First People’s Lifeworld
in the Tamar Valley.
History of the Launceston Basin
Launceston is a rich borderland, a place where boundaries meet – where saltwater and freshwater meet, where the First People of the Northern Midlands interface with the riverine people of the Tamar, where the wetlands border the game plains.
Examining the land-use pattern of Aboriginal occupation of the Tamar and surrounding districts.
First People’s Views
It is tempting to apply modern terms like ‘sustainability’ to Indigenous practice however the key to understanding First People’s attachment to country is the concept of adequacy.
Archeological and other evidence of Aboriginal occupation of Tasmania, particularly the Tamar, during the period of Aboriginal occupation from the last ice-age.
We acknowledge the First People as the original custodians of Country, to guide reverence for country into the future so all are custodians of this land.
CONTRIBUTORS: Aunty Patsy Cameron, Dr Tom Dunning, Dr Michael Powell, Professor Lyndall Ryan, Ian Pattie, Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick, Barry Brimfield, Rees Campbell, Peter Cox, Professor Ted Lefroy, Penny Jones, Nigel Burch.
The Stoney Creek Peoples
The city of Launceston is at the heart of the Stoney Creek peoples to the Therrernotepanner, Leterrermairrener and Panniher clans. The clans lived here for many thousand generations, above the floodplains where the three rivers Kunermurlukeker, Pleepertommeler and Lakekeller meet.
Launceston Basin Concentrated Occupancy
Landscapes with the most evidence of resource utilization by Tasmanian Aboriginal people were inland river valleys, floodplains, wetland margins, open forest habitats open plains and the coastal fringe.
The most concentrated occupation of the landscape was mainly around the coast. The next most concentrated area of occupation and resource utilization was along the major river valleys, like the Tamar.
These were the hubs of Aboriginal activity.
Sites highlighted in green indicate Aboriginal relics and concentrated Aboriginal occupancy based on archeological artifact sites on the Tasmanian Aboriginal Heritage Register.
Mapping Tasmania’s cultural landscapes: Using habitat suitability modelling of archaeological sites as a landscape history tool Journal of Biogeography Vol.4, No. 11. 2019, 2570-2582. “New research turns Tasmanian Aboriginal history on its head. The results will help care for the land”
What made the Launceston Basin so special?
Launceston is a rich borderland, a place where boundaries meet – where saltwater and freshwater meet, where the First People of the Northern Midlands interface with the riverine people of the Tamar, where the wetlands border the game plains. Because of the interface of saltwater and freshwater this means that landscape abundance is amplified by the diverse ecology.
This, along with the intense landscape modification means the Launceston basin – where the Esk rivers and the Tamar meet – was a densely populated place of First Peoples seasonal habitation.
The Garden that became Launceston
Rivers wear away the ancient Tasmanian mountains, depositing their mineral wealth in flood plains and estuaries. This depositional richness is most prominent where rivers meet the sea and fine silt drops from the slowing surge. Birds whirl from black gum, paperbark, reed swamp and still water, their nests protruding from the reeds. Some extend their necks to consume the soft aquatic plants that grow in the turbid waters above the mud. Some are eaten by raptors, contact-killed in precipitous descents from above.
Acquisitiveness or simple Adequacy
It is tempting to apply modern terms like ‘sustainability’ to Indigenous practice however the key to understanding First People’s attachment to country is adequacy.
First Peoples did not expend energy on wasted accumulation but on a vast Estate that provided the needs of a robust population using minimal exertion. “It depended on preferring to reduce rather than increase material wants.” [Gammage Plain Facts 252]
This is why terms like ‘farming’ with its association with considerable exertion does not do justice to Indigenous practice.
Landscape management was a primary First People’s preoccupation but not a consuming one, leaving considerable time for ceremony, cultural gatherings, leisure and even beautification with men absorbed by ochre application to their hair or the mix of ochre and fat to insulate their bodies.
Joseph Lycett c.1818 Aborigines hunting water birds. NLA PIC MSR 12/1/4
This was probably a scene near Newcastle (Hexham Swamp) but it illustrates practice in the Tamar. Note the clear boundary between forest and grassland, a result of precise cool fire burning.
Left: Barbarea australis –an endangered plant now, once quite common along riverbanks
Right: Phragmites australis (Flag Rush)
The plant based diet of the Stony Creek Peoples
The First People living in the Tamar Basin area would have had an enormous larder from which to select foods to eat. Research tells us that probably at least 30% of the First Tasmanians’ diet was plant based, but that would have varied greatly according to the availability of foods in various seasons. Tim Low estimated that arid country Aboriginal people ate about 80% plant food, while coastal dwellers ate about 40%, given the availability of shellfish and crustaceans. [Tim Low Wild Food Plants in Australia Harper Collins 1988] Because Tasmania is colder the First Nation People would have favoured a high concentrated energy, high caloric, protein diet (principally wallaby and kangaroo) but that did not exclude a wide variety of plant foods.
Tamar basin country has been modified so dramatically, it is hard to imagine exactly what would have grown there, but certainly remnant patches of wetland and bushland paint us a picture.
Food Foraging Part 1 (Food Resources)
The Tasmanian Aborigines occupied their island home for at least 40,000 years but it is only the last 2,000 years that is considered here and only mainland Tasmania and offshore islands.
A relatively rich area of food, the island can be nearly equally divided into halves, west and east. Mountainous wild and mainly shielded lowlands with rainforest and heath exist in the west while the east is dry sclerophyll taxa. Incredibly rich coasts exist all around the state’s perimeter and as can be expected the open west is a furious one, the east sheltered.
All this territory from c.1,300 meters to coast is foraged over by the most important macropod, the medium sized (c.80cm, 15-11kg) “Bennetts” or “Red-Necked Wallaby” (Macropus rufogriseus) a gorgeous friendly “roo”. A quick breeder it is numerous and roams an area of between 5 to 20 hectares. Its importance to the Aborigines is evident from colonial observations and even more so in archaeological excavations.
Food Foraging Part 2 (Foraging & Food Prearation)
The role of male and female was generally clearly defined but both participated in economic duties, with the women being the reliable backbone of their society. The males carried out hunting activities of larger fauna especially kangaroo, wallaby and wombat but seasonal migrations from the coast into the lowlands during spring and autumn could see all participating in group hunts of the two former macropods. Likewise, although women mainly climbed trees in pursuit of possum the men awaited below to dispatch the animal when thrown out of its nest.
Hunting by men was often one of a fortuitous meeting a quarry and resulted in a lack of success having to return to camp empty handed, but not to worry, the ever-reliable women filled the void with smaller fauna, possum and edible flora. They also, when on the coast, provided molluscs either gathered at low tide from rock outcrops or dived for more valuable sublittoral species including crayfish.
A Vast Estate Managed with Purpose.
In 2011 Bill Gammage published his controversial, The Biggest Estate of Earth: How the Aborigines made Australia. He refuted the idea of Aborigines as nomadic wanderers idling across the landscape. Instead, he saw the Aborigines as landscape managers, modifying and maintaining a vast Estate, a giant “gentleman’s park.”
The artist John Glover portrayed the Tasmanian Midlands as so unwooded you could “drive a Carriage as easily as in a Gentleman’s park in England” and colonial entrepreneur and dubious shyster, Edward Lord, described driving to Launceston through ‘forest land… very open’ without ‘the necessity of felling a tree’.
It was sharp edged forest with abrupt edges against grassland, the product of precise cool firing that resulted, as can be seen in Joseph Lycett’s View from Near the Top of Constitution Hill, Van Diemen’s Land 1821 [NGA 84.125.41.]
HISTORIC: Dr Michael Powell and Dr Tom Dunning have contributed to the historic fabric of Launceston with a new website. Aboriginallaunceston.com.au . Picture: Craig George
In The Media – Examiner July 17th 2021
The Indigenous history of Launceston has been made available through a new website that shines a light on the pre-colonial history of the Aboriginal people of the region.
Aboriginallaunceston.com.au was believed to be the first site of its kind in Australia and tells the history of the Stoney Creek people who lived in the Tamar Valley for a thousand generations.
Andrew Chounding – Examiner