Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Presence in the High Country – New Dates from the Namadgi Ranges, ACT

The chronology of the Aboriginal presence in the southeast Australian mountains has remained poorly understood, despite 5 decades of sporadic archaeological work. The region has possibly always been a marginal area in regard to habitation by humans, being characterised by steep slopes and rugged terrain, and the chronology of its occupation can therefore play an important role in assessing competing hypotheses with regard to past expansion of populations and cultural responses to environmental change. Several rockshelters in the Namadgi Ranges in the Australian Capital Territory were excavated in order to improve understanding of the chronology of the Aboriginal occupation of the high country. This report describes a series of radiocarbon dates that have been obtained from these excavations, as well as a generalised chronostratigraphy of the area. The first substantial evidence that people were active in the high country during the Holocene Optimum, about 9,000-6,000 BP, came from cultural deposits that dated to the Early to Middle Holocene. The new data, when combined with Namadgi sites that were dated previously, provides evidence that confirms that there was an increase in activity at about 2,000 BP. Between 4,500 and 2,000 BP there is a decrease in apparent  cultural evidence , which contrasts with the major cultural and population shifts that have been found for the archaeological record of southeast Australia over this period, it is still not clear if this decrease reflects an actual behavioural trend or is the result of external processes that affected cultural deposits.

Abundant archaeological evidence has been found in the mountain ranges of southeast Australia that indicates the presence of Aboriginal people in the high-altitude areas of the mainland for thousands of years. The pioneering work that was carried out by Flood in the 1970s provided the first regional framework that relates to the past 3,000 years (Flood, 1973, 1980). She proposed a functional occupation model of the seasonal exploitation of the Bogong moth, which is rich in protein, and aestivates at high elevation peaks over the summer months. Flood speculated  (Flood, 1980:281) that the region had been inhabited as soon as was allowed by the amelioration of glacial conditions, or following economic shifts around 7,000-5,000 BP, though there was a lack of evidence at the time. Flood’s occupation and distribution models were added to by further studies and reconsideration (e.g. Anderson, 1984; Argue, 1991a; Bowdler ,1981; Chalmers, 2012; Chapman, 1977; Comber, 1988; Cooke, 1988; Feary, 1984a, 1984b; Grinbergs, 1992; Kuskie, 1989; Packard, 1984). The professional consulting sector have also added to the regional grey literature and an understanding of the overall spatial patterning of pre-European habitation (e.g. Barber et al., 2004; Barz, 1987; Boot, 1991; Boot & Cook, 1990; Grinbergs, 2004; Pearson et al., 2009).

The chronology of Aboriginal activity in the ranges of the southeast remains poorly understood, in spite of this work, with almost no studies of high altitude (>1,000 m asl) habitation that have been dated, and most excavations that pre-date modern accelerator mass spectroscopy (AMS) radiocarbon dating techniques. There are only 2 occupation sites at high altitudes, Yarrangobilly Y258 (Aplin et al., 2010) and Nursery Swamp 2 (Rosenfeld et al. 1983), that have revealed occupation earlier than 3,000 BP, though there is some evidence that people visited the lower ranges, plains and routes into the mountains dating to the terminal Pleistocene (e.g. Birrigai, Bunyan, Cloggs Cave, New Guinea 2, and possibly London Bridge DC1. At Little Thredbo 2, an open site was dated to the Middle Holocene, but the integrity and cultural association of this site was later question by the excavator of the site since publication (Kamminga pers. comm. to Theden-Ringl, 2013). It was speculated (Aplin et al., 2010:207) that the lack of evidence dating from the Early to Middle Holocene may be related to the regional expansion of wet sclerophyll forest that occurred as a response to the Holocene Optimum, as this could have affected accessibility to the region until about 4,500 BP when there was a decline of the wetter forest conditions. The paucity of dated sites, especially of sites dating to earlier than the last millennium, has restricted the chronological context of archaeological discussion of models of occupation and shifts in cultural material and technologies.

As part of a larger study that investigated the archaeology and palaeoenvironment of the southeast mountain region of Australia, the aim of the new dates that are presented in this paper is to reinvigorate discussion of when people were active in the area and how both the behaviour of the people and the archaeological record may have been affected by changing landscapes or environmental conditions. A detailed report on the archaeology is to be presented in a separate paper.


A substantial contribution to the existing chronology of Aboriginal people in the Namadgi Ranges, and the high country of the Australian southeast more generally, together with information from Namadgi sites that were previously excavated. The new dates contribute to a pattern of shifts in occupation over time, though the excavation data are not likely to shed light of existing models of occupation regarding the nature of Aboriginal utilisation of the high country – e.g. seasonality of the exploitation of resources and the antiquity of the feasting on Bogong moths. People are confirmed to have been active in the region during the Holocene Optimum, albeit at low numbers, by the evidence from Boboyan, Bulls Flat and Nursery Swamp South, a scenario that has been proposed for the high country with no substantial supporting evidence before now (e.g. Flood, 1980:281; Kamminga, 1992:114). There is suggested to have been a spike in activity at Middle Creek about 5,500-5,000 BP, following which there was a decrease in activity from about 4,500-2,000 BP, a chronological gap at a time when there were major cultural and spatial shifts in the southeast Australia more widely (Hiscock, 2008: Chapter 8; Williams et al., 2015). A rapid increase in site numbers and the volume and complexity of cultural materials occurred in the last millennium and slightly beyond.

It is indicated by the sediment profiles from the Namadgi excavations that characteristics of the major SUs are related chronologically across sites and that the granitic rockshelter sites typical of the region are affected by similar soil processes. It is yet to be confirmed if the observed ‘gaps’ in occupation units are the result of cultural behaviour, environmental processes, or a combination of both; however, in general sedimentation processes at the sites in the Namadgi Ranges are accumulative and appear to have been driven by the presence of people.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Theden-Ringl, F. (2016). "Aboriginal presence in the high country: new dates from the Namadgi Ranges in the Australian Capital Territory." Australian Archaeology 82(1): 25-42.



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 02/04/2017
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