Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Revisiting the Mount William Greenstone Quarry: Employment Specialisation and a Market Economy in an Early Contact Hunter-Gatherer Society

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Revisiting the Mount William Greenstone Quarry: Employment Specialisation and a Market Economy in an Early Contact Hunter-Gatherer Society

Article excerpt

This paper presents the results of a desktop review of publicly available archaeological and ethnographic records of the Mount William quarry site. The study hypothesis is that the relative value of the quarried greenstone was measured by a market economic system rather than socialistic models of value and that the production involved employment specialisation. There is evidence that the value of the stone from the quarry included social values that went beyond basic economic elements, but these components of cultural and social value --such as prestige and social enhancement--furthered the demand for the stone, adding to its economic exchange value.

The relative value of stone from the Mount William quarry appears to have been extremely high among Aboriginal people of south-east Australia. Studies of the distribution of axes by Isabel McBryde (1978) suggest that they were traded north into New South Wales and west into South Australia, up to 600 kilometres from the quarry. Axes were not, however, traded far to the east of the quarry at the time of European arrival in Victoria. This observation was concluded to be due to an ongoing conflict between the Kulin and Kurnai (Gunai) of Gippsland (McBryde 1978:363). It has been well established that the regional demand for the Mount William stone was driven by cultural, religious and spiritual values (Brumm 2010; Hiscock 2013) as much as by pragmatic utility; and this is not disputed. The point this paper emphasises is that the supply of the stone was limited to a specific geographic location that was controlled by a particular family. According to micro-economic theory, this should have meant that the 'price', or exchange value, of the stone--given restricted supply and high demand (regardless of the cause for that demand) --should have been disproportionately high. There appears to be some historical evidence that this was indeed the case.

As well as being a very significant archaeological site, the Mount William quarry is important because of the strong ethnographic accounts of how the stone from the site was distributed, including who in the local Aboriginal community --the Wurundjeri-willam--was responsible for the site at contact and the trade value of the stone. The combination of the archaeological and ethnographic information facilitates an understanding of the economics associated with the trade of this important traditional resource in the early contact period.

Persistent theories of economics in Aboriginal society

Previous studies of trade from Mount William have interpreted the movement of stone in terms of models of exchange observed in northern Australia and Papua from the early twentieth century (McBryde 1984a). There are, however, some suggestions that the anthropological descriptions of the systems of exchange of merbok (Stanner 1933) in the Northern Territory and kula (Malinowski 1922) in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, incorporated and possibly confused gift giving with commercial commodity exchange. These gift exchange systems, or ceremonies, were thought to occur where goods were exchanged to build community rather than for immediate or future material rewards (Cheal 1988). Thus the application of a 'gift giving' model to the trade in greenstone may have occurred due to the influence of topical anthropological theories from this era, including historical materialism, and attempts to fit observations into egalitarian exchange theories that were prominent at the time.

Later in the twentieth century Mauss (1990) and Weiner (1992) expanded on these observations and have shown, for example, that while the Trobriand Islanders did indeed use the mutual gift-giving kula ceremony as a tool to maintain and strengthen social connections (similar to Christmas or birthday ceremonies in Western societies), trade for economic gain was a separate practice. Conflating Aboriginal gift-giving ceremonies with trade negotiations may also explain Robert Brough Smyth's (1878:180-2) contradictory observations regarding Aboriginal exchange in Victoria, since he appears to discuss and combine elements of a gifting transaction with trade negotiations. …

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