Busting myths in Undara

Surveying the lava. Image supplied by Alice Buhrich.

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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

12 January 2023

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The ‘long way’ volcanic caves of Undara

Until recently, it seemed to be common knowledge that Aboriginal people did not live in the lava tubes (volcanic caves) that were created by the Undara volcano 190,000 years ago. JCU Adjunct Research Fellow Dr Alice Buhrich and Brian Bing, an Ewamian Elder, tell us what they found at Undara and at nearby Talaroo Hot Springs.

‘Undara’ means ‘long way’. Not only are the remnants of the Undara volcano a long way from Cairns (about 275 kilometres), the lava also flowed a long way – almost 160 kilometres – over a dry riverbed from the volcano  to the site of the current Undara Volcanic National Park. The lava flowed fast and left many kilometres of volcanic caves in its wake: the Undara lava tubes.

After doing her PhD in archaeology at JCU about Aboriginal carvings in the bark of living rainforest trees, Alice was invited to become involved in a research project focusing on the lava tubes. “National Parks (now called the Department of Environment and Service) were updating their management plan. The natural values for species and the importance of the Undara caves is fairly well understood,” Alice says. “But little was known on the cultural values of this place. The Ewamian Limited, which represents the Traditional Owners of this region, also didn't have much to share.”

Hiding cultural values until the time is right

This was when Jimmy Richards (JR), a Senior Ewamian (pronounced ‘Oo-wamin’) Traditional Owner, stockman and ranger, decided to share the findings he made in the region in the 1990s. “JR had been a stockman at Spring Creek and Rosella Plains, then a senior Savannah Guide at Undara in the 1990s. When JR was a guide, there was the story that Aboriginal people didn't go into the tubes,” Alice says.

“But JR could see old fireplaces and charcoal and sharpened bone points in the caves. He hid them from the guides and from the tourists to keep them safe.” JR kept the knowledge about these places to himself. But the times have changed since the 1990s, Alice says. “Jimmy Richards felt that it was the right time to share his knowledge.”

Dr Alice Buhrich and Brian Bing

Western archaeology and Ewamian local knowledge

When the Undara research project started in 2019, Alice and Brian Bing, one of the Ewamian consultants on the team, had known each other for more than ten years. “I worked for TAFE at the time, and that's where I met Brian. Brian took me and the students to Undara for a cultural mapping class. We went into the lava tubes as well, after a traditional smoking ceremony,” she says.

Brian worked as a stockman on Spring Creek in the 1960s for about ten years, starting when he was only twelve years old. Brian says that he and his dad would take their horses to a secret spring under the basalt rock at Barker’s Tube. They would collect the water from the spring and boil it for tea over a campfire.

“Brian often talks about these really important places, and none of them have been formally recorded by Western archaeologists,” Alice says. “To be able to follow up on these places that Brian knows is really important.”

Surprising finds at Darcy Cave

“One of the caves we looked at was Darcy Cave. We saw that there were not just obviously man-made stone arrangements, but there were artefacts inside the stone arrangements. There was charcoal all through the caves,” Alice says.

“There were animal bones it looked like people have been eating animals. When we did a surface survey we found grindstones, flakes from hand axes and we found ochre,” Alice says. “So, we know people had been painting inside the tube. That was when we realised that these were important cultural sites.”

“Out of fifteen tubes that we looked at, only three of them had no evidence  of people.  Only three. Well, we have busted that story that  Aboriginal people didn’t use the Undara lava tubes.”

Dr Alice Buhrich, Archaeologist, JCU Adjunct Research Fellow

Pegging out the excavation test pit. Image supplied by Alice Buhrich.

Rangers and archaeologists working together

Alice is experienced in conducting community archaeology in post-native title Australia, and she knows that this has advantages for all involved. “One thing that was really interesting to me was how we interpreted what we found in Darcy Cave differently,” Alice says. “The archaeologists saw the stone artefacts and the charcoal and the broken animal bones and said, ‘well, people have been living in here, doing living activities’.”

The Ewamian Traditional Owners added additional layers of meaning. “The Ewamian rangers saw the crystal quartz and the stone arrangements and the ochre and said, ‘well, maybe there's more than just living here, and people were doing some sort of ceremonial activities’,” Alice says.

“They always looked for exits in the caves as well. If people were living in these lava tubes, and if you're going to be attacked, you don't want to be stuck where there's no exit,” Alice says. “So, the rangers were always looking if they would be able to get out the other end in times of war.”

Caves with big potential

So far, the team has done mostly surface works and very limited excavation works in the lava tubes. “We did one small excavation on one weekend,” Alice says. “We excavated only 20 centimetres, and charcoal we found from the bottom was dated to around 1,000 years ago.”

Alice expects that the soil in the lava tubes is hiding more interesting discoveries. “The lava tubes have been there for 190,000 years. The soil has been transported into the lava tube slowly, building over time,” Alice says.

“It is a time capsule of the past and may be probably, probably, showing when people first arrived in that savanna landscape, and what happened during environmental changes in the past. The potential of these lava tubes is just massive.”

Undara landscape.
Sharpened bone points hidden by Jimmy Richards.

Ewamian-led research

Currently, however, the Undara research is on hold, as Ewamian Limited develops the Ewamian-owned Talaroo Hot Springs, a cattle station and an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) about 120 kilometres east of Undara. “It's really a grassroots cultural tourism development,” Alice says.

Brian Bing, who is a director on the board of Talaroo Hot Springs, and Alice are both investigating the cultural values of this place. “So far, we've only done test pitting (minor excavations) where the tourism infrastructure was going,” Alice says, adding that there is still much to do.

“The hot springs are special because they are the only hot mound springs in Australia that are not part of the Great Artesian Basin,” Alice says, adding that mound springs contain water that has been underground for 20,000 years. “You've got endemic animals that only live in these hot springs. But it's also a story place, a special place for Ewamian women.”

Research based on the needs of the community

As in Undara, the research around Talaroo has only just started. “We are really excited to explore the archaeology of the hot springs as well as well as the lava tubes, but we are conscious of the need to do it properly,” Alice says.

“The direction that our research will take depends on the community's responses to what we will find, and the questions that communities want to ask. But it’s also dependent on funding, of course, which is always scarce.”

“More research should be done around the Talaroo Hot Springs area. You have a big river down there and there’s got to be some sort of connection there,” Brian says. “And there is also an old trail there that Cobb & Co, the coach company, used for their Port Douglas to Georgetown route. We should do some research on that.”

No matter where the research in Undara and Talaroo will be going in the future, it will again be a collaboration between Ewamian Traditional Owners and Western-educated archaeologists.

Alice and Brian would like to thank the following research contributors:

Ewamian Ltd.: Sharon Prior, Jimmy Richards, David Hudson, Lyn Prior, Katie O'Rourke, and Ewamian Ltd. Board members. Ewamian Rangers: Tristin Lacey, Megan Mosquito, Jordan Kapteyn, Wallace Jensen, Michell Kapteyn, Steve Wargent, Konichi Shioji and Dale Murray.

Archaeologists: Nick Roberts (Adjunct Research Fellow, Cairns Institute), Asa Ferrier (Honorary Research Fellow, Australian National University), Nikki Winn, Owen Ray (PhD candidate JCU), Richard Cosgrove (Professor, La Trobe University). QPWS: Nick Smith, Anthony Staniland, Ranger Roy, Jim Davis and Dave Gutry.  Others: Lauren and Don Pinwill, Duncan Ray.

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