The size of the Aboriginal population in the New England region during the pre-contact period is unknown, though it has been estimated at between 1,150 and 1,350. However, estimates of the Aboriginal population of Australia prior to the occupation of 1788 have been grossly understated due to the fact that Europeans could observe very little of Aboriginal populations beyond the immediate influence of Sydney before 1829.
Until 1930 it was thought that in 1788 there were approximately 150,000 Aboriginal people Australia wide and that almost half that number still survived as their tribal descendants. These estimates have been radically adjusted upwards, as later demographic studies suggest that the original population, and degree of depopulation was larger than has been acknowledged.
Attempts to estimate the original Aboriginal population have disregarded the impact of smallpox and venereal diseases, which either killed or effectively sterilised Aboriginal people, particularly in the period from 1788-1835.
Further, figures based on early European observation in the 1830s and 1840s are unreliable, since what they saw was a severely reduced population, with at least fifty per cent and up to ninety to ninety-five per cent of the people being wiped out by disease, as was the case in other colonies around the world. Not only that, Aboriginal people avoided the strangers and often did not make their presence and numbers known to them for strategic reasons.
Archaeological reports and models for New England have argued that elevated granite areas were used or occupied in a manner which differs from that taking place in surrounding river valleys. Some argue that these areas were abandoned in winter due to cold temperatures; were places where ceremonial activities rather than domestic occupation occurred or were generally little occupied because there were few resources in comparison with areas with a sedimentary geology.
There is evidence that rock shelters and overhangs were occupied in the New England region in the colder months.
Many plant resources present in the Uralla Shire are known to have been used by Aboriginal people prior to and after European occupation. Of the flowering and fruiting plants available as food a large number of them produce in spring and summer. These include the geebung, wild parsnip, Apple Berry, spreading brachyloma and Honey Pots. A number of which are encouraged to grow and flower by fire, including the Xanthorrhoea species, and the Imperata cylindrica. A number of plants were available as food all year although spring and summer may have been the most productive seasons, including saw-sedge, bearded heath, Australian Bluebell, ferns and the Styphelia triflora. Daisy yams, Microseris scapigera were consumed after roasting. The variety of food resources available in river valleys contrasted with those in more rugged terrain, the Gwydir and Rocky Rivers, for example, allowed access to fish, shellfish, an array of waterbirds and their eggs and a number of plant foods which occur in these riverine environments.
Possum, kangaroo and wallaby were obtainable close to or adjacent to the rivers and associated tributaries, particularly on floodplains, around areas of swamp and heath and on the less rugged wider creek catchments, such as the Salisbury Plains and at Balala and on sections of the plateau where wallaby and kangaroo populations tend to concentrate in greater numbers.
The ability to stalk and pursue prey is constrained in rugged terrain and thick bush, but this does not mean that rugged sections of terrain, such as narrow creek valleys, were not utilised as part of hunting strategies. For example, hunters could channel animals into narrow spaces where they could be easily trapped or netted.
Tools used by Aboriginal people of the Northern Tablelands region included: spears, clubs, waddies, boomerangs, shields, paddy-melon sticks and fire sticks made of wood; stone items included knives, ground-edge axes and hafted stone chisels. Spears were both hand-thrown and thrown with woomeras. Stone axes were sharpened ‘by pulling the axe head through cracks in suitable stones such as granite or sandstone’. At Salisbury Court a stone axe quarry is a highly significant reminder of the Anaiwan’s manufacturing activities, providing evidence of the technologies they employed.
In traditional Aboriginal society, the boundaries of hunting grounds, as for tribal districts, fishing waters or burial places were marked by drawings on rocks or stones. A cutting or print of a kangaroo, emu or possum upon a rock indicating a specific known hunting ground for that animal.
The Anaiwan people trapped macropods with nets strung between the trees, used the swamps to catch crayfish and dig for yams, roots and hunt water birds. Grasslands were maintained by burning to attract large game into the area for hunting. Racecourse Lagoon at Uralla is one. The Anaiwan people are believed to have had a common ancestry with the coastal Daingatti, but at some unknown point broke with them and ‘all neighbouring groups’ so completely that their languages diverged. Later, it has been postulated that they formed ties with the Gumilaroi, to the west.
The developed commonalities in social organisation, engaged in trade and acquired similar artistic traditions in the process. Kinship affiliations and strategic alliances developed with the Gumilaroi are thought to have developed. Art sites with the emu footprint motif, believed to indicate the direction that the Dreaming ancestors took across the land, can be found between Bendemeer and Mt Yarrowyck.
Surviving relics associated with Anaiwan campsites include seed grinding and axes sharpening grooves in rock slabs and scatters of stone artefacts.
Stones were sometimes used to cover graves and traces of ochre may be found on the stones, which served as grave markers. Grave goods included axes, knives, seed grinders and other specialised tools. Close to water and ochre sources stone arrangements have also been found. These range from simple cairns to complex groupings of stone circles, single lines, corridors or other designs.
In the general area of Bundarra, the Anaiwan are known to have held meetings at a location called King’s Gap and in local tradition Mt. Yarrowyck was a corroboree place. European accounts suggest that women and children spent much of their time around Bassandean, where births took place.
Passages of this text has been taken from the Uralla Community Based Heritage Study Stage 1 – Historic Context Report prepared by Dr Sue Rosen, 2009