Who are the Aborigines?
The short answer is, they are us. Current evidence indicates that humans evolved in Southern Africa, and genetically modern humans evolved in East Africa. They moved into most available habitats in the African continent, and spread northward into the Middle East about 70,000+ years ago. In the Middle East they met and interbred with some earlier human migrants – the Neanderthals. All humans who are descended from groups which migrated out of Africa still carry a very small amount of Neanderthal DNA.
Moving to Australia
Groups of Homo sapiens moved up through the Middle East into Europe, displacing the Neanderthals. Eventually others settled Asia, some crossed the Bering Land Bridge to Alaska and ultimately Homo Sapiens reached the very tip of South America.
DNA evidence suggests that the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal Australians split off early, following the coastline of what is now Iran, Pakistan and India. On the way they met and interbred with another group of early human migrants – the Denisovans. All Aborigines, PNG Highlanders and some Pacific peoples still carry a very small amount of Denisovan DNA. The migrating people travelled down to Indonesia, into Papua New Guinea and into Northern Australia.
The exact date of Aboriginal arrival in Australia 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.
There is evidence that some people from the Indian sub-continent also came to Northern Australia about 4,000 years ago, and may have introduced microlith techmology and the dingo to this country; but apart from these and 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 probably have the oldest continuous culture and the longest non-African period of continuous occupation 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.