Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Aboriginal New England in the Pleistocene Period


A very long time ago, on 4 February 2007 to be precise, The Macleay Valley - the glacial age, provided an initial introduction to the paleogeography of New England. Since then, I have done bits and pieces, but still do not have a clear picture firmly fixed in my mind.

In October this year, Rod began his blog on Northern Rivers Geology. I asked Rod whether he would write something on change over the last 50,000 years. He has promised to do so in due course.

50,000 years is an important span from my perspective because it presently represents the maximum period of Aboriginal occupation of New England. The earliest accepted date we presently have for a location just to the north of New England is some 20,000 years ago. My feeling is that occupation probably began earlier. 

History is about dialogue, dialogue with our sources, dialogue with those interested. To encourage Rod and to extend dialogue, I have decided to post some of my own notes on New England's paleogeography as my contribution to discussion.

Aboriginal New England in the Pleistocene Period

Aboriginal people may have reached the area that would be variously called Northern New South Wales, the North, Northern Districts or New England as early as 40,000 years ago.

We know from dating at Warren Cave in Tasmania that the Aborigines had reached Tasmania around 35,000 years ago[1] while dates from Willandra Lakes in South West New South Wales suggest occupation as early as 41-40,000 years ago[2]. Given these dates, it seems reasonable to assume a working date of around 40,000 years ago for first Aboriginal occupation of New England.

We do not have hard evidence for this dates. The earliest confirmed date I know of in New England itself comes from a dig by Graham Connor at Stuarts Point in the Macleay Valley. This places human occupation at 9,320 +/- 160BP[3]. Further north in South-East Queensland, the Wallen Wallen Creek site shows continuous occupation from about 20,000 years ago.[4]

The Cuddie Springs site near Brewarrina is especially interesting because it suggests occupation as long ago as 35,000 years BP.[5] However, dates here have been subject to considerable dispute and there presently appears to be no agreement on the issue.[6]

Despite the absence of earlier dates, it is hard to believe that the Aborigines had not reached New England if they were at Willandra Lakes around 40,000 years ago, had reached the southwest of what is now Tasmania by at least 35,000 years ago.

What type of world did they find?

Sea levels fluctuated greatly during the long Pleistocene period. Forty thousand years ago, sea levels were perhaps 50 metres below current levels, creating a broader coastal plain. Rainfall was high, temperatures moderate. Rivers running east and west from the Tablelands would have carried substantial volumes of water.

In the east, the river estuaries and wetlands as we know them today did not exist, nor did bays and harbours such as Trial Bay or Port Stephens[7]. The present sea bed drops reasonably sharply in spots, so there would probably have been a significant gradient towards the sea with current headlands standing out as hills or ridges.

The significant volumes of water carried in the eastern flowing streams would have led to some progradation pushing the land out into the sea. With time, this would have led to river estuaries, coastal dunes and marshes. It seems likely that the larger coastal strip was thickly wooded and reasonably rich in marine and land resources.

In the west, the rivers and associated wet lands would also have provided a rich environment., although probably not as rich as it was to become.

The position on the Tablelands is unclear because so much of the analysis that I have seen deals with later periods. I suspect that the Tablelands were wooded and at least visited by surrounding groups.

The size and distribution of the early Aboriginal population is obviously unknown since at this stage we have yet to prove that they even existed. My own feeling is that it was probably much smaller but mirrored the pattern at the time the Europeans arrived; higher concentrations on the coast and on the western slopes and immediate plains, sparse on the Tablelands.

From around 36,000 years ago, the climate became cooler and drier. The cooler temperatures offset the lower rainfall by reduced evaporation; the streams, lakes and wetlands of inland New England therefore retained their water, providing a continued base for Aboriginal occupation.

From perhaps 25,000 years ago, the local environment deteriorated significantly. Sahul, the name given to the continent that then included Australia and New Guinea, became very dry, both intensely hot and intensely cold. This climatic regime peaked during what is called the Last Glacial Maximum, 21,000 to 15,000 years ago.

The sea retreated to perhaps 120 metres below current levels. The sea became colder, 2-4 degrees C below current levels. On land, mean monthly temperatures probably fell by 6-10 degrees C. Extensive inland dune building suggests that the climate become much windier.

According to Mulvaney and Kamminga, severe cold, drought, and strong winds over central and southern Sahul, would have discouraged tree growth , although some species common today must have survived in sheltered or better-watered refuges.[8]

The retreating sea would have progressively increased the size of New England’s coastal strip. The impact here would have varied along the coast, depending upon water depth. In broad terms, the immediately adjacent shallow water to the east of the present coast is quite narrow, with the continental shelf then falling away sharply.

In South East Queensland to the north, the falling waters probably extended the coastal strip to between twelve and twenty kilometres east from what is now Stradbroke Island.[9] Further south the lower water zone narrows, before widening a little after what is now Nambucca. In the case of what is now the Macleay Valley, the coast line probably extended ten to sixteen kilometres to the east.[10]

The sclerophyll woodland and deciduous forests would have progressively colonised the new land, with the coastal dunes and associated wetlands following the shifting coast east.

The Tablelands would have been a very different story. Here average temperatures fell by perhaps 8 degrees C. The New England Tablelands marked the start of a region of cold steppe and scattered sub-alpine woodland sweeping down through the southern Snowy Mountains[11] into Tasmania.

In the southern Snowy Mountains, the fall in temperature was sufficient to allow glaciers to form despite the lower precipitation. In New England, the higher portions of the Tablelands in the centre and south where average heights are around 1,300 metres must have been very cold, dry and windswept. Along New England’s Snowy Mountains where the highest peak (Round Mountain) is almost 1,600 metres, there were probably blizzards and semi-permanent snow despite the much lower precipitation.

To the west, Mulvaney and Kamminga suggest that much of the south-eastern interior of Sahul experienced cold arid conditions similar to modern Patagonia[12].

Josphine Flood notes that the pollen record for Cuddie Springs on the Western Plains shows decreasing tree, shrub and grass cover with a rise in saltbush (Chenopodiaceae) suggesting growing aridity as the as the glacial maximum approached[13]. She suggests that the environmental record for Ulunga Springs, 180 kilometres southeast of Cuddie Springs, shows a similar pattern between 30,000 to 10,000 BP. The net effect was an expansion of the continent’s arid core by at least 150 kilometres.

That said, the lower western Tablelands and slopes were probably vegetated by grassland with spring herbs with patches of woodland and forests. Further west, the streams crossed the arid plains.

While these changes took millennia and would not have been noticeable to individual generations, the effect on the human population must have been quite severe.

Water and food supply were two of the critical determinants of prehistoric demography. Water became scarcer, droughts more frequent. Food supply was reduced. Over time, populations would have been forced to relocate and may well have become much smaller.

In the absence of archaeological evidence, it is impossible to say just what the precise effects were in New England. While colder and drier, there would have been sufficient water and food resources to maintain populations

We know that there was Aboriginal occupation of the coastal strip given that the Wallen Wallen site in South East Queensland shows continuous occupation from 20,000 years ago, a date in the earlier part the Late Glacial Maximum. It is reasonable to assume that any occupation on at least the majority of the Tablelands ceased. But what happened further west?

Under current climate, Northern NSW is generally wetter and warmer than Southern NSW because the area is affected by two different weather patterns. Rainfall also declines to the west because of the impact of the Eastern Ranges.

The climate during the Late Glacial Maximum was clearly very different. However, my feeling is that the current pattern was replicated to some extent because of air flows from what is now the Pacific.

In later times, ethno-historical evidence suggests that the presence of standing water was very important[14]. During wet periods, people moved out into the broader landscape, concentrating round permanent water during dry periods.

With diminished rainfall but also lower temperatures, it seems likely that there were areas on the Western Slopes and Plains that would have continued to provide sufficient water and food to maintain life. Why, then, is there still no archaeological record? It seems likely that any previous human occupation of the Tablelands would have come to an end, although people may still have visited the lower areas.

Assuming that the area was populated, the pattern of sites would have reflected then on-ground conditions. Many of the sites would have been camping sites, not easily identifiable beyond lithic scatter. Other sites would have reflected the then location of permanent water.

My feeling is that we need to chart what the landscape was like then to identify possible sites. Mind you, this may already have been done and I have simply not discovered the analysis.

[1] John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999. P186. The broad framework for this section is drawn especially from Mulvaney & Kamminga’s work.

[2] Munvaney & Kamminga, op cit, p197. There is debate about the Wilandra Lakes dates, with some arguing for older dates. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J.B. Publishing, Marleston, revised edition, 2004, p1.

[3] G Connah, Archaeology at the University of New England 1975-76, Australian Archaeology, No 5, 1976, PP1-5.

[4] Ian Walters, Antiquity of Marine Fishing in South-East Queensland, QAR, Vol 9, 1992, pp35-39. P35. Accessed on line 4 April 2009.

[5] Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J.B. Publishing, Marleston, revised edition, 2004, p189.

[6] The Wikipedia article, Cuddie Springs, provides an interesting discussion on this issue. Accessed 15 April 2009.

[7] The analysis here is based on an assessment of the present coastal boating maps accessed 15 April 2009. A full assessment would require analysis of broader maps indicating varying depths of the sea bottom, allowing a better assessment to be made of the outer coastal strip..

[8] Mulvaney & Kamminga, op cit, p116

[9] Flood, op cit, p113


[11] I have used the term southern Snowy Mountains because New England has its own smaller range also called the Snowy Mountains.

[12] Mulvaney & Kamminga, op cit, p117

[13] Flood, op cit, p192. .

[14] J Belshaw Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in northern New South Wales. In I. McBryde (ed.), Records of Times Past, pp.65-81. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1978


Saturday, October 15, 2011

A note on philosophy & methodology in history

It's quite late while youngest daughter is having a party so it's not quiet. All this means that concentration is a tad difficult, so tonight I just want to pull a few things together about my thinking on history.

In a post on my personal blog, UNE's HINQ101 The Historian, I mentioned that I was providing a degree of support on this University of New England course via the UNE's Moodle system. I have found it interesting because it gives me a degree of contact with current history students.

One of the questions posed was what makes history good or bad. I mention this because I have written a fair bit across the blogs on historiography, and think that it might be helpful if I tried to pull some of this material together.

Historical traditions change.

In my undergraduate course at UNE I did one full year unit in philosophy plus a second full year course in my honours year on the philosophy of history. As the name said, this course focused on philosophy rather than methodology, although the second was there. There was a much higher methodology component, however, in a second full year honours course, that on Australian prehistory.

When I went back to UNE as a full time postgrad a bit over a decade later, I found that the focus on the philosophy of history, even the use of that phrase, had gone. E H Carr was now the guru. The problem I had with Carr is that quite a bit of his analysis was actually at a lower level than that we had looked at in the philosophy of history course. I guess the approach was broader in some ways, yet I felt a sense of loss.

I was also disappointed in the fragmentation that had taken place in the discipline. I went to all the Departmental seminars because of interest. I found that people had become more interested in an increasing range of narrow topics, less interested in what other people were doing.

Don't get me wrong. Much of the new work was valuable because it addressed new issues, new topics, that had been ignored. I was meant to be completing a PhD, but kept getting sidetracked into new topics: the family, gender roles, the history of childhood. History is about the human experience, and the new work provided insights that had been lacking.

I first wanted to write a history of Northern New South Wales, the broader New England I talk about, in my honours year. I put this aside for many years. When I came back to the project I found that the new work that had been done radically changed the history that I had planned to write. It had become deeper, more encompassing, more people focused, more difficult to actually do.

All this is good. But yet the problem that I first noticed on my return to UNE remained.

History is a craft: it doesn't matter what topic you are writing on, both the philosophical underpinnings and the methodological challenges remain the same. In 1981 I was disappointed in the way that so few addressed or were interested in core methodological issues. The discussions that I had experienced as an undergraduate had gone. If you went to a seminar on 15th century Florence you did so because you were interested in 15th century Florence. The idea that the challenges in research and writing on 15th century Florence were linked to and might inform writing on witchcraft or the Gallipoli campaign seemed alien to many.

Now thirty years later I am again in a UNE environment. Thirty years! Where has the time gone?

I support the idea of the UNE course I am involved with. I also support the desire of some of my UNE colleagues through things such as the Heritage Futures Research Centre to build interdisciplinary approaches. This is something that I have been involved with in a professional sense in my role as a strategic consultant for many years. And yet, the same problem niggles at me: where is the structure, where are the analytical tools, where is the underlying philosophy?

In a comment in a discussion forum on HINQ101 The Historian on what makes good history I wrote:

Harking back to the philosophy of history course that I did all those years ago with Ted Tapp, I would argue that refutability is a necessary condition for good history. This follows from Popper and links to the philosophy of science.  

Refutability first requires clarity of argument: the reader must be able to understand to challenge or extend. It then requires proper documentation so that the reader can check sources. History that does not meet these tests my be well written, but is not good history. Some of the history I have read is really theology!

Of itself, refutability may be necessary but it is not a sufficient condition for good history. Arguments may be clear and properly referenced, but may be shallow and insufficiently evidenced. Good history must be capable of meeting challenges.

In terms of my own approach to history, I make a distinction between interests and values and methodology. Interest and values helps determine questions. However, evidence has to be collected and evaluated in an objective way. Does it actually support the argument?

Now if you look at what I wrote here, I start with refutability. In simple terms, you cannot prove anything through history, the ideas of thesis notwithstanding. You can only put up a hypothesis, an explanation, supported be evidence.

One of the issues addressed by Ted in our philosophy of history cause was that of causation. Ted believed in causation, the idea that a caused b. However, if you look at the philosophy of science, you see that the idea of causation as an absolute, even of correlation as an absolute, is unproveable.The most that you can hope to achieve is to put forward conclusions based on evidence that may be disproved by later evidence. Everything must be testable.

History is no different. Good history must be refutable through later evidence.

As part of our course with Ted we addressed the issue of the history universalists such as Toynbee. These put forward universal explanations for things such as the decline of civilisations based on historical data. Such history might be very influential, valuable in creating new ideas and ways of thinking, but it was inevitably flawed because it denied refutability. It asserted an impossible absolute.

The next point I made linked to method. Regardless of the questions asked, history as a craft uses a variety of techniques to collect and analyse evidence. These include a mix of practical and conceptual tools. Too often, historical research focuses on the mechanical. This is important, but not sufficient. Let me try to illustrate.

The mechanical tools relate to the way we gather and record evidence. This must be done in a certain way. The conceptual tools relate to the way we interpret evidence.

I have often spoken about the past as a far country. By this I mean simply that the past, even the immediate past, is a different world. There is a barrier we must break through as we seek to understand. In doing so, we must be aware all the time that those we are studying did not interpret the world in the way we do.

Such a simple point, yet one with profound implications.

Among other things, it means that we have to be aware not just of the past ,but of the way that our own perceptions affect our understanding of the past. The writing of history is a dialogue between someone embedded in their present and evidence and thought imbedded in a past present.

The worst mistakes that I have made as a sometimes historian lie in my failure to recognise that distinction. My best historical writing is that bringing some element of the distinction alive.