Beyond the Limits of Location: Human Environmental Disturbance Prior to Official European Contact in Early Colonial Australia

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The expansion of European occupation across Australia was closely circumscribed during the first half century of the colony's existence. Despite this, there is considerable evidence of unsanctioned movements beyond the officially prescribed boundaries. Given their illegal nature, information on such movements is unlikely to be preserved in the documentary record. Other sources of information may, however, yield evidence of these activities. Perhaps the most useful of these is that preserved in sediments laid down at the time of initial colonisation. This study exploits this data source, focussing on the depositional record from the New England Tablelands of northern New South Wales. Well-dated sedimentary sequences yield evidence of enhanced rates of soil erosion and disturbance to lake sediment chemistry perhaps decades before the accepted date of European arrival on the Tablelands in the 1830s. This disturbance is unlikely to have been a consequence of natural processes. It may instead have been the result of Aboriginal activities, although it is more likely to indicate the presence of either Europeans or the shadow of European culture in New England well before the official date of settlement. The sediments may therefore throw light on the timing and processes of European colonisation of the continent, and reveal indications of early contact environmental disturbance, of particular significance given the long-term response of the Australian biophysical environment to human impacts.


The penal colony of New South Wales was established in 1788. For most of the first half century of its existence, the colonial authorities attempted to restrict the movement of the European population to within prescribed limits. Occasional exploring parties were given permission to make sorties beyond these limits, but in the main the governors were reluctant to support these endeavours and tended to discourage this sort of activity. Despite these restrictions, there is evidence for illegal or unsanctioned movements beyond the set boundaries, by escapees, cedar-getters and pastoralists, for example. Those involved would generally have been at pains to keep their peregrinations unknown to the authorities. The documentary record is therefore unlikely to preserve evidence of their movements or their activities. Other sources of information may, however, yield evidence of their presence. One of the most promising of these is the information that may be preserved in sediments laid down at and immediately prior to the time of initial colonisation. It is this that is considered in this paper.

In order to allow environmental reconstruction to be undertaken, such sediments must be deposited relatively rapidly (to provide a high-resolution record), near-continuously (to minimise gaps in the record) and must be laid down in an environment in which the deposits will be preserved. In addition, the sediments must retain within themselves evidence of former environmental conditions and must be datable to allow the record to be placed within a firm chronological framework. Our attention in this study was focussed on a number of sites on the New England Tablelands of northern New South Wales containing sediments known to meet these criteria.

There are several reasons for this choice of study area. First, there are certain similarities between the pattern of occupation, the history of land use and the sequence of changes in population in New England and those experienced elsewhere in early colonial New South Wales (Perry 1963). The conclusions of this research may therefore be extended beyond the confines of the study area and may reflect to a greater or lesser extent the picture in other parts of the colony. Secondly, the availability in New England of documentary evidence of other aspects of early colonial history allows us to explore the potential of sediment analysis as a means of adding to and complementing the information derived from the historical record. …