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

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

History Revisited - Aboriginal life intensifies across New England

HILLS AND PLAINS: From 6,000 years ago, the Aborigines had spread across all the broader New England coast, hills and plains

We know from the ethnographic record that the pattern of Aboriginal life across the broader New England on the dawn of invasion was varied and complex. The archaeological record suggests that this pattern began forming after sea levels stabilised around 6,000 years ago, with growth accelerating around 5,000 years ago.

New England’s history is dominated by geography. From east to west, the often narrow coastal strip ends in the rugged broken escarpments of those blue ranges that provide a constant visual backdrop to much of the coast. The New England Tablelands, the largest tablelands in Australia, declines to the west, becoming the Western Slopes and then falling away into the vast Western Plains.

Looking north-south, that pattern creates the broad zones we know today, coast, tablelands, slopes and plains, each marked by local variation.

Five thousand years ago, as today, travel was easier north-south than it was east-west. The Aborigines of the slopes and plains formed one very broad grouping, those on the coast another.

Petrology studies rocks. In early pioneering work, Ray Binns and Isabel McBryde used petrological analysis to trace Aboriginal ground-edge artefacts in multiple collections back to source. Their work revealed a widespread exchange network that carried artefacts from the stone quarry at Moore Creek near Tamworth north and especially west as far as the Darling River.

This was a remarkable result because of the distances involved, and suggesting that the patterns we know from ethnographic evidence formed early.

Binns and McBryde’s analysis also showed more limited exchange on the coast where suitable stone was widespread. However, there appeared to be almost no interconnection between either coast or Moore Creek and the Tablelands. Further, those major sites connected with the Tablelands such as Bendemeer or Graman are on the periphery.

So what, to use Iain Davidson phase, about that bit in the middle, the main Tablelands?

The evidence suggests that the Tablelands were a marchland area, with a relatively small resident population squeezed between the big coastal language groups whose territories extended into the headwaters of the coastal rivers and the large Kamilaroi language group extending along the Western Slopes.

Oral tradition, the ethnographic evidence and limited archaeological evidence all suggest seasonal movement between the coast and tablelands. Petrological evidence from the Salisbury Court axe factory shows a relatively limited local distribution, suggesting that it was important to a local resident group.

The central –southern Tablelands Nganyaywana (Anaiwan) language itself appears structurally related to the coastal languages, but is also very distinct, hinting that it diverged during a period of isolation.

One of the most interesting feature of the Tablelands is the presence of significant ceremonial sites, including the Serpentine stone arrangements p(icture). Some served local needs, but high country sites such as Serpentine clearly met broader needs.

There are hints in the evidence we have of the broader patterns that once existed. By combining all forms of evidence, we may yet be able to discover those patterns. It’s a tantalising prospect.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 27 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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