Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Resources Change Over Time in New England Upland Wetlands, Southeast Australia 

It was previously assumed that environments of the New England high country were not conducive to intensive occupation by Aboriginals in pre-historic times and associated ceremonial activities. A diverse, changing mix of deep water, marsh and the green pick of recently exposed lake bed, a rich aggregation of plant and animals resources that were not available in other environments, were provided by upland lagoons, especially during their intermittent phases. According to Beck et al. upland wetlands could be an Aboriginal resource that was surprisingly productive, that was otherwise harsh, and would at times allow for high population aggregations, such as for ceremonies. Beck et al. surveyed the literature of the characteristics of the New England lagoons on vegetation, birds and fauna that were used as resources by Aboriginal people. Then they compared this with palaeoenvironmental data to prepare an account of potential resources in the New England region over time. They found that overall the productivity of lagoons can be high, as there were large numbers of plant and animal species that were present in the wetland environment, especially in the Early and very Late Holocene. Productivity is at its highest when the moist littoral zones are at their greatest extent, rather than at lake-full stages. It remains to be resolved what the reasons for the apparent sparseness of occupation of the high country prior to the Middle Holocene, but they are open to informed speculation about the changing resources inventory of the wetlands, as well as the appearance in the Middle Holocene of new technologies that may have enabled the use of resources more efficiently. The occupation of the upland areas by Aboriginal people became visible in the archaeological record in the later Holocene, and included an exceptionally high number of ceremonial sites juxtaposed with the areas of greatest lagoon concentration. It is suggested by this that either the wetlands had become more productive or diverse over time or that the people had learnt how to make better use of the wetland resources that were available, to the point where they could support the large number of people often associated with these ceremonial activities. Beck et al. suggest that more research focused on the location and chronology of wetland archaeological sites is needed to resolve the question of the lack of early sites that is apparent is a question of visibility or there was a real hiatus of occupation.


At times when the lagoons of the New England high country are high the overall productivity is high, when the numbers of plant and animal species present in the wetland environment have been stimulated by alternate wetting and drying. The wetland species are highly persistent over time, as indicated by historical evidence (Cameron, 1975; Rodwell, 2006) the native fauna was much richer in the 19th century than at the present. This might be an explanation of why there is little evidence of human Activity at times of lake-full conditions of the Holocene Optimum, while there is evidence of an increase of the population from the Late Holocene, as it had a drier climate that was more uncertain. As there are no large cool-water native fish in southeast Australia other than eels, at times of lake full conditions in this high country would not necessarily mean more lacustrine resources. The eel migration, however, may have only developed in the Late Holocene, when rising sea level had brought the ocean closer, and the East Australian Current had assumed its present form (Brassington et al., 2011: 540). Following wet periods recurring drought would concentrate game around the larger lagoons, to the advantage of hunters, whereas the game would spread out over a wide area in consistently well-watered decades, which would make hunting difficult. Beck et al. were then able to speculate about the Aboriginal occupation of New England in the Pleistocene and Early Holocene, based on the climate records contained in the sediment of the lagoons, which provided new information, and guided the future field testing of these hypotheses.

Beck et al. suggest that the conditions of the Early Holocene that seemed to be benign may not have been as benign for humans as they appeared to be.  There is no doubt what made the later period, which was climatically uncertain, viable were the responses of the people, with greater connectivity by ceremonial activity, which may have been a cause as well as a result of the spread of new technologies that allowed the people to better adapt to the changed conditions. The only natural resource feature on the Tableland that was able to support such large numbers of people, which were likely to take part in the ceremonies, were the lagoons. The consumption and exchange of some of food items from distant places that might help overcome any local dietary deficiencies. The intensity of ceremonial and exchange activity had reached such a level by historical times that people from the northern part of New England were travelling as far as the Bunya Mountains in southern Queensland, which indicates there were networks among highland people that could be used to mitigate any failure of local resources.

The ecosystems of the lake lunette systems of the highlands responded to the climatic changes, which brought a more pronounced drought/flood cycle, with an increased diversity of fauna and flora. It appears that greater difficulties and greater opportunities coincided with new technologies, art activity that was more extensive and a ceremonial network that was more invigorated on the part of the Aboriginal people, the sum of which possibly allowed the people to deal better with the uncertainty of the climate. Aboriginal people were able to take full advantage of these isolated islands of resource abundance represented by the wetland systems of lagoons, situated high on the watersheds of the Great Divide which came into their own as transit stations for the migratory wildlife from the coast to the inland and then back to the coast.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Beck, W., R. Haworth and J. Appleton (2015). "Aboriginal resources change through time in New England upland wetlands, south-east Australia." Archaeology in Oceania 50: 47-57.



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 06/04/2017
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