This month in Archaeology: Aboriginal heritage as ecological proxy in south-eastern Australia: a Barapa wetland village
Dr Amy Way discusses a recently published paper by Pardoe and Hutton in the Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, examining how Aboriginal people traditionally lived in large groups around ecological ‘hotspots.’
This recent publication demonstrates how traditional Aboriginal land use practices can inform land and water management in the Murray River Basin. Using archaeological evidence, the authors show that Aboriginal people traditionally lived in large groupings – villages and hamlets – around targeted small water bodies, known as ecological ‘hotspots.’ They argue that current water allocation practices should respond to this traditional practice by directing water to these ecological hotspots.
What did life look like in the Murray-Darling Basin in the past?
The Murray-Darling Basin once supported Aboriginal Australia’s densest population (Pardoe 1994, 2006). This region was very different before the 1840s. Back then, the Murray River was “lined by open Red Gum forests that gave way to plains covered by Salt and Blue Bush. In this part of the Mid Murray, the rivers fan out into a network of anastomosing creeks, with lagoons and swamps lined by what the European explorer Mitched described as "a sea of reed beds bounded only by the horizon” (Mitchel 1838: 136). The Aboriginal groups living in the area were described as ‘the aquatic tribes’ or the ‘reed bed people’ (Pardoe and Hutton 2020:3).
In the Murray Basin, Aboriginal people traditionally built mounds through long and repeated occupation of the same sites. These mounds are formed from people building houses and cooking in earth ovens, created from surrounding clay deposits. They are often situated on naturally raised features such as levee banks. “They are largely circular and contain ash, charcoal, baked clay cooking bricks used in earth overs, burnt animal bone, mussel shell, other domestic material and the detritus of daily life. Sometimes they contain burials” (Pardoe and Hutton 2020: 4).
Post-colonial changes and today’s environmental targets
Environmental changes following European settlement, including land clearing and ploughing of reed beds and more recently broad-acre laser-planning, have “rendered the landscape created by Aboriginal people largely invisible” (Pardoe and Hutton 2020: 4). While contemporary water management strategies generally have pre-European conditions as targets for restoration of wetland ecosystems and river flow, it has been difficult for today’s managers to establish a baseline for pre-colonial riverine environments.
The archaeological survey
The authors conducted an archaeological survey of mound residences in the Pollack Swamp in the Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota wetland forest on the River Murray. This is the traditional land of the Barapa Barapa people, who share responsibility for the Perricoota Forest with their Yorta Yorta neighbours. The archaeologists conducted detailed ground surveys of mound residences in the Pollack Swamp to reconstruct traditional residential patterning.
What did they find?
They recorded 153 mounds, which appeared in clusters, often in a linear fashion adjacent to specific lagoons. They found that some mound residences were on current water bodies, however many were distributed away from current water sources in a seemingly random fashion.
The authors conducted LiDAR (Light Distance And Ranging) mapping of the landscape, which can produce a very high resolution contour map, to identify the location of past water courses from remnant depressions. By mapping the mounds in relation to LiDAR imaging they were able to show that some of the seemingly random mounds were actually positioned along minor water courses, and often centred on specific lagoons and waterholes.
The mounds varied in size from 25 to 806m2 and often occurred in clusters. The size and density of the mounds provides evidence of long-term sedentary life for up to five months of the year with sufficient abundance of seasonally reliable resources to support large populations - in other words: Barapa villages (Pardoe and Hutton 2020:6).
Today, 80% of the water is allocated to irrigation, which means that pre-European flows cannot be re-created. Instead the Murray Darling Basin Authority targets environmental water flows to key sites for conservation purposes. This research provides a method for identifying critical, specific locations within the larger landscape for water delivery, with Aboriginal village locations marking the most productive areas on the floodplain. Traditional ecological knowledge, distilled into the archaeological record, provides an avenue for local Barapa people to participate in effective land and water management.
- Pardoe, C. and Hutton, C. 2020. Aboriginal heritage as ecological proxy in south-eastern Australia: a Barapa wetland village. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/14486563.2020.1821400