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The Australian 'Silk Road'

Work in Mithaka homeland reveals vast ancient Australian network.

One of the (numerous) myths about ancient Australian Aborigines proclaims that the original inhabitants of their homeland had little impact on the natural environment. This is, of course, nonsense, because it is only recently that anthropologists and archaeologists have studied the subject in detail.

The Mithaka people live in the Channel Country of Southwest Queensland, where collaborative research between traditional elders and archaeologists have revealed no fewer than 179 quarry sites, spread over 33,800 square kilometres – about half the area of Tasmania. It was here that the local people made the grinding tools used to process edible seeds. Some of the quarries were in use for more than 2,000 years. In ancient times, the Mithaka homeland in Channel County was a network of interconnected natural channels, swelled by monsoon rains that transformed desert into lush grassland. This was the heart of a vast transcontinental exchange network that linked the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north with the Flinders Ranges in South Australia.

This Australian ‘Silk Road’ connected Aboriginal groups throughout the continent, sharing knowledge, chants and songs, ceremonies, rituals, and all manner of trade commodities. The grindstones produced on a near industrial scale by the Mithaka quarries were exchanged for wooden objects, ochre, stone axes, and a narcotic known as pituri. One quarry site alone consists of about 25,000 individual quarry pits, dug over many generations.

This research has hardly begun and raised many questions. How was the mining organized, or was it left to individual and bands? How did the miners feed themselves and what rituals defined the activity? When sourcing studies are completed, we will have a great deal more information on the extent of this remarkable trade.

Artefacts from several of the quarry sites are currently on show as part of a new exhibition at The University of Queensland Anthropology Museum.

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Image: Excavating a traditional Mithaka site.

Photo: Michael Westaway.

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