Home Science & Technology 65,000 years of food waste show how one crop flourished during environmental...

65,000 years of food waste show how one crop flourished during environmental change


For 65,000 years, Bininj – the local word for Kundjeihmi for the aborigines – returned to the Majedbebe Rock Shelter in the Myrrh Region in the Kakadu region (Northern Territory).

During this huge period of time the environment around the stone shelter has changed dramatically.

Our paper, published last week y Quaternary scientific reviewsuses ancient scraps of plant food once scorched in the site’s fireplaces to investigate how Aboriginal communities camped at this location have responded to these changes.

This culinary garbage is about resilience in the face of climate change, sea levels and vegetation.

Changing environment

The 50-meter-long Majedbebe rock shelter lies at the base of a huge sandstone. The site has a dark ash floor from hundreds of past bonfires and is dotted with stone tools and millstones.

The back wall is decorated with bright and colorful rock art. Some images – such as horsemen in wide-brimmed hats, ships, guns and decorated hands – have appeared only recently. Others are probably many thousands of years old.

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

At this time, the world was experiencing an ice age (called stage 4 marine isotopes, or MIS 4). And while cockatoo would be relatively well watered compared to other parts of Australiathe vegetation of the monsoon vine, common at other times, would have receded.

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

Cut to the Holocene (10,000 years ago) and the weather became much warmer and wetter. Monsoon vineyards, open forests and forest vegetation multiplied, and sea levels rose rapidly.

7,000 years ago Australia and New Guinea were completely separated from each other, and the sea approached Majedbebe to a high place just 5 km away.

This was followed by a rapid transformation of the Kakadu region. First, the sea receded slightly, river systems near the site became estuaries, and mangroves overgrown the lowlands.

4000 years ago they were partially replaced by freshwater wetlands. And 2000 years ago the iconic today cockatoos of the cockatoo were formed.

Hardly a treasure

Our research team, consisting of archaeologists and the traditional owners of Myrrh, wanted to know how people lived in this changing environment.

To do this, we were looking for an incredible archaeological treasure: coal. This is not something that comes to the mind of the average tourist, but if the fireplace is lit, many of its components – such as twigs and leaves or food thrown into it – can later turn into charcoal.

Under the right conditions, these charred remains will remain for a long time after the vacationers move on. This has happened many times in the past. Binj, who lives in Majedbeb, left behind a number of food scraps, including charred and fragmented fruits, nuts, palm stalks, seeds, roots and tubers.

Using powerful microscopes, we compared the anatomy of these pieces of charcoal with the plant food still collected in Mirarr Country. In doing so, we learned about the foods that past people ate, the places from which they collected them, and even the seasons in which they visited the site.

Ancient anme

From the very first days of the march in Majdbeb, people gathered and ate a wide range of anme (the word Kunjeihmi, meaning “plant food”). This included plants such as pandanus nuts and palm hearts that required tools, work and detailed traditional knowledge to collect and make edible.

Tools included ground axes and grindstones. They have all been found in the oldest layers on site, making them the oldest axes and some of the earliest grindstones in the world.

Our data show that during the two drier glacial phases (MIS 4 and 2) the Majeedbebe community relied more on these products, which are harder to process. As the climate was drier and food was probably more scattered and less abundant, people had to deal with foods that took longer to process.

Highly valued anmes such as karrbarda (long yams, Diascorea transverse) and annganj / ankanj (water lily seeds, Nymph spp.) were significant elements of the diet at a time when monsoon vine forests and freshwater vegetation were approaching Majedbebe – for example, during the formation of wetlands over the past 4,000 years and earlier wetlands. But in drier times they were sought from more remote places.

Changing seasons

The biggest shift in the plant-based diet eaten in Majedbeb occurred with the formation of freshwater wetlands. About 4,000 years ago Bing not only began to include more freshwater plants in his diet, they also began to return to Majedebebe another season.

Instead of coming to the stone shelter when the local fruit trees such as andudjmi (green plum, Buhanania abovata) bore fruit, from Kurrung to Kunumeleng (September to December), they began to visit from Bangkerrang to Wurrkeng (March to August).

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

Today, wetlands are of cultural and economic importance to Myrar and other Bing. The dinner features a range of seasonal animals and plants, including magpie geese, turtles and water lilies.

An acute question

Probably the first Australians not only reacted to their environment but also shaped it. Today in the cockatoo region, one of the main ways in which Binin changes its landscape is cultural burning.

Fire is a cultural tool with many functions – such as hunting, generating vegetation growth, and cleaning trails and campsites.

One of its most important functions is the constant reduction of wet season biomass, which, if left unchecked, becomes fuel for dangerous forest fires in Kurrunga (September to October) at the end of the dry season.

Our data demonstrate the use of a number of plant foods in Majdbeb during Kurrung during most of the site’s occupation, from 65,000 to 4,000 years ago.

This is a testament to the continued practice of cultural burning, as it suggests that communities manage fire-sensitive plant varieties and reduce the likelihood of high-intensity forest fires by practicing low-intensity culture burns before the hottest time of the year.

Today, the Mirrors are still returning to Majedbebe. Their knowledge of the local anma is passed on to new generations who continue to shape this incredible cultural heritage.

Acknowledgments: We would like to thank the Aboriginal corporations Gundjeihmi, Mirrar, and especially our co-authors Mae Nang and Jaikuku Janjomer.

Anna Florinresearcher, Cambridge University; Andrew Fairburnprofessor of archeology, University of Queenslandand Chris Clarksonprofessor of archeology, University of Queensland.

This article is republished from Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read original article.

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