Ochre has been mined and traded across Australia for thousands of years.
WORDS Colin Kerr
If the walls of these ancient quarries could talk, they would probably tell of the seemingly super-human feats of endurance by those who mined them, with nothing more than their hands and primitive digging sticks to extract their treasures. It seems this highly-prized ochre, mined in a number of different sites across Australia by early Australian Aborigines, could well represent some of the world’s first mining activity in one of humanity’s earliest known trading systems.
Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of ochre use in Australia comes from Lake Mungo in western New South Wales, where the body of a man (Mungo Man) coated in red ochre was found. He is believed to have died around 40,000 years ago.
Ochre is integral to Aboriginal Dreamtime legends – stories of creation and traditional laws of Aboriginal people throughout Australia – and is used for ceremonial body painting, art and medicine, among other things. Known, fine-quality ochre deposits are spread as far apart as Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Wilgie Mia in the Murchison region of Western Australia, Red Hill in south-eastern Australia, the Western MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia, and Lyndhurst and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia.
The various types of ochre extracted from different deposits across the country were widely sought after and the trading of different types, colours and qualities of ochre between such far-flung sites, thousands of years ago, is truly remarkable.
This prized commodity was probably contained in nothing more than a carry bag made of kangaroo or possum skin and perhaps human hair, and the fine ochre dust could blow away in the wind or be washed away in rain or river crossings if proper care wasn’t taken. To protect against such travel hazards, ochre for trading was often dampened and either pressed into bricks or rolled into balls. It was sometimes carried in wooden dishes, often balanced (by use of head rings or pads) on the heads of the men who carried it.
But despite the challenges involved, the use and variety of ochres in locations right across the country was surprisingly common. When trading did occur, pituri, or bush tobacco, was a common exchange item as were boomerangs, spears, flints, stone axe heads, down feathers used in ceremonies, some bush foods and other coloured ochres. Trading parties would travel many hundreds of kilometres, usually following known water sources. These trade routes illustrate the high degree of interactions between Aboriginal people from different tribal areas and the extent to which social communication, cultural ideas, stories, and material goods were transferred.
Today, much of this tradition has been lost, but for the modern traveller it is possible to call into several different ochre sites where we can try to imagine what the scene might have been like in those ancient times. Most ochre sites continue to be of significant importance to the local Aboriginal people and ochre from all recognised sites is protected and must not be removed by visitors.
During our inland travels, we called into three of Australia’s remote ochre sites and found each had its own atmosphere and appeal.
The Ochre Cliffs are just north of Lyndhurst in South Australia. The main, well-used ochre diggings here are quite extensive but the deposit of ochre in this district is known to extend over an area many times that which has been mined.
The rich seams or bands of cream, yellow and red ochre line the cliff walls of the quarry and are particularly colourful just after sunrise and just before sunset, when the cliffs seem to almost glow. Together with valuable red ochre (with its iridescent qualities) from the nearby Flinders Ranges, the ochre from the Lyndhurst pit was mined and traded through central desert regions as a sacred substance for thousands of years.
Visitors to this site are requested not to climb down the fragile cliffs into the main ochre pit.
Set in the foothills of the majestic Western MacDonnell Ranges, the colourful curves and swirls of these soft-stoned and quite fragile cliffs have played an important role in the culture of the local Western Arrernte Aboriginal people for thousands of years.
In geological terms, these pits date back to a time when the ranges were part of the floor of a massive inland sea. The different colours represent layers of mudstone and siltstone, once horizontal, but heaved into their present near-vertical position when the MacDonnell Ranges were formed by geological upheaval millions of years ago.
The sedimentary layers created were believed to be over 10km thick, causing the deposits to be compacted into rock. The dominant yellow colour of these cliffs is caused by a mixture of white clay and iron oxide (rust). The red-brown colours are formed by high levels of oxidised iron in fine grain haematite or limonite. White ochre has very little or no iron and the colour comes from kaolin, a white clay material. Tiny fragments of mica and quartz give the ochre a shiny quality.
Wind and rain continue to carve the soft layers, revealing the colourful swirls and dramatic designs embodied in the quite majestic 10m cliffs at this colourful and special site.
Here, in the top of a small hill, 70km north-west of Cue in the Murchison district of Western Australia, a large hole (some 30m wide and 40m deep) has been carved out, forming a cavern from which it is estimated some 50,000t of ochre was mined by early Aborigines. The hillside resembles a hollow-shell Easter egg with the top broken open.
It is reported that the first white settlers in this region found a number of ancient digging sticks used by early Aborigines to dig the prized ochre from this rich deposit, as well as the skeletal remains of a number of animals that had fallen into the cavern and were unable to get back out.
The intensely deep red-coloured ochre, with its silvery sheen, is believed to have been the most prized ochre of all, with studies finding it had been traded and transported as far as Cape York, the Kimberley and to desert tribes on the Nullarbor.
In the period from 1965 to 1972, commercial mining of this rich ochre deposit also took place here. This activity was brought to a close in 1972 when the site was declared an Aboriginal reserve and protected area. A fence has since been erected around the cavern entry.