Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Occupation - Populating the Continent - Desert

The Riwi Cave site is on the Fitzroy River that borders the desert, this river leading to the Sturt Creek (Tjurabalan) that fills Lake Gregory (Paraku) which is an extensive freshwater lake. Paraku is an unusual desert lake, in that it is usually a freshwater lake but after droughts it becomes saline and sometimes dries completely. This was a mega-lake 300,000 BP when it covered 6,000 km2, though in the historic period its area has never exceeded 1,700 km2. Over the last 60,000-40,000 years there have been oscillating wet and dry periods, including a period of increased fluvial activity and lake enlargement from 50,000-45,000 BP. At the time of occupation the temperature of the area was lower than at the present when  the evaporation rate is more than 10 times the annual rainfall, the desert continuing to desiccate, though in the past as the desert was cooler, surface water tended to stay longer.

At the present Paraku is still an attractive living environment. After rain large numbers of birds, including sea birds, arrive at the lake to breed, nesting on the shores of the lake which contains mussels and small fish. Marsupials gather around it its fringes, and there is rich vegetation along the creeks and floodplains, such as tubers, (Vignia) bush onions (Cyperus) and bush tomatoes (Solanum centrale).

The author1 suggests it is not difficult to understand why nomads of the ancient past would come to Paraku and stayed there, the problem has been finding evidence of their occupation there, but an ancient stone core flaked from an old river cobble has been found in the sediments of the lake that date from at least 45,000-50,000 BP. Though such a find is small it has great implications as it places people in the desert earlier than almost any other geographical location in Australia. People were therefore in the desert an extraordinarily long time ago, as indicated by the artefact, but it also indicates that the occupation of the continent that occurred on the northern Australian coast must be considerably older the time suggested by the northern Australian sites that have been found.

According to Cane he knew people who had walked to Paraku in their youth prior to 1900, along a small number of traditional walking tracks that extend for 350 km from Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay) in the Great Sandy Desert. The tracks followed the desert ranges and escarpments, fertile plains and large salt lakes, that in ancient times were themselves lake and river systems. As previously mentioned, 40,000 BP the climate was cooler and marginally wetter that at present, which would probably have made it easier for early settlers to access the deserts from secure environments in the north, such as Paraku, than it was for people who walked the tracks in the 1800s.

Following effective monsoonal rains these ancient river systems filled, this type of rainfall is irregular but impressive events at the present, and it is suggested by climatic implications that it would also have been so in earlier times. Following heavy rain the ancient drainage system becomes rivers and lakes, and following such an event in 2001 the area west of Wilkinkarra became an inland sea that remained for 3 years. As the great sand deserts have many soaks they are not the major impediment to occupation by expansion into the desert they appear at first sight to be, it is a deceptive landscape. They differ from almost every other environment in the world as the water is hidden underground, and it takes knowledge and skill to find it.

See Tjukurrpa

The skill of hunter-gatherers of the deserts appears to be boundless, an appreciation of which allows anyone unfamiliar with the landscape to understand how it might have been used. For those with the necessary skills food is abundant in the desert and, allowing for the season, is of high nutritional value and takes little labour to acquire sufficient to feed the whole family. The author1 has observed people hunting goannas (Varanus) and collecting bush tomatoes, he noted that a person can collect enough goannas in an hour to feed himself for a day and picking bush tomatoes for an hour can feed a family for a day. Enough bush onions were collected in 20 minutes on one occasion to feed 12 adults with plenty left over. In the northern deserts wild sweet potatoes (Ipomoea) are very abundant, to such an extent that they appear domesticated, and to some extent they are, as parts of the tubers are often snapped off and reburied thus ensuring there is a crop for the next season. The author suggests1 that as these tubers can be gathered in such numbers in a couple of hours enough can be acquired to feed an entire family, they could have been  a drawcard for the early settlers.

According to the author1 at the time he recorded the subsistence practices of the deserts had been largely unoccupied for 30 years, and in this comparatively unexploited state he suggests it could be compared with the deserts at the time of first settlement, though with obvious caution, as this resource had previously been untapped. He notes that there were fields of grass seeds and hectares of tubers that had not been harvested, and the animals were unaware of human predation. In this state the relatively unexploited environment probably resembled the conditions at the time of first settlement. Some of the problems they could have encountered with desert living include bad seasons, good supplies of water and food are not always available in all parts of all deserts, but to the first settlers it could have been more attractive than it would seem in its present state of aridity to Europeans with their dependence of food obtained from a relatively small number of farmed food crops which require a constant water supply. An advantage of life in the desert is there would have been no giant crocodiles (Pallimnarchus) and much less chance of encountering possum lions (marsupial lions) (Thylacoleo), in such dry, open conditions and very few trees. And there were probably few giant goannas (Megalania).

Once people appeared at Paraku it was not long before they occupied the desert. The walking distance between Paraku and Wilkinkarra is 350 km, or 250 km by direct travel. The central Australian ranges are a further 250 km. In the 1950s 2 men, Napin and Nunyarangu, walked across the northern part of the treeless section of the Nullarbor Plain. Walking in winter, though across very harsh rocky, waterless terrain, they took 3 days to cross the 260 km, walking at night and in the cooler parts of the morning and afternoon. Several months later one of the men walked back. Just part of life for desert nomads. When considered from the perspective of a desert nomad it is easy to conceive of people settling, walking and occupying the country between Paraku and central Australia early in the occupation of Australia. Evidence of this has been found at Puritjarra Rock Shelter near the Cleland Hills, that has been dated to 45,000 BP, in the form of several flakes, a core and pieces of red and purple ochre. The ochre had been obtained from an ochre quarry on Karrku (='ochre') located 125 km onto the sand plains northwest and 150 km to the east of Wilkinkarra. According to the author1 this source is renowned for its high quality and its lustrous rouge-like texture and appearance. Senior Aboriginal religious leaders treasured this ochre for its particular ceremonial value, with the result that it was traded extensively. The Puritjarra ochre has been described as having been for personal decoration and for paintings in the cave, though the author1 suggests there may have been a deeper religious significance as well as other mystical activities that are secreted within the archaeological utilitarianism of painting and personal adornment. It seems the ochre had great value in the distant past, as it still has at the present, as in the past people walked 250 km to get it or traded commodities for it. This raises the possibility of a desert trading system 40,000 BP, and also indicating that mining, the extraction of ochre, was taking place at Karrku a very long time ago. At present the mine extends 80 m underground and is suggested by the author1 to possibly be the oldest active mine site in the world.

It seems that among the earliest settlers there was a certain adaptive genius, and a focused, resourceful socio-economic system, as indicated by the presence of the ochre at Puritjarra and the geographic relationship between that site and Karrku. An evolutionary character might be assumed for the ancient strategies of occupation that enabled the settlement of the desert so long ago, and given the reliable food staples, strategies for hunting and gathering that were flexible and water availability, allowed desert occupation in the long-term. Extreme mobility must have been required to be sure of access to necessary resources, and an inclusive social and economic network operating over a vast area that was implicitly required to ensure survival. The Tjukurrpa articulates and maintains that network at the present.

In the desert the early settlement left a light footprint, though one with a large personality. With minor elaboration nomadic settlement and social cohesion would lead to people occupying all desert environments within the next 10,000 years, and which would continue defining society across the arid zone of greater Australia until the arrival of Europeans.

The author1 suggests the Nullarbor Plain, the harshest and most unappealing of the Australian desert landscapes, is possibly the best environment to demonstrate the diversity and adaptability of human ecology in the desert through ancient occupation. The few trees are low, the ground is very porous and there is a limited nutritional base. It is dangerous to cross this limestone plain at night because of the nature of the surface that is so pitted with caves, tunnels, blowholes, and dolines. It has been suggested it is more similar to the surface of the Moon than an Australian desert, with thin soils and very rocky ground.

It is indicated by palaeoenvironmental conditions that 40,000 BP the regional climate was drier than at present, and that the cliffs near the Bight, that are up to 100 m high, were an escarpment at that time, though then they overlooked a huge flat coastal plain that was 70 km further seaward than at present. At that time people were visiting Allen's Cave on what was then the inland plain, with signs of occupation from 40,000 BP, and possibly up to 43,000 BP, being found in that rock shelter.

See Allen's Cave

At Dempsey's Lagoon near Port Augusta, South Australia, a similar antiquity is indicated by an old cooking hearth. This hearth has been dated to more than 40,000 BP. Port Augusta is a port that is now near the sea. With an annual rainfall of less than 250 mm/year it is dry, though it was even drier at the time of earliest known occupation, as well as being further inland. Port Augusta is located at the northern end of a broad, flat plain and is flanked by low cliffs. This plain was flat and dry 40,000 BP, and the coast was at least 400 km away.

A major story is told, according to the author1, of the adaptability and ingenuity of the first settlers, by such minimal archaeological evidence of the desert occupation. There is evidence for people having settled the north, centre and south of the Australian desert 40,000-50,000 BP, at Allen's Cave, 3 pieces of ancient flaked stone, 1 flaked cobble at Paraku, and at Puritjarra a handful of flakes and ochre. It is presumed the desert was settled from lands that were more fertile via the semi-arid margins, and the core deserts were eventually soon settled, as well as the arid ranges and barren plains.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin. 
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  20/11/2013
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