Ask 10 different people what they think is the oldest surviving manmade structure on earth and chances are you will get 10 different answers. The pyramids of Egypt or Central America? Not even close. Stonehenge? A relative newcomer. The Neolithic farmhouses of the Orkney Islands, or the megalithic tombs of France? At 7,000 years of age, the oldest of these barely registers alongside the granddaddy of them all—the Ngunnhu fish traps of Brewarrina.
A complex network of river stones arranged to form ponds and channels that catch fish as they travel downstream, the traps are said to date back at least 40,000 years. Fittingly, they are not found in such purported cradles of civilization as the Fertile Crescent or the Indus Valley, but on the world’s oldest continent: Australia.
Stretching across a shallow bend in the Barwon River on the outskirts of Brewarrina, a dusty outback town 800 kilometers northwest of Sydney, the Ngunnhu (pronounced “noon-oo”) fish traps reflect an ancient genius in the simplicity of their design, which was adaptable to the seasons and changing water levels. Archeologists say that the Aboriginal peoples who built them possessed advanced knowledge of water ecology, animal migration, geography, and engineering. But according to oral history, the fish traps (and the technology behind them) were inspired by nature—by the pelican, to be exact.
“There was a long drought and the people were suffering from famine,” says Michael Anderson, an Aboriginal elder and educator. “But they were saved by the pelican, which showed them how traps work by using its large beak to scoop fish out of the river. After that, the pelican became a sacred creature. If anyone hurt or killed one, that’d be the end of them. They’d be dead before they got a chance to eat it.”
But the punishment could not be carried out on the riverbank, as the area was considered sacred by the many tribes that jointly benefited from and maintained the fish traps for tens of thousands of years. “This was a place for feasting, marriage, dancing, and negotiating. Fighting was not allowed,” Anderson says. “It was the Aboriginal equivalent of the General Assembly of the United Nations.”
The story of the Ngunnhu fish traps and their traditional custodians is told by a storyboard comprising traditional Aboriginal murals and written stories transcribed onto a low-lying concrete wall above the Barwon’s south bank. “All families had a responsibility to maintain the trap,” reads the first installment of the story. “When floods moved the rocks, families would put them back in place. When it flooded, the old men rushed to block the entry of the traps, herding the fish through the pens.”
Farther down the wall, visitors learn about the calamitous events that followed the arrival of European settlers in 1840. The interlopers displaced the Aboriginal people and brought cattle and sheep to graze the land. They drove steamboats down the Barwon and introduced European carp, both of which mudded and polluted the river. When the Barranbinya tribe resisted, they were met with deadly force.
“The Ngemba, Murriwarra, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Ualari and Kamilaroi people/clan would like to take this opportunity to remember the Barranbinya people who were massacred by Europeans approximately 20 kilometers north of Brewarrina on the Goodooga Road near Hospital Creek in the 1860s,” reads a dedication on the wall. “It has been suggested that only two members of this clan of over 100 survived.”
In the 1870s, a thriving wool trade brought “civilization” to Brewarrina: banks, the telegraph, rows of hotels, steamboats, and the railway. Yet the fish traps remained undisturbed until the late 1960s, when a concrete weir was erected 50 meters upstream to ensure a steady supply of water for the drought-prone region. But the weir also made it difficult for fish to swim upstream to spawn, spelling disaster for the functional use of the world’s oldest remaining structure.
“I remember when the weir wasn’t there,” says Aboriginal Heritage Officer Philip Sullivan. “We would wade across the river, dive in and have a swim. But the weir changed the entire dynamics of the riverbed. The banks are too high—you can’t swim across certain parts of it—and the water pouring over the weir is noisy like a waterfall.”
Sullivan adds, “I understand the reasoning behind it, because now the town won’t run out of water. But if Aboriginal people had been consulted, we never would have approved the weir. Ngunnhu is a very special place to us, where ceremonies were held, a place of gathering not only for people but for pelicans and all the other birds that depended on the river for survival.”
In 2012, authorities sought to rectify some of the ecological damage caused by the weir by building a stone fish ladder that enables fish to reach their spawning grounds upstream. And while the days when fish were plentiful in the Barwon are long gone, the development has seen the Ngunnhu fish traps come back online. On weekend mornings, you can spot children pulling Murray cod as long as their arms from the water, as well as perch, catfish, and black bream, the Barwon’s best eating fish.
“The health of the river is a reflection of who we are,” Sullivan says. “If the fish traps are empty, it means the country is in a bad way. But if there are lots of fish, then we must be doing something right.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A River Trapped in Time”)