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

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aboriginal New England to 1788 1 - the story starts

This series examines Aboriginal life in New England up to the arrival of the first European settlers at Botany Bay in 1788. By then, the Aborigines had been living in the area that would be called New England for millennia. We don't know when they first arrived, but my present best  guess is that the most likely date is something over 30,000 years ago. 

I chose 1788  as a cut-off date to avoid becoming entangled in, twisted by, the events that were to follow. We know what is coming, but we have to put this aside. Our story is of people as they were, not what they would become. Our knowledge of the future means that we know that storm clouds are looming over the bright sun of the Aboriginal present, yet we mustn't lose sight of the sun.

You won't yet find the story that follows in these posts in any book, although parts are covered.  The material that I am drawing from comes from the first third of the book I am writing on the broader history of New England. My work is halting, imperfect. The book haunts me, for the project is many, many, years old now and yet seems as far from completion as ever. I have aged with the book and sometimes wonder if I will ever finish!

To my mind, it is better to put some of the material out there now rather than to wait. There is a story to tell and I will try to tell it as best I can. You must judge whether I have been successful. Can you see, hear and even smell the world of Aboriginal New England as the eucalyptus scented smoke drifts into the night air from the fire in the centre of the camp, rising in the cold night air towards the sandstone edge stark against the brilliantly starlit bowl  of the sky?

The place is now called Graman, not far from modern Inverell. The year is say 100 BC or, in current parlance, 100BCE. By now, the people who would be called the Aborigines have been camping here for at least 3,000 years. Down towards the creek, the grooves made in the rock from grinding stone tools are hidden in the dark.  The ceremonial rock shelters with the paintings and sculptures are hidden in the dark.

It can get cold at night here, even in summer. Away from the fire breath mists in the air. The camp is neat, the kit stowed. The men yarn quietly, talking among themselves, telling stories, some true. The talk is of day to day things. The camp falls silent as people make their way to bed. Tomorrow it is time to move along well known paths.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

1258 volcanic eruption triggers global disaster

Fascinating piece in the Guardian on Facebook: "Mass grave in London reveals how volcano caused global catastrophe". The story begins:

Scientists search for the explosive source of a disaster that wiped out almost a third of Londoners in 1258

When archaeologists discovered thousands of medieval skeletons in a mass burial pit in east London in the 1990s, they assumed they were 14th-century victims of the Black Death or the Great Famine of 1315-17. Now they have been astonished by a more explosive explanation – a cataclysmic volcano that had erupted a century earlier, thousands of miles away in the tropics, and wrought havoc on medieval Britons.

The photo shows the huge excavation carried out by the team from the Museum of London Archaeology.

It's an interesting story, for it was the radio carbon dating of the bones to around 1250 that showed that the deaths could not have been caused by either the black death or the great famine of 1315-17. Another explanation had to be found.   

Writing in 1258, a monk reported:

"The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain... Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died."

It appears from further investigation including geological data from across the globe that this human catastrophe was cause by a huge volcanic eruption somewhere in the tropics up to eight times larger than that at Krakatoa (1883).  Now Krakatoa was a pretty big bang. I find it hard to imagine something up to eight times as large!

According to Volcanologist Bill McGuire:

"This was the biggest eruption in historic times. It may have brought the temperatures down by 4°c, a huge amount. Because it was somewhere in the tropics it meant that the winds of both hemispheres were able to carry these gases right across the planet. If you have a volcanic eruption at high latitudes, then the gases will stay in the northern hemisphere. But if you have an equatorial or tropical eruption that's big enough, then the sulphur gases can spread into both hemispheres and really encircle the whole planet in a sulphurous veil."

The reference to the global impact caught my eye, for this means that it would have affected Australia's Aboriginal peoples, including those living in New England. Intuitively, the relative impact wouldn't have been as great because of lower population densities. Still, it's interesting in the context of some of the thinking I have been doing about the patterns of Aboriginal life. 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

UNE research illuminates the spread of the humble chook

This has been a sadly neglected blog over recent months. Looking back, my posting really collapsed last September. I won't apologise. There were reasons for the collapse. However, slowly, my historical work has got underway again. This post deals with the story of the humble chook.

Recently, my train reading has been David Christian's Maps of time: an introduction to big history (University of California Press, paperback, 2005). There one of David's themes has been the domestication of birds and animals, including the humble chook.  

Following this, I was fascinated to read that Dr Alice Storey, an archaeologist at the University of New England, has been tracing the global migration routes of domestic chickens back through thousands of years towards their origins in the jungles of South-east Asia. The story of her work is covered in Tracing the “great, great grandmothers” of the chicken world. This includes a link through to the academic journal article on which the UNE press release is based.

The spread across the Pacific is fascinating for the sheer romance of the journeys involved. Did you know that after the Easter Islanders wiped out their environment, this story comes from David Christian rather than the article, their diet was essentially reduced to two foodstuffs of which chook was one? Even fish was beyond their reach since having cut down all the trees they could no longer build boats!