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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

History Revisited - Aboriginal society re-forms as Late Glacial Maximum ends, temperatures rise

TRADITION: The Aboriginal society that the Europeans found began to form more than 5,000 ago. Jim Belshaw reports
Conditions at the peak of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), the ice age that progressively gripped the world from around 21,000 ago, can best be described as unpleasant.

Sahul, the name given to the larger Australian continent that formed as the sea levels fell, was drier, colder and suffered from intense dust storms that, as Mulvaney and Kamminga put it, continued unabated across south eastern Australia for 9000 years.

The Aborigines had spread across Sahul during better climatic conditions, reaching Northern New South Wales by perhaps 30,000 years ago. Archaeological dating suggests that, with the possible exception of the coastal strip, Aboriginal occupation across Northern NSW was widespread by the early stages of the LGM.

The coastal strip is an apparent problem because of the paucity of evidence, leading Sandra Bowdler to suggest that the coastal zone simply wasn’t that attractive during the early onset stages of the LGM.  

Today, we are used to thinking of the North Coast as a rich area in Aboriginal terms with its mix of sea, estuary, river and land resources. That may well not have been the case then.

The coastal shelf is often narrow and declines quite sharply. The falling sea levels may have created a rugged coast line with increasingly cold waters, narrower rivers and smaller estuaries, a far less attractive environment than would exist later. My feeling, and it is only a feeling, is that the coastal strip was and remained populated.

Across New England, the LGM affected the plants, animals and the people who depended on them. The Tablelands became sub-alpine, the arid zone widened, the inland lakes dried up, while the now smaller inland rivers wended their way across sandy plains.

A long gap emerges in the archaeological record. People survived, but populations would have been reduced and possibly limited to refuge areas with higher resource availability.

The long ice age of the LGM began to ease around 15,000 years ago. Around this time, the North American ice sheets melted. Around 12,000 years ago, the Antarctic ice sheets began to shrink. The Holocene with its higher rainfall and warmer temperatures had begun.

The seas rose, reaching present levels around 6,000 years ago. The coast as we know it began to form. Plants and animals that had survived the ice age in remnant areas and the Aborigines that depended on them progressively reoccupied the land.

Archaeological dates begin to reappear: around 9,000 years in the Macleay Valley, 6,500 years at Seelands in the Clarence, 5,500 years at Graman on the Western Slopes. The Aboriginal society that the Europeans would find was forming.

In my last column in this series, I will carry the story through to 1788.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 20 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.

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