corner of the world because they had not had to compete with more advanced races.

"The French savants of the Baudin Expedition, who observed the Tasmanians in 1802, were amazed that even though the Tasmanians lived in an often bitterly cold climate, they lacked clothing. Extraordinarily, they also lacked the ability to make fire. Mannalargenna, one of the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines to live a traditional life, told of what would happen if a group's fire was extinguished. He said that people had no alternative but to eat raw meat while they walked in search of another tribe. Significantly, one of the universal laws among the Tasmanians was that fire must be given whenever requested, even if the asker was a traditional enemy who would be fought after the gift had been given.

"The French were also struck by the fact that the Tasmanians did not eat fish, even though they were abundant in Tasmania's coastal waters. Francois Peron records that when members of the Baudin Expedition offered some fish which they had caught, the Tasmanians expressed amazement and horror. This was not an isolated instance, for earlier, in 1777, members of Cook's third expedition recorded that Tasmanians reacted with horror or ran away when fish were offered to them.

"There are some other quite extraordinary features of Tasmanian culture. The Tasmanians, for example, had no hafted implements (such as axes), no implements made of bone, no boomerangs or spear throwers, no dingos and no microlithic stone tools. Indeed, their entire tool kit seems to have consisted of about two dozen kinds of objects."

"It is easy to see how the limited material culture of the Tasmanians could seduce the savants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into classifying the Tasmanians as the world's most primitive people. Not surprisingly, the anatomists of the day had an almost insatiable demand for corpses. Through dissection, they hoped to find additional evidence supporting the idea that the Tasmanians were primitive; maybe even a kind of living, missing link. Needless to say, these anatomical studies yielded no such evidence."

"Until very recently, many people found no reason to doubt the conclusions of nineteenth century science concerning the Tasmanians. But detailed archeological research, much undertaken only in the last few decades, has now shown conclusively that there was nothing primitive about the Tasmanians at all. They were, instead, a highly specialized offshoot of the Australian Aborigines, whose culture evolved under the extraordinary constraints that 10,000 years of solitude would place on any small band of humans.

"The most striking evidence concerning the evolution of the culture of the Tasmanians has come from the study of campsites occupied over the last 7,000 years. Deposits that date to 7,000 years ago or more are full of bone tools, including awls, reamers and needles. There seems to be little doubt that these implements were used for sewing, probably to make skin cloaks similar to those used by the Aborigines of southern Australia right up until the nineteenth century.

"The variety of bone tools found in Tasmanian middens dwindles with time, until eventually, about 3,500 years ago, the last of them disappear from the archaeological record. This suggests that stitched clothing was lost from the material culture of the Tasmanians at about this time.

"Interestingly, the older archaeological sites show that fish--although despised as a food in historic times--once formed an important part of the Tasmanians' diet. Evidence from some sites suggests that fish made up about 10 percent of their diet in the past. . . . Then suddenly, about 3,500 years ago, the remains of fish cease to appear in refuse dumps."

"The most plausible explanation [for the simplification of the material culture of the Tasmanians] seems to lie in the unique isolation and small population size of the Tasmanians. The theory goes something like this. A small group of people are less likely to come up with technological innovations than a larger group. If the group is completely isolated, then new ideas cannot reach it. Because of this, innovation in material culture is slowed. Because the population is small, activities and knowledge may be lost simple through the early death of skilled people before they can pass their skills to the next generation.

"Losses such as that of clothing and the ability to make fire may have resulted from rare, early deaths occurring over a long period of time. The 5,000 Tasmanians lived scattered in small groups. It may be that only one or two people in any one group had all the skills necessary to make bone needles and prepare skins. Over 12,000 years there is a high chance that the few such specialists in any one area would, at some stage, die before they could pass their skills on. Repeated chance events like this might have led to the loss of many skills that require specialized knowledge.

"If the population is small enough, there may be strong evolutionary pressure to dispense with high-risk activities. This is because risks that are acceptable for larger populations can threaten the very survival of smaller ones. The loss of fish from the Tasmanian diet may be an example of a high-risk activity that is strongly selected against and thus lost, in small populations."

"Eating fish can be a risky business, because occasionally a dinoflagellate bloom known as a 'red tide' can lead to mass poisonings. The simultaneous death of hundreds of people in a large human population is a great personal tragedy, but it poses no threat to the survival of that society because the statistical chance of losing all members of one age group or sex is tiny. Such a poisoning in a small population, however, can be a disaster for the entire group. This is because, through chance, it may kill a significant proportion of the women of child-bearing age, or all of the older and more knowledgeable individuals. In order to avoid such catastrophic events, extreme conservatism may be selected for in small societies. This is because in evolutionary terms it may be better to forego the benefit gained from eating such 'dangerous' food as fish, rather than risk an extremely rare but catastrophic poisoning event."

. . .

"Of all of the extinctions that have occurred in the 'new' lands, none was so striking or is so well-documented as that of New Zealand's moas. As outlined in earlier chapters, 12 species of moa, weighing between 20 and 250 kilograms, inhabited New Zealand until about 600 years ago. They were New Zealand's ecological equivalents of antelope, rhinoceros and kangaroos and occupied a wide variety of habitats, from forest to alpine tundra. Before the arrival of the Maori sometime between 1000 and 1200 AD, they were abundant. Is their demise evidence of a human-caused blitzkrieg extinction event? And does it offer us a model for what happened to the megafauna of Australia and the Americas so long before? As I will show below, I think that the answer to both of these questions is a definite 'yes'.

"A remarkably large body of evidence exists concerning the fate of the moa, for over the length and breadth of New Zealand, but particularly in prime moa habitat in the south-east of the South Island, are found Maori cooking sites which are literally packed with moa remains. Hundreds of sites are known. Some consist of only a pile of gizzard stones and a knife, indicating the spot where a moa was killed and gutted. Others consist of a rock shelter where a moa haunch was cooked, while yet others were the final resting place of tens of thousands of moa, and cover tens of hectares.

"One of the most extraordinary sites was discovered among sand dunes at Kaupokonui in the Taranaki District of the North Island. There, the remains of at least three species of moa, along with 55 other species of bird (many now extinct) have been found in and around ovens. Piles of uncooked and articulated heads, necks (some broken in such a way as to suggest that they had been wrung), ribs, vertebra and pelves mark butchering sites.

"Analysis of the site suggests that the wastage of meat was enormous, which indicates that protein was available in surplus at the time. Gizzard stones are rare, suggesting that the great birds were gutted where they were killed, their innards being discarded before the body was carried to the butchering site. The piles of uncooked heads, necks and other parts had clearly been left to rot, while only the leg bones are often found in oven pits, indicating that the haunches were the preferred meat.

"Another great butchering site has been found near Wairau Bat in the north of the South Island. It has bee estimated that nearly 9,000 moa were killed and almost 2,400 eggs destroyed, at this site alone. At yet another site, Waitaki Mouth in the Otago District, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 90,000 moa were killed. Several other large sites exist.

"Several things are clear in an examination of these sites. The first is that they were occupied by very large numbers of people. Indeed, following the extinction of the moa, such dense aggregations of people were never to inhabit these areas again until after the arrival of Europeans. The second is that meat was in superabundance and that much was wasted. Entire moa legs have been found baked in ovens that were never opened. Piles of discarded remains included parts of moa bodies that contained large amounts of meat, while whole bodies were not infrequently left to rot. Typically, about a third of the meat available in moa carcasses was never used. The archaeologist Cassels gained the impression from his excavations of the Kaupokonui site that 'the waste is astounding'.

. . .

"Fire is one of the most important forces at work in Australian environments today, yet this has not always been the case. For the role of fire has changed in Australia, largely, I think, as a result of megafaunal extinction and the dwarfing of the surviving large marsupial species.

"It is true to say that the rise of fire has transformed Australia. Yet its effects have been modified through Aboriginal control of the firestick. When control was wrested from the Aborigines and placed in the hands of Europeans, disaster resulted.

"Because the historic role of fire in ecosystems is so much better understood than its prehistoric role, it is best to begin with an examination of fire as it was used by Aborigines when Europeans first arrived in Australia.

"The use of fire by Aboriginal people was so widespread and constant that virtually every early explorer in Australia makes mention of it. It was Aboriginal fire that prompted James Cook to call Australia 'This continent of smoke'. Tasman, as early as 1642, saw smoke billow into the sky for days at a time, as did other early explorers. But it was that most poetic of explorers, Ernest Giles who, during his travels in Central Australia, gave us the most vivid image of the inseparability of fire and Aborigines:

The natives were about, burning, burning, ever burning; one would think they were of the fabled salamander race, and lived on fire instead of water.

Table of Contents of The Future Eaters

  1. An Infinity Before Man
  2. The New Lands
  3. Australia in Gondwana
  4. Land of Geckos, Land of Flowers
  5. Land of Sound and Fury
  6. Meganesian Enterprises
  7. Splendid Isolation
  8. Sweet are the Uses of Adversity
  9. The Diversity Enigma
  10. The Desert Sea
  11. Mystery of the Meganesian Meat-Eaters
  12. A Bestiary of Gentle Giants
  13. Lost Marsupial Giants of New Guinea
  14. Arrival of the Future Eaters
  15. What a Piece of Work is a Man
  16. Gloriously Deceitful, and a Virgin
  17. Peopling the Lost Islands of Tasmantis
  18. The Great Megafauna Extinction Debate
  19. Making the Savage Beast
  20. There Ain't No More Moa in Old Aotearoa
  21. Lost in the Mists of Time
  22. Time Dwarfs
  23. Sons of Prometheus
  24. Who Killed Kirlilpi?
  25. When Thou Hast Enough, Remember the Time of Hunger
  26. Alone of the Southern Isles, Weirds Broke Them
  27. So Varied in Detail--So Similar in Outline
  28. A Few Fertile Valleys
  29. The Last Wave: Arrival of the Europeans
  30. The Backwater Country
  31. As If We Had Been Old Friends
  32. Diverse Experiences
  33. Like Plantations in a Gentleman's Park
  34. Unbounded Optimism
  35. Riding the Red Steer--Fire and Biodiversity Conservation in Australia
  36. Adapting Culture to Biological Reality

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