Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Occupation - Populating the Continent - Final Phase - Tasmania

At the time the Willandra Lakes area was first occupied the climate of the temperate landscapes of south-eastern Australia was cooler, becoming cold with increased latitude and altitude in the southern parts of temperate Australia, and with large areas of the Snowy Mountains and the southern ranges being glaciated. This was the time when much of the Earth was being affected by a great ice age, a time when sea levels were substantially lower as a result of the water being locked up in vast ice sheets. Tasmania had become part of Greater Australia, or Sahul, by 43,000 BP as a result of lower sea levels.

As a result of the lower sea level Tasmania was a southern cape of Australia connected to mainland Australia by a land bridge, the Bassian Ridge, at present submerged beneath Bass Strait, that was part of a very large continental plain that covered an area of about 1.1 million km2 that stretched from Kangaroo Island to Cape Howe on the southern coast of New South Wales. The Bassian Ridge was 3 times the size of Tasmania being 215,000 km2 in area. This ridge, that is now submerged, was just above sea level at the time humans were camped at the Willandra Lakes, and it was part of a broad, undulating plain stretching south towards Mount Flinders, now Flinders Island, which attained a height of 760 m above it. Pollen records from central Tasmania indicate that it was vegetated by grasses and daisies, small evergreen conifers and pockets of casuarinas and eucalyptus. On this open plain the ranges over 400 m high were covered by alpine vegetation. It was occupied by emus and kangaroos, as well as some of the megafauna species such as Zygomaturus, Palorchestes, Protemnodon and Thylacoleo. According to Cane1 the plain would have been a cold, bitter place windswept by westerlies, though the climate was a little warmer than it had been in previous millennia. On this plain there was an extensive freshwater lake, 400 km long by 120 km wide, formed by surrounding ranges that are now islands, Furneaux Range (now Furneaux Islands), Mount King (now King Island) that reached 400 m above it. As the wind blew across this lake it would have sharpened the chill of the westerlies. At times, when the sea level was higher, the lake would become a large embayment, eventually being inundated about 14,000 BP as the sea level rose for the last time. Prior to its inundation it would have been a fertile environmental keystone along the migration route of humans to Tasmania from the mainland. At the time of the migration across the land bridge to Tasmania the island of the present was more similar to the subantarctic Macquarie Island of the present than the Tasmania of the present.

According to Cane at the time the colonisers were moving across the land bridge to the shore of ancient Tasmania they passed to the east of the Bassian Lake along the Bassian Ridge, past Mount Flinders. It is suggested they are likely to have occupied the hinterland, settling along rivers, then moved further into the foothills, exploiting the mountains in central and south-western Tasmania. The mountains were shrouded with ice caps with glaciers extending from the mountains into the upper Derwent Valley in the south, and in the north, the Forth Valley and Mersey Valley. The forests that mostly characterise Tasmanian wilderness at the present were largely not present, most of the land being covered by grass, heath and shrubs. Frigid moorland vegetated with herb fields, button grass swamps and conifers covered the areas between the high country and grasslands. The climate at the time was cold and wet, with short summers and long winters, and temperatures about 6o C lower than those of the present.

The migration ended at the foot of the glacial environment of Tasmania, in the coldest and most inaccessible regions known in the world, in a number of limestone caves in the central highlands and also in the wild southwest. Evidence has been found on the banks of the Maxwell River, at Warreen Cave, of human occupation that has been dated to between 38,800 and 41,000 BP. In the Forth River Valley near Cradle Mountain, people camped in Parmerpar Meethaner Cave that was located within 3 km of the glaciated highlands 44,200 years ago. The people occupying this caves spent the summers, in periglacial conditions, in the caves, as part of their seasonal strategy that moved from the highest, coldest altitudes in the summer to the lower altitudes during winter.

The hunters tended to use this wild, frigid land in a cyclical manner and according to the season, targeted selected resources. As Cane said (the ice age settlers were mobile hunters, discerningly, intentionally and intelligently hunting easy prey in the glacial latitudes')1.  They hunted a macropod about 1.5 m tall and about 20 kg, Bennett's wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus). The Tasmanian sub-species tend to flock on fertile patches of grassland in the moors that are tundra-like, and they have longer, shaggier hair than the mainland species. In the subalpine environment the fertile patches were of limited extent but they were maintained by regular firing which effectively tethered the wallabies to them, which resulted in 'managed' hunting, the hunters always knowing where the wallabies would be found in greatest numbers. They also hunted the wallabies selectively, taking mostly the older individuals, which would have lesser effect on the breeding population, and so maintaining this seasonal resource. The occupants also brought specific body parts of their kills back to their camp, apparently to get at the fat, cracking the skulls to get the brain and the leg bones for the marrow. The skins from these animals also had the winter coats of the thickest, highest quality furs to make into winter garments for maximum warmth.

It has become apparent that these hunters of the ice age were well aware of what they were doing as they managed this resource. Their hunting was not carried out in an opportunistic manner, they were managing where this resource was located, on the patches that were regularly maintained by fire, and had a 'harvesting' season when the furs were at their thickest. At first sight they may appear to have been opportunistic hunters taking animals where they could, but it seems they were actually approaching the task of hunting in a very methodical way, as Cane says, in a scheduled, cooperative, coordinated and clever manner. Though they might not have thought of it as 'scientific' knowledge of their target species, they obviously understood the animal ecology, breeding patterns and population dynamics of the wallabies. And as the author1 points out these hunters were living 40,000 years ago in the southern-most inhabited location on Earth at that time.

See Aboriginal Occupation of Tasmania

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin.

Scott Cane has included in his book, written as a companion to the ABC TV series of the same name, a number of stories from his days living among Aboriginal people in the desert and moving around with them.

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  26/11/2013
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