Shark Bay's History

Aboriginal Occupation of Shark Bay

Aboriginal people first inhabited Shark Bay some 30,000 years ago. Archaeologists believe they moved to and from the area in response to changing sea levels and the availability of fresh water and food. Currently there are about 130 registered Aboriginal heritage sites in the Shark Bay area, including middens (large scatters of discarded shells, bone and other food-related artefacts), quarries, rock shelters and burial sites. These places provide some insight into traditional Aboriginal life and customs prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Ancient history

Archaeological research conducted at several sites across the Shark Bay area has revealed much information about Shark Bay’s first people. A site near Eagle Bluff shows two periods of occupation, firstly between 30,000 and 18,000 years ago (during the late Pleistocene) and then about 7,000 to 6,000 years ago (during the Holocene). Rock shelters at Eagle Bluff and on the Zuytdorp Cliffs are up to 4,600 years old. Sites at Monkey Mia and Useless Loop show that the current period of occupation began about 2,300 years ago.

Why hasn’t there been a constant human presence in Shark Bay? Why are there gaps in the record? It is thought that people moved from place to place in accordance with climatic conditions. The late Pleistocene was characterised by cold (glacial) and warm (interglacial) periods. During these climate fluctuations, the planet’s glaciers advanced and retreated. The sea level rose during the melting of the glaciers, then dropped during the next cold spell, when most of the world’s water was locked up in ice. The Holocene epoch is characterised by an interglacial period.

Aboriginal occupation and sea level change graph

Archaeologists believe people may have migrated to and from Shark Bay in the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs because

  • during drier glacial periods there was limited access to fresh running water. This in turn may have affected the availability of food. For example, there would have been fewer mangroves, and subsequently fewer edible shellfish living in the mangroves.
  • sea level rises during interglacial periods may have flooded previously occupied sites and made them unsuitable for living. Sea level rises may have also destroyed artefacts left by early people.

Certainly, the different periods of occupation during the Holocene seem linked to the availability of food. The early period (7,000–4,000 years ago), when the sea had reached its present level, could be related to the resurgence of mangroves and shellfish. When mangroves became less plentiful, occupation waned. When people returned to Shark Bay in more recent times, they came primarily to hunt turtle, dugong and land mammals.

Read more about Shark Bay’s changing geography here.

Ancient places

Archaeological sites are found all over Shark Bay, either close to the shoreline or overlooking it. Edel Land was a particularly important place for early Aboriginal people, and for good reason: a quarry at Crayfish Bay provided stone for spear-tips and tools, and there was fresh water at Willyah Mia, on the eastern shore of Heirisson Prong. Judging by the number of middens and camp sites, there was also plenty of good food! There is also a burial site at Heirisson Prong.

A large number of middens have been found on Peron Peninsula, including Cape Peron, Cape Rose, Goulet Bluff and Eagle Bluff. Camp sites, water wells, fish traps and grinding grooves (where food and medicine were prepared for use) are also scattered across the peninsula. Stone for spears and tools was quarried at Yaringa, near Gladstone on the eastern coast of Shark Bay.

Perhaps the most accessible Aboriginal archaeological site is a cave on the walk trail at Monkey Mia. In the 1980s this cave was excavated to reveal the remains of numerous, mostly marine animals: molluscs, cuttlefish, crabs, dugong, turtle and fish. In spring and summer, when food was plentiful, people may have travelled across to Monkey Mia from the east coast using rafts or canoes. They may have come to the cave to shelter from the sun and wind, share a meal and enjoy the view.

Like all Aboriginal sites and artefacts in Shark Bay, the Monkey Mia cave is protected by the Aboriginal Heritage Act. It is illegal to disturb these ancient places.

Contact with European explorers

Archaeological remains only tell part of the story, however. We can learn about the traditional life and customs of Shark Bay’s Aboriginal people from observations made by early European explorers. For example, in 1772 the French explorer Saint-Alouarn saw smoke coming from Dirk Hartog Island, where his crew found what they believed was evidence of fires and a ceremonial area.

Two other French expeditions, led by Baudin and de Freycinet, also noted the presence of Aboriginal people – especially on Shark Bay’s eastern shores and Peron Peninsula, where groups of up to 30 people were reported. François Péron, Baudin’s expedition naturalist, made the first written descriptions of Shark Bay’s Malgana Aboriginal people ever presented to the rest of the world. His observations were accompanied by drawings depicting campsites and circular, semi-permanent huts.

Later, de Freycinet’s artist Jacques Arago recorded a tense encounter between a group of Malgana and some Europeans at Cape Peron (image at right). The situation was defused with singing, dancing and an exchange of gifts. Arago wrote: “they [the Malgana] watched us as dangerous enemies, and were continually pointing to the ship, exclaiming, ayerkade, ayerkade [sic] (go away, go away)”.

The Malgana’s tension and fear is understandable. In 1858 British surveyor Henry Denham made mention of Aboriginal huts, but after this time the encroachment by Europeans into Shark Bay probably meant the beginning of the end of traditional Aboriginal life.

You can learn more about Shark Bay’s cultural heritage at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre in Denham.

Aboriginal encounter

Jacques Arago's artistic recording of a meeting with the Malgana at Cape Peron.

(Jacques Arago, 1822 . Nlle. Hollande, Baie des Chiens-marins, Presqu’ile Peron, entrevue avec les sauvages. © National Library of Australia).