Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Aboriginal populations and sea level change

I have really been bogged down looking at the distribution of New England's Aboriginal languages. I want to get the paper that I gave in Armidale to July to the point that I can post it here for comment, but I keep finding things that I don't know. Indeed, some (much?) may be unknowable.

I talked a little about the problems I faced in a post on my personal blog, McBryde, Hoddinott and the story of New England's Aboriginal peoples. I really want to tell a story in a way that does credit to my subject matter.

After completing that post, I completed my re-reading of some of Isabel McBryde's work that I referred to in that post. In turn, this triggered another stream of thought, something that I referred to in one of today's posts, Gold, geography and the patterns of Aboriginal life.

I have often written of the importance of geography to the history of New England. Yet the more I research, the less I realise that I know.

In this morning's post, I talked about the conundrum posed by the apparently late dates for Aboriginal settlement in New England. I ended by wondering whether this was due to the nature of the sites or to a combination of geography with climate change.

In this post I want to flesh this out a little. I am not trying to make the argument rigorous; this is simply a muse.

When I look at the pattern of traditional Aboriginal life on the North Coast, certain things stand out.

The first thing is a whole series of micro-environments. The Aborigines used these in a variety of ways giving different groups access. This led to a pattern of seasonal change designed in part not to exhaust the resources available in particular environments. So the shell fish usage suggested by the middens along the northern bank of the Clarence near the mouth and as tested by the dig at Wombah indicates that usage was sporadic, seasonal.

We also know that the richness of environments varied between environments, as well as in seasonal terms within environments. The carrying population was related not to the maximum carrying capacity of an environment, but to the carrying capacity of the environment over time. Various techniques were used to control population.

If you start from the premise of different micro-environments offering different resource bases, then it seems reasonable to ask the question how those micro-environments may have changed over time and how this might have affected populations.

We know, I think, that the greatest food resources were to be found along the immediate coastal strip and in the rivers and swamps immediately behind. This area combined a variety of aquatic and vegetable food resources, along with some animal and bird resources. This was also an area where life seems to have been somewhat more sedentary, population numbers higher.

Okay, so far so good. Now when I look at the impact of changes in sea levels, it seems to me that their effects would have been greatest along the immediate coastal strips and the swamps and estuaries behind, the areas of highest food value. As seas rose or fell, the calorie value would have been immediately affected. Further, it would have taken time for the food position to stabilise.

If this is the case, and if we look at the patterns of sea level changes, it might suggest that that the great richness to be found in the immediate past was in fact quite recent in historical terms. If that were the case, then it would explain dating patterns.

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