What was I ever taught about the first Tasmanians? Bugger all, as it happens. A lot of what I was taught wasn’t true. How is it that so few people find the humans of this landscape’s history as fascinating and important as I do?
Today’s indigenous Tasmanian communities are able to tell of their own histories and traditions. Much, however, has been lost. Of course, any mob in modernity has jettisoned past practices, but for the original Tasmanians, a lot of loss came about because of force. One can only be stunned by how swiftly and savagely any sense of normalcy was destroyed by colonists and visiting seamen in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Nevertheless, the Tasmanians survived.
(I don’t recall exactly what I was taught, but certainly phrases like ‘the last Tasmanian Aborigine’ were familiar to me when I first started my own lines of inquiry into what Aboriginal life here. Even when I went to primary school this was outdated, and yet I’m quite sure it was still taught.)
Scientists scratching through the layers of soil – through the bones and discarded shells of old campsites – are able to tell us more. A midden is a remnant of a significant part of original Tasmanian economy. These are some of the crucial materials of life on this island. The Tasmanians survived several periods of glaciation. They were, for thousands of years, the most southerly people on Earth.
The truth is that, like many around me, I probably didn’t much care about history. Not for a long time. Perhaps I’d never have really bothered, if I didn’t come to be so obsessed with the Tasmanian landscape. Suddenly I wanted to know the human history of the land.
I recognised that I had invested the world around me with meaning, and it became clear that Aboriginal communities would have done the same. Don’t we always blend practical matters with spiritual or social values? It made me think anew of the mystique of rock and fire, to wonder at the hidden meanings of native cherry and abalone and pigface. The curved emblems of Tasmanian rock carvings and body art provoked me to look for patterns in the world around me. Wallaby sinew and bull kelp took on new meanings for me. So too did the loop-di-loop of a grey fantail in flight. The whole bush became alive with inspiration, living presences and processes.
Chancing upon a midden, a scattered bed of the shells of mud oysters and abalone, can be poignant for me. I don’t believe that these people were my ancestors genetically, but they were my predecessors in this place; if ever I am going to have home country, it is here, and I can only have any sense of belonging on this island by trying to comprehend what the first Tasmanians have been like throughout history, and today.
The archaeological sites of the Tarkine area are among the most important in Australia. They tell us about the huts, traps and campsites of those who have lived here for millennia. Much of the Tassie they knew is irretrievable.
Some readers may have overheard the public conversation about the reopening of four-wheel-drive tracks on the Tarkine coast. Many representatives of Tasmanian Aboriginals, as well as ecologists, are deeply concerned what this means. The planned tracks are said to avoid shorebird nesting sites, and middens will be covered with some sort of protective mat. I hope I don’t seem cynical when I say this sounds, to me, like an afterthought.
I should say that not all Aboriginal groups are worried: the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation, whose neighbourhood is the Tarkine coast, is in support of the tracks’ reopening. They suggest that inclusive access to these places will promote their value. The state government reckons that they can manage these places better with the tracks officially opened and licenses given out.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t trust my fellow Tasmanians to look after our landscape and our cultural heritage. So few people seem to care that we live in the midst of a swirl of vibrant ecology; that we are ourselves are creatures bound to our ecosystems; and that the history of this landscape, and its peoples, readily inspires us to wonder.
Not enough Tasmanians love this place in all its complexity. If they did, they would love the old people, the ancestors, the ones who came before us, the first Tasmanians. If so, these middens, which are accessible on all stretches of coastline around the island, could be places of contemplation for us all.
We consider more Aboriginal folklore from western Tasmania in 'the Land of Sweet Forget'.