Ecological history of Australia
ECOLOGICAL HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA AND ITS PEOPLES : Tim Flannery
has some of the most ancient rainforests on Earth
Dec 1993 Native Title: brings to a close a period of history when we possessed a
purely European view of land.
one-quarter of all living Australians grew up in other lands.
has not endowed Australia with a good fossil record
IN THE BEGINNING
120 million years ago southern Victoria
was very much cooler with a mean temperature of 10 degrees Celsius.
Southern Victoria at this time had to endure between six weeks of total
darkness each year. The plants were
dominated by ancient types such as conifers, ferns, cycads, mosses and
lichens with only a few flowering plants.
Scientists have discovered the world’s oldest flower in the rocks – a
diminutive magnolia like bloom perfectly preserved between two layers of clay.
Grevilleas and waratahs evolved after this time. Most of the dinosaurs of
Victoria were curiously small – the most common chicken to dog sized
bird-hopping dinosaurs that ran on their hindlimbs and ate plants. The very largest Victorian dinosaur was Allosaurus at about 2
metres high. In addition to the
dinosaurs: pterosaurs (flying reptiles) lungfish, turtles and crocodiles have
also been found. Enormous
amphibians known as labryrinthodonts were found in rocks in Victoria too which
was a huge surprise for they had become extinct elsewhere in the world some 80
million years earlier. Also found
preserved were cockroaches, cicadas, fleas, water beetles and horseshoe-crabs
(now extinct in Australia)
86 and 82 million years ago a large sliver of land detached itself from eastern
Australia – now largely submerged beneath the sea it included New Zealand, New
Calendonia, Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands.
New Caledonia: James
Cook in Sept 1774 was the first European to see the strange island and name it
New Caledonia. He noted the great
similarity of it to Australia. There
are 3000 species of plants there – New Zealand has only 1460 species. New Caledonia has some of the most wildly beautiful and
primitive plant species to be found on Earth.
Humans arrived about 3500 years ago
Antarctic, New Guinea and parts of Indonesia : 80 million years ago – one land
mass. Gondwana straddled the South
pole. Plants still inhabit the fragment that was once Gondwana ;
proteas, waratahs and Macadamia. It
was then that Tasmantis broke adrift raising Australia’s Great Dividing Range
= Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia and New Guinea
in one the world’s most ancient landmasses with rocks 4,000 million years old
found in Western Australia by a North American palaeontologist.
This is magnificent as the earth itself is only 4 600 years old.
Life on this earth has existed for about five-sixths of the planets
Dinosaurs ruled the planet until 65 million years ago when the asteroid hit
Mexico. Birds and
mammals and many familiar plants were already in existence.
At Cape Paterson an anklebone of an Allosaurus was found.
Hamilton in Western Victoria is the site of Australia’s most important
fossil localities. It gives a
glimpse of the Victorian rainforest 4.5 million years ago complete with tree
kangaroos, tiny diprotodons and forest wallabies
Guinea was named after Guinea in Africa – both places are home to a dark
skinned, crinkle-haired people.
arrived in Australia from South-East Asia at least 40,000 and more probably
60,000 years ago. They travelled on
the most basic of watercraft.
arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia between 1000 and 800 years ago
present the North Pole has a positive terminal, but over the past 76 million
years the Earth’s magnetic field has reversed 71 times.
No- one knows why but at present the magnetic field is weakening each
is moving north at the rate of approximately 6 cm per year.
imagine the earth as being like an enormous pot of boiling pea soup.
The continents are the thin scum on the top
40 million years Australia has been physically isolated from the rest of the
world’s landmasses and in that time the world has chilled considerably.
million years ago the Australian plate came into contact with the Asian plate
causing buckling and the result was the formation of New Guinea with peaks
reaching 4000 metres high. Erosion
from these peaks has produced wondrous soils.
The highland valley of Papua New Guinea
some 1614 people per square kilometre which is the highest rural density
supported anywhere on Earth.
10 – 5
million years ago much of Victoria’s Western district was under the sea –
the majestic Grampian mountain range was an island
Papua New Guinea
species of mammals only 35 less than Australia
species – Australia has 750
reptile and 220 frog species against Australia’s 750 reptiles and 250 frog
Mammals of Australia
evolved from a South American ancestor some 60 million years ago.
– 20 million year old fossil found in Northern Australia
Queensland 55 million years ago in “Joh Country” remains of crocodiles and
large soft-bellied turtles
half of the Australian mammal fauna is composed of rats and bats
mammal species have become extinct in Australia since the arrival of the
Europeans. Tragically, many of
these extinction’s have occurred in the last 30 to 40 years when environmental
awareness might have helped to save them. These
historic extinction’s of Australian mammals are the worst that the world has
experienced in the last 500 years. Many extinction’s happened as late as the
1960’s following the departure of Aboriginal people from their tribal lands.
They suggest that Aboriginal firestick farming was an important factor in
maintaining suitable conditions for the middle-sized mammal species.
A further factor would be feral cats, foxes, dingoes etc.
Fauna of Australia
supports at least 25 000 species of plants
the rivers of the east coast have maintained their positions for tens of
millions of years
rivers have cut as little as a few tens of metres deeper into their beds in over
30 million years.
Why are Australia’s soils so poor?
geological activity (volcanoes) or glaciers, soil cannot be renewed.
As a result Australia has by far the poorest soil of any continent.
volcanoes produce some of the only fertile soil in Australia.
Wherever this occurs it supports intensive agriculture or prime grazing
land. The basalt plain of
Victoria’s Western District is the largest of these area.
Arrival of humans
around a million years ago, the entire panorama of hominid evolution had been
played out on the wide plains and rift valleys of Africa.
It was our immediate ancestor, ‘Homo erectus’, that became the first
member of our family to leave the ancestral African home
sapiens’ began to spread across the landscape
living people spread out of Africa, possibly some 130 000 years ago.
years ago our ancestors had progressed even further as hunters.
South African cave deposits show the remains of prey such as pigs and
buffalo, rhino and elephant.
By 40 000
years ago people living in northern Africa were making stone points with tangs
to which a handle was attached. Traps
were being made using nets and spears
– where did they come from?
no people presently resembling Aborigines and New Guineas in South-East Asia.
One has to go as far afield as the Phillippines, peninsular Malaysia and
the Andaman Island to find a few tiny groups of pygmy negrito people who look
anything like Australian Aborigines. Researchers have therefore long assumed that the ancestors of the
Australian Aborigines were displaced from their South-East Asian home by
invading Mongoloid peoples.
Lake Mungo in Western New South Wales – remains of cremated woman found in a
sand dune dated around 38 000 years ago
uncremated fully articulated skeleton of a adult man was discovered.
Pink ochre powder had been sprinkled over the upper part of his body –
32 000 years old.
Australia revealed human presence from 30 000 years ago
show caves in the south-western part of the island at 35 000 years.
7000 years ago evidence of bone tools and needles used for sewing skin
cloaks. 5000 Aborigines lived in
scattered small groups over the Island. By
1830 only 300 Aborigines survived. By
1847 all but 47 had died. The
remainder were send to Flinders Island. Truganini
was the last Aborigine in Tasmania dying in 1876.
She brought to an end a disastrous close to a chapter of murder and
cruelty. No European was ever tried
for the murder of a Tasmanian Aborigine
was a more important factor: measles, flu, smallpox, gonorrhoea, syphilis etc.
Aborigines in 1802 lived in often bitterly cold climates but they lacked
clothing and the ability to make fire – they did not eat
They had no hafted implements such as axes, no boomerangs or
spearthrowers, no dingoes and no stone tools
years ago the manufacture of stone axes with fine edges became very popular
Land art galleries show paintings over 3000 years old holding boomerangs
means poor seas too. The low
productivity of Australia seas means that with a mere 17 million people, it
imports $500 million worth of seafood each year
oceans are mirror images of our land – they are biological deserts of great
its peak 25 000 to 15 000 years ago.
levels fell as much as 160 metres.
landmasses suddenly appeared in the world’s oceans
was particularly dramatically affected for the continent became cold and
centre was turned into a vast dustbowl of swirling sand dunes where vegetation
could not survive.
vanished from most of the land.
Melting of the ice age
15 000 years ago the ice-caps melted rapidly
By 9 000
years ago the world resembled the one we know today
Guineans would have been in contact with Aboriginal people until 10000 years
August William Dampier, Captain of the Roebuck met with a party of 10 Aborigines
while searching for fresh water. One
Aborigine was shot
European contact Australia was home to 300000 – 600000 people who spoke 250
took place with stone axes quarried at Mount Isa and later found in the Gulf of
Carpentaria and pearl shell from the Kimberley was traded down in southern
Aboriginals had developed a large number of sophisticated practices for
conserving animal resources. ‘Story
places’ were off limits to hunters and acted as reservoirs for such mammals as
traditional European view of Aboriginal cultures has been that life stood still
for the Aborigines since they had arrived in Australia.
They arrived in the stone age and were still in it by the time Cook
arrived. No agriculture, widespread
nomadism (this was a response of adaption to the erratic availability of
resources), simple dwellings and limited material possessions.
This is a superficial and naïve view.
A lack of agriculture ahs long been cited as evidence of the
‘backwardness’ and ‘laziness’ of Aborigines. Many of the features of
Aboriginal lifestyles that we continue to view a primitive are highly
specialized responses to Australian conditions.
fleet of convicts arrived 26th January 1788
indeed the British legal concept of ‘terra nullius’.
It gave the British the right to occupy ‘unused’ land.
1788 and 1890 the Aboriginal population of Australia was reduced to 50
Victoria there were only 1907 Aboriginal people left by 1863.
By 1967 there were 3 people of pure Australoid descent
involved hundreds of participants drawn from several tribal groups.
They could only take place in exceptional circumstances for enough food
to be present in one place to feed hundreds of people for weeks
after less than 200 years of use, 70% of the 22 million of arable land is
degraded and in need of soil restoration.
mining earns Australia some 29 billion dollars while agriculture earns only 16
December, Prime Minister Keating recognised the legality of native title in
Australia. With it ‘terra nulius’
was abolished from the law books and gave recognition that Aboriginal tribal law
has a place in Australian society.