Archaeological Sites on Traditional Lands
For thousands of years, the indigenous Noongar people of the Wagly Kaip region have shared and cared for country. This region includes the landscapes of the Stirling ranges, Mt Madden, and deep bays, forests and extensive plains filled with a wide range of natural resources. Rivers and waterways include the Kalgan, King, Stokes, Fitzgerald, Wellstead, Gordon, Pallinup, and Cullum Inlet.
The earliest record of Aboriginals in this region, and the wider south coast of Western Australia, comes form the lower reaches of the Kalgan River. Artefacts unearthed at the Upper Kalgan in the late 1970s by the archaeologist Dr William Ferguson reveal the history of Aboriginal inhabitancy dates back at least 19,000 years. The excavations, which covered only a few square metres, discovered nearly 7,000 rock chips and flake artefacts, showing clearly the site was used for gatherings across generations.
Even older prominent archaeological sites have been found in Western Australia. Devil’s Lair at Margaret River, for example, is recorded as being 33,000 years old. A site at Exmouth has been dated at 34,000 years. And the Upper Swan boasts a site that is double the age of the Kalgan site.
Within the Wagly Kaip region, the people used the coastline, as well as the rivers, swamps, and vegetation beyond it. Tangible reminders of their inhabitancy remain today in the extensive complexes of stone structures or alignments at various locations thought to have been used by hunter-gatherer groups as fish traps. Key sites are located on the foreshores of Wilson Inlet and Broke Inlet, two 50km² basin like estuaries on the southern coast of Western Australia, and most prominently further east at Oyster Harbour between the Kalgan and King Rivers in Albany.
The Albany Fist Traps date back an estimated 6,500-7,500 years and is just one of several places where the local Menang group of the Noongar people utilised the marine and estuarine resources of the Albany area. Built of rock and wood on the northern shoreline of Oyster Harbour, the traps tell of clever, opportunistic hunters. Constructed on tidal flats, the semi-circular structures would confine fish caught as the tide moved out. The Aboriginals would then heard the fish into brushwood pens, where they trapped to be speared at leisure.
This area would have been used extensively as a hunting ground. The fish traps were used for around six months of the year during the warmer months, before migrating inland on the onset of winter to areas around the Stirling Ranges where the was more shelter and warmth. The area was also a corroboree ground, where marriages were arranged and everything came together.
Early European Observations of the Fish Traps
The earliest European descriptions of the stone structures in Albany refer to them as tidal weirs, though apparently the observers did not see them in use. The first recording was in 1791 by George Vancouver, writing of finding “fish weirs” in a river near the harbour. He describes them as being “constructed with lose stones, others with sticks and stumps of wood”. He observed them at low tide but supposed “when the rain or other causes should extend the rivulet beyond its present bounds… these humble contrivances might arrest some small fish”. However, he was evidently unimpressed, considering them “the sorry contrivance of the wretched inhabitants of the country”.
From his report, it is clear that barriers of brushwood or timber once surmounted the emplaced stones to create higher walls. None of the structures could have retained fish with only the walls than they have at present. This is further evident from the details of the weirs included in the account of the naval surgeon and botanist Archibald Menzies, who accompanied Vancouver:
“They consist of a row of small boughs of trees struck close together in the sand about two or three foot and kept close at the top by cross sticks along both sides fastened together with small withies and along their bottom some stones to prevent the fish escaping.”
Nicolas Baudin next described the fish traps during his expedition of 1803. Unlike Vancouver, Baudin appeared impressed by both the construction and the Noongar’s ingenuity: “ proof”, he wrote, that the “natives were not without intelligence”.
Fifteen years later, J.S. Roe, a lieutenant aboard P.P. King’s Mermaid at anchor in King George Sound, reported eleven weirs on the flats and shoals between the two rivers while exploring the foreshore of Oyster Harbour. One trap was more than 100 yards in length and projected 40 yards in a crescent shape out to sea.
In his notes, King is explicit about the use of these weirs through tidal action. He writes of “stones placed so close to each other as to prevent the escape, as the tide ebbed, of such fish as had passed over at high water”. He goes on to describe Tulicatwalè, a Noongar man, who “was to watch the weir all night to prevent the fish from escaping when the tide ran out and at a certain period to stop up the entrance with bushes”.
From here, Interest in the fish traps seemed to have waned, both from the Europeans and the Noongar. There are no reports of the traps used after the British annexation of the territory in 1827.
The Fish Traps Today
Although no longer in use, some of the fish traps at Oyster Harbour reported by the Early European explorations are still intact and can be seen at low tide. They consist of eight separate semi-circles of low, loose stone walls lying along the shore. Thousands of closely placed, mainly cobble-sized stones (generally about 15 cm in the smallest dimension) make up these walls.
The two well defined medium-sized stone semi-circles are approximate 47 m long and 27 m wide, and 62 m by 29 m respectively. In some places the walls have collapsed and the stones are spread out on the sand. The walls of the most complete trap reach about 40cm in some parts. All the stones in the traps are of a dark, almost black, lateritic material found naturally in fair abundance on the surrounding shore.
Preservation of the Fish Traps
The site was included in the National Trust of Australia in 1966 and was one of the first sites to be declared a protected area under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 when it was gazetted in 1973.
At the request of local traditional owners, archaeologists carried out a series of minor excavations at the site between 2000 and 2006 to determine how the structures had been constructed and their age. Collections on the rocks such as barnacles allowed them to approximately date them to after the mid-Holocene sea level rise, as is the case with other stone weir or trap complexes on the Southern Ocean coast.
Following concerns that the traps were becoming irreversibly damaged from recreational boating and fishing in the area, the site was returned to the Menang people in 2009 to preserve and protect its heritage. A $170,00 project was then initiated in 2011 to pass on knowledge about the sacred spot following the discovery that hundreds of stones had been removed. This project, completed in 2015, saw the construction of a cultural shelter, boardwalk and interpretation sign, all highlighting the historical Aboriginal connection to the area.
In the future the traps will be one of several Aboriginal sites that will be linked to form the Kinjarling Cultural Pathway. In the meantime, some local Aboriginal groups are keen to restore one of the eight weirs to working order to use it to demonstrate traditional practice.
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