Mithaka: Heart of Australia’s 2,100-year-old Aboriginal Silk Road
More than 2,100 years ago, Australia’s Aboriginal Mithaka people were likely domesticating plants and quarrying stones on an industrial scale to make seed-grinding implements. The Mithaka stone implements were traded along a transcontinental trade network that researchers have described as Australia’s “Silk Road,” reports ABC. These and many other astonishing findings of a five-year-old collaborative cultural mapping project initiated by the Indigenous people are being presented in a touring exhibition in Australia, entitled Kirrenderri: Heart of the Channel Country .
In 2017, George Gorringe, an Aboriginal elder, led a small research team on an expedition to the traditional land of the Mithaka people in southwest Queensland’s Channel Country. They visited several sites including sandstone quarries, mysterious stone arrangements, and the remains of the original gunyah homes of the Mithaka that consisted of excavated structures covered with branches. According to the Guardian, Dr Michael Westaway of the University of Queensland said, “George Gorringe showed me some really monumental sites. The scale of them is just mind-blowing.”
A collaboration resulted and a team consisting of Aboriginal landowners and scholars worked on verifying ethnohistorical accounts that recorded the practice of aquaculture, food storage, and large-scale stone quarrying among the Mithaka. The findings were reported on in a 2021 study published in the journal Antiquity. The researchers identified 179 quarry sites, some of which were over 2,000 years old, over a 33,800 square kilometer (21,002 square mile) area.
The Mithaka pituri (a narcotic stimulant) trade-and-exchange network reconstructed primarily from ethnohistoric data. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Mithaka Agricultural Practices From Long Ago . . .
Currently, Dr Westaway and his team are working on a project investigating Mithaka plant domestication and the identification of possible village sites. The project will attempt to better “define traditional Aboriginal food production and settlement systems.”
At the heart of all this is the debate about whether the Australia’s Aboriginal peoples were hunter-gatherers or agriculturists, which is part of a larger debate as to whether agricultural societies are more advanced than hunter-gatherer societies.
Historical records suggest that the Mithaka practiced plant cultivation based on flood-dependent irrigation. To learn more, the team will analyze pollen samples for genetic evidence of plant domestication or translocation. “If people are manipulating plants and the environments they live in, it is likely that they’ll have some kind of impact on the evolutionary trajectory of those plants,” the Guardian quotes Westaway as saying.
However, Westaway believes that categorizing Aboriginal food production systems as either one or the other, doesn’t take into account the entire spectrum of practices. “We need to move away, I think, from these terms – hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist – because it doesn’t capture that complexity.”
A wurley or gunyah in Central Australia in the 1930s. These structures are considered to be the oldest in Australia! (Aussie~mobs / Public domain )
Mithaka’s Giant Stone Quarries and Vast Trade Network
The researchers believe the sandstone quarry sites on the Mithaka land are the largest in the southern hemisphere. Mithaka land was once at the heart of a transcontinental trading network that stretched from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. “It connected large numbers of Aboriginal groups throughout that arid interior area on the eastern margins of the Simpson Desert. You get people interacting all across the continent, exchanging ideas, trading objects and items and ceremonies and songs,” said Westaway, according to the Guardian.
The objects traded along this exchange network included grindstones, ochre, silcrete tools, seeds, ochre, stone axes , wooden articles, and the Aboriginal narcotic pituri (a mixture of leaves and wood ash that was chewed as a stimulant).
One of the sites comprises 25,000 individual quarry pits, according to Shawnee Gorringe, a Mithaka tribe traditional owner who is a student researcher on the collaborative project. According to her, the archaeological findings are “scientific validation of something that you already knew was pretty special, ” she said to the Guardian.
Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation director Tracey Hough is quoted by the ABC as saying that the sites were evidence that “we actually had a lot of economy. We weren't just nomadic beings wandering around the landscape lost.”
The Kirrenderri: Heart of the Channel Country exhibition, of which she and Shawnee Gorringe are co-curators, brings together research with diaries and photographs from the early 1900s kept by Alice Duncan-Kemp, a pastoralist who lived at Mooraberrie Station and had close relations with the Aboriginal people in the region. Gunyah dwellings, like the one pictured above, have been found on the station and throughout the Channel Country and are the oldest structures in Australia.
It is to be hoped that the traditional landowners are successful in gaining a national heritage listing for their land and that it eventually leads to World Heritage status. This will help to protect this fascinating region, currently threatened by the gas exploration leases granted by the Queensland government, for future generations.
Top image: In the heart of Mithaka Country, in Queensland's Channel Country, traditional owners and archaeologists have unearthed what researchers have dubbed "Australia's Silk Road," dating back at least 2,100 years. The area's industrial-sized sandstone quarry sites are, to the best of the researchers' knowledge, the largest in the southern hemisphere, putting the trade systems of Australia's Aboriginals on a world scale. Source: Lyndon Mechielsen / Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation
By Sahir Pandey
Lu, D. 2022. Quarries, trade and Dark Emu: unearthing treasures from ‘Australia’s Silk Road’ . Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/mar/15/quarries-trade-and-dark-emu-unearthing-treasures-from-australias-silk-road
The University of Queensland Anthropology Museum. Kirrenderri, Heart of the Channel Country . Available at: https://anthropologymuseum.uq.edu.au/exhibitions/kirrenderri-heart-channel-country
Westaway, M.C. et al. 2021. Hidden in plain sight: the archaeological landscape of Mithaka Country, south-west Queensland . Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/hidden-in-plain-sight-the-archaeological-landscape-of-mithaka-country-southwest-queensland/9661E7F90EB7ED535012484DC35FB01A
Willis, C. 2022. 'Australia's silk road': Quarry sites dating back 2,100 years reveal world-scale trading system on Mithaka country . Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-04/-mithaka-cultural-landscape-silk-road/100959802
The idea of hunter-gatherers being substandard humans is effectively racist. Surviving over 50,000 years in a rather harsh environment is hardly something to sneer at, whichever approach they took to doing so.