65,000 years of food waste shows how one culture thrived during environmental change

(ORDO NEWS) — For 65,000 years, the Bininj – the local word for Aboriginal Kunjeyhmi – have been returning to the rock shelter of Majedbebe in the country of Mirarr in the Kakadu (Northern Territory) region.

During this huge period of time, the environment around the rock shelter has changed a lot.

Our paper, published last week in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, uses ancient plant food remains once charred in fires at the site to study how the natives who camped at the site responded to these changes.

These food leftovers tell a story of resilience in the face of changing climate, sea levels and vegetation.

Changing environment

The 50-meter rock shelter Majedbebe is located at the base of a huge sandstone ledge. The floor here is dark, ashen from hundreds of fires of yesteryear, and littered with stone tools and whetstones.

The back wall is decorated with bright and colorful rock paintings. Some images – riders in wide-brimmed hats, ships, weapons and decorated hands – appeared more recently. Others are probably many thousands of years old.

Today, the site is on the edge of the Jabiluk wetlands. But 65,000 years ago, when sea levels were much lower, it was on the edge of the vast savannah plain that connects Australia and New Guinea in the Sahul supercontinent.

During this time, the world was going through an ice age (called marine isotope stage 4, or MIS 4). And although Kakadu was relatively well watered compared to other parts of Australia, the vegetation of the monsoon vine forests, common in other periods of time, receded.

This ice age will eventually weaken, followed by an interglacial period and then another ice age, the Last Glacial Maximum (MIS 2).

During the Holocene (10,000 years ago), the weather became much warmer and wetter. Monsoon vine forests, open forests, and woodland vegetation flourished, and sea levels rose rapidly.

By 7,000 years ago, Australia and New Guinea were completely cut off from each other, and the sea approached Majedbebe at a distance of only 5 km.

What followed was a rapid transformation of the Kakadu region. At first, the sea receded slightly, the river systems near this place turned into estuaries, and mangroves cut through the lowlands.

By 4,000 years ago they were partly replaced by patches of freshwater wetlands. And 2,000 years ago, the legendary wetlands of Kakadu formed.

Incredible Treasure

Our research team, made up of archaeologists and traditional owners of the Mirarr tribe, wanted to know how people lived in this changing environment.

To do this, we turned to an unlikely archaeological treasure – charcoal. This is not something that comes to the mind of the average tourist, but when a fireplace is lit, many of its components, such as branches and leaves, or food thrown into it, can subsequently turn into charcoal.

Under the right conditions, these charred remains will persist long after the tourists have left. This has happened many times in the past. The Bininj who lived in Majedbeb left behind a variety of food waste, including charred and crushed fruits, nuts, palm stalks, seeds, roots and tubers.

Using high-powered microscopes, we compared the anatomy of these pieces of charcoal with the plant food that is still harvested in the country of Mirar today. In this way, we learned about what foods the people of the past ate, in what places they collected them, and even at what time of the year they visited this place.

Ancient anme

From the earliest days of the camps on Majedbeb, people have been gathering and eating a wide variety of anme (the word kunjeyhmi, meaning “vegetable food”). These included plants such as pandanus nuts and heartwood, which require tools, labor, and detailed traditional knowledge to be harvested and made.

Sharp-edged axes and grinding stones were used as tools. They were all found in the oldest layers of the site, making them the oldest axes and some of the earliest grinding stones in the world.

Our data show that during the two drier glacial phases (MIS 4 and 2), communities in Majedbeb relied more on these more complex products. Because the climate was drier and food probably more scattered and less plentiful, people had to make do with foods that took longer to process.

Highly prized foods such as karrbarda (long yam, Dioscorea transvera) and anganj/ankanj (water lily seeds, Nymphea spp.) were important dietary items at a time when monsoon vine forests and freshwater vegetation came closer to Majedbeba for example, during time of swamp formation in the last 4,000 years and earlier wet phases. But they were also sought in more distant places in drier times.

Change of seasons

The biggest change in the plant-based diet eaten in Majedbeb occurred with the formation of freshwater wetlands. Around 4,000 years ago, the Bininji not only began to include more freshwater plants in their diet, they also began to return to Majedbeb at other times of the year.

Instead of coming to the rock shelter during the fruiting season of local fruit trees such as andujmi (green plum, Buchanania obovata) from Kurrung to Kunumeleng (September to December), they began to come from Bangkerrang to Wurrkeng (March to August) .

This is the time of year when resources found on the edge of the wetlands, now close to Majedbebe, become available as flood waters recede. With the advent of freshwater swamps 4,000 years ago, communities changed their diet to make the best use of the environment.

Today, the wetlands are of significant cultural and economic importance to Mirarr and other bininges. During lunch, a variety of seasonal animal and vegetable products are served on the table, including magpie geese, turtles and water lilies.

Burning question

Probably the first Australians not only reacted to the environment, but also shaped it. Today, in the Kakadu region, one of the main ways in which the Bininj landscape is being altered is through cultural burning.

Fire is a cultural tool with many functions such as hunting, growing vegetation, clearing paths and campsites.

One of its most important functions is the continuous reduction of wet season biomass which, if not burned, fuels the dangerous bush fires at Kurrung (September-October), at the end of the dry season.

Our evidence indicates the use of a range of plant foods at Majedbeb during the Kurrung, during most of the site’s occupation period, from 65,000 to 4,000 years ago.

This indicates continued practice of crop burning, as it suggests that communities managed fire-sensitive plant varieties and reduced the likelihood of high-intensity bush fires by practicing low-intensity crop burning before the hottest time of the year.

Today the mirarr still make their way back to Majedbebe. Their knowledge of the local anma is passed on to new generations who continue to shape this incredible cultural heritage.

Acknowledgment: We would like to thank the Gunjayhmi Aboriginal Corporation, Mirrar and especially our coauthors May Nango and Jaikuk Janjomerr.

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