This year marks the bicentenary of the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains in NSW.
For white Australia it was a great triumph and a significant step forward in the process of colonising the entire continent.
For the Aboriginal people of this area, however, it was a disturbing development that heralded the most significant challenge they had ever faced.
Not far from the busy, truck-laden highway that makes its way over an ascending ridge line, thousands of well-documented Aboriginal sites show a time before “white civilisation” arrived in the Blue Mountains. It was an era that lasted for at least 20,000 years, 100 times longer than the present European phase of occupation that began in 1813.
The echoes of deep time are often lost in the intrusive soundscape of modernity, but for those who want to tune in, the echoes remain.
Carbon dating has established that a rock-shelter on the Kings Tableland near Wentworth Falls was occupied by at least 22,000 BC, during the height of the last Ice Age.
This period was a time of great aridity on the Australian continent. Having arrived in the relatively wetter and greener mountains as environmental refugees of the Pleistocene epoch, the first occupants stayed on, adapting to the environment as it slowly changed over millennia.
The archaeology tells a fascinating story of this process of adaptation. At Horseshoe Falls, Hazelbrook, only a few minutes’ walk from residential streets, excavations have unearthed layers of chert flakes and scrapers from the so-called Capertian Industry, which lasted from 20,000 to 4000 BC.
The Capertian was followed by what archaeologists call the Bondaian Industry. During this time (from 4000 BC up to the invasion), stone tools became considerably more innovative in design, peaking in a creative flourish circa 2000 BC (Stockton).
Aside from its scientific interest, the archaeological sequence of the Blue Mountains highlights the immense time span of Indigenous existence, a scale that makes the 200 years of white presence look like a shallow seedling next to a soaring, deep-rooted eucalypt.
Ancient rock art in the form of engravings and ochre paintings can be found all over the mountains.
A spectacular discovery attracting international attention was made in the remote and rugged Wollemi National Park in 1995. The Eagle’s Reach art complex, consisting of over 1200 images in 22 rock-shelters, is now considered the most important rock art site in south-eastern Australia. And experts consider that there is much more art awaiting discovery in this area.
It is not necessary, however, to trek into forbidding wilderness areas to appreciate Indigenous art in the Blue Mountains. There are many examples in locations only metres from carefully-tended front gardens and fences.
At the foot of the Hawkesbury lookout near Winmalee, there is a beautiful and evocative ancient rock carving known as the “Flight of the Great Grey Kangaroo”. Few know of its existence as they pause at the top of the winding road to admire the panorama.
By 1788, the upper Blue Mountains was established Gundungurra territory. Dharug people occupied the lower mountains. The central mountains area seems to have served as a buffer zone between these groups, a place of cultural interchange and ceremony.
It was into this world with its deep layers of culture, spiritualty and history that a small party of “gentlemen graziers” (Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth and William Lawson) and their servants intruded, interrupting a way of life that had proceeded undisturbed for 20,000 years.
A mythology was later created to glorify the explorers, including physical relics such as the so-called Explorers’ Tree by the side of the Great Western Highway west of Katoomba (almost certainly a forgery created in the 1880s as a tourist attraction).
What is often left out of the story is that the trail supposedly “blazed” by Blaxland and his cohorts was in fact a long-established Indigenous route that had been in constant use for thousands of years.
Since 1788, the viability of the struggling British colony had been in doubt. On a few occasions the whites had come close to starvation. What did the future hold? Expansion or retreat? 1813 settled that issue.
Although few realised it at the time, the crossing of the Blue Mountains in May of that year put a seal on the imperial project in the antipodes. There would be no packing up and going home. The invaders were there to stay.
For the Aboriginal people whose interlocking tribal lands covered the continent in its entirety, 1813 signalled that they too would share the fate of the Eora people of Sydney Cove, the first to bear the brunt of colonisation.
As in other areas of Australia where white settlement was expanded, an Indigenous demographic disaster ensued in the Blue Mountains. Disease and outbursts of frontier violence cut a vicious swath through the nations of Dharug and Gundungurra.
Aboriginal people were forced into a marginalised existence, dependent on the good will of whites for survival.
As explained by one historical authority, R. Ian Jack, “In areas adjacent to the mountains Aboriginal survivors found sporadic work, the men as herdsman or casual labourers, the women as domestics or as the mothers of white men’s children.”
Although the indigenous way of life has been severely compromised by colonisation, it is important to acknowledge that the Dharug and Gundungurra of the Blue Mountains have survived 200 years of white settlement.
In 1995, the Gundungurra Tribal Council (based in Katoomba) registered a Native Title claim over their traditional lands. “Our ancient country,” they explain on the council’s website, “is an identification of our physical and spiritual relationship with our land.”
For Aboriginal people of the Blue Mountains area, the bicentennial evokes painful memories of past injustices. It also represents 200 years of resistance to the remorseless tide of dispossession, and a call to stay strong and united in the struggle that continues today.