John Clarke says his ancestors passed on knowledge about volcanic events thousands of years ago. (ABC South West Victoria: Sian Johnson)
As some of Australia’s youngest volcanoes threw plumes of ash into the sky and sent rivers of lava to the sea, the first people to live in south-west Victoria likely watched as the landscape they knew so well dramatically transformed.
- There’s strong evidence Aboriginal people witnessed volcanoes erupting and passed those stories over thousands of years
- Place names and creation stories served as a warning about further volcanic activity
- South-eastern Australia’s Newer Volcanics Province is “due” for another volcanic eruption
Recent studies have relied on physical evidence, including a human-made axe head found under volcanic ash, to show people were in the region before two major eruptions about 37,000 years ago.
But descendants of those first people say a rich cultural knowledge of the region has always been evident in place names, creation stories and other histories been passed down through generations.
Victoria’s four-million-year-old volcanic province
Nobody can pinpoint why a volcanic area with more than 700 eruption points stretches from Melbourne’s west to just over the South Australian border.
When tasked with taking an inventory of the eruption points in the 1980s, La Trobe University geomorphologist Neville Rosengren visited each site in the area known as the Newer Volcanics Province (NVP).
“There isn’t a single model that explains why we’ve got this concentration of numerous volcanic activity in such a small area,” he said.
“It doesn’t fit in with models that we can find in other parts of the world where you’ve got hotspot activity, where there’s an eruption centre and the continent has moved over the top of that as the Earth’s plates move.
“That doesn’t really apply in western Victoria, so there’s some combination of factors that have produced, deep in the Earth’s crust or the upper parts of the mantle, activity which has allowed the rock to become mobile.
“That’s to become hot enough not literally to melt, but to become hotter than the rock around it and therefore rise up through the crust and come out of the surface as an eruption point, which is effectively a volcano.”
The eruption points ranged in age from about 6,000 years to four million years old, Dr Rosengren said.
‘Time is irrelevant’
John Clarke said recent scientific research showing how long his people had lived in the region was important, but was strongly linked to a Western concept of time.
Mr Clarke, who is cultural landscapes general manager with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, said the people who first lived in south-west Victoria were collectively known as Gunditjmara.
Mount Noorat is one of the region’s dormant volcanic eruption points. (ABC South West Victoria: Sian Johnson)
The term Gunditjmara included Maar or Mara people who belonged to five language groups, and each of those groups contained subdialects, he said.
“In a Maar sense, time is irrelevant. We never really put any focus on when an event occurred. What’s important is that it did occur.
“For many, and this is a trend among many Indigenous or oral-based cultures, why stories last as long as they do is the fact that it’s not a past tense that we use to refer to these events.
“They are events that happened that are just part of the story of the landscape.”
Holding on to landscape’s story
Mr Clarke said his ancestors were experts at adapting to the environment, and passing on knowledge about volcanic events was an important part of that.
Red Rock, a volcanic complex near the town of Colac, is made up of cones and craters featuring red volcanic rock.
The local name for the site translated to “bearing his red teeth”, Mr Clarke said.
“It’s almost a warning. It would have been perceived that this activity occurred as a result of something not being right in that landscape.”
The volcanic complex has been dated at about 8,000 years old, making it one of the NVP’s youngest eruption points.
Near Warrnambool, Koroit derived its name from the original name for a nearby volcano now known as Tower Hill.
The name referenced the ash that emanated from the volcano when it erupted at least 30,000 years ago.
Further west, an eruption at Budj Bim (formerly known as Mount Eccles) took place around the same time.
Eel traps set by the Gunditjmara people 6,600 years ago in the basalt plains formed by cooled lava were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List last year.
“Throughout this whole territory there is no doubt that for the volcanic cones and crater lakes, we have all held particular stories around their creation,” Mr Clarke said.
“All of those stories would have been designed to retain the story for that landscape through that cultural lens.”
‘Fire coming out of Mount Shadwell’
References made by 19th-century Europeans who came into contact with Aboriginal people show a strong Indigenous knowledge of the volcanic nature of the landscape.
Evidence compiled by historian Ben Wilkie originated among the Gunditjmara, Kulin and Bunganditj language groups.
Some of his work focuses on Scottish pastoralist James Dawson, who together with his daughter, Isabella, lived in south-west Victoria and recorded many Aboriginal words, phrases and stories.
“We’ve got the story of an Aboriginal man who told Dawson that his grandfather, or probably a much older ancestor, told stories of fire coming out of Mount Shadwell.
“There are also stories around Mount Leura; Dawson showed an Aboriginal man a rock he had found at the foot of the mountain near Camperdown, and he was told that it came out of the mountain with fire.”
Both Mount Leura and Mount Shadwell are believed to have erupted between 5,000 and 20,000 years ago.
“[Dawson] didn’t always understand exactly what he was recording, but when you go through the dictionaries and things he put together, you can join the dots,” Dr Wilkie said.
“The people who lived at Mount Rouse near Penshurst, they were called the Kolorer-Gunditj, which means people belonging to Kolorer, and Mount Rouse was called Kolorer.
“If you look further south and look at the Gunditjmara language, the word for lava is kolorer.”
Mount Rouse is much older than many of the other volcanoes in the province and has a distinctive 60-kilometre lava flow that stretches south to the coast.
“What that means or suggests is that the people living there recognised the features of a volcano.”
Dr Wilkie said a Buganditj creation story relating to Mount Gambier and Mount Schank in South Australia contained “elements of geological realities” relating to volcanic lakes filling with water, sounds that accompany eruptions and a malicious spirit with a name that meant lava.
“It was a story about reducing the risks of living in an area that was still volcanically active.”
He said the fact people were living in Victoria and South Australia at the time volcanoes were erupting was relatively unknown.
“These stories … transform silent geological features of western Victoria into living, breathing cultural things.
“I think it’s really important for people, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, to be able to look around and to know those stories of the landscape.”
Another eruption on the cards
Dr Rosengren said he had no doubt Australia’s first people witnessed volcanic activity both in North Queensland and south-east Australia.
And he said that knowledge passed down through generations was invaluable for scientists trying to piece together the past.
“It is critical, and it means that scientists also have a sense of place and respect for other cultures and the way in which other cultures from ours do things.”
In simple terms, the region was getting closer to another eruption, Dr Rosengren said, considering they occurred there, on average, every 10,000 to 20,000 years.
“If the last one was 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, then sometime in the next several thousand years there will be an eruption.
“The crust below the volcanic area suggests there is every reason why further activity could occur.
“When we come down to saying is that going to be next week, next month or next decade, then the statistics are far less accurate.”
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