Aboriginal engineering in New England

Practical: The heritage-listed Brewarrina fish traps are one of the largest surviving examples of Aboriginal engineering.

Practical: The heritage-listed Brewarrina fish traps are one of the largest surviving examples of Aboriginal engineering.

This column continues my exploration of New England’s built landscape and associated architecture looking at housing, food production and communications in Aboriginal New England.

All architecture reflects culture, social structures, purpose and the environment, including climate and available resources. The Aborigines were no different.

A seasonal people, they moved across the landscape in varying size groups in response to both the availability of food and water and social and ceremonial needs. In transit, they formed camps marked by multiple small fires rather than single big blazes, thus spreading the warmth more widely across the group.

These camps might but need not contain simple shelters to provide additional comfort. These might be no more than a few sheets of bark leaning on a pole fastened a few feet up the ground with a fire in front, sited so as to block wind.

Where people remained for longer periods, more substantial structures were constructed, forming something close to villages.

Captain Perry commented on the ways nets, baskets, water vessels and cooking utensils were 'constructed with particular care and neatness'.

On the coast, we have descriptions of these from Flinders (Clarence River 1799), Rous (Richmond River 1828), Perry (Clarence River 1839) and Lang (Port Macquarie 1847). Inland on the Western Slopes and Plains we have Cunningham (Coxs Creek 1825) and Mitchell (near the Gwydir River, 1832).

From the descriptions we have, the Tablelands’ semi-permanent shelters were simpler, reflecting lower populations, more limited resources and more frequent movement.

Those to the east and west were much more substantial. Some appeared designed to accommodate a family group, while others could accommodate up to 15 people. The number of dwellings varied from as few as three up to perhaps 20. Depending on the size and number of buildings, the resident population would have been perhaps 20 to 80.

Design was generally circular or semi-circular, with a conical roof and an entrance designed to shield from the weather. Building materials appear to have varied, but in all cases, the construction was watertight.

Observers were impressed. Writing of the two villages he observed on the Clarence in 1839 with canoes moored in a line in front, Captain Perry commented on the ways nets, baskets, water vessels and cooking utensils were “constructed with particular care and neatness”.

The Aborigines were sensible people. Just as they invested time in the construction of more permanent housing where that made sense, they also invested in the same way in communications and food production.

They created tracks, especially in thick bush where that would save time. They created wells to provide water when traveling in drier country, and they invested in particular structures where that would aid food production. This included standing nets to aid in hunting and fish traps on the coast and in the west to assist fishing.

While much of this has gone, the Brewarrina Fish Traps remain as an example of the scale of Aboriginal engineering.

Jim Belshaw’s email is ndarala@optusnet.com.au. He blogs at http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au/ (New England life) and http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com.au/ (New England history)

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