The First Australians
Aboriginal people have been living in the rainforests of the Wet Tropics region for many thousands of years. Some stories handed down over the generations relate to times of most recent volcanic activity, while archeological evidence indicates occupation of the region for at least 40,000 years.
Before European settlement, the Wet Tropics rainforests were one of the most populated areas of Australia, and the only area where Aboriginal people of Australia lived permanently in the rainforest.
Rainforest Aboriginal people's environment provided everything - spirituality, identity, social order, shelter, food and medicine. Aboriginal people also had an excellent economic system in place that involved the bartering of resources amongst different tribal groups.
The arrival of Europeans
For Rainforest Aboriginal people, the rugged rainforest mountains and inaccessible coastal wetlands provided some protection when Europeans arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. Rainforest Aboriginal people continued to practice their cultures and languages, and their knowledge of ecology, native foods, and access routes was invaluable to the newcomers. However, as more land was cleared, competition became fierce between the settlers and the people of the rainforest.
Many Rainforest Aboriginal people died from introduced diseases like the common cold. Others starved when they could not access their traditional country and their food resources. Many were also shot and poisoned when they were found hunting the introduced cattle and horses that new settlers had brought. This aggression from the early settlers was not met with passivity. Rainforest Aboriginal people fought for their land and continue to this day campaigning to get their land back.
To visitors, many of the Wet Tropics waterfalls are places of extraordinary beauty, but for many Rainforest Aboriginal people, apart from often being important story places, they can also be places of immense sorrow - places their people were driven over and massacred.
Rainforest Aboriginal people had to survive on the margins of the new society that brought with it many foreign laws and government policies that were often directly in conflict with traditional lores and customs. Great restrictions were imposed on Aboriginal peoples' lives and the new laws were quite often discriminatory on the basis of their race.
Many Aboriginal people from this region worked unpaid for rations such as sugar, flour, tea and tobacco. They worked as maids, farm labourers, stockmen and timber cutters, and played a key role in helping to shape the rural landscape you see today.
Many more Rainforest Aboriginal people were forcibly removed to Christian missions across the region at Mission Beach, Mona Mona, Murray Upper, Palm Island, Yarrabah and Wujal Wujal, and some were even sent out of the region to other missions. In addition, Aboriginal people from other parts of Queensland were removed from their families and their traditional lands to live in missions in the Wet Tropics region. They all suffered hardships through the splitting up of their families, being forced to forget their languages, and being stopped from practising their cultures.
Today over 20,000 Aboriginal people live in the urban centres, country towns, Aboriginal communities (some are former missions) both outside the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and small settlements within the World Heritage Area.
In spite of the imposition of a Government land ownership (tenure) system and significant changes to land management brought about by European settlement and development, Rainforest Aboriginal people continue to maintain and care for country through their traditional beliefs, knowledge and practices. Their cultures continue to live and grow, and lifestyles today contain a mix of traditional and contemporary knowledge and practices that continues to be handed down from one generation to the next.
While they have endured massive upheaval and loss, Rainforest Aboriginal people's stories, languages and cultures have survived and people continue to have a strong sense of their connection to, and relationship with, their traditional country. These relationships are mapped out in shared stories and places.
Some shared stories connect and identify tribal groups. Other story places are personal, connected to individuals when they are born - a practice which continues today. Like the forests, Rainforest Aboriginal cultures survive in the landscape features that remain.
In this way, the Wet Tropics continues to hold the key to indigenous culture and identity. It tells the story of complex traditional cultures and also of the tragedy, hardship and the strength and resilience of Rainforest Aboriginal people over a hundred and fifty years of change.