A huge bush fire in Australia has uncovered the remains of ancient huts built by Aborigines, undermining their image as nomads who shunned settlements.
The stone houses, revealed after flames swept through part of western Victoria, are believed to be around 8,000 years old.
Archaeologists believe that the dwellings, near Lake Condah, 220 miles west of Melbourne, would have been about 6ft high and roofed with reeds or grass.
It has long been thought that Australia's first inhabitants were hunter gatherers who roamed the land according to the seasons, carrying only what they needed to survive.
That assumption led Britain to declare Australia terra nullius, a land belonging to no one, a legal principle on which the occupation of the continent was based.
Archeologists have found evidence in the past of an ingenious system of dams, channels, ponds and weirs designed to catch fish and eels. But the most recent discoveries suggest a more sophisticated society than previously thought.
Evidence of similar villages has come to light in other parts of the country. But most Australians have been slow to grasp the idea that Aborigines were anything other nomads.
"There is still a misconception that Aborigines were just wandering around the country, almost aimlessly," said Peter Veth, of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. "That is simply not true."
Archaeologists now believe that Aborigines established semi-permanent settlements in areas where there was a rich source of food. In western Victoria they trapped eels and fish in the lakes and marshes.
Around the Buccaneer Archipelago, on Western Australia's remote north coast, they hunted fish, dugongs (whale-like mammals) and turtles and built stone huts on sandy islets.
"We are not talking about the Pyramids or massive structures," Mr Veth said. "But people were concentrating a huge amount of their effort on one place. Some of the fish traps we have found would have taken tens of thousands of man-hours to build.
"A lot of the prehistoric structures have been covered up and it needs a bloody good fire to uncover them."
THE bushfire at Tyrendarra last month has unearthed some of the biggest Aboriginal stone houses ever seen in Gunditjmara land.
Undocumented sites have been uncovered including a village thought to be 30,000 years old.
The Winda-Mara Aboriginal Co-operative made the discovery yesterday during an analysis of its Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area.
On January 22 fire burnt 240 hectares, blackening 90 per cent of the property's rocky outcrop on the Mt Eccles lava flow.
Previously inaccessible land is now showing shells of stone houses as wide as five metres, eel traps, water traps, walking tracks, water ways and the remnants of cutting tools.
Winda-Mara chairman Damein Bell said further finds were expected in coming weeks as Aboriginal Affairs geologists scour the property.
``This is solid evidence of a permanent dwelling and villages. They could house up to four families at once. It was a complete society.''Winda-Mara Corporation chairman Damein Bell
``This is wonderful,'' he said.
``We know they have always been here but now we have an opportunity to really get in and look at them.
``It was all inaccessible before.
``The elders will be saying: `I told you so','' he mused.
It has been more than 80 years since fire has cleared the rocky landscape.
Until 1999 it was used as farming land but has since been revegetated and used for Aboriginal tourism and cultural purposes.
Until the fire the site had more than 150 sites of Aboriginal cultural significance.
Mr Bell said the new findings were further evidence that Aborigines in the south-west were not nomadic.
``This should add significantly to the cultural heritage values of this land,'' he said.
``These are the biggest stone houses I have ever seen.
``This is solid evidence of a permanent dwelling and villages. They could house up to four families at once. It was a complete society.''
The houses are scattered across the rocky outcrop, most on higher rising land neighbouring fresh waterways with eel traps.
Mr Bell said the aquaculture system was the main source of trade and food for the inhabitants.
``We probably won't find something like this again. It's very exciting,'' he said.
With the major find, however, came loss for the Winda-Mara Corporation.
The body incurred almost $10,000 worth of damage in the blaze.
About 5000 freshly-planted trees were destroyed and fence lines were ruined, however, newly-built bridges in the heart of the blaze survived.
Winda-Mara land management supervisor Matt Butt said a clean-up around the bridges days before the blaze had acted as a fire break.
He said the loss was disheartening, but the archaeological findings had been a valuable reward for the group.
Source: The Standard, Feb. 1, 2006; Including photo at top of page.