Indigenous history lies buried in sands of the south-west

TO the untrained eye the sand dune peppered with shells, bones and debris is nothing special, but it is in fact some of the best evidence we have of how indigenous people lived and thrived in the south-west for tens of thousands of years.

Scattered between Point Ritchie and Port Fairy, as well as other areas further along the coast — and indeed around Australia’s entire shoreline — middens stand as the last obvious remaining reminders of the region’s original inhabitants.

“A midden is like a waste, or a dump,” indigenous elder Robbie Lowe explained.

“All the food is cooked in an area and all those shells and bones are thrown over their shoulders and creates ... midden sites. 

“They build up over a period of time. Some of these midden sites I’m told are about 40,000 years old.”

Much like the rubbish dumps of ancient Rome, the middens have provided current-day researchers with an insight into how Aboriginal people lived sustainably in the area for tens of thousands of years. 

“Wherever a reef is, you can guess there is a midden site close handy,” Mr Lowe said.

“The sea is close handy and food was abundant, more than it is today. 

“The old people gathered and cooked it and enjoyed life.

“People ask why are there no middens in certain areas and it’s because there are no reefs, so there’s no food.”

Deakin University honourary associate professor John Sherwood estimated there are “countless thousands” of middens around Australia’s coast, but some middens in the Point Ritchie area are of particular significance.

“There was a time when we thought Aboriginal people had only been here a few thousand years but studies into middens and other deposits on the coast push that back beyond 50,000 years,” Professor Sherwood said.

“There’s evidence of 35,000 years of occupation at the Point Ritchie headland by Aboriginal people ... before the last eruption of Tower Hill, and the reason we know that is because volcanic ash sits on a layer (of shells) and the remains of a fireplace.”

Professor Sherwood’s own research has helped pinpoint the last Tower Hill eruption to within 3000 years either side of 35,000 years ago — “the best (guess) we can get” — while other researchers have found earthquake evidence from around the same era in the region.

“Aboriginal people were living here at a time of great volcanic turmoil — it was not the placid place it is now,” he said.

“That story is in the rocks at Point Ritchie. It’s a very significant site in the city as well as a beautiful site. Aboriginal people were attracted to that site for the same reasons we are today — it has a commanding view of the countryside and the bay and it had good resources.”

Point Ritchie has been covered with an “ongoing protection declaration” — only the second such declaration in Victoria — which puts strict controls over the area.

Professor Sherwood said middens gave great insights into Aboriginal society. 

“A colleague of mine working on some middens over near Portland has found evidence of seasonal occupation, that they didn’t live in (these spots) all year,” he said.

“There’s good evidence they came to the coast in the summer time when there was lot of berries, for example, and in the winter time they would go inland to the swamps and trap eels and hunt kangaroos.

“To Aboriginal people, middens are of special significance. It links directly back to their past heritage. It has the same significance we place on old buildings or a site where a first thing happened. They are of enormous cultural value to Aboriginal people. They need to be treated carefully and with respect.”

Robbie Lowe said it was important to protect the sites and for people to know about them.

“We can talk about the sites and show the sites, but I’d rather the signs be placed (further) away and include the whole area,” Mr Lowe said.

“These areas have to be protected but we have to be careful.”

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