The Archaeological Record
The Aboriginal occupation of Australia exceeds 1200 human generations compared with a maximum of 8 generations of European occupation.
During its long course of human history the Australian continental area has fluctuated significantly as global sea-levels adjusted to the advance and retreat of the polar ice caps. During the last glacial period, when much of the world's ocean water was locked up in ice and the coastline was considerably further seaward, Tasmania and Kangaroo Island were linked with the mainland, and Torres Strait was narrower. The initial human landfall in Australia seems to have been achieved by small numbers of seafaring people who arrived along the northern coasts. Over time, climatic shifts provided more favourable conditions for Aboriginal hunter-gatherers over Australia, and local populations increased. However, when climatic conditions became drier in many inland regions there was increased pressure on the food resources of a number of favoured localities.
By examining changes in technologies, dietary practices, art forms, and other economic and social indicators, archaeologists are now endeavouring to unravel the course of Aboriginal settlement in a continent largely isolated for most of its history from the rest of the world.
In the late 1920s the popular notion that Aboriginal culture had a short and undistinguished history was challenged by archaeological discoveries in South Australia. Working in 6 metre deposits of stratified campsite refuse at Devon Downs on the River Murray, excavators uncovered the first firm evidence that social and economic changes had occurred during the period of Aboriginal occupation. Since the excavation of this 5000 year old deposit, archaeological evidence of habitation in Australia more than 35,000 BP (years before present) has been found in western New South Wales and in southern Western Australia. These, and a score of younger sites, illustrate the wide extent of ancient settlement throughout the Australian mainland and islands.
The antiquity and nature of Aboriginal occupation in South Australia is now confirmed from a number of sites. The earliest dated signs of habitation are panels of finger engravings and nodules of flint quarried for tool manufacture in underground limestone formations on the Nullarbor Plain at Koonalda Cave (about 24,000 BP) and nearby Allen's Cave (about 19,000 BP). Similar activities, which must have been carried out in pitch darkness, have been found in limestone caves near Mount Burr and Kongerong in the South-East. Tools, believed to indicate an ancestral stone tool industry featuring large 'horsehoof' cores and scrapers, have been located in an area stretching from Kangaroo Island to the North Flinders Ranges. This industry apparently dates from about 15,000 BP at Hawker Lagoon in the north to about 7400 BP at Cape du Couedic in the south, although older sites are known outside the State. The earliest dated occupation of Kangaroo Island appears to have involved brief visits to Seton Cave 16,000 BP when the now extinct kangaroo Sthenurus may have been eaten. Aboriginal occupation continued on the island until at least 4300 BP, several thousand years after Backstairs Passage formed.
At Wyrie Swamp in the South-East, some of the world's oldest wooden tools have been recovered from deposits of deep fibrous peat. Dated between 8000 and 10,200 BP, these tools included boomerangs, barbed spears and throwing sticks, as well as a variety of stone knives and scrapers. The wood used - a coastal sheoak - is so well preserved that marks from the stone tools employed in the manufacture of the implements are still visible on its surface. Human activity at Wyrie Swamp focused on aquatic plants, insects and birdlife which inhabited the swamp during its initial phase of development.
The River Murray was also a major centre of Aboriginal population in the past. At Roonka Flat near Blanchetown, archaeologists have unearthed a multitude of graves and campsites on a low floodplain dune. The ten burial pits unearthed contain both single and multiple interments, and were dug as vertical shafts, deep pits and shallow depressions. In some cases the dead wore elaborate necklaces and skin cloaks. These findings show changing patterns in the treatment of the dead over the past 7000 years. Sites at Fromms Landing, like many others on the river, contain vast quantities of fresh-water mussel shells, bone, and hearth refuse which have accumulated steadily over the last 4200 years of habitation. Among the important discoveries made there from about 3500 BP are distinctive rock engravings, wrapped mummy burials, and early evidence of the dingo.
The present coastal zone was another area of prehistoric development following the stabilisation of the sea level about 6000 BP. Evidence from the Coorong and the South-East suggests infrequent habitation during this period by small hunting and gathering parties. Between 1000 and 2000 BP, population rose dramatically and became more sedentary. Massive shell mounds, the use of cemetery plots, and evidence of coordinated fishing schemes are associated with this period. Fish traps, ponds, and weirs made of stone or timber in the Coorong and on Eyre Peninsula are recent examples found of the adaptation of Aboriginal culture to the food resources of the coastal zone.
Archival and oral sources are being used to interpret more recent archaeological deposits and to provide a guide for the interpretation of older sites. Australian archaeology is being strengthened by the insights provided by many Aboriginal people who have maintained strong oral traditions. Our understanding of pre-European settlement in South Australia is confined to a small number of recorded sites. A more complete picture of the rich and complex heritage of Aboriginal settlement will develop as research continues and methods of analysis improve.
European Australians have long assumed that Aboriginal people in pre-European times lived in discrete tribes and had little communication with distant groups and minimal interest in technology, trade, money or exchange. This is simply not the case. Aboriginal people were extensive traders, and with various media of exchange or money equivalents, they traded goods over long distances. 'Roads' or trade routes have existed for probably thousands of years, with centres of exchange growing up at key locations long before Europeans arrived. In fact, it was the very existence of these trade centres that attracted the early mission settlements at places such as Kopperamanna in the north-east corner of South Australia. Early settlers were sometimes surprised to find that prized items such as steel axes had been introduced long before the arrival of Europeans, having been exchanged for other goods at various centres along the trade routes. F.D McCarthy was the first person to document the extensive and intricate nature of trade in pre-European Australia. Between 1938 and 1940 he published a series of articles detailing trade routes, centres of exchange, and items traded throughout Australia and to Papua New Guinea.
Because of trade on the continent was overland and on foot, the key centres of exchange tended to be well inland at sites where fresh water was plentiful, and access and movement were facilitated along periodic watercourses or between suitably spaced water-holes. These functioning trade centres and been established at sites such as Kopperamanna, Beltana and Ooldea long before Europeans first sighted Australia.
Definite patterns of movement were established between these trading centres. Even though particular goods were exchanged across the whole continent, individual people did not travel the whole distance. Rather, goods - and associated stories and ideas - came with traders to a centre, and were exchanged for others.
The more valuable items - those that were scarce or found in only a few localities - were traded over very long distances. The rare melo shell, from the east coast of Cape York in Queensland, was traded right down into South Australia, becoming progressively more valuable the further it travelled from its source. A particularly valuable form of ochre was mined at Parachilna on the western edge of the Flinders Ranges. This was traded north, via the exchange centre at Cooper Creek, right into central Queensland. Pituri, the source of a much sought after psycho-active drug, was collected in western Queensland and traded far into South Australia. In return for pituri, ochre from Parachilna found its way to Boolyo (Boulia) in Queensland by way of a number of exchange posts and different carriers. Important ceremonial goods such as pituri and ochre served as currencies in payment for other items.
There is evidence that the trade routes were highly significant in religious-mythological terms and that they followed the 'dreaming trails' (the routes travelled by ancestral beings) over long distances. While its no longer possible to study the transfer of pre-European trade items, it is still possible to follow the story-lines of mythological ancestors across many areas. Thus, the route to the Flinders Ranges ochre mines was an emu dreaming path, used by people who traded with other groups who shared this dreaming and with whom they held combined ceremonies on their journey. These trade routes illustrate the high degree of interaction between people from different areas, and the extent to which cultural ideas as well as material goods were transferred. The Aboriginal trade map illustrates only some of the trade items which would have been used in pre-European times, and only those routes and exchanges centres for which it was possible to establish detailed knowledge before the people had died out or been displaced by incoming Europeans.