Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, Victoria
If Mungo Lady and Mungo Man provided powerful evidence of the longevity of Aboriginal civilisation in Australia, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Victoria is a powerful testament to the diversity of that civilisation. A complex aquaculture network, skilfully designed to catch the kooyang, or short-finned eel, the Cultural Landscape challenges stereotypes that all Aboriginal peoples were nomadic hunter-gatherers.
The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is located within the traditional country of the Gunditjmara Aboriginal people, in south-western Victoria, north of the Great Ocean Road. The site centres around the dormant volcano Budj Bim, formerly known as Mount Eccles.
Budj Bim was formed by volcanic eruptions around 27,000 years ago. The volcano erupted several times, most recently around 7, 000 years ago, during which lava spread over 50 kilometres to the south, forming a network of lakes, ponds, and swamps – including Tae Rak (Lake Condah) and the Condah Swamp – rich in aquatic life.
From this, the Gunditjmara people created a complex set of eel traps, drawing upon their knowledge of the rise and fall of water levels, and of the geologic processes that shaped them. They dug shallow channels – some up to 200 metres long – into the rock, and built weirs and dams out of volcanic rock. By controlling the water, they were able to systematically trap, store and harvest kooyang. The Gunditjmara people also constructed long eel baskets, made of river reeds and steel grass, to regulate and trap the eels according to their size. Eels were kept fat in holding ponds, and smoked in the hollows of large trees.
As UNESCO writes, ‘The highly productive aquaculture system provided a six millennia-long economic and social base for Gunditjmara society.’ A valuable commodity, the eels were traded with other Aboriginal language groups, bringing prosperity to the Gunditjmara peoples. There is evidence of permanent stone dwellings near the traps, indicating that a village was set up nearby – powerfully busting the myth that all Aboriginal people were nomadic hunter-gatherers.
The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is entwined with the cultural traditions of the Gunditjmara people, passed down through the generations by oral history and cultural practice. Budj Bim figures heavily in the Gunditjmara creation story. Thirty thousand years ago, their ancestors watched the eruption of the Budj Bim volcano, where the Ancestral Being, Budj Bim (‘Big Head’) transformed himself into the landscape. The Gunditjmara – like other Aboriginal peoples – have what UNESCO refers to as a ‘deep time’ conception of their society, which refers ‘to the idea that they have always been there’, an important part of indigenous australians history.
The campaign to have the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site began in 2002. Raising knowledge of the importance of the site, the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Corporation succeeded in having Budj Bim listed on the Australian Heritage Register in 2004.
With the support of state and federal governments, Gunditjmara traditional owners prepared a report detailing the archaeological and cultural importance of the site. It was presented to the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June-July 2019. Awarded World Heritage Status, the site joins over twenty other Australian locations on the list.
Since the discovery of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, the date of first arrival of humans on the Australian continent has been pushed back further and further by new scientific discoveries. Immediately after the discovery, consensus was that the first Australians reached the continent around 40,000 years ago. This idea was given support by the fact that a number of further sites found around Australia – including Devil’s Lair, south of Perth, and hearths found within clay terraces on the Upper Swan River – dated at around 37,000 – 40,000 years ago. However, this ‘plateau’ coincided with the limits of radiocarbon dating, suggesting to archaeologists such as Rhys Jones that the initial arrival might be much older.
Excavations led by Jones at the Madjedbebe rockshelter in Kakadu, Northern Territory in 1989, suggested that there was evidence for human occupation in Australia 60-50 thousand years ago. Questioned by many archaeologists at the time, subsequent investigation from 2012 to 2015 by University of Queensland researchers used radiocarbon dating to suggest that the area was settled 65, 000 years ago – suggesting that humans reached Australia long before Homo sapiens arrived in Europe (45, 000 years ago).
As historian Billy Griffiths points out in Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, the arrival of humans to Australia is of international importance for understanding human prehistory. Since the 1980s, archaeologists have believed that our ancestors, modern humans, migrated by foot out of Africa in a single exodus around 70-80,000 years ago, passing through the Middle East and Asia to contemporary Indonesia. But unlike earlier humanoids, which had made the same journey, homo sapiens was able to go further, making the 100 kilometre boat journey to Sahul (the ancient continent linking Australia, Tasmania and Papua New Guinea, before the rising sea levels to their current point).
For psychologist and archaeologist William Noble and Iain Davidson, the move to Australia is the ‘earliest evidence of modern human behaviour’. The construction of boats and navigation of the seas is the earliest moment in prehistory involving a level of language ability, navigational skill, and technological capacity that we can regard as distinctively human. To ask when humans reached Australia is almost to ask when humans became human.
Even more recently, extensive archaeological research in southern Victoria has suggested that people might have lived in Australia for 120, 000 years – twice as long as the broadly accepted timeframe for human habitation. The research was presented to the Royal Society of Victoria by a group of scholars, including Jim Bowler, discoverer of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man.
Using thermal luminescence analysis, they studied blackened stones that indicated human usage of fire. The results – though not entirely conclusive – indicated that they were from a designated ‘place of fire’, with stones collected and ‘heated in a situation reminiscent of a hearth.’
Though the researchers were cautious in their conclusions, the study opens up the possibility of indigenous habitation going back 120, 000 years. Whether this is proved further or not, it is clear that Australia’s first people have a long and ancient tie to their land.
Odyssey Traveller visits a number of these important sites – incuding Lake Mungo and the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape – as part of our new tour of the Southern States of Australia. Focusing on New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, our tour gets away from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide and casts these states in new light, exploring the little-known places where the three states meet.
Our tour of Southern Australia begins in Adelaide. The trip then heads to the historic shipping town of Port Fairy on the Southern Ocean coastline, stopping for a night in Mount Gambier on the way. The following day, we enjoy a day tour of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, learning about Aboriginal culture and aquaculture with a local tour guide, well versed in indigenous australians history.
Following this, we head further into central Australia, visiting the Naracoorte Caves Park, a UNESCO site home to the fossils of ancient megafauna – recognisable wildlife, such as kangaroos, lions and wombats, on a grand scale. Our southern Australia tour then heads further into the Australian outback, visiting the spectacular scenery of the Willandra Lakes, home to Mungo Lady and Mungo Man. From here, our Australia tour heads to the Murray River town of Mildura, where we enjoy a short paddle steamer trip, before we head to the quintessential outback city of Broken Hill. From Broken Hill, our tour heads back to South Australia, visiting the railway centre of Peterborough and the small town of Burra.
Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our other outback Australia tours, which include visits to the important cultural site of Wilpena Pound on our tour of the Flinders Ranges; to ancient rock art in the Kimberley, Western Australia; and to the Brewarrina Fish Traps in outback Queensland.
Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. Our tours aren’t the typical tourism Australia holiday – Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island. Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways. We explore the trading history of the Victorian colony, view Arts and Crafts mansions in the South Australian Adelaide Hills, and learn about the emergence of Australia‘s primary industries of mining and agriculture on our tour of Outback Australia.
We hope that – with the current easing of coronavirus restrictions by both the federal government and Australian state and territory governments – interstate travel within mainland Australia and Tasmania will resume soon, allowing for our tour of Australia‘s southern states to commence in the second half of 2020.
Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.