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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

History Revisited - New England's first Aboriginal settlers

BREATHTAKING: The rolling hills of New England have not always looked like they do now. Jim Belshaw explains in his column this week that changing climate conditions altered the landscape
In my 15 April column, I made you stand on Smoky Cape for 40,000 years watching the dramatic sea level and climatic changes of the late Pleistocene and Holocene epochs take place around you.

The Pleistocene was marked by repeated glacial cycles during which the sea level fell and the climate became much colder and drier. Some 11,700 years ago, it was replaced by the warmer and wetter Holocene during which sea levels rose 120 metres to their present level.

These changes provide the backdrop to the changing patterns of Aboriginal life across Northern NSW, the broader New England, over the millennia that New England’s Aboriginal peoples occupied the land. The changes would not have been noticeable at any point in time, but would have been very noticeable over time, forcing regular long term adjustments on the Aboriginal inhabitants. 

We don’t know exactly when the Aborigines first arrived in the area that would be called New England. However, dating from the Willandra Lakes site in south western NSW that Aboriginal people were present in inland NSW by around 41,000 years ago, while the pattern of archaeological dates across the continent suggests that they came to NSW via inland routes potentially from both the north and the west.

This was a benign time in climatic terms. From 45,000 to around 36,000 years ago, moderate temperatures and high rainfalls filled the inland lakes and rivers. Travel would have been relatively easy across the inland plains. The dates we have suggest to me that early Aboriginal settlers in the north spread south along the western coast, north across the continent, then south along the inland corridor. However, they could have moved in multiple directions.

We now have a rush of dates. In the Hunter, we have dates from sites with a range of 17,000 to 30,000 years ago. Evidence from the Liverpool Plains indicate Aboriginal occupation from at least 19,000 years ago, while the Wallen Wallen Creek site in south east Queensland suggests occupation from about 20,000 years ago.

There is a very particular pattern to these dates, for the world was changing and for the worse.

From 36,000 years ago, the climate became cooler and drier, the sea levels began to fall again as the ice caps grew. Water remained plentiful in the lakes and rivers because lower rainfall balanced lower evaporation.

From 25,000 years ago, the climate deteriorated, culminating in what we call the Late Glacial Maximum (LGM). This lasted from 21,000 to 15,000 years ago. Sea levels fell from around 50 metres to perhaps 130 metres below current levels. The climate became very dry and intensely hot or cold over much of the continent.

If we now look at the dates we have, three apparent features stand out. They generally fall during the early onset stages of the LGM. They are inland dates or at least away from the coast. Finally, and so far at least, an occupation gap emerges in the archaeological record.

I will continue this story in my next column.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 13 May 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: