Rock art sites on Balanggarra Country in the northeast Kimberley region are home to numerous such engravings. The oldest paintings are at least 17,300 years old, and the engravings are thought to be even older — but they have so far proved much harder to date accurately.
But in research published today in Science Advances, we report on a crucial clue that could help date the engravings, and also reveal what the environment was like for the artists who created them.
Some of the rocks themselves are covered with natural, glaze-like mineral coatings that can help reveal key evidence.
What are these glazes?
These dark, shiny deposits on the surface of the rock are less than a centimetre thick. Yet they have detailed internal structures, featuring alternating light and dark layers of different minerals.
Our aim was to develop methods to reliably date the formation of these coatings and provide age brackets for any associated engravings. However, during this process, we also discovered it is possible to match layers found in samples collected at rock shelters up to 90 kilometres apart.
Radiocarbon dating suggests these layers were deposited around the same time, showing their formation is not specific to particular rock shelters, but controlled by environmental changes on a regional scale.
Dating these deposits can therefore provide reliable age brackets for any associated engravings, while also helping us better understanding the climate and environments in which the artists lived.
Microbes and minerals
Our research supports earlier findings that layers within the glaze structure represent alternating environmental conditions in Kimberley rock shelters, that repeated over thousands of years.
Our model suggests that during drier conditions, bush fires produce ash, which builds up on shelter surfaces. This ash contains a range of minerals, including carbonates and sulphates. We suggest that under the right conditions, these minerals provided nutrients that allowed microbes to live on these shelter surfaces. In the process of digesting these nutrients, the microbes excrete a compound called oxalic acid, which combines with calcium in the ash deposits to form calcium oxalate.
As this process repeats over millennia, the minerals become cemented together in alternating layers, with each layer creating a record of the conditions in the rock shelter at that time.
Samples of the glazes were collected for analysis in close collaboration and consultation with local Traditional Owners from the Balanggarra native title region, who are partners on our research project. Using a laser, we vaporised tiny samples from the coatings to study the chemical composition of each layer. The dark layers were mostly made of calcium oxalate, while lighter layers contained mainly sulphates. We propose darker layers represent a time when microbes were more active and lighter layers represent drier periods.
These dark calcium oxalate layers also contain carbon that was absorbed from the atmosphere and digested by the microbes that created these deposits. This meant we could use a technique called radiocarbon dating to determine the age of these individual layers.
Using a tiny drill, we removed samples from distinct dark layers in nine glazes collected from different rock shelters across the northeast Kimberley.
Despite coming from different locations, these layers all seem to have been deposited at the same time, during four key intervals spanning the past 43,000 years.
This suggests the formation of each layer was determined mainly by shifts in environmental conditions throughout the Kimberley, rather than by the distinct conditions in each particular rock shelter.
The records held by these glazes over such a large time period – including the most recent ice age – means they could help us better understand the environmental changes that directly affected human habitation and adaptation in Australia.
Stories in stone
Research we published earlier this year shows how the subjects painted in early Kimberley rock art changed from mostly animals and plants around 17,000 years ago, to mostly decorated human figures about 12,000 years ago.
Otherresearchers have discovered that during this 5,000-year period there were rapid rises in sea level, in particular around 14,500 years ago, as well as increased rainfall.
We interpret the change in rock art styles as a response to the social and cultural adaptations triggered by the changing climate and rising sea levels. Paintings of human figures with new technologies such as spear-throwers might show us how people adapted their hunting style to the changing environment and the availability of different types of food.
By dating the natural mineral coatings on the rock surfaces that acted as a canvas for this art, we can hopefully better understand the world in which these artists lived. Not only will this give us more certainty about the position of particular paintings within the overall Kimberley stylistic rock art sequence, but can also tell us about the environments experienced by First Nations people in the Kimberley.
We thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Centre for Accelerator Science at the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral Co for their collaboration on this research._
In 2017, I came across an extraordinary document in Sydney’s Mitchell Library: a handwritten list of 178 Aboriginal place names for Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River, compiled in 1829 by a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John McGarvie. I was stunned. I stared at the screen, hardly believing my eyes.
After years of research, my own and others, I thought most of the Aboriginal names for the river were lost forever, destroyed in the aftermath of invasion and dispossession. Yet, suddenly, this cache of riches.
I could see McGarvie had taken a lot of care with this list, correcting spelling and adding pronunciation marks. The names appear in geographic order, so they also record where he and his Darug informant/s travelled along the riverbanks. Perhaps most important of all, McGarvie often included locational clues, like settlers’ farms, creeks and lagoons.
An extraordinary idea dawned on me: what if we could restore these names to their places on the river? And then: what if these beautiful, rolling words — like Bulyayorang and Marrengorra and Woollootottemba — came back into common usage?
Place names have enormous significance in Aboriginal society and culture. As in all societies, they signal the meanings people attach to places, they encode history and geography, they are way-finding devices and common knowledge. Place names are crucial elements of shared understandings of Country, history, culture, rights and responsibilities.
Often place names are parts of larger naming systems — they name places on Dreaming tracks reaching across Country. Singular names can also embed the stories of important events and landmarks involving Ancestral Beings in places and memory. Anthropologist and linguist Jim Wafer points out their use in songs, which are memory devices, or “audible maps … travelling song cycles that narrate mythical journeys”.
Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River, flows through the heart of a vast arc of sandstone Country encircling Sydney and the shale-soil Cumberland Plain on the east coast of New South Wales. The river has a deep human history, one of the longest known in Australia.
The ancestors of Darug, Darkinyung and Gundungurra people have lived in this region for around 50,000 years. Their history, culture and spirituality are inseparable from their river Country. A mere two centuries ago, ex-convict settlers took land on the river and began growing patches of wheat and corn in the tall forests. Darug men and women resisted the invasion fiercely and sometimes successfully.
Between 1794 and 1816, Dyarubbin was the site of one of the longest frontier wars in Australian history. Invasion and colonisation kicked off a slow and cumulative process of violence, theft of Aboriginal children, dispossession and the ongoing annexation of the river lands.
Yet despite this sorry history, Dyarubbin’s people managed to remain on their Country, and they still live on the river today.
McGarvie’s list contrasts strikingly with the modern landscapes of the Hawkesbury and Western Sydney. Once, every place on this river and its tributaries had an Aboriginal name. Now only a handful survive on maps and in common usage.
With some important exceptions, the Traditional Owners, the Darug, rarely see themselves represented in key heritage sites, or in the everyday reminders and triggers of public memory – like place names.
Yet Western Sydney is now home to one of the biggest populations of Darug and other Aboriginal people in Australia. Could McGarvie’s list be a way to begin to shift the shape of our landscapes towards a recognition of Darug history and culture?
Living on Country
This idea stayed with me, so I contacted Darug knowledge-holders, artists and educators Leanne Watson, Erin Wilkins, Jasmine Seymour and Rhiannon Wright: the response was instant and enthusiastic. We designed the project together and were thrilled when it won the NSW State Library’s Coral Thomas Fellowship
The project’s Darug researchers want most of all to research, record and recover environmental and cultural knowledge and raise awareness of Darug presence and history in the wider community.
Because the Darug history of Dyarubbin is continuous, the project includes an oral history component, recording 20th century Darug voices and stories of the river.
Looking back, it seems uncanny that McGarvie’s list reappeared when it did — after all, we are in the midst of an extraordinary period of Aboriginal cultural renewal and language revitalisation.
It was obvious that McGarvie’s words could be more than a list of names: it could be the key to a bigger story about the Dyarubbin, the Darug history that was lost, submerged below what historian Tom Griffiths calls “the white noise of history making”.
But to do this, we needed to put the words in their wider context: we needed to see the river whole. So, besides reconnecting the list to Traditional Owners, the project explores Dyarubbin’s history, ecology, geography, archaeology and languages.
Early maps showing the old river farms helped us work out where the Darug place names belong and digitally map them. They also record long-lost landscapes of swamps, lagoons and creeks — important places for Aboriginal people that have since been modified or disappeared altogether.
The “Returns of Aboriginal Natives” are lists of Aboriginal people living in New South Wales in the 1830s, including the groups who lived on various parts of Dyarubbin and its tributaries. Reverend McGarvie’s diaries show he knew many of these Darug people.
The letters and journals of Hawkesbury settlers are thoroughly colonial-centred, yet they contain hints about the ways Darug people continued to live on their Country throughout the 19th century.
For example, they befriended some of the settlers, like the Hall family at Lilburndale, and cultivated these relationships over generations. The Hall family papers in the Mitchell Library hold some powerful and poignant traces: store receipts for goods Darug people were purchasing from them, and lists of the work they did at Lilburndale.
The archaeological record for this region is astonishingly rich. Dyarubbin and its tributary Gunanday (the Macdonald River) are part of a much larger archaeological zone, reaching from the Blue Mountains and the Wollemi in the west, up to the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie in the north. Many of the major recorded archaeological sites have sacred, spiritual and ceremonial significance, especially those located on high places.
Closer to the river, Paul Irish’s archaeological mapping has revealed how much Darug cultural landscape survives today, within the “settler” landscape.
From Richmond in the south to Higher Macdonald in the north, the river corridors alone are lined with more than 200 archaeological sites, including engravings, grinding grooves and rock shelters, some with scores or hundreds of images in ochre, white clay and charcaol.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the project are the field trips — getting out on Country, following in the footstep of McGarvie and his Darug friends, to see how all of this comes together. For Aboriginal people especially, visiting Country is a spiritual experience: they sense past and present converging, and the presence of their Ancestors.
Words for Country
What about the words on McGarvie’s list? What can they tell us? Linguist Jim Wafer and I worked with the Darug team members on a glossary, scouring dictionaries of seven local and adjacent Aboriginal languages for glosses, or meanings.
Many of these remain tentative; some words have two possible glosses. This project is, after all, only the beginning of what will hopefully be a much longer journey of discovery.
Nevertheless, McGarvie’s list has unlocked a wealth of information as well as intriguing and suggestive patterns — the place names open a marvellous word-window onto the Darug world of Dyarubbin in late 1820s.
They can be roughly grouped in four interrelated and often overlapping categories: the natural world of plants and creatures, geography and landforms, stone and earth, salt and fresh water; the social world of corroboree and contest grounds, camps and places to source materials for tools and implements; a metaphoric pattern — using words for parts of the body (mouth, arm, finger, eyes) for places on the river; and names with spiritual meanings, signifying sacred places.
Are there larger patterns in McGarvie’s list of place names? Here again, mapping the names, relocating them on Country, revealed something about how Darug people thought of Dyarubbin: as a series of zones, each which particular characteristics.
For example, on the west side of the river between Sackville and Wilberforce are 16 named lagoons or words meaning lagoons, including four different words which appear to signify different types of lagoons: Warretya, Warang, Warradé, Warrakia.
It was Warretya (lagoon) Country. Rich in birdlife, fish, turtles, eggs and edible plants, lagoons were very important places for Darug people, especially women, who harvested the edible roots and shoots of water plants such as cumbungi, water ribbon and common nardoo.
There were lagoons on the opposite side of the river, too, but here the series of place names around Cattai Creek tell us that this was Dugga (thick brush/rainforest) Country.
Massive Riverflat forest once lined all of Dyarubbin’s alluvial reaches; in sheltered gullies this forest graded into rainforest. Other place names in this area suggest the tree species which grew in these forests: Boolo, coachwood, Tamangoa, place of Port Jackson figs, Karowerry, native plum tree, Booldoorra, soft corkwood. And there are places named for implements, like clubs (Kanogilba, Berambo), and fish spears (Mating), which may have been fashioned from the fine, hard timbers of some of these trees.
These Dugga place names suggest something significant about Dyarubbin’s human and ecological history, too. The settler invasion is often assumed to have completely destroyed earlier landscapes, converting the bush to cleared, farmed fields. But these tree and forest names suggest that parts of the great forests survived for over three decades, and that Darug people went on using them.
Perhaps most significant and evocative are the place names which signal sacred zones on Dyarubbin. There are two different words meaning “rainbow”: Dorumbolooa and Gunanday.
The great Eel Being
Both are located in places with dramatic cliffs and sharp river bends. These words are probably linked with Gurangatty, the great Eel Being, who is associated with rainbows, and who created the river and its valley in the Dreaming, leaving awesome chasms and sinuous bends in his wake. McGarvie’s list reconnects us with the sacred river.
Such words remind us of something obvious, and profound. If Aboriginal people are to be at the centre of their own stories, we need to look beyond European history and landscapes, beyond European knowledge and ways of thinking, and towards an Aboriginal sense of Country — the belief that people, animals, Law and Country are inseparable, that the land is animate and inspirited, that it is a historical actor.
Leanne Watson’s painting Waterholes, inspired by the project, expresses this sense of Country. Her painting represents the beautiful lagoons around Ebenezer near Wilberforce and all the nourishment and materials they offered people. Now we can name some of those lagoons: Boollangay, Marrumboollo, Kallangang.
What now? Two exhibitions are planned for 2021: one at the State Library of NSW, and the other at Hawkesbury Regional Gallery. Staff at NSW Spatial Services/the NSW Geographic Names Board have generously offered their skills and time to create a digital Story Map, which will allow readers to virtually explore Darug Dyarubbin.
A series of illustrated essays, or “story cycle”, to be published on the online Dictionary of Sydney at the State Library of New South Wales, will present more in-depth narratives. Ultimately, we plan to launch dual naming projects, which will restore these names to Dyarubbin Country.
These are truth-telling projects: they will tell the story of invasion, dispossession and frontier war. But they will also explore Darug history, culture, places and names, and the way Dyarubbin and its surrounding high lands still throb with spiritual meaning and power, and the “ancient sovereignty” of Aboriginal people.
For the first time in Victoria’s history, the state government has handed back water to traditional owners, giving them rights to a river system they have managed sustainably for thousands of years.
The two billion litres of water returned to the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) this month means traditional owners can now determine how and where water is used for cultural, environmental or economic purposes.
The decision recognises that water rights are crucial for Indigenous people to restore customs, protect their culture, become economically independent and heal Country.
The hand-back to Gunaikurnai people is the crucial first step in a bigger, statewide process of recognising Indigenous people’s deep connection to water. It also serves as an example to the rest of Australia, where Indigenous rights to water are grossly inadequate.
Water’s rightful home
Gunaikurnai people hold native title over much of Gippsland, from the mountains to the sea.
The water hand-back comes ten years since this native title was secured, and since Gunaikurnai people entered into the state’s first Traditional Owner Settlement Agreement with the government. Under this agreement, GLaWAC is a joint manager, with Parks Victoria, of ten parks and reserves in Gippsland, including the Mitchell River National Park.
Victorian water minister Lisa Neville said the hand-back was a key milestone in her government’s 2016 Aboriginal Water Policy. That plan aims to:
recognise Aboriginal values and objectives of water
include Aboriginal values and traditional ecological knowledge in water planning
support Aboriginal access to water for economic development
build capacity to increase Aboriginal participation in water management.
GLaWAC engages closely with government agencies that control how water is shared and used and these partnerships are highly valued. But it is only through owning water that traditional owners can really control how water is used to care for Country and for people.
For the moment, the water will be staying in the river. Its use will be decided after discussions between GLaWAC and Gunaikurnai community members.
Barriers to water ownership
In 2016, the Victorian government committed A$5 million to a plan to increase Aboriginal access to water rights, including funding for traditional owners to develop feasibility plans to support water-based businesses.
There are significant barriers to reallocating water to Victoria’s traditional owners. Water is expensive to buy, hold and use. Annual fees and charges can easily run to tens of thousands of dollars a year in some locations.
Using water to care for Country supports well-being, the environment and other water uses, including tourism and recreation. But, unlike using water for irrigation, there may not be any direct economic return from a water hand-back. This means water recovery for traditional owners must include ways to cover fees and charges.
Victoria’s water entitlement framework is also consumption-based – it is designed for water to be taken out of rivers, not left in. This can make it hard for traditional owners to leave water in the river for the benefit of the environment. So water entitlements and rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners want to manage water.
Lastly, many traditional owners lack access to land where they can use the water. Or they may wish to use water in areas that, under natural conditions, would be watered when rivers flood, but which are now disconnected from the waterway. To help overcome this, traditional owners should be given access to Crown land, including joint management of parks. GLaWAC’s partnership agreements are a good example of how this might happen in future.
Change is possible
While significant barriers to water access remain, this hand-back shows how real water outcomes for traditional owners can be achieved when there is political will and ministerial support.
The water is part of six billion litres on the Mitchell River identified as unallocated, meaning no-one yet has rights over it. The remaining four billion litres will be made available on the open market, for use by irrigators or other industries. It can be extracted only during the colder months from July 1 to October 31.
The extraction and use of the water by Gunaikurnai people will be linked to specific locations, and the licence is up for renewal every 15 years. GLaWAC will work with state agency Southern Rural Water to ensure that the licence conditions match the water plans of traditional owners.
This step is crucial. There have been many instances in other states where traditional owners have obtained water, but been unable to use it due to barriers on how it can be used, and annual fees and charges.
Overcoming a history of injustice
Traditional owners across Australia never ceded their rights to water. Yet Aboriginal people own less than 1% of the nation’s water rights. Righting this wrong is the “unfinished business” of national water reform.
Even when political commitments are made, there has been little progress. For example, in 2018 the federal government committed A$40 million to acquire water rights for Aboriginal people in the Murray-Darling Basin, but no purchase of water rights has yet occurred.
This woeful and unjust situation is also reflected in Victoria. Before the Gunaikurnai hand-back, only a tiny handful of Aboriginal-owned organisations and one traditional owner, Taungurung, owned water rights in Victoria, and the volumes were small. In these cases, water recovery was not a formal hand-back from the state, and included a donation from a farmer.
Across Australia, Aboriginal people are watching the Victorian water reform process with great interest. The water returned to Gunaikurnai people builds momentum, and increases pressure on governments across Australia to take water justice seriously.
But as I learn more about First Peoples’ plant knowledge, I’m also better understanding the broader Australian community’s failure to recognise the depth and breadth of our expertise.
Aboriginal people, our culture and deep knowledges are often seen as “in the past”, fixed and stagnant.
Damaging perceptions which cast us as lesser and posit us as a
homogenous peoples, who were limping towards inevitable extinction before
the arrival of a “superior” race, still abound. Such tropes deny our dynamic place in the present day, and our ability to continuously adapt and innovate.
Below I’ve listed five of my favourite indigenous plants and the multiple ways Aboriginal people used them, and continue to do so.
Spiny-headed mat-rush is a large tussocky plant found throughout southeastern Australia.
The Wurundjeri people particularly favour this plant for weaving cultural items such as necklaces, headbands, girdles, baskets, mats and bags for carrying foods, as well as for making technologies such as eel traps and hunting nets.
Its seeds are high in protein. They can be collected and pounded into a bread mix, with the core of the plant and the base of the leaves eaten as a vegetable.
Many diverse Aboriginal peoples use the roots to treat bites and stings. The caterpillars of several butterflies, such as the Symmomus Skipper, also rely on this plant for food and habitat.
2. Wallaby grass
There are around 30 types of wallaby grass in Australia. Native grasslands were once the most extensive habitat of Victoria’s western plains, but are now the most endangered plant community.
Grasslands provide food and habitat for a huge diversity of fauna, particularly birds, such as the peregrine falcon, whistling kite and Australian kestrels. Many animals, such as the legless lizard, little whip snake and fat-tailed dunnart, were once commonplace, but are now scarce in this endangered ecosystem.
Wallaby grass seeds make an excellent bread by pounding them into flour. The leaves and stem are also used to make cultural items, such as nets for fishing and hunting.
It’s also incredibly hardy – highly tolerant to frost, heat and drought, and requiring no fertilisers and little water. And it makes an excellent lawn, controlling erosion and weeds.
3. Bulbine lily (Bulbine bulbosa)
In summer, bulbine lily dies back to a dormant bulb, before re-shooting in late autumn. In spring, it displays vibrant yellow flowers.
Bulbine lilies can be found in all states except Western Australia, growing wild in tandem with milkmaids and chocolate lilies in the few areas of Victoria’s undisturbed remnant vegetation.
It’s considered the sweetest tasting of all edible root plants and is available year-round. You can find a plump, round, cream-coloured storage organ (a type of underground stem) under its stalk, which can be eaten after being roasted. Bulbine lily is also nutritious, a good source of calcium and iron.
4. Black kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus)
Aboriginal peoples from many diverse groups favour the fibrous kurrajong bark for making string for fishing lines, nets and bags, as well as body adornments such as headbands.
Flowers turn to fruit in the form of leathery pods. These pods contain highly nutritious yellow seeds, which contain around 18% protein and 25% fat, and high levels of magnesium and zinc.
To eat the seeds, you first must remove toxic yellow hairs surrounding them. They can be eaten raw and roasted, and have a pleasantly nutty flavour. The young roots of this tree also make an excellent food source and can provide water.
5. Black sheoak (Allocasuarina littoralis)
Favouring dry conditions, black sheoak is native to Queensland, Tasmania, NSW and Victoria, and can grow up to eight metres high. It flowers in spring, with either rusty-brown spikes or red flowers that develop into cones.
Its seeds are an important food source for many native birds, including parrots and cockatoos.
Diverse groups of Aboriginal peoples use sheoaks for various purposes. The shoots and cones can be eaten, and sheoak wood can be used to fashion boomerangs, shields, clubs and other cultural implements because the wood is both strong and resists splitting and chipping.
In fact, the earliest evidence of boomerangs, found in the Wyrie Swamp in South Australia, were made from various sheoak species, and were dated at 10,000 years old.
With a mischievous smile, Damien Wright gives the exhibit an unceremonious kick. The enormous, curved slab of river red gum rocks back and forth on the gallery floor, casting a wavering shadow over the “Do Not Touch” sign at its base.
A couple of anxious visitors shuffle over to investigate as Damien tells me how he made this wobbling wooden bowl, and why he chooses to work with the hardest, most challenging timbers.
The river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) once grew on the banks of the Murray River. Damien discovered the thick slab in a miller’s yard in Wodonga, where it had lain exposed to the elements for years, slowly warping in the heat. What others had dismissed as damaged wood, Damien saw as creative possibility: he relished the opportunity to work with wood that had been “cooked, cured and crazed by the sun”.
In his workshop in Northcote, Melbourne, he worked to accentuate the warp in the wood by curving the edges of the slab, creating a long, bowing channel, almost three metres in length and over a metre wide. Like all his work, this object is an argument he has made with his hands.
The rough, red, cracking grain of the wood runs lengthways across the piece, like gullies and rivulets spreading across a parched, burnt land. Damien encourages this comparison with his title, which is a pointed commentary on the mistreatment of the waterways on which the tree grew.
“It’s called Food Bowl”, he tells me. And then, gesturing to a knot in the centre, “It drains in the middle”.
For Damien, wood is a way of thinking about place and time — even deep time. A river red gum may grow for anywhere between 400 and 1,000 years before it falls. And as it decomposes over centuries it becomes a home for new life. Murray cod lay their eggs in drowned red gums.
To work with wood is to think beyond a human lifespan. When you look at something like the Murray-Darling system from the perspective of a grand old red gum, you see the fragility and inter-connectedness of the waterway, and how rapidly it has degraded with recent human interventions.
“And if you have that conversation about deep time in this country”, says Damien, “you have to talk about Indigenous people and this continent as an occupied and cultural space, not just a physical place”.
River red gums were a part of Australia’s environment long before people arrived here. They grew beside the Murray River when it was a wide, cold, fast-flowing stream; they witnessed its transformation in the late Pleistocene into a narrow, sinuous, seasonal river; and they have remained, over the past 13,000 years, as the water has slowed and warmed, forming swamps, low sand dunes and small lakes along the channel, and seasonal wetlands in the wider riverine plain.
These mighty trees have also been absorbed into the social and cultural worlds of Indigenous Australians. Their roots have been dug and hollowed out to create bowls, their bark cut to craft canoes, and their limbs burned to warm camps and cook food. In recent millennia, they presided over the most densely populated areas of the continent.
Damien tells me how he seeks to evoke this deep history through his craft as he shows me two of his other pieces: a striking lantern (Black Lighthouse) he made in collaboration with Yolngu craftsman Bonhula Yunupingu, which glows like a fire through thin, black wood; and an elegant reading chair and angular side table called Ned — a riff on Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly helmet, which it closely resembles.
Each piece of furniture has been made from red gum in a stage preliminary to fossilisation. The wood is black and almost as hard as stone. It is known as ancient red gum.
While other native timbers enable Damien to explore relationships with the Australian environment, the ancient red gum opens a conversation about deep time on this continent.
Geomorphologist Jim Bowler was the first to identify the material as red gum; he used radiocarbon dating to place its age at about 8,000 or perhaps 10,000 years old. Later I call him and, over the phone, he sketches out the wood’s journey from the banks of the Murray River to the workshops of inquisitive artisans like Damien.
The tree would have seeded after the end of the last ice age, at a time when sea levels were rising and the climate was warming.
The rapid snowmelt in the Victorian Alps caused the mountains to shed huge amounts of gravel, which was then swept into the Murray River. As red gums fell into an ancient channel they were covered by this new gravel, which sealed them in the riverbank.
Preserved from decay by the acidity of the water, the entombed wood slowly absorbed enormous amounts of iron and silica. This oxidising and ebonising process is what makes it black through to the centre and hard, much harder than other red gum.
Articulating a future
Jim first became aware of the red gum when he received some samples at the Melbourne Museum in 1990. The damp and fibrous wood had been unearthed in a quarry on Yorta Yorta land in Wodonga, where it was regarded as a nuisance by those more interested in the gravel around it.
Jim and his wife Joan Bowler recognised the significance of the timber and were eager to see it preserved and used. They helped arrange for the director of the museum to provide “authentications” for woodworkers to make it into furniture, and Joan and her friend Annetine Forell travelled the country over the following two decades, drawing the remarkable material to the attention of millers and craftspeople.
The late Kelvin Barton, a miller, woodworker and seventh-generation farmer, became a crucial intermediary. He collected the ancient red gum in Wodonga, reducing its water content in his ersatz kiln to turn it into workable timber. This was how Damien, a long-term friend and collaborator, came to encounter the ancient red gum — indeed it was in Kelvin’s yard that he found the much younger slab that became Food Bowl.
Damien uses the ancient red gum to articulate his vision for Australia. He sees craftsmanship as a language: a practice that is refined over time to communicate knowledge, beauty and ideas.
He considers his furniture — in its functionality as well as its elegance — as an embodiment of this philosophy. Objects tell stories. They become part of our everyday lives and express everyday futures:
My argument is that to take a material that is ten thousand years old and to articulate that in a beautiful and passionate way and to make that a relevant thing to our lives or to peoples’ lives is a way of articulating a future for this continent. It’s a way of understanding our place in time. It’s a way of dealing with people. It’s a way of projecting forward.
Joan Bowler shares this vision for the ancient timber. In 2008, her company Australian Ancient Redgum donated a six-metre “Fossil Tree” to the Children’s Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, so that “children can sit under this ancient tree and look up through the hollowed out centre and dream of what was and what might be”.
Trees that were seeded after the end of the last ice age, that survived the ruptures of invasion and industry, have reemerged to offer a deep-time perspective of the continent.
It is a scale that reveals the long-term costs of short-term exploitation, and renders processes like the degradation of the Murray-Darling river system into sudden events.
Ancient red gum also invites a longer view of Australian history. And in the hands of Joan and Damien, it calls for the acknowledgement of cultures and histories that for so long have gone unrecognised.
Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, has a remarkable range and number of rock art sites, rivalling that of Europe, southern Africa and various parts of Asia. Several thousand sites have been documented and each year new discoveries are made by various research teams working closely with local Aboriginal communities.
Today, in the journal Australian Archaeology, we and colleagues introduce an important previously undescribed rock art style. Consisting of large human figures and animals, the style is primarily found in northwest Arnhem Land, and has been named Maliwawa Figures by senior Traditional Owner Ronald Lamilami.
We recorded 572 Maliwawa paintings at 87 rock shelters over a 130-kilometre east-west distance, from Awunbarna (Mount Borradaile) to the Namunidjbuk clan estate of the Wellington Range, a region home to unique and internationally significant rock art of various types.
Maliwawa Figures consist of red to mulberry naturalistic human and animal forms shaded with stroked lines. Occasionally they are in outline with just a few strokes within. Almost all were painted but there is one drawing.
The figures are often large (over 50 cm high), sometimes life-size, although there are also some small ones (20–50 cm in height). Various lines of evidence suggest the figures most likely date to between 6,000 to 9,400 years of age.
In the Maliwawa paintings, human figures are frequently depicted with animals, especially macropods (kangaroos and wallabies), and these animal-human relationships appear to be central to the artists’ message. In some instances, animals almost appear to be participating in or watching some human activity.
Another key theme is a male or indeterminate human figure holding an animal, often a snake, or another human figure or an object.
Such scenes are rare in early rock art, not just in Australia but worldwide. They provide a remarkable glimpse into past Aboriginal life and cultural beliefs.
Maliwawa animals are usually in profile. Some macropods are shown in a human-like sitting pose with paws in front, resembling a person playing a piano. Depictions of animal tracks (footprints) and geometric designs are rare.
Macropods, birds, snakes and longtom fish are the most frequent animal subjects, comprising three quarters of total fauna. But, more generally, mammals are most common.
There are seven depictions of animals long extinct in the Arnhem Land region, consisting of four thylacines and three bilby-like creatures. At one Namunidjbuk site there is a rare depiction of a dugong.
A third of human depictions were classified as male because they have male genitalia depicted. Females, identified because breasts were shown, are rare, comprising only 5% of human depictions. Almost 59% of human figures could not be determined to be either male or female because they lack sex-specific characteristics.
Human figures generally have round-shaped or oval-shaped heads; some have lines on the head suggestive of hair. 30% of human figures are shown with headdresses, of which there are ten different forms. The most common is a ball headdress, followed by oval, cone and feather.
Maliwawa males are usually in profile and often have a bulging stomach above a penis. A few Maliwawa females are also shown with an extended abdomen.
Most Maliwawa Figures are in accessible or visible places at low landscape elevations rather than hidden away, or at shelters high in the landscape. This suggests they were meant to be seen, possibly from some distance. Often, Maliwawa Figures dominate shelter walls with rows of figures in various arrangements.
We first found some of these figures during a survey in 2008-2009 but they became the focus of further field research from 2016 to 2018.
In Australia, we are spoiled with rock art — paintings, drawings, stencils, prints, petroglyphs (engravings) and even designs made from native beeswax in rock shelters and small caves, on boulders and rock platforms. Often in spectacular and spiritually significant landscapes, rock art remains very important to First Nation communities as a part of living culture.
There are as many as 100,000 sites here, representing tens of thousands of years of artistic activity. But even in 2020, new styles are being identified for the first time.
What if the Maliwawa Figures were in France? Surely, they would be the subject of national pride with different levels of government working together to ensure their protection and researchers endeavouring to better understand and protect them.
We must not allow Australia’s abundance of rock art to lead to a national ambivalence towards its appreciation and protection.
The Maliwawa Figures demonstrate how much more we have to learn from Australia’s early artists. And who knows what else is out there waiting to be found.
Huge clean energy projects, such as the Asian Renewable Energy Hub in the Pilbara, Western Australia, are set to produce gigawatts of electricity over vast expanses of land in the near future.
The Asian Renewable Energy Hub is planning to erect wind turbines and solar arrays across 6,500 square kilometres of land. But, like with other renewable energy mega projects, this land is subject to Aboriginal rights and interests — known as the Indigenous Estate.
While renewable energy projects are essential for transitioning Australia to a zero-carbon economy, they come with a caveat: most traditional owners in Australia have little legal say over them.
Projects on the Indigenous Estate
How much say Aboriginal people have over mining and renewable energy projects depends on the legal regime their land is under.
In comparison, the dominant Aboriginal land tenure in Western Australia (and nationwide) is native title.
Native title — as recognised in the 1992 Mabo decision and later codified in the Native Title Act 1993 — recognises that Aboriginal peoples’ rights to land and waters still exist under certain circumstances despite British colonisation.
But unlike the ALRA, the Native Title Act does not allow traditional owners to veto developments proposed for their land.
Both the Native Title Act and the the ALRA are federal laws, but the ALRA only applies in the NT. The Native Title Act applies nationwide, including in some parts of the NT.
Shortcomings in the Native Title Act
Native title holders can enter into a voluntary agreement with a company, known as an Indigenous Land Use Agreement, when a development is proposed for their land. This allows both parties to negotiate how the land and waters would be used, among other things.
If this is not negotiated, then native title holders have only certain, limited safeguards.
The strongest of these safeguards is known as the “right to negotiate”. This says resource companies must negotiate in good faith for at least six months with native title holders, and aim to reach an agreement.
But it is not a veto right. The company can fail to get the agreement of native title holders and still be granted access to the land by government.
For example, Fortescue Metals Group controversially built their Solomon iron ore mine in the Pilbara, despite not getting the agreement of the Yindjibarndi people who hold native title to the area.
In fact, the National Native Title Tribunal — which rules on disputes between native title holders and companies — has sided with native title holders only three times, and with companies 126 times (of which 55 had conditions attached).
There are also lesser safeguards in the act, which stipulate that native title holders should be consulted, or notified, about proposed developments, and may have certain objection rights.
Negotiating fair agreements
So how does the Native Title Act treat large-scale renewable energy developments?
The answer is complicated because a renewable energy development likely contains different aspects (for example: wind turbines, roads and HVDC cables), and the act may treat each differently.
Broadly speaking, these huge developments don’t fall under the right to negotiate, but under lesser safeguards.
Does this matter? Yes, it does. We know from experience in the mining industry that while some companies negotiate fair agreements with Aboriginal landowners, some do not.
For example, two very similar LNG projects — one in Western Australia and the other in Queensland — resulted in land access and benefit sharing agreements that were poles apart. The WA project’s agreements with traditional owners were worth A$1.5 billion, while the Queensland project’s agreements were worth just A$10 million.
Likewise, Rio Tinto’s agreement for the area including Juukan Gorge reportedly “gagged” traditional owners from objecting to any activities by the company, which then destroyed the 46,000-year-old rock shelters.
A matter of leverage
We also know the likelihood of a new development having positive impacts for Aboriginal communities depends in part on the leverage they have to negotiate a strong agreement.
Legal rights are also very effective: the stronger your legal rights are, the better your negotiation position. And the strongest legal position to be in is if you can say no to the development.
For land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, this ability to say no means traditional owners are in a good position to negotiate strong environmental, cultural heritage and economic benefits.
For land under the Native Title Act, traditional owners are in a weaker legal position. It is not a level playing field.
A just transition
To remedy this imbalance, the federal government must give native title holders the same rights for renewable energy projects as traditional owners have under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the NT.
Since last summer’s bushfire crisis, there’s been a quantum shift in public awareness of Aboriginal fire management. It’s now more widely understood that Aboriginal people used landscape burning to sustain biodiversity and suppress large bushfires.
The Morrison government’s bushfire royal commission, which began hearings this week, recognises the potential of incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into mainstream fire management.
Its terms of reference seek to understand ways “the traditional land and fire management practices of Indigenous Australians could improve Australia’s resilience to natural disasters”.
Incorporating Aboriginal knowledge is essential to tackling future bushfire crises. But it risks perpetuating historical injustices, by appropriating Aboriginal knowledge without recognition or compensation. So while the bushfire threat demands urgent action, we must also take care.
Accommodating traditional fire knowledge is a long-overdue accompaniment to recent advances in land rights and native title. It is an essential part of the unfinished business of post-colonial Australia.
A living record
Before 1788, Aboriginal cultures across Australia used fire to deliberately and skilfully manage the bush.
Broadly, it involved numerous, frequent fires that created fine-scale mosaics of burnt and unburnt patches. Developed over thousands of years, such burning made intense bushfires uncommon and made plant and animal foods more abundant. This benefited wildlife and sustained a biodiversity of animals and plants.
Following European settlement, Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land and the opportunity to manage it with fire. Since then, the Australian bush has seen dramatic biodiversity declines, tree invasion of grasslands and more frequent and destructive bushfires.
In many parts of Australia, particularly densely settled areas, cultural burning practices have been severely disrupted. But in some regions, such as clan estates in Arnhem Land, unbroken traditions of fire management date back to the mid to late Pleistocene some 50,000 years ago.
Not all nations can draw on these living records of traditional fire management.
Indigenous people around the world, including in western Europe, used fire to manage flammable landscapes. But industrialisation, intensive agriculture and colonisation led to these practices being lost.
In most cases, historical records are the only way to learn about them.
Burning programs can be adapted to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. These include the need to protect assets, and new threats such as weeds, climate change, forest disturbances from logging and fire, and feral animals.
Together, they reintroduced fire into traditional lands on Cape York. These practices had been prohibited after European-based systems of land tenure and management were imposed.
Steffensen extended his experience to cultural renewal and ecological restoration across Australia, arguing this was critical to addressing the bushfire crisis:
The bottom line for me is that we need to work towards a whole other division of fire managers on the land […] A skilled team of indigenous and non-indigenous people that works in with the entire community, agencies and emergency services to deliver an effective and educational strategy into the future. One that is culturally based and connects to all the benefits for the community.
Making it happen
So how do we realise this ideal? Explicit affirmative action policies, funded by state and federal governments, are a practical way to protect and extend Aboriginal burning cultures.
Specifically, such programs should provide ways for Aboriginal people and communities to:
develop their fire management knowledge and capacity
maintain and renew traditional cultural practices
enter mainstream fire management, including in leadership roles
enter a broad cross section of agencies, and community groups involved in fire management.
This will require rapidly building capacity to train and employ Aboriginal fire practitioners.
In some instances, where the impact of colonisation has been most intense, action is needed to support Aboriginal communities to re-establish relationships with forested areas, following generations of forced removal from their Country.
Importantly, this empowerment will enable Aboriginal communities to re-establish their own cultural priorities and practices in caring for Country. Where these differ from the Eurocentric values of mainstream Australia, we must understand and respect the wisdom of those who have been custodians of this flammable landscape for millennia.
Non-indigenous Australians should also pay for these ancient skills. Funding schemes could include training, and ensuring affirmative action programs are implemented and achieve their goals.
Involving Aboriginal people and communities in the development of fire management will ensure cultural knowledge is shared on culturally agreed terms.
Fire people, fire country
In many ways, last summer’s fire season is a reminder of the brutal acquisition of land in Australia and its ongoing consequences for all Australians.
The challenges involved in helping to right this wrong, by enabling Aboriginal people to use their fire management practices, are complex. They span social justice, funding, legal liability, cultural rights, fire management and science.
Fundamentally, we must recognise that Aborigines are “fire people” who live on “fire country”. It’s time to embrace this ancient fact.
If you go to the Surrey Hills of northwest Tasmania, you’ll see a temperate rainforest dominated by sprawling trees with genetic links going back millions of years.
It’s a forest type many consider to be ancient “wilderness”. But this landscape once looked very different.
The only hints are a handful of small grassy plains dotting the estate and the occasional giant eucalypt with broad-branching limbs. This is an architecture that can only form in open paddock-like environments – now swarmed by rainforest trees.
These remnant grasslands are of immense conservation value, as they represent the last vestiges of a once more widespread subalpine “poa tussock” grassland ecosystem.
Our new research shows these grasslands were the result of Palawa people who, for generation upon generation, actively and intelligently manicured this landscape against the ever-present tide of the rainforest expansion we see today.
This purposeful intervention demonstrates land ownership. It was their property. Their estate. Two hundred years of forced dispossession cannot erase millennia of land ownership and connection to country.
Myths of “wilderness” have no place on this continent when much of the land in Australia is culturally formed, created by millennia of Aboriginal burning – even the world renowned Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Today, the Surrey Hills hosts a vast 60,000-hectare timber plantation. Areas outside the modern plantations on the Surrey Hills are home to rainforest.
On first seeing the Surrey Hills from atop St Valentine’s Peak in 1827, Henry Hellyer – surveyor for the Van Diemen’s Land company – extolled the splendour of the vista before him:
an excellent country, consisting of gently rising, dry, grassy hills […] They resemble English enclosures in many respects, being bounded by brooks between each, with belts of beautiful shrubs in every vale.
It will not in general average ten trees on an acre. There are many plains of several square miles without a single tree.
And when first setting food on the estate:
The kangaroo stood gazing at us like fawns, and in some instances came bounding towards us.
He went on to note how the landscape was recently burnt, “looking fresh and green in those places”.
It is possible that the natives by burning only one set of plains are enabled to keep the kangaroos more concentrated for their use, and I can in no way account for their burning only in this place, unless it is to serve them as a hunting place.
These ideas are criticised by those who either genuinely believe Aboriginal people merely subsisted on what was “naturally” available to them, or by those with other agendas aimed at denying how First Nations people owned, occupied and shaped Australia.
New research backs up Hellyer
We sought to directly test the observations of Hellyer in the Surrey Hills, using the remains of plants and fire (charcoal) stored in soils beneath the modern day rainforest.
Drilling in to the earth beneath modern rainforest, we found the deeper soils were full of the remains of grass, eucalypts and charcoal, while the upper more recent soil was dominated by rainforest and no charcoal.
We drilled into more than 70 rainforest trees across two study sites, targeting two species that can live for more than 500 years: Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghami) and Celery-top Pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius).
None of the trees we measured were older than 180 years (from 1840). That’s just over a decade following Hellyer’s first glimpse of the Surrey Hills.
Our data unequivocally proves the landscape of the Surrey Hills was an open grassy eucalypt-savanna with regular fire under Aboriginal management prior to 1827.
Importantly, the speed at which rainforest invaded and captured this Indigenous constructed landscape shows the enormous workload Aboriginal people invested in holding back rainforest. For millennia, they used cultural burning to maintain a 60,000-hectare grassland.
Learning from the past
Our research challenges the central tenet underpinning the concept of terra nullius (vacant land) on which the tenuous and uneasy claims of sovereignty of white Australia over Aboriginal lands rests.
More than the political implications, this data reveals another impact of dispossession and denial of Indigenous agency in the creation of the Australian landscape.
Left unburnt, grassy ecosystems constructed by Indigenous people accumulate woody fuels, in Australia and elsewhere.
Forest has far more fuel than grassland and savanna ecosystems. Under the right set of climatic conditions, any fuel will burn and increasing fuel loads dramatically increases the potential for catastrophic bushfire.
The tropical savannas of northern Australia are among the most fire-prone regions in the world. On average, they account for 70% of the area affected by fire each year in Australia.
But effective fire management over the past 20 years has reduced the annual average area burned – an area larger than Tasmania. The extent of this achievement is staggering, almost incomprehensible in a southern Australia context after the summer’s devastating bushfires.
The success in northern Australia is the result of sustained and arduous on-ground work by a range of landowners and managers. Of greatest significance is the fire management from Indigenous community-based ranger groups, which has led to one of the most significant greenhouse gas emissions reduction practices in Australia.
Fire is a tool and it’s something people should see as part of the Australian landscape. By using fire at the right time of year, in the right places with the right people, we have a good chance to help country and climate.
Importantly, people need to listen to science – the success of our industry has been from a collaboration between our traditional knowledge and modern science and this cooperation has made our work the most innovative and successful in the world.
A tinder-dry season
The 2019 fire season was especially challenging in the north (as it was in the south), following years of low rainfall across the Kimberly and Top-End. Northern Australia endured tinder-dry conditions, severe fire weather in the late dry season, and a very late onset of wet-season relief.
Despite these severe conditions, extensive fuel management and fire suppression activities over several years meant northern Australia didn’t see the scale of destruction experienced in the south.
This is a huge success for biodiversity conservation under worsening, longer-term fire conditions induced by climate change. Indigenous land managers are even extending their knowledge of savanna burning to southern Africa.
Burn early in the dry season
The broad principles of northern Australia fire management are to burn early in the dry season when fires can be readily managed; and suppress, where possible, the ignition of uncontrolled fires – often from non-human sources such as lightning – in the late dry season.
Traditional Indigenous fire management involves deploying “cool” (low intensity) and patchy burning early in the dry season to reduce grass fuel. This creates firebreaks in the landscape that help stop larger and far more severe fires late in the dry season.
Essentially, burning early in the dry season accords with tradition, while suppressing fires that ignite late in the dry season is a post-colonial practice.
Savannah burning is different to burn-offs in South East Australia, partly because grass fuel reduction burns are more effective – it’s rare to have high-intensity fires spreading from tree to tree. What’s more, these areas are sparsely populated, with less infrastructure, so there are fewer risks.
Satellite monitoring over the last 15 years shows the scale of change. We can compare the average area burnt across the tropical savannas over seven years from 2000 (2000–2006) with the last seven years (2013–2019). Since 2013, active fire management has been much more extensive.
The comparison reveals a reduction of late dry season wildfires over an area of 115,000 square kilometres and of all fires by 88,000 square kilometres.
Combining traditional knowledge with western science
The primary goals of Indigenous savanna burning projects remain to support cultural reproduction, on-country living and “healthy country” outcomes.
Savanna burning is highly symbiotic with biodiversity conservation and landscape management, which is the core business of rangers.
Ensuring these gains are sustainable requires a significant amount of difficult on-ground work in remote and challenging circumstances. It involves not only Indigenous rangers, but also pastoralists, park rangers and private conservation groups. These emerging networks have helped build new savanna burning knowledge and innovative technologies.
While customary knowledge underpins much of this work, the vast spatial extent of today’s savanna burning requires helicopters, remote sensing and satellite mapping. In other words, traditional burning is reconfigured to combine with western scientific knowledge and new tools.
For Indigenous rangers, burning from helicopters using incendiaries is augmented by ground-based operations, including on-foot burns that support more nuanced cultural engagement with country.
On-ground burns are particularly important for protecting sacred sites, built infrastructure and areas of high conservation value such as groves of monsoonal forest.
This is around 10% of the total emission reductions accredited by the Australian government through carbon credits units under Carbon Farming Initiative Act. Under the act, one Australian carbon credit unit is earned for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent that a project stores or avoids.
By selling these carbon credits units either to the government or on a private commercial market, land managers have created a A$20 million a year savanna burning industry.
What can the rest of Australia learn?
Savanna fire management is not directly translatable to southern Australia, where the climate is more temperate, the vegetation is different and the landscape is more densely populated. Still, there are lessons to be learnt.
A big reason for the success of fire management in the north savannas is because of the collaboration with scientists and Indigenous land managers, built on respect for the sophistication of traditional knowledge.
This is augmented by broad networks of fire managers across the complex cross-cultural landscape of northern Australia. Climate change will increasingly impact fire management across Australia, but at least in the north there is a growing capacity to face the challenge.