Aboriginal - Harvesters, Engineers And Fire-Stick Farmers

Traditional Aboriginal society was much more dynamic than is usually believed. Considerable change did occur, and over the last few thousand years, the pace of development and innovation quickened. It is only within the last 5000 years that the highlands of eastern Australia have been occupied with any density. Before that, there is evidence of only slight habitation in some of the highlands, such as the Blue Mountains and the Carnavon Ranges of southern central Queensland. The intensification of occupation in the last 5000 years saw the beginning of the small tool tradition, the adoption of new food management techniques, an apparent increase in population and an expansion into areas relatively poor in food resources.


The focus of this Web page is the Great Dividing Range, a chain of low mountains in eastern Australia running from north of the Tropic of Capricorn south to Victoria. Nowhere in this range do Aborigines still lead a hunter-gatherer way of life, so archaeological evidence and nineteenth-century historical records are out only sources of information about traditional society. These records are uneven and usually reflect a time when Aboriginal life had already been drastically disrupted by European settlement. Smallpox had decimated the Aboriginal population; measles, influenza, syphilis and alcohol had taken their toll; hunting grounds had been usurped, game wiped out, waterholes poisoned, tribes massacred. In these regions, where traditional life was shattered so early, archaeological evidence becomes an all-important means of gaining an insight into the traditional ways of life, settlement pattern and prehistory of the original inhabitants.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!


The most specialised and sophisticated of all the economic systems was the exploitation of Macrozamia nuts and other cycads, which has been studied by John Beaton in Queensland. Macrozamia is a species of cycad, a strange, palm- or fern-like plant whose history goe4s back more than 200 million years. It produces unique, pineapple-like reproductive structures called 'stropoli'. These are large and brightly coloured, but extremely poisonous, as a number of explorers have discovered to their cost. They are also toxic to herds of livestock, causing what is described by stockriders in the outback as 'the zamia staggers'. Moreover, it has been discovered that cycads contain one of the most powerful cancer-causing substances in the world. 'There is no such thing as people who eat cycads and who are only just learning about how to prepared them.'

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Removing the poison from cycad kernels was a lengthy, complicated procedure. Slightly different methods were used in different regions. One technique was to cut open the kernels and leach out the poison with water. Later, when the kernels were free of toxin, they were ground into a starchy, flour-like substance and baked into 'cycad bread'.

Aboriginal family

Another approach was fermentation, in which the dissected kernels were placed in large containers or pits for several months. The material is safe to eat when the kernels have either frothed or grown mouldy. The food value of cycads is exceptionally high: about 43 per cent is carbohydrate, 5 per cent protein. Many species produce huge quantities of kernels, yielding more food per hectare than many cultivated crops. Aborigines also increased the size of the stands of cycads by a careful use of fire to clear competing vegetation. Indeed, such cycad stands are ecological artefacts. Regular burning could also increase kernel production by even or eight times and make them all ripen at the same time. They could be used to support large gatherings of people on ceremonial occasions. 

Cycads were certainly used in Arnhem Land to provide an adequate food supply for ceremonies, when hundreds of people were gathered in a camp for weeks or months at a time. Similarly, the main use of Macrozamia nuts in the Carnarvon Ranges was as a 'communion food', supporting large gatherings for ceremonial or ritual purposes. Whether a staple or communion food, cycads are a highly nutritious, productive, predictable and easily harvested food, once the way to process them is known. And the whole process is not as time-consuming as one might think. The collecting and processing of cycad bread among the Anbara of Arnhem Land yielded about 1 kilogram, containing 1300 calories, per hour of work. This meant that one woman could feed herself adequately on just two hours work per day.

The exploitation of the cycad Macrozamia appears in southern central Queensland to be associated with the introduction of new small tools and the first intensive prehistoric settlement of this rugged region. Dozens of rock-shelters have now been excavated in the Carnarvon Ranges by Beaton and Morwoos, revealing intensive use of the region during the last 4000 years, but two 10,000-year-old rock-shelter deposits, Native Well I and II, have also been found. In the rainforests of North Queensland, Nicola Horsfall has found toxic nuts used at 4000 BP in Jiyer Cave. The technology is claimed to have arrived in Queensland 4500 years ago, in nearly the same form in which it is applied today. The main support for external origin of cycad use is the considerable know-how required to process the poisonous nuts, but in Cheetup Shelter near Esperance, Moya Smith found that Macrozamia nuts were apparently being detoxified in grass-tree-lined pits in the late Pleistocene. The technology may therefore have been developed independently in different regions.

Intensive occupation associated with Macrozamia nuts has been discovered in the Blue Mountains, in sites such as Noola and Capetee III. As in the Carnarvon Ranges, earlier occupation did exist but it was slight, and possibly intermittent, whereas thee was a widespread intensification in use of the Blue Mountains region 3000 to 4000 years ago, associated with the small tool tradition. Other parts of the Great dividing Range were far leas rich in food than the Carnarvon Ranges or Blue Mountains. For example, the northern tablelands of New South Wales, around Armidale, are a particularly cold and windy environment, and only one occupation site has been found at an elevation of over 1000 metres, in spite of intensive archaeological work in the area by McBryde and others.

Aboriginal group camping, Queensland

However, certain other types of site are relatively common in this bleak region: ceremonial sites and art sites. There are over a dozen bora grounds and stone arrangements and a handful of art sites. This high country may have been of religious importance, associated with the belief in a sky god - Daramulan or Baiami - which was widespread in eastern Australia. Elevated, remote sites were preferred for ceremonies, particularly ceremonies such as initiation of the young men, from which women and children were excluded. Whilst carrying out the rituals, the men could have existed on kangaroos (caught with long, fixed hunting nets made of Kurrajong bark) and on the region's one abundant plant food, the daisy yam, or mirr'n-young (Microseris scapigera). These have large, yellow daisy-like flowers and fat, sweet, milky tubers, which were dug up and roasted. They have a coconut-like flowers and fat, sweet, milky tubers, which were dug up and roasted. They have a coconut-like flavour but tend to be fibrous. Common throughout New south Wales and Victoria, the daisy yam was a major Aboriginal food. So extensive was the digging for these tubers that sometimes an area was left looking like a ploughed field, as governor Hunter ob served on the banks of the Hawkesbury River near Sydney in 1793. And, like Macrozamia, the range of the daisy yam could be extended by careful firing.


The daisy yam was also an important food in the southeastern highlands, but here an outstanding resource enabled large gatherings to be held: This bogong moth (Agrotis infusa). Each year these small, brown moths migrate in their millions from their breeding grounds on the inland plains to spend the hot summer on the roof of Australia. On the highest peaks of the Snowy Mountains and the Victorian Alps, they aestivate - the summer equivalent of hibernate 0- from November to February. what made them an outstanding food for Aborigines was their habit of swarming together into rock crevices, covering the wall like a carpet (colour plate 13). As many as 14,000 have been observed on 1 square metre of rock wall. The moths usually only leave their resting places to fly around at dawn or dusk, so they were easily gathered. Since each one rests on the one in front, simply scraping a stick along the bottom row makes them all fall down into a waiting container, but aborigines also used a fine-mesh net (made from the fibre of the Pimelea shrub or Kurrajong tree) attached to two poles, which could be introduced easily into narrow crevices. The moths seem to prefer the deepest, darkest places on the windward side of high granite tors, and sometimes they were so inaccessible that they had to be smoked out.

Before moths were gathered, a fire was prepared on a nearby rock, and then the embers were swept aside to leave a stone 'hot plate', on which the moths were grilled. Two minutes of cooking sufficed. Then the moths were winnowed to remove the ashes and dust, and the abdomens were eaten. Each is only about the size of a small peanut, but full of protein, with a taste resembling that of roast chestnuts. It was a rich diet, and Aborigines are reported to have come down from the mountains sleek and fat after several weeks or even months of feasting on moths. The moths' high protein content was as valuable a source of energy to the highlanders of the mainland as were seals to the Tasmanians coping with an even colder climate. Moth feasts were the occasion for great gatherings of different friendly tribes.

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Aborigines in North Queensland, Australia

They were summoned by messengers carrying message sticks to join in the feasting and festivities. An advance party went up to the peaks to check when the moths arrived, whilst the main gathering of several hundred Aborigines took place at the foot of the mountains, at places like Jindabyne and Blowering in the Tumut Valley. These seasonal congregations were the time for initiation ceremonies corroborees, trade, marriage arrangements, and the setting of disputes, which sometimes involved pitched battles (the unsuccessful side lost its supply of moths for the season). Then, when the moths had arrived on the summits and the necessary rituals had been performed, a smoke signal created from wet bark was sent up and the parties wended their way upwards; each group apparently owned its own moth peaks.

What traces remain of this unique phenomenon in the archaeological record? the answer is regrettably few, but nevertheless enough to show that moth hunting has been going on for at least 1000 years. Only one stone tool was used in the exploitation of this food, and that was a smooth, unmodified river stone used to grind up the cooked moths into a paste to carry them down to the valley. Such stones have been found in high-level camp sites at places such as Perisher Valley. They also occur as isolated finds high in the alpine zone, far above any natural source of river stones. The only logical explanation for anyone to carry river stones up mountains seemed to be that they were used as moth pestles, but to prove this was more difficult. The stones were examined under ultraviolet light to see if they bore any traces of organic remains, which would fluoresce. They did fluoresce, particularly on the working ends. Grinding up moths with a stone of the same kind produced fluorescence in exactly the same way as the specimens from the archaeological sites. Further evidence came from a cave that is a moth aestivation site, which also provided shelter for moth hunters. This Bogong Cave contained a similar moth pestle in an occupation deposit, and charcoal from that layer gave a date of 1000 BP. Moth hunting is thus a specialised economic activity with an antiquity of at least 1000 years. When did it begin? The moth migrations are generally considered to be a means of escaping the oven-like heat of the breeding grounds in summer. This climatic pattern could have been established at any time after the end of the ice age, and is likely to have occurred more than 7000 years ago, during the post-glacial climatic optimum period when temperatures were higher than today.

At the northern and southern extremities of the Snowy Mountains, people were venturing on at least seasonal foraging trips in the Pleistocene, leaving slight traces of their passing around Lake George, at Birrigai and at Cloggs Cave in the Buchan Valley. But on present evidence the highlands proper seem to have been uninhabited until the small tool phase. If there was any earlier occupation, it was certainly non-intensive, and probably only seasonal. Ceremonial gatherings were a vital part of highland life. The moth hunters could have simply exploited the moths in their own territory, but instead they trekked from more than 100 kilometres away to meet. Large gath4rings need large amounts of food, and the normal highland resources, such as roasted bracken roots, daisy yams and possums, might have been inadequate without the moths. Moths are relatively abundant, reliable and easily collected; they are the easiest food to survive on if 'living off the land' in summer in the mountains, and can be eaten by the kilogram for breakfast, lunch and dinner with no ill-effects. This unusual resource enabled men to carry out initiation and other ceremonies in seclusion, as some of their stone arrangements and bora grounds on remote mountain peaks still silently testify.


The same coincidence of new stone tool forms and intensive exploitation of a special food resource associated with large ceremonial gatherings is found not only in the highlands of Queensland and New south Wales but also among the swamps and plains of southwestern Victoria. Here the special food was eels. Eels were a major food source of the fast, coastward-flowing rivers in southeastern Australia. Each year the large, fat, silver eels migrate upstream in spring to their inland feeding grounds, then downstream in autumn to the sea and their breeding places far away in tropical waters. This eel (Anguilla australis occidentalis) is a temperate freshwater species, which grows to 1 metre or more in length and to the thickness of a man's arm. The fertile coastal plain of southwestern Victoria is intersected by a network of small, perennial rivers, swamps and wetlands. Rainfall occurs mainly in the autumn and winter and, before European settlement, used to turn vast stretches of land into marshes each year. There were thus extensive wetlands each autumn, the main eel fishing season, and elaborate canals and traps were constructed to catch the eels during their migrations.

Archaeological work in the Western District of Victorial had revealed the existence of specialised, large-scale stone structures to exploit eels as a major seasonal food. Extensive eels traps still exist at Lake Condah, Ettrick (also called the Mainbridge Weir sites), Toolondo and Mount William. The Lake Condah system was mapped and studied in detail by the Victoria Archaeological survey during a series of archaeological summer schools from 1977 to 1981. These archaeologists found a large number of 'stone races, canals, traps and stone walls'. The races, defined as 'above ground structures for directing water', were constructed by building walls from broken blocks of the black volcanic rock that litters the Lake Condah region. The walls were up to 1 metre in height and width and often more than 50 metres long. In some places, 'canals' or 'channels dug into the ground' were dug into basalt bedrock by removing loose and broken rock, and extended up to 1 metre in depth and as much as 300 metres in length. Traps were built across the stone races and canals; nets or eel pots were set in apertures in the stone walls, which were often constructed in a V-shape. The eel pots were made from strips of bark or plaited rushes with a willow hoop at the mouth (figure 16.1). The tapered shape allowed men standing behind the weirs to grab the eels as they emerged through the narrow end of the pot. The fishermen killed the eels by biting them on the back of the head. The same method of killing has been observed in Arnhem Land in recent times, but in this case women killed sea snakes by putting the heads in their mouths and biting. When dead, the eels were threaded onto a stick to take back to camp.

The Aboriginal fishermen understood the hydrology of the lake perfectly. They designed and constructed an ingenious system for catching the maximum number of eels with minimum effort. Considerable organisation of labour would have been required initially to excavate the canals, but Coutts estimated that no more than twenty people were needed to operate the traps once they were built. The sophisticated network was to cunningly designed that it took advantage of both rising and falling water. Traps were built at different levels, and as the lake rose or fell, different traps came into operation progressively. The archaeologists at Lake Condah, after a period of heavy rain, were treated to a demonstration of how the whole system might have operated. Even more remarkable than the complex eel harvesting at Lake Condah is the evidence of Aboriginal 'engineering' near Mount William and Toolondo. At Toolondo an elaborate system of water control - a sort of prehistoric Snowy Mountains Scheme - was developed. Artificial channels 400 metres long were dug out with digging sticks to join two swamps, 2.5 kilometres apart, in different drainage basins. They were separated by a low divide, which was cut through to allow water to flow in either direction. eels were thus able to extend their range and increase in number, and the channels made it easy to catch them.

The system was also designed to cope with excess water during floods and to retain water in times of drought. It is estimated that over 3000 cubic metres of earth was dug out of the Toolondo complex. The water control system at Mount William was described by Robinson in 1841:

At the confluence of this creek with the marsh observed on immense piece of ground trenches and banks resembling the work of the aboriginal natives - purpose consisted for catching eels - a specimen of art of the same extent I had not before seen ... these trenches are hundreds of yards in length - I measured in one place in one continuous triple line for the distance 500 yards. The triple water course led to other ramified and extensive trenches of a more tortuous form - an area of at least 15 acres was thus traced out ... these works must have been executed at great cost of labour ... There must have been some thousands of yards of this trenching and banking.

Robinson's detailed diaries provide one of the few sources of information on Aboriginal life in western Victoria. he tells us that the canals were dug with digging sticks, and that the el fishermen at Mount William were camping on a group of oven mounds nearby. The ethnographic evidence concerning dwellings and 'villages' in the Western District comes mainly from James Dawson's 1881 account, but also from earlier records and sketches from the time of first European settlement in the late 1830s, and has been synthesised by Elizabeth Williams during her research into the archaeology of the region.

Three types of dwellings were in use in southwest Victoria at contact. These were a simple windbreak, a domed hut and a beehive-shaped hut. Windbreaks were used during fine and warm weather or for short-term hut. Windbreaks were used during fine and warm weather or for short-term occupation. The more substantial domed form of hut, consisting of a framework of boughs set into a dome shape, was used during fine weather or for shelter whilst travelling. The most substantial hut was a weatherproof, beehive-shaped dwelling made of a layer of mud, sods, bark or turf plastered over a framework of boughs. In very stony country, this form was constructed using a low wall of stones as a foundation, which was then roofed with wood and bark. Substantial huts were used on a semi-permanent basis, especially during colder weather. Huts generally faced west, according to Dawson. Most huts, 'fifteen feet' (5.4 metres) in diameter were associated with a more prolonged stay or a larger family group. Caves and rock overhangs were also occupied in some instances, and earth mounds were used as camping p0laces and as foundations for huts.

In order to take full advantage of the fishing at Lake Condah, people needed to live within a day or two's walk of the lake. This meant that some large camp sites should exist in the area, and in January 1981 a field survey was conducted from the Victoria Archaeological survey to try to find some. Not only were camp sites found, but also the remains of stone 'houses' and whole 'villages' were reported. 128 stone structures were identified in one paddock (at Palmer's = Allambie) as hut bases, and further field work supported identification of these structures as cultural sites. Some 'stone circles' exist; they are defined as 'semi-circular, c-shaped or u-shaped stone structures' and are considered most likely to be temporary stone hut bases, windbreaks, hunting blinds or 'dinner time camps'. At Lake Condah stone circles were the most numerous site type recorded, the seventy-nine found comprising 49 per cent of total sites. They are concentrated on the tops of the flatter lava ridges on the western side of the lake, and most occur in clusters of five or more, with the largest group containing sixteen stone circles. No artefacts were found within any of the stone circles identified in 1990, and that they were probably 'seasonal trapping and fishing huts, where people waited for the traps to become operational after heavy rains and where they then processed the day's catch before leaving for other larger camps'. The mounds, which are widespread in areas adjacent to the stony rises and wetlands, are considered to be more likely foci for larger aggregations of people. 

Earth mounds, or mirr'n-yong heaps as they are often called, abound along the rivers and lakes of Victoria. In western Victoria, the appearance of low earth mounds in this region is dated to around 2500 BP, and excavation evidence indicates their use as camp sites. It has been argued that these mounds may represent deliberately constructed hut foundations, and that where these mounds appear in larger groups or clusters, this is representative of a 'village' complex. It was pointed out that 'analyses of ethnographic material indicated that, at the time of European settlement (the late 1830s), substantial settlements comprising groups of up to 30 beehive-shaped huts were common here. It appears these settlements were occupied on a sedentary or semi-sedentary basis, and were often termed "villages" by contemporary observers.'

Eel-fishing Aborigines of western Victoria have been called 'complex hunter-gatherers', and defined as 'groups who are sedentary of semi-sedentary; live in sizeable settlements which are often termed 'villages'; construct large, durable structures, and manipulate the environment in ways that alter the availability or abundance of resources'. This seems to be a reasonable interpretation of the nineteenth-century situation, but the archaeological evidence is so fragmentary that there remains much uncertainty about the scale of nature of eel-fishing and associated settlements and the degree of sedentism in earlier times. All sites that have been excavated so far in inland parts of the Western District have proved to be less than 3500 years old, and since both stone circles and traps at Lake Condah are generally well preserved, they may well belong to the fairly recent prehistoric past. The hydraulic systems are indeed remarkable example of resource management and stone age 'engineering', and, like the sophisticated and large-scale eel traps of Lake Condah and elsewhere, show that Aborigines ingeniously manipulated their environment, not necessarily to increase food production but to increase the regularity and reliability of food resources, making possible a less nomadic way of life and regular, large tribal gatherings. Like moths and Macrtozamia, eels were used as a 'communion food' to feed large numbers of people gathered together for ceremonies. They were also one of the very few food items that were traded in the exchange system. At times when eels and fish were not available there were waterfowl, emus, plains turkeys, kangaroos and plentiful vegetable foods, particularly Convolvulus in winter and tubers of the daisy yam in summer. The starchy rhizomes of bracken ferns may also have been an important food here, as they were on the coast at Cape Otway, where masses of pestles and mortars have been found in the Seal Point midden by Lourandos. They were used for crushing up the bracken roots, which were eaten raw or roasted. Bracken is very common, spreads after bushfires, and is native to Australia, it is not a European import as has sometimes been said.  

There is a close link between the holding of lengthy ceremonies and the management of food resources. As a society becomes more complex, it increases its demands on the economy; a more intensive social system is linked to more intensive food management. Intensification of food management in southwestern Victoria is probably linked with population increase, which in turn triggered more intensive occupation of the less favourable regions to the north: the Grampians and the arid Male. Aborigines probably expanded into the marginal arid Mallee proper only some 3500 years ago, mainly as a result of increased population density elsewhere in Victoria. There was some earlier occupation in the Grampians and on or near the Murray River, but not in the really arid areas of low sand dunes and dense mallee scrub. This view is based on the belief that 'absence of evidence is evidence of absence'. Some would say that older sites are there waiting to be found, but a strong case has been made for late occupation of this harsh environment. This fits well with the pattern of occupation found in other unfavourable habitats.

Climatic change may also have played a part in changing Aboriginal settlement patterns and economy. There is some evidence of a cold, dry spell around 3500 to 3000 years ago. This may have been one factor leading to the development of artificial water management techniques for harvesting eels; to a move into the wetter Grampian Mountains at that time; and, later, to population expansion into the Mallee once wetter conditions returned to this semiarid region, about 2500 to 1500 years ago. In another semiarid area in southern Australia - the Nullarbor Plain 0 human occupation seems to have been very slight until the last few thousand years. a great increase in the Aboriginal population of the region about 4000 to 6000 years ago is suggested by a twofold to threefold increase at that time in the density of artefacts in three excavated caves: Allen's, Madura and Norina. This is accompanied by an apparent increase (reflected in the sites' pollen sequences) in pressure on the vegetation, both through burning and through cutting material for hut-building.


The middens of southeastern Australia have yielded some fascinating evidence of diversity and change in both diet and technology of coastal fishing people during the last few thousand years. Some middens reflect specialisation, others a more generalised subsistence, such as the Currarong sites on the Beecroft Peninsula north of Jervis Bay, excavated by Lampert. Here the contents of midden deposits in four small rock-shelters showed exploitation of the food resources of the open beach, rock platform, estuary, wooded gullies and headland plateau. In the midden of Currarong Shelter I wee remains of (in order of decreasing frequency) bandicoots, wallabies, potoroos, dingoes (not necessarily food remains) fur seals and possums. among the fish remains, snapper predominated, followed by bream, parrotfish and groper. Snapper is a bottom-dwelling reef fish that was probably caught from the headland using lines and shell fish-hooks, some of which were found in the site. Bream, on the other hand, is an estuarine fish that was probably caught by spearing with a multi-pronged fishing spear. These spars were armed with bone points, some of which were also present in the deposit (figure 16.2).

Further south on the New south Wales coast, the small sea cave of Durras North, which overlooks a large ocean beach, was excavated by Lampert. The deposit only spanned the last 500 years and revealed a number of surprises. There were almost no stone tools. The only numerous artefacts were fish-hooks and bone points, pointed at one or both ends and made out of bird bone (figure 16.2 and 16.3). The deposit was full of bird bones, particularly of the muttonbird. These birds migrate down the coast each year and would have been caught after they collapsed exhausted at sea and were swept ashore. The muttonbird collectors also consumed fish, shellfish and Macrozamia nuts, and doubtless many other foods which were eaten away from the cave or have not survived in t he midden. The southerly aspect of the beach at Durras makes it an ideal location for the collection of flotsam, and we can imagine these prehistoric beachcombers sitting in their cave in October and November - the best months for muttonbird casualties - looking out across the sand to the rolling surf, which might bring them their dinner.

Just south of Sydney, in the royal National park, several sandstone rock-shelters overlook the beautiful deep lagoon and sandy beach of Wattamolla cove. This is a favourite spot for picnickers and anglers, who use metal fish-hooks, spears and scuba equipment to catch fish which Aborigines earlier caught with shell fish-hooks and vegetable lines or bone-barbed fishing spears. The public footpath to the beach runs through one of the rock-shelter sites, where Vincent Megaw excavated a shallow shell midden containing a large number of bones of ref fish, a few bones of muttonbird, seal and land mammals, together with seven bone pointes and eight crescentic fish-hooks.

The Wattamolla sites appear to have been specialised fishing sites: the men fished with spars and the women with hook and line. This division of labour according to technique is clearly documented in the Sydney district by the earliest European arrivals, such as Captain Cook, David Collins and John Hunter. Both men and women, but more particularly women, used bark canoes for fishing, which wee seldom seen without the smoke of a small fire curling up from them. The fire was kindled on a bed of seaweed and clay in the centre of the cane, and fish and shellfish caught from the craft were often cooked and eaten in them. The fires thus served for cooking and warmth, and to provide light for fishing at night. This was a frequent practice, and if we could be transported back 300 years in time, we would see Sydney Harbour and Wattamolla Lagoon sprinkled at night with dozens of fishing canoes, each with its own twinkling light.

A specialised oyster-gathering site lies on the north coast of New south Wales, on the northern bank of the mouth of the Clarence River. This is Wombah midden, which consists almost entirely of oyster shells. There were no fish-hooks and only a few bone points and stone tools, including ground-edge axes and pebble tools. Historical sources indicate that large numbers of Aborigines used to congregate in summer to crop the oyster beds on the north coast. It is interesting that on these occasions, the traditional sexual division of labour broke down. Normally, gathering shellfish was women's work, but when shellfish was the main food enabling a large number of people to congregate together, both men and women did the collecting. Such seasonal abundance of particular food resources allowed large-scale social and ritual events to take place and ceremonies to be conducted in bora rings and other ceremonial grounds.


A remarkably consistent pattern has emerged from this overview of societies in southeastern Australia during the last few thousand years. The major happenings seem to be the adoption of small composite tools, an increase in intensity of occupation (with more sites, artefacts and people), the spread of people into harsh environments that had few or no earlier inhabitants, and the harvesting or management  of special foods linked with the holding of ceremonies and the extension of social networks. Within this overall pattern there is great regional diversity. Each region had its own distinctive way of life, material culture and art style, although there was extensive social contact and exchange of ideas and goods. An increase in the mid-Holocene in the number of sites has been well documented by Lourandos, Williams, Beaton and others, and it has been convincingly argued that this is not just a result of the better preservation and archaeological visibility of younger sites, but reflects an increase in population. Stephen Sutton has made an interesting comparison between the initial occupation dates of sites younger than 12,000 BP in southwestern Victoria and Tasmania. he interprets this as showing that Tasmania, although totally isolated from the mainland, exhibits a very similar pattern to the mainland in its initial occupation dates for Holocene sites. He concludes that 're-assessment of the means by which we determine social complexity and changes therein from archaeological date is needed. In particular, the use of initial or basal occupation dates is called into question." The sample sizes tend to be too small for valid comparisons. For example, Tasmania, according to figure 16.4, appears uninhabited before 9000 BP, which was certainly known not to be the case (even in 1981, when Stockton's data were compiled), and if one added on the Tasmanian Pleistocene sites, the picture would be very different. The interesting question which these date do raise is: what happened in the 'dark ages' of Australia? We have remarkably little evidence for the period from about 12,000 to 8000 BP all over the continent.

Others have criticised aspects of the 'intensification model' on different grounds. for example, Bird and Frankel maintain that the arguments developed by Lourandos, Ross and Williams are based upon the assertion that developments in alliance networks, productivity and settlement patterns are representative of increasing social complexity and population levels. However, the chronology of these developments is far from clear and, as such, it is questionable whether these events constitute the interrelated set of Holocene changes labeled 'intensification'. All researchers agree that there was no significant pan-continental climatic change in the mid-Holocene that could have led to these changes of 'intensification'. Some, such as Bowdler, incline to the view that a new 'cultural package' was brought into the continent along with the dingo, but there are to arguments against this view. Firstly, the changes are not simultaneous all across Australia; palaeontologists such as Jeanette Hope argue strongly against the dingo being introduced much before 4000 BP but, in spite of Bowdler's efforts, it is very difficult to discount all the earlier dates for points and backed blades at around 5000 BP or even earlier. Secondly, some changes also occurred in Tasmania, which all researchers agree was totally isolated from the mainland since about 10,000 years ago. There is only one change that could explain all these changes in the mid-Holocene, and that is population increase. Beaton has argued for a natural, incremental population increase, and whilst the details of his model are open to question, in that the rise may have been much more gentle than he has suggested, it is the most economical explanation for all the changes, such as increases in number of sites and artefacts, use of new food resources and of procurement techniques, expansion into marginal environments such as the highlands and deserts, greater regionalism and rock art, and adoption of new weapons - backed blades and spear points - to defend territory. 


In southeastern Australia the small tool tradition, characterised by specialised, composite small tools, such as backed blades, survived in a remarkably consistent form for 2000 years from its beginnings about 4000 years ago. Then, from about 2000 BP, changes gradually occurred. some items, such as backed blades, dropped out of the tool kit and there was a proportional increase in others, such as ground-edge axes. Simple flakes, often of quartz, were used, without the earlier careful preparation of their working edges. There was also a greater use of bone and shell for tool-making. In fact, some young sites contain almost no stone tools at all.  

shell fish-hooks came into use some time during this period. Whether they were independently invented in Australia or were introduced from somewhere in Melanesia to the north we do not know, but they were being used in Australia during the last 1000 years. The presence of stonefish-hook files' in sites cannot be taken to indicate fish-hooks were also present but have now decayed, because there is no good evidence that these smooth, polished stones ever served as files to manufacture fish-hooks. It may be that the development hook - and line-fishing, and even of the multi-pronged fishing spear, was a response to population pressure, enabling greater exploitation of marine resources. The use of hook and line made available a new range of deeper-water sea fish unobtainable by spear-fishing. If line-fishing were only done by women in the prehistoric period, as in the historic period, it could also imply a new and greater role for women in coastal societies. If this is so, environmental change led to population change, which inspired technological change, which caused economic and social change. 

The general characteristics of this late phase of southeastern prehistory seem to be the adoption of specialised fishing techniques, a greater use of bone and shell artefacts, a decrease in finely retouched tools and a corresponding increase in the use of untrimmed flakes. Most of these are made of quartz, the most common stone in Australia. This suggests that thee were more people who were competing for the same resources and who were perhaps more restricted in their foraging area than in the earlier days of an emptier continent.


One of the Aborigines' most important artefacts is largely invisible to the archaeologist: fire. Much of the vegetation encountered by early white settlers in Australia was not natural but artificial; an Aboriginal artefact created by thousands of years of burning the countryside. Before the colonists started ringbarking the trees, humans had had a great impact on the Australian environment, as has been shown by research. There were many reasons for the extensive burning. It was used for signalling and also to make travel easier by cleaning undergrowth along the route and killing snakes lurking in the bush. Aboriginal tracks were kept open by regular firing in the heavily timbered ranges of the blue Mountains and in the dense tea-tree scrub of western Tasmania, and fire was also used to clear a path through the tropical grasslands of Arnhem Land. Throughout the continent, burning was used as an aid to hunting; animals could be speared or clubbed as they broke cover to escape the flames. Other uses of fire were for longer-term hunting strategies. After firing, the bush would regenerate, new grass would spring up and attract kangaroos and other herbivores, on which the hunters could prey. Likewise, fire encouraged the regrowth of eucalypt trees and of edible plant foods, such as bracken roots, young leaves and shoots. The ashes acted like manure, and sweet, new green shoots would spring up after the first hard rain following the burn.

Extensive and regular burning had the long-term effect of altering and actually extending humans' habit. Jones has convincingly demonstrated that the sedgeland of the west coast of Tasmania is a human artefact, the result of the long use of fire, which gradually changed the original rainforest - dominated by the fire-sensitive beech, Nothofagus - through a phase of mixed eucalypts and rainforest to scrub and finally heath and sedgeland. Now that Aborigines are no longer burning in Tasmania, in some places rainforest is reinvading its old habitat. Likewiise, in highland northern Tasmania, explorer Henry Hellyer found open grasslands among the rainforest in  1827, and he named them the surrey and Hampshire Hills after the rolling grassy downs of England. These grasslands provided perfect pastures for sheep, but when Aborigines were no longer present to maintain them with a regular fire regime, sour grass and scrub took over, gradually obliterating the open land, so that sheep-grazing stopped around 1845, with considerable loss to the non-fire-stick farmers. 

The changes brought about in Tasmania by Aboriginal use of the fire-stick had the effect of increasing the amount and diversity of food available. Tasmanian rainforest is not rich in plant and animal food, whereas the mixed heath and wet scrub and grasslands that replaced it under the Aboriginal fire regime provided an abundance of game and plant food, such as two of the carbohydrate staples of temperate Australia: bracken, a vigorous coloniser of newly burnt forest, and the grass-tree , of which the starchy pith of the trunk was eaten.

In different parts of the continent different fire regimes were used, adapted to local needs. In Arnhem Land the Anbara practise a fire-management program that maintains the existing vegetation. They spare fire-sensitive areas, such as jungle thickets, which contain many edible p0lants that do not readily regenerate after burning. Here, there are strong ritual prohibitions against burning: jungles are the home of spirits who, if disturbed by fire, would send smoke into the eyes of the fire-lighters and make them blind. Moreover, fire-breaks are formed around such thickets: an area of about 1 kilometre broad is carefully burnt soon after the end of the wet season. Thus when the main burning is done between June and august in the dry season, the jungle thickers are protected by a fire-break of already-burnt grasslands. The reasons given by the Anbara for burning throw an interesting light on Aboriginal attitudes to fire. Fire was seen as necessary to clean up the country, and they regarded unburnt grassland as neglected. Every part of the grasslands, savanna and eucalypt woodlands of their own territory would be burnt regularly, at least once every three or four years. Such regular, light burning was the pattern all over Australia in the time of first European contact. The fires were of low intensity, which meant that they consumed the litter of leaves and branches on the forest floors but did not burn down the trees. Without such regular burning, forest littler accumulates at a fast rate. This litter accumulation leads to disastrous wild fire, such as that of 1 February 1967, which threatened Hobart. It is ironic that the Australian parklands and open woodlands so admire by the early settlers should have been created by the Aborigines they regarded as ignorant nomads. Yet when Aborigines were driven off their land and the regular, light burning ceased, the old grass turned sour, scrub invaded the parkland, and the settlers' fine houses, fences and sheep became victims of occasional uncontrollable bushfires. It has taken over a century for the European settler to learn from such mistakes, and now a system of controlled, regular burning has been instituted in many National Parks. In the Kakadu National Park the burning is being done by local Aborigines.

Unlike modern conservationists, Aborigines never put out their fires. Cap fires were left burning, as were signal fires, including those lit in a sequence to indicate the direction of travel of humans or game such as kangaroos. Hunting fires were likewise left to burn themselves out, and Richard Gould reports 23 square kilometres of country being burnt in the process of catching three feral cats. Indeed, Aborigines lit fires with such apparent abandon that they have been called 'peripatetic pyromaniacs'. Burning the country still continues in Central and Northern Australia, although instead of the fire-stick, lighted matches are tossed out of the back of trucks now.

In the desert regions mosaic burning was usually carried out in winter, with parts, but not the whole, of an area being burnt. Much of the desert is clothed in clumps of prickly spinifex grass, which is of little economic value apart from the black, tarry gum it produces - a strong resinous adhesive used for fixing stone adzes to handles and for other purposes. However, when large areas of spinifex are burnt, the burnt land is recolonised after rain by a variety of other desert plants more productive of food than spinifex. Gradually the country reverts to spinifex, but meanwhile, there is likely to be an increased supply of edible plants, such as the fruits of Solanum (wild tomatoes). These are the most important fruits of the desert people; they are up to the size of a nectarine, highly nutritious, full of vitamin C, and hang on bushes for months with excellent storage quality. Another food plant which loves to crawl up burnt trees is the 'wild banana', a vine with edible leaves, fruit and a yam-like root.

Aborigines in Arnhem Land have been observed to aim their fires in particular directions, and despite the apparently casual use of fire in the Western Desert, Gould 'never encountered an occasion when a fire actually invaded an area that was already producing wild food crops'. It seems that, as well as increasing their future food supply, the Aborigines also protected their present food resources. fire is the most versatile and important tool of hunter[-gatherers. It is used for warmth, light, cooking, hunting, signalling, track-making, and whether intentionally or not, had the effect of improving the food supplies of prehistoric Australia.

the fire-stick was one of the few artefacts that was used all over prehistoric Australia at the time of contact with Europeans. The last 1000 years had been a period of great regional diversity and complexity. There was no standard way of life, but, rather, a series of remarkably different regional responses to varying environments, ranging from moth hunting to sealing, from eel trapping to cycad harvesting. There was not only diversity, but also intensification in the use of resources. The pace of change was quickening - who knows where this initiative and creativity might not have led Aboriginal society, had not those ships of doom sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1788.

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