Who are the Aborigines?
The short answer is, of course, they are us. Current evidence indicates
that genetically modern humans all evolved in Africa. For unknown reasons our ancestors began to migrate northward around 70,000 years ago, and eventually displaced all of our relatives around the world.
Moving to Australia
Various groups of Homo sapiens moved up through the Middle East into Europe, displacing the Neanderthals. Others drifted across Asia, crossed the Bering Land Bridge to Alaska and ultimately reached the very tip of South America. DNA evidence suggests that the ancestors of today’s Indigenous Australians travelled north east via the Horn of Africa, crossed the entrance to the Red Sea into Arabia, then followed the coast of India to southern Asia, to Indonesia via the Malay Peninsula, and finally into north west Australia.
Their exact date of arrival is uncertain – the coastline of those days is now up to 90 metres under water, due to post-ice age sea level rises – but the currently accepted range of first habitation is roughly 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
Apart from occasional visitors from the Torres Strait islands, the Australians are not known to have had any large-scale contact with the outside world until European explorers arrived in the 17th century. This lack of contact means that the Australians may have the oldest continuous culture on the planet.
Living plants absorb a quantity of radioactive Carbon-14 from the atmosphere. When the plant dies the radioactivity decays at a known rate. Comparing the remaining Carbon-14 in a sample with the expected level of atmospheric C-14 allows accurate dates to be estimated, for samples up to about 60,000 years old. Dates for objects found on dry land are easier to obtain than those from underwater, because an object (such as a stone axe) needs to be associated with a suitable source of carbon. Carbon dates from rock shelters or proven campsites are accepted as pretty reliable, since only humans cook their food and leave stone tools lying around nearby.
Just to give you a bit of an idea of the time scale we’re dealing with -
the world’s earliest known ground-edged stone axe was discovered in a rock shelter in Arnhem Land, and dated at 35,500 years old. A rock shelter in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney has been dated to about 20,000 years ago, when much of Europe was under glaciers and Cro-Magnon man was hunting mammoths. Our Aboriginal explorers had crossed and settled an entire continent, 5,000 years before the first humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge and reached the Americas.
The oldest known rock shelter site on the NSW North Coast is near Grafton, and has been dated to about 6,500 years ago. It was in use while Sumerians in the Middle East were setting about the building of Ur, their first major city. The Britons of the time were, like the Australians, still in the Neolithic age; but within 500 years bronze would be invented in the Near East and modern history would be off and running.
People from the Gumbainggirr language group settled an area stretching from what is now Grafton, south to the Nambucca and west to Ebor, inland from Dorrigo. Settlement probably happened a lot more than 6500 years ago; but while anecdotal evidence suggests that traditional hunting grounds extended 16km eastward from the current coast, up to 10,000 years
ago, those lands and campsites are now lost under the sea. Floodplain and estuarine sites have also long since been washed away by the frequent floods, or may lie buried under tons of silt.
So while tool scatters are still found along ridge lines, or dug up by farmers, the only thing we can be completely sure of is that the ancestors of the Bellinger Valley’s traditional owners came here a very long time ago.