Winter, 21,000 years ago. The temperature is colder, the wind stronger, drier. The little valley huddles under the gusty westerly winds. There are few trees. To the northwest, the peak of Mount Duval is coated by snow that lasts for extended periods.
Five thousand years have passed. Average temperatures are eight degrees below today’s level. The westerly winds are absolutely biting; the wind chill factor brings temperatures far below zero. There are no trees, only snow covered coarse grass. The snow covering on Mount Duval is thick. Further north in the high country to the east of Guyra, mini glaciers are marking the country.
To the west, the cold, strong winds are creating sand dunes. The global rise of ice cap and glacier has led to sea levels perhaps 120 meters below today’s levels. Groaning, the North American continent is pressed down by the weight. Here in New England, the sea line has retreated east by twenty kilometers. The rivers rush down the steeply sloping continental shelf, carving paths to a sea many degrees colder than that we know today.
A further five thousand years have passed. Temperatures have risen significantly. The continent is a little hotter and wetter than today. The giant glaciers have melted, leading to rapid rises in sea levels that have reclaimed the land lost during the Late Glacial Maximum period.
On the coast, silt deposited from the eastern flowing rivers has begun rebuilding the land, creating a pattern of lagoons and swamps. The coastline we know today is being born.
On the Tablelands, trees have spread across the previously open Patagonia like country. The ground is wet; marshes, ponds and lagoons are common. Snow is rarely seen on Mount Duval.
We don’t know when the Aborigines first arrived in New England. 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, it seems reasonable to assume that Aboriginal people were at least visiting New England some 40,000 years ago.
We do not have hard evidence to support this assumption. The earliest confirmed date I 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 South-East Queensland, the Wallen Wallen Creek site shows continuous occupation from about 20,000 years ago.
Regardless of the exact date, it seems likely that the Aborigines lived through all the environmental changes I described. How they responded or might have responded provides one of the fascinating questions in our history.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 13 February 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013