Radio-carbon dating of cultural material has established that Aborigines were resident as long ago as 5,500 years BP (before present). It is possible that evidence of earlier occupation may still lay entombed in the sands of the Great Sandy Region.
Age determination by radio carbon dating placed the time of formation of the peat beds at from 50,000 to 30,000 years ago. Aborigines could have been present during the later part of peat-bed formation. The beds remain unchanged since Aboriginal occupation of Australia however there have been many changes to the landscapes of the Great Sandy Region during that period, due to fluctuating sea levels and eons of accretion of new sand on the eastern side.
There were four dominant Aboriginal groups in the Great Sandy Region: The Ngulgbara occupied the northern end of Fraser Island as its exclusive territory, the Badjala or (Butchalla) occupied the central part of Fraser Island and the adjacent mainland on the opposite side of Great Sandy Strait, the Dulingbara spread across southern Fraser Island and on to Northern Cooloola, and the Kabi Kabi occupied a territory based on southern Cooloola and the Kin Kin rainforests.
There were great seasonal migrations by the Aborigines. Fraser Island was populated during the winter months when fish, particularly the sea mullet were most plentiful. With the change of seasons, the summer territories on the mainland were re-occupied. According to early European reports an estimated Aboriginal population of 2,000 – 3,000 used Fraser Island during the mullet season. Bark canoes were used to cross Great Sandy Strait. Most canoes were made of a single sheet of bark which was sealed at each end with wax and resin.
As European settlers began to take possession of areas of land adjacent to the Great Sandy Region there was intense conflict over the land. Some bloody battles were fought between local Aboriginal tribes and settlers. Other means of killing Aborigines were employed, including poisoning and invoking traditional tribal hostilities. Thousands of Aborigines and some settlers died throughout Queensland. There were massacres committed on Fraser Island by Native Police under white leadership.
Following European settlement tribal identities were lost as Fraser Island became the focus of Christian missionary evangelism. The first mission was established at North White Cliffs, known to the Aborigines at “Balarrgan” in 1870. Although it was abandoned within two years, its influence irrevocably affected the traditional culture of the Fraser Island tribes.
In 1897, the mission at Balarrgan was briefly revived by the Queensland Government, but within months, as a result of parochial pressures from white Maryborough settlers asserting their land rights, it was transferred to a less desirable site near the mouth of Bogimbah Creek.
The government of the day ignored Aboriginal tribal identities, cultural and social practices, and traditional hostilities. As a result hundreds of Aborigines and more than a dozen different cultures from all parts of Queensland were amalgamated in one settlement. At one stage nineteen different linguistic groups were represented at Bogimbah.
There was an extremely high mortality rate due to poor management, malnutrition, diseases (including influenza and venereal disease) and drugs (including opium and alcohol), introduced by Europeans. There was an extremely high mortality rate. Within seven years, 56 Aborigines were buried in one cemetery, at Bogimbah and 38 were buried in another.
In 1904, the Bogimbah Creek Aboriginal settlement was abandoned and the remaining population was transferred to other “missions”. Some were taken by the Christian missionaries to Yarrabah (near Cairns) from where they were further relocated to the Anglican mission. Near the mouth of the Mitchell River in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Most of the remainder were escorted by mounted police in an overland trek first to Woodford, (near Brisbane) and subsequently to Cherbourg. Only a few remained and they were employed in the timber industry which displaced them.
A number of descendants of the survivors of the Butchalla and the early missions now reside in the Hervey Bay area and other parts of Australia. None reside in the nominated region although as a result of a deed of grant in trust given to the Butchulla people that was used to establish the Kgari Educational and Cultural Centre on a small area of land on Fraser Island.
On 24 October 2014 the Federal Court of Australia determined that the Butchulla people have Native Title rights over more than 95% of K’Gari — essentially the Fraser Island section of the Great Sandy National Park.
The principal archaeological relics of thousands of years of Butchulla occupation are the extensive middens, stone tools and scar trees.
Fraser Island Archaeology
The archaeological potential of Fraser Island is immense. Of special significance, is the historic use of the area by one, and possibly three different, ‘tribes’. As a result the island has potential to contain the remains of at least one and possibly three complete systems of sites dating from the last 100 – 2000 years. Given that the territory of one of the tribes, the Dulingbara, may have also taken in Cooloola, it is clear that the delineation of the Great Sandy Region has both natural and archaeological significance.
More than 200 shell middens have been recorded on the east coast of Fraser Island. They are composed almost exclusively of eugaries (Plebidonax deltoides). There are a number of archaeological sites along the west coast of Fraser Island of which more than 30 have been recorded. Middens along the sheltered shores include mainly oyster shells (Ostreidae sp.) whelks (Pyrazus ebeninus) and a variety of crustacea.
Two clay pipes of a type used for trading by 17th Century Dutch navigators were also found in these middens.
Examination of archaeological sites has so far been restricted. Rewarding results have been achieved in sites located directly adjacent to the eastern shore and some distance inland, mainly in natural exposed parts of the active sandblows. An extensive site was found to stretch from the coast at the mouth of Bogimbah Creek to about 100 metres inland.
Aside from the numerous shell middens, artefacts of stone constitute the only recoverable cultural materials. Seventeen types of stone implements have been recognized. The most common of these in order of frequency are: scrapers, knives, cores, choppers, pebble-scrapers, hammer-stones, points, axes, adzes, mullers, polishing stones, an anvil and a whetstone. Two of these tools, pebble-scrapers and choppers, have not previously been identified elsewhere in Australia.
Other archaeological relics
Of the two sources of rock on Fraser Island only one, Boon Boon Creek, has rock suitable for the manufacture of stone tools. This rock type, chert, also outcrops in the coastal lowlands nearby. Amongst the identified rock types, of which artefacts are made, chert is the most common. Because it was naturally hardened up by silicification, it is ideal material for stone tools. The rock used was of sedimentary origin deposited under shallow water conditions believed to be of the Cretaceous age. As well as occurring at Boon Boon Creek, this rock is exposed on Big Woody Island (in Great Sandy Strait) and other parts of the Maryborough Formation.
On Big Woody Island, 11 oyster shell middens and a large stone-walled tidal fish-trap on the island’s western shore were identified, but no actual quarry sites have been located to date. However, the frequency of the Big Woody Island rock types in artefacts found throughout Fraser Island makes it evident that in the Great Sandy Region the majority of stone material might have come from Big Woody Island or nearby.
It is possible that some of the rocks used for stone tools have come from deposits now below sea level. Aborigines occupied the Great Sandy Region when the sea levels were much lower and the shoreline was several kilometres to the east. Some stone for implements may have come from quarries which are now submerged whilst others may have been introduced from other regions through trading.
Other anthropological relics to be observed in the Great Sandy Region include a number of gunyah trees (trees stripped of a section of bark to provide a roof for a dwelling), canoe trees, and trees which have been robbed of native bees’ honey. A number of camping and ceremonial sites (bora rings) have been identified throughout the region although many of these have been inadvertently disturbed or destroyed since European settlement. A number of other sites have been entombed by advancing sandblows. Many of the current vehicle tracks in the Great Sandy Region follow ancient Aboriginal footpaths. Due to the custom of placing bones of deceased persons in hollows of trees, most of the known burial sites have now been lost through fires and decay, but over 90 Aborigines were buried in two cemeteries at Bogimbah between 1897 and 1905. A number of Aborigines resident in the Hervey Bay area are descended from Fraser Island Aborigines.
Many of the Aboriginal names are still preserved as place names in the region. The Aborigines knew Fraser Island as Kgari. The name Cooloola comes from the Aboriginal name for cypress pine. The name Tin Can Bay comes from the Aboriginal word Tinkum, for mangroves. Breaksea Spit was called Thoorvour. The Queensland Place Names Board, in 1979, restored many of the Aboriginal names to natural features on Fraser Island where they could be identified. Many more Aboriginal place names have been recorded. Many Butchulla place names are being progressively reinstated in Takky Wooroo for Indian Head. This is supported by FIDO.