Part 3.2: Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Themes, Sub-themes and Potential Forested Places

Theme: Traditional human settlement and land use

Sub-theme: Complex persistence of a hunting-and-gathering society on a single continent

Australia provides the only example of where the hunting-and-gathering way of life has dominated an entire continent up to modern times. This way of life continues to play a significant role in the occupation of the continent, particularly in its northern and central sections.

Australian archaeological sites provide a unique and important record of human occupation over a range of environments spanning at least 40,000 years. Such sites are particularly significant in documenting the special ways in which Aboriginal people adapted to changing climates, as well as to the wide range of environmental situations in different parts of the continent. This adaptational history is best expressed in sites with long archaeological sequences containing evidence of a full range of material cultural expressions linked to environmental indicators.

The Panel noted the outstanding global significance of Australian expressions of the sub-theme of complex persistence of a hunting-and-gathering society on a single continent, and that these have been recognised internationally by the inclusion of important Aboriginal archaeological sites within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Kakadu National Park World Heritage Area and the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area.

The Panel also commented that archaeological sites may be significant in their own right and on their own, but more often they need to be considered as grouped entities; for example, as a series of sites. Such site complexes vary in their level of documentation, and these factors, together with the widespread nature of their occurrence, including many outside areas that are currently forested, need to be considered when selecting a site or series of sites which might represent the sub-theme.

Places in all three states were discussed by the Panel in relation to the sub-theme of complex persistence of a hunting-and-gathering society on a single continent.

Western Australia

Several parts of Western Australia were identified by the Panel as including archaeological site complexes that represent significant expressions of the sub-theme. The most notable of these are the Kimberley region, the Pilbara region, Shark Bay and Northwest Cape, all of which provide evidence of long-term occupation, and excellent records of the relationship of the hunting-and-gathering societies with the changing environment. None of these site complexes are in forested areas.

The Margaret River Caves in the south-west region of the state also include a number of archaeological deposits. The most significant of these sites is Devil's Lair Cave. Although the Margaret River Cave sites are of some archaeological importance, the sequences that they represent date from approximately 30,000 years before present but do not extend into the Holocene Epoch (the last 10,000 years). The Panel considered that this imposes a serious limitation on their expression of the persistence of hunting-and-gathering. For this reason, the Panel considered that the Margaret River Cave sites do not warrant further investigation in relation to this sub-theme.

New South Wales

The most outstanding expression of the sub-theme in New South Wales is the Willandra Lakes complex. The Panel noted that this complex is included in the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area, which is already on the World Heritage List for its outstanding cultural values. The Willandra Lakes complex is also outside forested areas.

The Burrill Lake and other archaeological sites in the south coast region constitute another important expression of the sub-theme in New South Wales. When considered in conjunction with a number of other sites in the south coast region of New South Wales, the complex provides an apparent history of 20,000 years of occupation by hunting-and-gathering societies. The Burrill Lake site is limited in that it only includes preserved organic material dating from the last 1000 years. There are also integrity problems associated with the south coast sites. The Panel concluded that the Burrill Lake and other south coast sites are unlikely to warrant further investigation as possible best global expressions of the sub-theme due to lack of integrity and complexities involved in the interpretation of these sites.

The existence of many other archaeological sites on Crown Land used for timber harvesting in New South Wales and within remnant patches of rainforest areas, many of which have been documented, was noted by the Panel. It concluded that these sites were not likely to be of outstanding universal value as expressions of the sub-theme and therefore they were not considered further in relation to the sub-theme.

The Panel also commented that there are no sites or site complexes currently known in the Blue Mountains area that are likely to be best global expressions of the sub-theme, and therefore of potential World Heritage value.

Queensland

The Panel identified a cluster of archaeological sites in the area around Laura, in the south-east part of Cape York, as likely to include a significant expression of the sub-theme in Queensland. This area is known as "Quinkan" country. The Quinkan sites provide outstanding evidence of a long and complex sequence of human occupation. For example, the Nurrabuljun site has been dated to 38,000 years before present and is the second-oldest radiocarbon-dated site in Australia. These areas lie immediately to the south of forested areas and were not considered further by the Panel.

In concluding its discussion on this sub-theme, the Panel drew attention to the fact that scientific knowledge of the archaeological heritage of Australia is expanding each year with new and significant finds. It emphasised that the assessment of Aboriginal heritage themes in forested areas is the best that can be done at this time. This assessment must be viewed as provisional and necessarily subject to revision given the strong likelihood of significant future discoveries.

The Panel also emphasised that before any further work is undertaken in relation to the sub-theme of "Complex persistence of a hunting-and-gathering society on a single continent", it is imperative that the Aboriginal communities in all relevant States be consulted both with regard to their views on the sub-theme and its representation in areas that concern them, and with regard to the work undertaken by the Panel concerning the sub-theme.

Table 10 Places in forested areas in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland warranting further investigation as possible best global expressions of the sub-theme of "Complex persistence of a hunting-and-gathering society on a single continent".

Sub-theme,

Exemplar

Forest Places in WA, NSW and Qld warranting further investigation

Values

Places in WA, NSW and Qld considered but excluded from further investigation in the RFA process

Reason for exclusion from further investigation in the RFA process

Complex persistence of a hunting- and-gathering society on a single continent.

No places identified as warranting further investigation.

Margaret River Caves, WA.

South coast region archaeological sites including Burrill Lake, NSW.

Quinkan site complex near Laura, Qld.

Not globally significant

Not globally significant

Non-forest area

Theme: Artistic expression

Sub-theme: Rock art

Australia has Aboriginal art sites that represent a unique artistic achievement, as well as providing an outstanding record of human interaction with the environment over tens of thousands of years.

Several major concentrations of large, naturalistic rock paintings occur in Australia, including in the Kimberley region in Western Australia, in Arnhem Land and the Victoria River District in the Northern Territory, and near Laura in the south-east region of Cape York in Queensland. Rock paintings in Kakadu National Park World Heritage Area are said to show a clear progression of motifs through time; these are paintings in an area that is inscribed on the World Heritage List. Extensive painting complexes are also known in the Carnarvon region of south-central Queensland, and on the Cobar pediplain and central-south coast regions of New South Wales. In addition, there are spectacular galleries of rock engravings in the Pilbara region in Western Australia, and in the Mootwingee region of New South Wales.

Western Australia

The extensive galleries of rock art in the Kimberley region and the Pilbara region of northern Western Australia were regarded by the Panel as amongst the most outstanding examples of rock art in the world. These regions are outside forested areas and therefore were not considered further.

There are a number of other rock art sites recorded in other regions of Western Australia, including some in forested areas in the south-west region. These rock art sites are not as extensive, nor as complex, numerous and diverse as the rock art sites of the Kimberley and Pilbara regions and, in the Panel's view, do not warrant further investigation in relation to the sub-theme.

New South Wales

Rock art complexes of outstanding significance include the galleries of rock engravings at Mootwingee, in central-west New South Wales, and the paintings of the Cobar region in central New South Wales. Neither of these sites are within forested areas, and they were not considered further by the Panel.

An outstanding complex of rock art galleries and sites occurs in central-east New South Wales, associated with the sandstone plateaux and escarpments of the region. The complex, which includes paintings and engravings, extends from the Hunter Valley, through Newcastle and the central coast region. The complex merges into an extensive rock art complex centred on the Sydney Basin and surrounds which includes the Blue Mountains and continues into the south coast region of New South Wales. The Central Coast and Sydney Basin complexes have been well documented, and are known to comprise many art sites. For example, of a total of 49 archaeological sites documented in 1982 for areas of State Forest in the central coast region, 30 were art sites. There are a significant number of art sites in the Sydney Basin, including an unknown number in the vicinity of the Holsworthy Army Base near Sydney which have yet to be fully documented. Surveys in 1982 of forested areas in the south coast region have indicated there are at least another 14 art sites in this region.

The Panel recommended that the Central Coast and Sydney Basin Rock Art Sites be further investigated for their possible contribution to a series of sites that, together, would constitute a best global expression of the sub-theme of rock art.

The Panel also commented that at least a portion of the rock art sites in the Sydney Basin complex are likely to have associative value in contributing to the values of the Blue Mountains if the area was found to be a best global expression of another sub-theme.

Queensland

There are two rock art site provinces in Queensland that the Panel considered as outstanding, and as having potential global significance in contributing to a serial representation of the sub-theme. These included the Carnarvon Gorge rock art sites, and rock art sites in the Quinkan region, near Laura, in the south-east part of Cape York.

The Carnarvon Gorge is in the Carnarvon Ranges area, and forms part of Carnarvon National Park. The sandstone structures comprising the gorge and its environs include many outstanding rock art sites. The greatest concentration of rock art sites in the Carnarvon Ranges area are associated with the gorge. There are least 50 Aboriginal sites within the gorge, most of them art sites. The Panel recommended that the Carnarvon Gorge area warrants further investigation for its possible contribution as one of a series of sites that, together, might provide a best global representation of the sub-theme of rock art. The Panel noted that the Carnarvon Ranges area had also been identified as warranting further investigation for its possible contribution to a serial expression of the sub-theme of Eucalyptus-dominated vegetation.

The Quinkan region, near Laura, contains many galleries of well-documented rock paintings in shelters associated with the cliffs and river valleys that dissect the sandstone plateaux. One of the sites, the so-called "Early Man" site, contains one of the oldest securely-dated rock art sites in Australia. The artwork at this site consists of pecked and engraved motifs, including animal tracks, sealed by an archaeological deposit dated by radiocarbon dating to over 15,000 years before present. The important archaeological site complex in the Quinkan region was also discussed by the Panel in relation to the sub-theme of complex persistence of a hunting-and-gathering society on a single continent. The Panel considered that the Quinkan art sites are likely to be of major significance in contributing as one of a series of sites that may constitute a best global expression of the sub-theme of rock art. The Quinkan art sites are outside forested areas, and therefore were not considered further by the Panel.

The Panel recognised Australian rock art as a unique achievement and of outstanding value in national, regional and local contexts, including in representing the artistic activities of Aboriginal people over long time periods. The Panel emphasised the need for further consultation with Aboriginal people concerning their views on Australian rock art in these contexts.

Table 11 Places in forested areas in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland warranting further investigation as possible best global expressions of the sub-theme of "Rock art".

Sub-theme,

Exemplar

Forest Places in WA, NSW and Qld warranting further investigation

Values

Places in WA, NSW and Qld considered but excluded from further investigation in the RFA process

Reason for exclusion from further investigation in the RFA process

Rock art

Best global expression based on a series of areas:

Central coast rock art sites, NSW,

Sydney Basin rock art sites, NSW.

Carnarvon Gorge rock art sites, Qld.

Sandstone rock art sites including painting and engravings.

Sandstone rock art sites.

Rock art sites in the Blue Mountains area, NSW.

Quinkan art sites near Laura, Qld.

Associative value

Non-forest area

Theme: Religious expression

The Panel noted that there are many Aboriginal sites of profound spiritual and religious significance that do not display evidence of structural or artefactual alteration. Recent changes to the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (February 1997) have made special provision for three categories of cultural landscapes. These are designed, evolved and associative cultural landscapes. It is the third category, associative cultural landscapes, which is relevant to the assessment of sites of religious expression.

Associative cultural landscapes are defined under the World Heritage Criteria as: "justifiable by virtue of the powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent." (Criteria for the inclusion of cultural properties on the World Heritage List, Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, op.cit. paragraph 39 (iii), p. 10).

The Panel recognised the profound importance to Aboriginal people of sites of religious expression, including dreaming sites, dreaming tracks and bora grounds. It noted the different ways that these sites and tracks can be viewed from an Aboriginal perspective as well as from the viewpoint of scientific documentation. The validity and importance of Aboriginal sites of religious expression, and the way in which these embody a complex relationship between people, beliefs and landscapes, was also recognised.

In discussing the theme of religious expression, the Panel noted the general lack of understanding and knowledge that exists in relation to this theme outside the Aboriginal communities to which it is relevant. The nature and types of Aboriginal religious expression, and of the way in which this expression is related to places or embodied more broadly in the landscape, has been little documented, particularly from a heritage point of view and including the views of Aboriginal people. While the Panel worked with the sub-theme of dreaming sites identified at its 1996 meeting, it also recognised that there are likely to be other sub-themes necessary to encompass the full range of religious expression. Knowledge is presently not available to enable these sub-themes to be identified. In this regard, the Panel emphasised that the theme and sub-theme discussed to date should not be regarded as definitive.

Additional future work will be required to provide a greater understanding of religious expression and to ensure its adequate description, and that this may result in other themes or sub-themes in addition to those already identified. The Panel emphasised the need for consultation with Aboriginal people in this additional work.

Sub-theme: Dreaming sites

Australia provides an outstanding example of where the religious system of hunting-and-gathering societies is embodied in the landscape.

Aboriginal knowledge of dreaming tracks is extensive and detailed, persisting in areas which have been heavily impacted by European colonisation, as well as continuing as an essential component of ongoing religious practices in those regions experiencing more recent and less severe impacts. The Panel noted that there is no comprehensive continent-wide overview of dreaming sites similar to those which are available for prehistoric sites and rock art. Some of the knowledge of dreaming sites and dreaming tracks available to the Panel has been derived from detailed ethnographic studies, while the wider extent of understanding comes from popular accounts of Aboriginal "dreaming" narratives. The Panel emphasised that it regarded its discussion and consideration of the sub-theme of dreaming sites to be tentative. A final view would require a comparative, continent-wide study of sites of possible religious significance, including dreaming tracks.

There are also some Australian sites of religious significance to Aboriginal people which are structural in nature; for example, the ceremonial sites referred to as "bora" grounds. These may be unique as a global expression of hunting-and-gathering religious practices, but have not so far been evaluated in this way.

Western Australia

There are well-documented dreaming sites and dreaming tracks in the Kimberley region, and in other parts of Western Australia. The majority of these are not within forested areas, and were not considered further by the Panel.

The Panel noted that dreaming sites associated with the "Wagyl", the mythical dreaming serpent, are well documented for the Perth metropolitan area. This area was traditionally part of the south-western Aboriginal cultural bloc.

The Panel also noted that the Wagyl is known to have travelled widely. Therefore, there are undoubtedly many other dreaming sites in the south-west region which are, as yet, not well documented. It is likely that some of these are in forested areas. For example, one sacred spring site associated with the Wagyl has been brought to the attention of site recorders as part of the environmental assessment process preceding bauxite mining in the south-west forests.

The Panel concluded that further investigation will be needed to identify the presence of significant dreaming sites in forested parts of Western Australia.

New South Wales

Amongst the best-known and documented examples of dreaming sites in New South Wales are Biamanga (Mumbulla) and Gulluga-Nadjanuga (Mt Dromedary-Little Dromedary) mountains, in the south coast region. These sites manifest little or no evidence of physical structures or modification. They are well documented as dreaming sites of profound significance to Aboriginal people. Their sacred traditional associations derive from the mythological significance of the sites, and because ceremonies were held at the sites until relatively recent times. The dreaming track of Gullaga, via Nadjanuga, extends off-shore to Montague Island.

The north coast region of New South Wales is also known to contain many sites of profound significance to Aboriginal people. For example, in 1982 there were 400 known sites of significance to Aboriginal people on the north-east coastal plain, including over 30 sites in areas of State Forest. Most of these sites were natural sacred sites, or sites of significance with mythological associations. Collectively, the sites represent a significant group which document the way in which the religious beliefs of the New South Wales Aboriginal People were embodied in the landscape.

Bora grounds have also been recorded in forested areas of north-east New South Wales. These are structural sites usually consisting of linked, raised earth circles in which initiation ceremonies were performed. The nature and functions of these bora grounds have been historically well-documented. Such sites may be unique in the world as structures associated with hunting-and-gathering religious beliefs and practices, with well-documented descriptions of their use.

The Panel considered that there are no known sites of likely global significance as expressions of this sub-theme in the Blue Mountains area.

The Panel concluded that further investigation of dreaming sites and bora ground sites in New South Wales is warranted.

Queensland

In discussing sites that may be important expressions of the sub-theme in Queensland, the Panel drew attention to the fact that it had relatively little information available to it concerning sites of Aboriginal dreaming significance in this state.

Several sites of ceremonial significance are known to occur in the greater Brisbane area. These include ten bora grounds which are recorded on the Register of the National Estate. These sites are believed to relate to monumental natural landscape features in the region. The Panel considered that these sites are likely to warrant further investigation as possible expressions of the sub-theme. Although the location of the sites in relation to forested areas is uncertain, the Panel noted that the greater Brisbane area would formerly have been forested but is now largely a built environment.

The Panel commented that further investigation of dreaming sites and bora grounds in Queensland is warranted.

The Panel concluded that a best global representation of Aboriginal dreaming sites in Australia would need to be based on a representative series of sites. In this regard, it considered that the dreaming sites identified for Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland may contribute to this serial expression of the sub-theme. This could only be confirmed in the context of further work which would be necessary both to understand and to identify the full range of sites necessary to provide a best expression of the sub-theme.

The Panel concluded its discussion of the theme of religious expression by highlighting the need for further investigation into the nature, diversity and meaning of sites of religious significance for Aboriginal people. This further work was seen as a prerequisite to any future work to develop additional sub-themes that relate to the theme of religious expression, and as a necessary basis for identifying significant places that best express the theme and sub-themes, including the present sub-theme of dreaming sites.

The Panel emphasised that any future work in relation to the theme of religious expression should be based on a consultative process with Aboriginal communities, including those associated with particular sites of religious significance. This work should include a continent-wide assessment that addresses the religious qualities of places. It should also consider the boundaries of relevant places, and the relationship between sites, such as between dreaming places and bora grounds.

The Panel also drew attention to the essential information that is held by Aboriginal communities and is relevant to all of the Aboriginal cultural heritage themes discussed, including religious expression. It noted that Aboriginal communities may have some reluctance to transfer their information to the public arena, both for cultural reasons and in view of the protracted public debates that have taken place concerning Aboriginal land rights and other issues affecting Aboriginal people.

Table 12 Places in forested areas in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland warranting further investigation as possible best global expressions of the sub-theme of "Dreaming sites".

Theme,

Sub-theme,

Exemplar

Forest Places in WA, NSW and Qld warranting further investigation

Values

Places in WA, NSW and Qld considered but excluded from further investigation in the RFA process

Reason for exclusion from further investigation in the RFA process

Dreaming sites

Status unknown.

Further work is required on all Aboriginal dreaming sites, including:

Dreaming sites of the Wagyl in the Perth region and south-west region, WA.

Dreaming sites at Biamanga (Mumbulla) and Gulluga-Nadjanuga (Mt Dromedary-Little Dromedary) mountains, NSW.

North-east region dreaming sites and bora grounds, NSW.

South-east region dreaming sites and bora grounds, Qld.

Values are yet to be determined

Values are yet to be determined

Values are yet to be determined

Values are yet to be determined


Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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