The Ngaro People were a seafaring Australian Aborigine group of people that inhabited the Whitsunday Islands and coastal regions of Queensland from at least 7000 BC until 1870. Ngaro society was destroyed by warfare with traders, colonists, and the Australian Native Police. The Native Police Corps forcibly relocated the remaining Ngaro aborigines in 1870 to a "mission" settlement on Palm Island and the lumber mills of Brampton Island to be "employed" as laborers.
The Vanishing Ngaro
The word Ngaro means "miss," "can't see," or "vanishing" in Maori and Tahitian, modern Polynesian languages of the south pacific near Australia. As a proper noun, the name "Ngaro" appears in the names of Polynesian tribes as far away as Manihiki Island.
The Vanishing People would be an appropriate name for the Ngaro, considering the small amount of archaeological and historical information about Ngaro culture. Their society endured repeated onslaught, first by rising sea levels 9,000 years ago, then by the arrival of Europeans. Eventually the Ngaro succumbed to the guns, germs, and steel of western explorers.
The Ngaro may have inhabited the region prior to 7000 BC, but no archaeological evidence of their presence has been found. This may be due to their migration from another region of Australia or because the rapidly rising sea level during that period washed away their coastal settlements, middens, and burial sites. The rising sea level would have left only their more recent settlements, or their mountain settlements on islands such as Hook Island where they inhabited the higher terrain to take advantage of shelter (caves), fresh water (a waterfall from the cliffs in Nara Inlet, Hook Island) and seafood in the bay below (oysters, clams, mussels, abalone). Over thousands of years until 4000 BC the sea level rose several meters and the coastline moved inland more than 100 miles, from beyond the Great Barrier Reef. This has left the ancient inland mountaintops as the Whitsunday Islands. The prehistoric coastal plains known by the Ngaro would have been near what we now call the Great Barrier Reef. Oral history indicates that the Ngaro continued to visit the Great Barrier Reef by bark canoes even after it became a hazardous journey to a remote ocean destination more than 40 miles from their coastal settlements.
The earliest archaeological evidence of the Ngaro people has been found on Hook Island where two inlets protected by steep cliffs would have been welcome shelter for Ngaro canoes. Cave openings and nearby mounds, or middens, of oyster-like shells are still visible in the steep slopes of Nara Inlet. The shells do not resemble the modern oysters and clam species presently found on the coast, attesting to their age. The age of aboriginal paintings in several of the caves has been authenticated by experts who analyzed the pigments and minerals in them with carbon dating.
Though much about the lifestyle of the Ngaro has vanished with the rising sea level and demise of their settlements and campsites, the cave paintings shown here remain as evidence of their presence and their humanity. However, the meaning of these paintings remains a mystery. Some tour operators hint at the possibility that the ladder-like paintings are an engineering drawing or map showing how to build a ladder to reach caves higher in the cliff which are the burial sites of prominent Ngaro elders. To some it appears to be the curved trunk of a palm tree, or perhaps the trunk of a plant species that was important to the Ngaro and is no longer present in the region. If domesticated coconut palms were ever seen by the Ngaro, their value as a food source would not have been missed. The domesticated coconut palm would have reached Borneo by a land bridge before the sea levels rose. The coconuts may have reached the Ngaro people or their ancestors by floating on the strong currents where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet. As a seafaring people, the Ngaro would have been among the first of the Australian aborigine tribes to learn of coconuts and coconut trees and incorporate them into their diet and culture.
The painting of a hashed oval shape is often presumed to be a sea turtle shell, a prominent food source for the Ngaro and Australian aborigines of the mainland. However, it may represent the fruit of the pandanus plant and its seed. The cyad nut of the pandanus plant requires chopping (perhaps hash marks in the cave painting are instructions to chop up the large seed), and heating (perhaps the wavy lines at the bottom of the painting represent fire) in order to break down deadly poisons. The crushed, cooked nut produces an edible flour which can be roasted into a bread-like food similar to Australian damper or flatbread. Information about poisonous plants, their uses, and their preparation would be critical to the survival of the Ngaro, and worthy of the effort required to produce a long-lasting cave painting.
A Seafaring People
The Ngaro were unique in their seafaring culture and technology. The Ngaro traveled among the Whitsunday Islands in sewn paperbark canoes that sometimes utilized outriggers. They fished for sea turtles and shellfish and even large sea mammals such as small whales from these canoes. This was only possible due to their development of barbed harpoon technology that enabled the Ngaro to kill their prey by exhausting them rather than bleeding them to death, which would attract sharks to compete for the catch. Ngaro oral accounts are consistent throughout the historical record in their description of seasonal visits to the Great Barrier reef in their canoes.
More than an Academic Interest
The legal system in Australia has recently become an important arbiter of disputes regarding the archaeological record of territorial boundaries. This is due to the governmental compensation of modern aborigines for the loss of their ancestral lands. Aborigines are preferentially hired for national forest and tourism jobs in the areas in which their ancestors lived. This affirmative action employment serves to preserve much of the lore and knowledge of the aborigine people as the youth are given reason to learn from their elders aborigine skills and traditions. Land grants are also based on ancestral territorial boundaries, furthering the nonacademic interest in tribal boundaries and linguistic variations between tribes.
Aboriginal Oral History vs. European Written History
Research into aboriginal people requires resolving differences in three sources:
- Local (aboriginal) oral tradition of surviving elders at the time of the research
- Second-hand accounts of oral information written or recorded in audio by locals and descendants
- Written historical record of explorers, colonists, and researchers that traveled to the area of interest when the people of interest still thrived.
In the case of the Ngaro People, extensive written historical records from explorers are available in addition to modern written records. As a seafaring people in the tropical regions of the east coast of Australia, they were one of the first people encountered by James Cook and other explorers when they arrived in Australia from the east. In addition, oral and written history is available from the descendants of the Ngaro people, some of whom are still alive today. Sometimes these accounts differ and it cannot always be determined if second-hand stories relayed through history orally were intended as fiction (dream-time story) or factual. Often they are both, like many myths. For example, some aboriginal dream time stories describe the creation of rivers by monstrous snakes while at the same time describing in detail the geography of the river in relation to nearby mountain peaks accurately. When viewed in this light, many researches have found greater consistency in the oral history offered by the Ngaro descendants than can be found in the first-hand written accounts by European explorers and researchers. This consistency check has been performed by comparing oral accounts within the Ngaro population, by comparing Ngaro stories to those of neighboring tribes, and by comparing oral accounts to the archaeological evidence that can be found.
Notable Ngaro Settlement Sites
South Molle Island is the site of a stone quarry, the Ngaro's main source of notoriety at their peak as a society. The quarry there is one of the largest aborigine quarries in Australia. The unique stone found there was valued as a knife blade and for ceremonial purposes. It was likely traded with neighboring tribes as well as used locally for shellfish harvesting and cleaning, fishing, warfare, and wooden canoe or shelter construction.
Nara Inlet on Hook Island is the site of the oldest evidence of Ngaro settlement. This inlet is used in modern times as one of the few shelters adequate for safety during a cyclone. The Ngaro people likely preferred it for similar reasons and for its plentiful caves to shelter themselves and their fires during the rainy season. Middens containing the remains of ancient shellfish species lie near many of the caves. Within the caves are ancient Ngaro paintings. The Ngaro paintings are different from many other aboriginal paintings for their apparent non-figurative nature. Though some interpretations of the two types of drawings common in the area are often offered by both archaeologists and tourists. The oblong, hashed round drawings might be interpreted as a sea turtle shell as viewed from the inside after the flesh had been consumed. The ladder-like drawings may be instructions on the ladder structure required to reach some of the least accessible caves where revered elders may be buried. The "ladders" might also represent the spine of a man. Many other aborigine groups paint the animals of their area as if their flesh and skin were transparent—with key organs and bones visible. Of course both drawings may simply represent the most fundamental of closed shapes—an imperfect circle, and a rectangle, combined with one of the most common of doodling backgrounds or textures—hashing with horizontal and/or vertical lines.
- The Social Archeology of Australian Indigenous Societies by Bruno David, Bryce Barker, Ian J. McNiven
- Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, by Tindale, 1974
- Plaque at entrance to Nara Inlet Cave boardwalk by Australian forest service documented in a cruising blog for SV Australis, http://sail-australis.blogspot.com/2010/09/nara-inlet-mystery.html
- Fiona Dickson (25 June 2008). "The Ngaro people of the Whitsundays". ABC Tropical North (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 22 May 2010.
- The Sea People: Late Holocene Maritime Specialisation in the Whitsunday Islands, Central Queensland. By Bryce Barker. Pandanus Books, Canberra, 2004. ISBN 1-74076-092-1.
- Tindale 1974, p. 182
- Tindale's 1934 Journal
- Pigment Analysis at Nara Inlet Rock Art Site, Hook Island, Whitsunday Group, Far North of Queensland, K.M. and A. WATCHMAN, A. 1993. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service.
- The "Niu" Indies: Long Lost "Home" of the Coconut Palm by Hugh C. Harries, Centro de Investigacion Cientifca de Yucatan AC, Apdo. Postal 87, Cordemex 97310, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico|The "Niu" Indies: Long Lost "Home" of the Coconut Palm
- The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies by Bruno David, Bryce Barker, Ian J. McNiven