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Australian Bushfires Reveal Hidden Sections of Ancient Aquaculture System

The eel-farming system of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids

Blazes at Budj Bim National Park in southeastern Australia unearthed a previously unknown channel. (Mertie via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)
smithsonianmag.com

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape presented a special challenge for firefighters battling Australian bushfires in recent weeks. Crews normally use heavy machinery to contain blazes like the one started by a lightning strike near the national park in December. But at the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape—the site of a 6,600-year-old aquaculture system designed for harvesting short-finned eels—firefighters had to fight on foot. Now, with the brush cleared by flames, a new section of the ancient network has emerged.

Though the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape only became a Unesco World Heritage Site last July, it’s actually older than both the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. For millennia, the Gunditjmara people indigenous to the region engineered the volcanic landscape’s lava flows and wetlands to catch short-finned eels for food and trade. Interestingly, reported Tracey Shelton for Al Jazeera last October, some of the fish traps in what is now the Budj Bim National Park remain functional today.

“You don’t really see [this kind of system] anywhere else in Australia until European agriculture,” Ben Marwick, an archaeologist at the University of Washington, tells the Washington Post’s Kim Bellware. “It shows us they had a high level of technical skill, understanding of physics and of the natural environment.”

The park is located in the state of Victoria, where fires inflicted less damage than seen in other parts of Australia. According to ABC News’ Sian Johnson, the blaze was a relatively cool burn, clearing away the undergrowth but leaving the trees, which had the most potential to damage the landscape, intact.

After the blaze, Denis Rose, a Gunditjmara elder and project manager of the Budj Bim Sustainable Development Partnership, visited the site to assess the damage.

“The fire actually uncovered another smaller system, including a channel about 25 meters [or 82 feet] in length that we hadn't noticed before,” Rose told ABC News. “It was hidden in the long grass and the bracken fern and other vegetation.”

The Budj Bim aquaculture system is made up of three sections that use complex channels, weirs and dams to trap and store the short-finned eels in what was previously a patchwork of wetlands. According to Unesco, the network is one of the oldest and most extensive aquaculture systems on Earth. Built in the lava flows of the now dormant volcano Budj Bim, it required ongoing maintenance and modification.

Put another way, says Marwick, the system is “one of the jewels of the crown of Australian archaeology.”

Knowledge of the system is preserved by Gunditjmara cultural traditions, scientific documents and historical records that dispel the myth that all indigenous Australians were nomadic.

“The Budj Bim cultural landscape provides an outstanding example on a world stage of the scale, complexity and antiquity of a well-preserved Aboriginal fishery that continues into the present,” wrote Ian J. McNiven, an indigenous archaeologist at Monash University, for the Conversation in 2017. “The Budj Bim cultural landscape […] is an exceptional example of Aboriginal environmental manipulation and management that blurs the distinction between foragers and farmers.”

Moving forward, says Rose, the Gunditjmara who manage the park plan to partner with archaeologists to survey the landscape. Closer study may reveal more channels, as well as provide insights into the lives of the ancient Gunditjmara and the changing environment they inhabited.

“Over the next few weeks, we are hoping to conduct a comprehensive cultural heritage survey to check areas that were not previously recorded,” Rose tells CNN’s Eric Cheung. “It’s important because it provided a rich, sustainable life for the traditional people, and has continued to be an important part of our cultural life.”

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