A unique, collaborative research team are working together to explore and research the marine life, botanical, maritime, and cultural connections associated with the Recherche Archipelago in southern Western Australia. The team’s recent expedition to Middle Island resulted in the discovered of a diagnostic stone implement (end scraper) made by the Traditional Owners of this region – that demonstrates links to the mainland.
The implement is a small piece of fine-grained chert that has been worked to a sharp, serrated edge on one end, and blunted or backed on the other end. This technique is a signature design element for a composite implement, where the stone tool was hafted onto a wooden shaft. The hafting method uses a resin made from the locally available grass tree (known traditionally as a balga or paalaq). Yet, no grass trees today survive on Middle Island.
“This indicates one of three things,” said archaeologist David Guilfoyle, of Applied Archaeology Australia. “The tree has become locally extinct on the island; or this implement was used during a time of lower sea levels, when people could walk to this granite dome; or that this implement was brought over to the island in more recent times.”
The first scenario is an area of investigation for this team examining the effects of island formation and the interactions of people, plants and animals for maintaining biodiversity. “It may be no coincidence,” says Doc Reynolds, “that when you remove people from the land, we also see a loss of cultural plants and animals.”
The second scenario relates to the last Ice Age, when global temperatures were much colder than today, causing the expansion of the sea ice at both the south and north poles, dropping the ocean levels around the planet. In this part of the world, some 80-100 kilometres of coastline extended from the modern day shoreline at the height of the last Ice Age, some 18,000 years ago. Over time, as the planet gradually warmed, the ice caps melted, and the sea levels rose. This flooded the vast coastal plain, and created the spectacular Recherche Archipelago. Middle Island may have been isolated form the mainland for some 3-4000 years.
“We know that these implements were hafted to a wooden shaft using the resin of the grass tree,” said Doc Reynolds, Elder and Cultural Heritage Officer for the Esperance Tjaltjaak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation. “We also know that there are no balga trees on Middle Island, so it might be evidence of the use of this area when it was all connected to the mainland, several thousand years ago.”
With rising sea levels following the end of the last Ice Age, a period of environmental instability and adjustment affected human populations, altering patterns of mobility, technological adaptation and settlement. Numerous archaeological resources can be expected to now lie submerged on the continental shelf and in the deep Holocene sands that are a prominent feature of the Esperance coastline today. The team have documented numerous archaeological sites across several islands of the Archipelago.
The third scenario is more troubling. The abundance of marine mammal resources along the Southern Ocean coastline saw sealers and whalers visiting the area prior to the British colonisation of King George Sound (Albany) in 1826, with the earliest recorded visits by the British whaling ships Kingston and Elligood in 1800. Some of the early sealers resorted to brutality and violence in their quest for women, which in turn shaped cultural responses.
“Some of our ancestors were captured and imprisoned on these islands – we know that,” said Doc Reynolds. “We owe them, from a cultural perspective, and a historical reality, to honour them. So part of our work is to remember them on our voyages, and where possible document aspects of their daily lives.”
Aboriginal women were highly valued by sealers for their diving, foraging and hunting skills, as well as for forced companionship (Gibbs 1995:91; Clarke 1996: 56-59, James 2003: 33-52). Aboriginal women typically carried out most of the work for sealers such as cooking, fetching wood, salt scraping and bagging, seal hunting and seal skin curing, killing, plucking and salting mutton birds and rowing boats.
This fact raises the possibility of scenario three, according to David Guilfoyle. “It is quite possible that this implement was used here on Middle Island by one of the female prisoners of the sealers. You would imagine that the women were taken for their knowledge of the region, how to find and process bush tucker, water, and their complex understanding of the plant and animal life of their homelands.”
During the 1840s, Middle Island operated as a whaling station for “southern right whales” and was known as place for the lawless sealers and runaway convicts. One infamous encounter relates to the shipwreck survivors of the sealing and trading cutter Mountaineer – that blew ashore at Thistle Cove, Cape Le Grand on 20 March 1835. The survivors camped for ten days on the beach during which time they met with five Aboriginal people, before sailing in a small boat to Middle Island. After living and sealing with John ‘Black Jack’ Anderson and his gang including three Aboriginal women on Middle Island for about four months, survivors James Manning and James Newell requested Anderson take them to King George’s Sound. Anderson refused but agreed to land them on the mainland at Cape Arid without provisions.
The team have their work cut out for them to explore this wild and remote Archipelago, and each expedition presents unique logistical challenges. Marc Payne is the guide, and is perhaps the most knowledgeable person of the island and marine landscape, having lived a life on the sea as a professional diver. “This Archipelago needs to be protected. The marine life, the wildlife, the heritage – it’s all so important and connected,” he says. “Our team are working together to document and manage these values – research needs to be integrated to be effective.”
Ultimately, the work the team are doing is about protection. Doc Reynolds: “Protecting our heritage values includes on-ground environmental work.” The team map and monitor weeds, erosion, wildlife monitoring, and impacts to heritage sites. The eroding front dune on the island is of major concern – a narrow dune system that separates the ocean from the unique pink lake on Middle Island.
“I am very concerned of the severe erosion of the narrow dune system,” says Doc Reynolds. “The dune face is exposed and people using this area, or natural processes of wind and wave action, can speed up this erosion. It is one of the few places in the world where you have a pink lake.” Doc says that this erosion is the worst he has seen this at this time of the year in his 25 years of visiting the island.
Co-chairs of the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation say they are proud and excited to be the host of this research team. “The work this team is doing is groundbreaking, we believe,” says Annie Dabb, co-chair of the Corporation. “Not only with all the special skills that the team bring together, but also the process, of upholding cultural protocols, demonstrating our ancient connections to this incredible landscape.”
Gail Reynolds-Adamson, fellow co-chair, agrees: “This research contributes to our goal of establishing a cultural ranger program and protected areas, in our traditional Country, including the Islands of the Recherche,” she states. “This is about socially-responsible research, that provides outcomes for training and education, and under cultural protocols, all the way.”
Some of our team’s work will be featured as part of television documentary series – Coast Australia. The team are preparing for their next major expedition to the islands in May 2016. For more information or to get involved, please contact team coordinator of archaeology – David Guilfoyle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The research and data referred to in this story is adapted from:
Guilfoyle, David R., Anderson, Ross, Kimber, Tom and Ron “Doc” Reynolds. 2016 (in press) A Community-Based Approach to Documenting and Interpreting the Cultural Seascapes of the Recherche Archipelago, Western Australia. In Tanya King and Gary Robinson (eds) At Home on the Waves: Human habitation of the sea from the Mesolithic to today. Berghahn, New York.