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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

History revisited - a short 40,000 year tour of the Macleay Valley

Growing up, did you build castles or forts on the beach to try to hold out the waves? The waves come in rushes, overtopping the walls. You hastily rebuild, waiting for the next wave to arrive. In the end, you have to go home, leaving your construction to be destroyed by the waves.

We remember the inexorable power of the waves from our childhood experiences or from playing on the beach with our own children. It’s not all that long ago since my own girls were young enough for me to play with them in this way, sometimes attracting other kids from the length and breadth of the beach. I still miss those times!

This is a history column, not a chance for personal recollections, attractive though that may be.

You are standing on Smoky Cape, looking at what will become South West Rocks. It is forty thousand years ago. The sea is 50 metres below its current level. You look across a coastal plain sloping down. You turn to your right. The coast is distant.

It is now twenty thousand years ago. The sea is 120 metres below its current level. From your perch on Smoky Cape you face out to sea. You cannot see the water. It’s much colder, perhaps 6-10 C degrees below current levels.

You think of popping down to the coast for a swim, then shrug, Perhaps not. You come from the cold Tablelands. There are glacial ice sheets at Guyra. You are used to the cold. Still, it’s just too cold. You shrug and pull your fur coat around you.

It is now seven thousand years ago. From around fifteen thousand years temperatures began to rise, the ice sheets began to melt.

The rush of water was quite sudden. On the vast plains and wetlands that stretched between the current Australian continent and New Guinea, up to a metre of land was lost to the seas each year. Entire ancestral lands were lost within a generation. The myth of the great flood was born.

Smokey Cape has become an island. Looking inland, you can see sea stretching to modern Kempsey. But further changes are afoot.

Around six thousand years, the seas began to stabilise. As they did, sand barriers began to extend from coastal islands such as Smoky Cape. The silt deposited by the Macleay River was no longer washed away, but began to accumulate. A new estuarine environment was being formed.

Around five thousand years looking north east of Smoky Cape, you would have seen an Aboriginal camp begin on the foreshores near what would become Clybucca Creek.

Drawn by the rich shell fish resources, the camp would last for over two thousand years, but was then abandoned. The silting of the Macleay estuary meant that the previous marine food resources would no longer support a camp at that point.

The Macleay Valley as we know it today had emerged.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 15 April 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they 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, here for 2014, here for 2015.

No comments: