Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Introducing Pleistocene New England

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 8 April 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Over the last week or so my train reading has been dominated by Australian prehistory, the long expanse of human occupation of this continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

When I first studied under Isabel McBryde very little was known. That was fun in itself, because we were dealing with a clean slate, every thing was new.

This period was also fun for me because our small group got to travel round the countryside in four wheel drive vehicles.

On major digs such as Seelands, Wombah or Graman we usually camped or stayed in old homesteads or shearers huts.

At Wombah on the banks of the Clarence we were excavating an old midden.

Facing the river, the site was just to the right of the camp. This consisted of a trailer in which we did much of the cooking, then further on our tents. At night we built big fires and sat around after dinner smoking, yarning and singing. Ghost stories provided suitably chilling material.

Once a week we would all pack into the vehicles and drive to a caravan park. There the four wheel drives would disgorge big-booted, hat wearing, unshaven in the case of the men and generally quite smelly people. Onlookers sometimes responded with the type of reactions bikies receive today!

The wonders of a hot shower, a shave and clean clothes are hard to describe properly.

The date at which Aboriginal people may have reached the area that would be variously called Northern New South Wales, the North, Northern Districts or just New England is very much open to question.

The earliest date I presently know of in New England itself comes from a dig by Graham Connor at Stuarts Point in the Macleay Valley. This places human occupation at 9,320 +/- 160BP. Further north in coastal South-East Queensland, the Wallen Wallen Creek site shows continuous occupation from about 20,000 years ago.

Despite these dates, my present working hypothesis is that the first Aboriginal colonisers might have arrived as early as 40,000 years ago.

We know from dating at Warren Cave in Tasmania that the Aborigines had reached Tasmania around 35,000 years ago, while dates from Willandra Lakes in South West New South Wales suggest occupation as early as 41-40,000 years ago. Given these dates, a working date of 40,000 years ago for settlement may be early but still seems not unreasonable.

What type of world did they find? It was quite a benign environment at this time.

Sea levels fluctuated greatly during the long Pleistocene period.

Forty thousand years ago, they were perhaps 50 metres below current levels, creating a broader coastal plain. Rainfall was high, temperatures moderate. Rivers running east and west from the Tablelands would have carried substantial volumes of water.

In the east, this would have led to progradation, with significant river estuaries, coastal dunes and marshes. It seems likely that the larger coastal strip was thickly wooded and at least as rich in marine and land resources as today. In the west, the rivers and associated wet lands would also have provided a rich environment.

The position on the Tablelands is unclear because so much of the analysis that I have seen deals with later periods. I suspect that the Tablelands were wooded and at least visited by surrounding groups.

The size and distribution of the early Aboriginal population is obviously unknown since at this stage we have yet to prove that they even existed!

My own feeling is that it was probably much smaller, but mirrored the pattern at the time the Europeans arrived; higher concentrations on the coast and on the western slopes and immediate plains, sparse on the Tablelands.

From around 36,000 years ago, the climate became cooler and drier. The cooler temperatures offset the lower rainfall by reduced evaporation; the streams, lakes and wetlands of inland New England therefore retained their water, providing a continued base for Aboriginal occupation.

The, from perhaps 25,000 years ago, the environment deteriorated quite dramatically. The story of this dramatic change will be the subject of another column.

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