Australia’s earliest inhabitants, our original Aboriginal population, arrived in this country over 50,000 years ago, migrating across the land bridge that then joined Australia to Asia.
When our continent broke free, it isolated the Aborigines from what was happening on the other side of the world, such as the Bronze Age some 6000 years ago and the Iron Age 4000 years ago.
The Aborigines found they were in a land eroded over time that exposed rocks of all types. They came with no knowledge of metals and indeed had no need of them, as they were expert workers of stone. It is fascinating to contemplate that at a time while the rest of the world made use of metals for domestic purposes and war, the indigenous people thrived as Stone Age men until just over 200 years ago.
Just contemplate life today without metals, eg no steel and copper. Yet the Aborigines thrived in their Stone Age environment, using rocks as the basic material for their knives, axes, spear points and scrapers. Clearly though, they had to have access to the right type of stone for each application. For instance, you cannot make an axe or delicate spear points from a piece of sandstone, whereas that sedimentary stone made an ideal base for a two-piece grindstone to reduce seeds to flour for food.
The original natives overcame the problem by becoming not only quarrymen but the first traders in stone, whereby glassy rocks such as petrified wood and obsidian were bartered for coloured ochre or slim straight hardwood shafts for spears or hand-sized, river-worn stones to make their ground edge axes.
Normally indigenous tribes were fiercely territorial and woe-betide any strangers who crossed their boundaries, particularly as they would often be young bucks seeking to kidnap a sometimes willing wife. But if those intruders were carrying rocks, spear shafts or ochres, these items gave them safe passage through hostile tribal territories.
However, the trick was to ensure your presence and intent was clear before you received a very pointed reception. It is said that some of these trading trails across the inland were the basis for many of our own early roads.
The Aborigines had no need to establish rock quarries as we know them, but ochres, much sought after for the body painting essential for corroborees, were a different matter. Ironstone for red and yellow and copper deposits for green and blue were usually found only in narrow veins and so small scale quarries were established and were fiercely defended as a tribal asset – or bank account.
It is no irony that our Indigenous people did not realise that the minerals they used to decorate their bodies held the key to life as we know it today. However, there is no dispute that they were the first quarrymen and stone traders in in our country.
By Doug Prosser