History matters: Wetlands' settlement secret

Early home: One of the New England lagoons, the Little Llangohthlin lagoon, which could have been one of the local scenes of early Aboriginal settlement.
Early home: One of the New England lagoons, the Little Llangohthlin lagoon, which could have been one of the local scenes of early Aboriginal settlement.

This week, I have put aside my story of German settlement in New England. I needed to access additional resources including Helen Nancarrow’s Brandscheid’s Vine to tell the story properly. However, another story emerged as well.

On ABC New England, Tawar Razaghi reported that more than 170 hectares of endangered wetlands in the New England will be protected after four private landholders signed a voluntary conservation agreement.

These upland wetlands are a unique type of wetlands not connected to rivers or streams. This type is also found in the Monaro Plateau, the only other location across the country.

Coincidentally, at the same time, I found a really interesting 2015 article in Archaeology in Oceania by UNE’s Wendy Beck, Robert Haworth and John Appleton. This linked the lagoons to one of the enduring mysteries of Aboriginal history - when did the Aboriginal people actually come to New England? 

I have written of the absence of dates for early Aboriginal occupation in New England. I have tried to link this to the complex local patterns of climatic change that took place over the eons since the Aborigines first arrived on the continent of Sahul.

Wendy Beck and her colleagues addressed similar issues and asked very basic questions. What resources might have been available to support Aboriginal occupation of the New England? What does this tell us about the possible patterns of Aboriginal occupation?

In looking at these questions, they chose the upland wetlands, the lagoons that stretch down the centre of the high country, for two reasons.

First, there was some evidence that these wetlands were in existence at the time of early Aboriginal occupation of Sahul, so that they would have been a constant, if changing, feature of the landscape. Secondly, those wetlands might have been a potential source of food that would have supported Aboriginal occupation of New England.

Scientific dating techniques confirmed the wetlands existed in some form around 48,000 years ago, thus covering the period of Aboriginal settlement. They also found that the wetlands offered a variety of food sources and especially birds that would support human existence, including larger ceremonial gatherings from time to time.

They showed in broad terms how the wetland system changed with climatic variations over the millennia. Interestingly, the wetlands were most productive in food terms not when the lagoons were constantly full, but when the filling was periodic or intermittent.

This sounds counter-intuitive. Surely constant water means food richness?

Outside eels, there were limited food resources in the deeper water. Constant pulses of water, drying following by filling, maximised the seasonal availability of marine, plant, animal and bird life.

The results are necessarily speculative, but they provide a base for further test that holds out the possibility of understanding more of the history of New England’s Aboriginal peoples.

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)