Cloggs Cave has loomed large in the archaeology of south-eastern Australia for half a century. Work undertaken by doctoral student Josephine Flood in the 1970s exposed stratigraphy 2.4m deep, which contained what were then the oldest known traces of human activity in the Australian Alps and its foothills. They were put there by the ancestors of today’s GunaiKurnai community, respectfully referred to as the Old Ancestors. But the Old Ancestors were not the only visitors to the cavern. Flood’s digging also revealed traces of extinct megafauna – large animals whose surviving members, such as the emu, cassowary, and red kangaroo, remain renowned among Australian wildlife – at around the same depth as the traces of human activity, though not in the same layers. Precisely when and how the extinct megafauna died out remains a source of scholarly dispute, with changes in climate, habitat change brought about by people, and overhunting seen as three possible culprits. Radiocarbon dates from the 1970s work at Cloggs Cave ensured the site played a prominent part in this debate, because they suggested there could have been an overlap between megafauna and people at the site, around 23,000 years Before Present (BP).
Flood certainly concluded that hunting was on the minds of those people using the cave, although she linked their presence to the pursuit of a rather more modest quarry than the megafauna. Drawing on knowledge of Aboriginal practices led Flood to suggest that the cave had been frequented during the summer months, by groups heading into the mountains to gather Bogong moths. Although insects tend not to feature heavily in modern Western diets, they can be an important source of sustenance and these moths have been described as highly nutritious, easily harvested, and very palatable. Early European settlers penned accounts of Aboriginal people enthusiastically exploiting this abundant foodstuff, but within 30 years of the colonial era commencing the seasonal trips to the high country for Bogong moth festivals had ceased.
The small number of stone tools found within Cloggs Cave seemingly suggested a temporary hunting camp, while another radiocarbon date indicated that visits ceased around 10,000 BP. Flood linked this to a rise in temperature after the last Ice Age, which prompted hunting parties to shun the cave in favour of congregating at an adjacent rockshelter. In recent years, Flood’s findings have prompted various questions, including why, if the cave was exploited by hunting parties, almost none of the animal bone found within it seems to be a product of human activity, and what insights could be gained from Aboriginal oral accounts concerning caves. Now a project re-examining Cloggs Cave has proposed a radical reinterpretation of its role: far from the cavern offering a convenient encampment, it was seen as a place of magic, medicine, and malevolent creatures.
Magic, moths, and megafauna
‘In 2017,’ says Professor Bruno David of Monash University and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, ‘the GunaiKurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GKLaWAC), representing the GunaiKurnai Traditional Owners of Cloggs Cave, sent a delegation to the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre at Monash University (in Melbourne, Australia) to begin a long-term research-with-education partnership. Before doing any research together, however, we needed to get to know each other, because it is GunaiKurnai cultural history that was to be researched. While the research results would be important, a culturally respectful process was even more important. In late 2018, after “testing the waters” at a smaller site, GKLaWAC asked if we could assemble an international research team who would work closely with GKLaWAC and report back to GunaiKurnai Elder Russell Mullett and Research Advisor Joanna Fresløv to begin research at Cloggs Cave in 2019.’
The cave lies in the southern foothills of the Australian Alps. Today, it is entered via an 8m-high slit known as ‘the porch’, which lies in an exposed rock face beside an ancient meander of the Buchan River. Both the access passage and the adjacent rockshelter are perched 17m above the valley floor. After entering the fissure in the rock face, a smaller passage leads into the main chamber, gallery, upper chamber, and upper passage, which together make up the cavern and stretch for a total of 25m underground. Flood excavated both outside and inside the cavern, opening trenches in the rock-shelter, porch, main chamber, and upper chamber. The excavations accompanying the current investigation were designed to be smaller in scale, and focused on re-examining some of the deposits Flood detected in the main chamber.
‘Back in the 1970s, things had been done differently,’ Bruno points out. ‘In particular, Aboriginal peoples whose Country and culture was being investigated were not party to the research, so that archaeological interpretations – and the questions being asked – did not involve local Aboriginal perspectives. Now it is ethically and legally recognised that archaeological research on Aboriginal places concerns the living landscapes of descendant First Nations peoples today. Members of GKLaWAC have long wondered about the 1970s interpretations of their ancestral cave. Furthermore, scientific methods – such as radiocarbon dating, cartography etc – have developed enormously since the 1970s. Our research therefore asked two cross-cutting questions: what could the latest archaeological, geomorphological, and geochronological methods newly reveal about Cloggs Cave, e.g. in terms of dating, understanding the origins of the sediments, ancient DNA that may be preserved in the sediments, residues on stone tools, and how the cave was used in the past; and how could the specialised cultural knowledge of GunaiKurnai Elders and other community members better inform archaeological interpretations about the significance and use of the cave in the past.’
One area where advances in archaeological techniques promised greater clarity concerns the knotty question of when the cave was visited by megafauna and the Old Ancestors. ‘Cloggs Cave is an iconic, pioneering site in the archives of Australian archaeology,’ says Bruno. ‘Australian archaeology is relatively young as a professional discipline. Along with a number of rockshelters and open sites excavated by Flood in the early 1970s, her excavations at Cloggs Cave in 1971-1972 were the first to be undertaken in the Australian Alps and its foothills. During the nine years immediately preceding those excavations, for the first time Australian archaeologists had begun to excavate Pleistocene sites in different parts of the country, but none had been found in the mountainous country of south-eastern Australia. Cloggs Cave revealed not only the first Pleistocene deposits for this region, but also the extinct megafauna bones that were indirectly carbon-dated – by association with charcoal in nearby sediments – to about 23,000 BP. The 1970s was a time when researchers were wondering when the megafauna became extinct, and Cloggs Cave presented one of the youngest dates for that debate. However, here there were no signs of the presence of people associated with the megafauna bones – there were no fireplaces, stone artefacts or other kinds of artefacts in the sediments associated with the megafauna bones.’
‘By the 1990s, it had become apparent to most researchers that the megafauna became extinct across the continent much earlier than 23,000 BP, but the debate over the timing of extinctions continued to rage, often in a heated fashion. For some researchers – those who argued for late extinctions – Cloggs Cave continued to feature as an example of the megafauna’s late survival. Three of the problems were that: (1) in the 1970s, the chemistry used to pre-treat radiocarbon samples was not as good as it is now, meaning that contaminants in charcoal or bone were usually not entirely cleaned out, resulting in significantly younger carbon dates than the true age of samples. (2) Conventional carbon dating as done in the 1970s required large quantities of charcoal (approximately 7g was typically needed for a carbon date). This was often a problem for archaeologists, because charcoal was usually broken up into small fragments, meaning that charcoal pieces of potentially different ages were often combined from wide areas to obtain dates, frequently covering broad depth ranges also (as happened for Cloggs Cave). Therefore, there was no guarantee that the resulting age truly represented the age of a particular spot in the stratigraphy, such as the precise place from which the megafauna bone(s) came. And (3) the limitations in carbon dating in the 1970s meant that it was extremely difficult to get carbon dates older than 35,000-40,000 BP, because a tiny amount of contamination would reduce a carbon age to such a range. This was then called the “radiocarbon barrier”. Anything older would therefore either give no result, or, through undocumented contamination of the sample, result in an age of 35,000-40,000 BP and sometimes much younger, depending on the degree of contamination. Recent developments in sample pre-treatment together with the development of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS radiocarbon dating) mean that tiny amounts of charcoal (0.01g, the size of a pinhead) can now be individually accurately dated.’
‘Re-dating the sediment sequence, including the stratigraphic level from which the megafauna came, could thus now reveal the true age of the Cloggs Cave megafauna, including through single grain optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, a powerful, independent scientific method not available in the 1970s. Thanks to these advances, it has become more certain that there was no interaction between the Old Ancestors and megafauna in the cave. The megafauna at Cloggs Cave are now known to be about 50,000 years old, while the oldest archaeological signs of the Old Ancestors within the cave are about 25,000 years old, although research is ongoing and older evidence may still be found. Even so, it seems that the megafauna entered the cave using an opening that had already been buried by the time the Old Ancestors started visiting the site. Geomorphological and cartographic work by Professor Jean-Jacques Delannoy, of the Université Savoie Mont Blanc, France, shows that, during the time of the megafauna, a lower entrance into the cave existed beneath the current one.’
While establishing a tighter chronology has paid dividends, so too has incorporating local oral histories. ‘Members of the GunaiKurnai community have good cultural knowledge about the significance of local caves for the Old Ancestors,’ observes Bruno. ‘We wanted to see how the archaeology of Cloggs Cave could be combined with GunaiKurnai cultural knowledge to tell a richer, culturally meaningful, and more accurate story for the cave.’ This approach, alongside fresh excavations in the cavern, has shed remarkable new light on the significance of Cloggs Cave.
A magical place
‘The story of Cloggs Cave has now fundamentally changed from the original archaeological narrative,’ says Bruno. ‘In the 1970s, archaeologists here and elsewhere typically interpreted deposits in terms of “habitat and economy”, by focusing on the use of sites as adaptations to environmental conditions, and their occupation around the food quest. Seeing Cloggs Cave as a temporary hunting camp perfectly fits with that approach. Today, First Nations peoples around the world have made archaeologists keenly aware that life, and therefore archaeological signatures of the use of sites and landscapes, cannot be reduced that way. We need to take into account kinship relations and belief systems – how individuals and groups relate to each other and to places across the landscape socially, through familial relationships such as lineage and clan affiliations; and how places are meaningful in local culture through their world views. Cloggs Cave is a classic example of how the standard “habitat and economy” framework is insufficient.’
We have already seen that one complication for the notion that itinerant hunters were using the cavern is the absence of evidence for their presence among the animal bones found there. The recent survey and excavations in the cave added to this incongruity by exposing clear traces of human activities that are very hard to square with the site being used simply by parties seeking food. An alcove in the upper chamber of the cave is particularly noteworthy. Its ceiling is only 0.8m above ground level, making it awkward to access. Both within and near the alcove, stalactites had been deliberately snapped off near their bases. While these elements had been removed, some as far back as 23,000 years ago, other objects were brought in. Both a rounded stone and eight blocks placed in a rough circle had been introduced to the space, while a fine whitish spread was seemingly created where calcite had been deliberately ground into powder.
Excavations in the main chamber in 2019 also revealed a curious feature. This digging was aimed at investigating a series of ash layers that Flood had examined – and which yielded the radiocarbon date indicating the apparent abandonment of the cave around 10,000 BP. Targeting ash deposits that extended beyond the area investigated by Flood revealed a small standing stone. This was just under 30cm tall and had been set up about 2,000 years ago, on top of the lowest layer of ash. After the stone had been set in place, many more fires were lit around it, until eventually the stone was completely buried by the ash. Here, then, were clear signs that visitors were harvesting stalactites, grinding powder, making stone arrangements, and creating ash. But what can such seemingly enigmatic activities tell us about how the cave was used by the Old Ancestors?
‘We can now see, through GunaiKurnai specialist knowledge, how the cave’s archaeological traces signal that it was used for special purposes associated with the activities and rituals of mulla mullung: magic or medicine men/women,’ says Russell Mullett, GunaiKurnai Elder and Traditional Custodian. ‘Crystals and other shiny rocks were an important “tool” of mulla mullung. There are even GunaiKurnai oral traditions of mulla mullung obtaining their powers from shiny rocks obtained from cave walls. Crystals and ground crystalline material – such as ground calcite or quartz crystals – could be used for magic, including both healing and spells. For instance, mulla mullung would place crystals or charcoal in people’s footprints, to cause illness, or to draw sickness out of people’s bodies. Ground calcite or quartz could be thrown at a person by the mulla mullung, either to frighten them or to cause serious illness.’
Securing sufficient supplies was of great significance to the mulla mullung, as it was believed that when they lost their crystals, they also lost their powers. Seeing the cave as a place for acquiring medicinal and magical materials explains why stalactites would be broken off and ground into powder. It also sheds light on the enigmatic standing stone and the ashy layers surrounding and enveloping it. ‘Ashes and charcoal were used by the GunaiKurnai for both magic and in ceremonies,’ explains Russell. ‘Like the quartz crystals, ash could be placed in a person’s footprints to cause illness. Ash was also cast about the floors of caves to detect the presence of nargun, a malevolent cave creature, who could seize unwary passers-by and drag them into its lair. To this day, GunaiKurnai associate caves with these malevolent beings.’ Seen this way, leaving ash on the floor of the cave was a crucial safety precaution that would provide a warning if the cavity became home to a dangerous supernatural creature.
While combining archaeological evidence with cultural knowledge now points to the cave having been a secluded place of danger entered by the select few, rather than a temporary hunting camp, one echo of the 1970s interpretation did emerge from the recent work. ‘A small, hand-sized grindstone was found at Cloggs Cave,’ says Bruno. ‘It was the only one encountered in the cave, and along its edges are the residues of crushed crystals. This is probably a product of crystals being processed within the cave, as what appears to be crushed crystal powder lay on the floor of the small alcove in the upper chamber, 8m from where the grindstone was found. If the grindstone was used to prepare magical substances in the cave when it was deposited, though, this was not the only purpose it had known, as it is also covered with the remains of Bogong moths. These were probably processed as food away from the cave, as Bogong moths are most readily available during spring and summer to the north, higher up in the mountainous country of the Australian Alps.’
Adapting practices used in modern pathology investigations allowed Birgitta Stephenson, an archaeologist and pharmacologist, to identify a variety of residues via biochemical staining. ‘While the physical structure of residues – that is the remains of past processing activities – changes over time,’ says Birgitta, ‘the molecular structure remains unaltered. This means that regardless of the age of the remains, the chemical staining reactions are unaffected. The stains highlight residues which otherwise may be unrecognised and/or overlooked.’ Residues lifted by pipette and analysed from the Cloggs Cave grindstone included damaged and degraded wing and leg fragments from the processing of Bogong moths, 2,000 years ago. The moths are much larger than most household moths and, as described by First Nations peoples of various parts of south-eastern Australia, were sometimes ground or pulped into a paste. The moth wing and leg segments highlighted by the biochemical staining of the grindstone’s microscopic residues displayed damage that is consistent with grinding and shredding activities. This is the first time that residues from insect-processing have been found on stone tools.
‘We already know’, says Russell, ‘from contemporary Aboriginal oral histories and 19th-century records that in various parts of the High Country and surrounding foothills, Aboriginal groups seasonally ate Bogong moths and congregated for summer Bogong moth festivals. The finding of a 2,000-year-old archaeological tool used for the processing of Bogong moths now extends the archaeological evidence of such practices deep in time.’
From nature to supernatural
All told then, the new interpretation of Cloggs Cave is a tribute to not only the increasing precision available from scientific techniques, but also the insights local cultural knowledge can bring. ‘What makes Cloggs Cave most special is not just the cave as a physical structure,’ says Bruno. ‘The Old Ancestors live across the landscape. Doing research at Cloggs Cave comes with a responsibility not just to look after the physical place, but also to make sure everything is done in a culturally appropriate way, and pass on knowledge to the next generations. Sitting down together not just to interpret the materials from archaeological excavations, but to understand what the important questions are from GunaiKurnai perspectives in the first place, is thought-provoking and inspiring, as it identifies the questions that are most meaningful to the community. The greatest highlight is when discussing things with the Elders and other community members, hearing and learning of cultural ways and communicating new results, and being part of the passing of knowledge with the younger generations. It is then that we begin to experience what a special place Cloggs Cave (and other places in GunaiKurnai Country) really is. For the team members who are not GunaiKurnai, it is a real privilege being able to be part of all this.’
The mutual respect shown by the university-based and community-based GunaiKurnai researchers testifies to the insights and ethical value of partnership research that prioritises the rights of First Nations peoples to their own places and (hi)stories. ‘For GurnaiKurnai descendants,’ Russell says, ‘we can now look back on the original 1970s dig and know that the Old Ancestors were not willing to show all the locked-away secrets. They waited patiently for their descendants to be present and involved, where their cultural knowledge and cultural experience would assist in the findings. This research is one of the most important undertakings for GunaiKurnai, and we wish to convey a sincere acknowledgement to all those that helped. The cultural history of Cloggs Cave would not be possible without their skills and knowledge, and special tribute must be to Bruno and Joanna.’
FURTHER READING J-J Delannoy et al. (2020) ‘Geomorphological context and formation history of Cloggs Cave: what was the cave like when people inhabited it?’, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 33. B Stephenson et al. (2020) ‘2,000-year-old Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa) Aboriginal food remains, Australia’, Scientific Reports 10. B David et al. (2021) ‘50 years and worlds apart: rethinking the Holocene occupation of Cloggs Cave (East Gippsland, SE Australia) five decades after its initial archaeological excavation and in light of GunaiKurnai world views’, Australian Archaeology 87. B David et al. (2021) ‘Late survival of megafauna refuted for Cloggs Cave, SE Australia: implications for the Australian Late Pleistocene megafauna extinction debate’, Quaternary Science Reviews 253.
All images: courtesy of Bruno David, unless otherwise stated.