Our Lost Pygmy Tribe

by Rex Gilroy

Australasian Post, April 11, 1985

Our Lost Pygmy Tribe

The Director of the Aboriginal research Centre at Melbourne's Monash University, Mrs Eve Fesl, says she has met Aboriginal family groups which are small in stature-in comparison with other Aboriginals. "There are groups of Aboriginals in the Millgimbi area, in Arnhem Land in which the males would only come up too my shoulder.

I am small, standing about 163 cm, and as they only come up to my shoulder, they would be about 20cm smaller than I am. But, I wouldn't call them 'pygmies'-just small people." Mrs Fesl said one should be careful in describing Aboriginal groups as "tribes", or to say they were "shy".

"Since my early childhood, I was taught to be careful of strangers approaching, to run and hide when white men came near-a fear of being caught and placed in institutions. "Aboriginals are always careful with strangers and thier behaviour depends a lot on who approaches them. It is also true that even today there are Aboriginal family groups who have had very little contact with strangers.

"My careful answer would have to be: if there are Aboriginal people who haven't made contact with thee modern world-why force them? Obviously, they would like to be left alone.

Professor T. Reynolds, who is head of the Department of Anthropology at the James Cook University in Townsville {Q} said he had heard of small Aboriginal groups who allegedly live in the rainforest areas of Northern Queensland. "Stories about these small people go back at least two decades, " he said, 'but I do not have any first-hand information on them."

Warwich Dix, Acting Principle of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal studies in Canberra said there was no doubt that extremely small Aboriginals-the 'Birranbindins'-had lived in Queensland's rainforests. "But I don't think they are there now," he said, "and I don't think they could have survived undetected. But you never know."

Our Lost Pygmy Tribe

"They were 1 metre to 1.3 metres tall, black, crinkly-haired naked males, and carried spears".

That was how one startled farmer described three small natives that he saw moving through a mountainside rainforest near his Tully, north Queensland farm in January 1982. Local residents are convinced that the farmer had seen members of a "lost pygmy tribe", long reputed to inhabit the rugged mountain country behind the town.

Further South, in the mountains behind Townsville, in 1981 two bushwalkers claimed they sighted a small group of pygmy-sized, animal skin clothed natives, scavenging rainforest soil for food. Having seen the vast, taipan-infested jungles of northern Queeensland-through the Atherton Tableland to Cape York during my many wanderings as a naturalist-I can easily accept such tales. In that wild country any number of these tribes could wander unseen.

Many remote parts of Australia are not fully explored, areas so inaccessible that the tales of "lost tribes" should not always be dismissed out of hand. After all, there were still unknown Aboriginals living in remote areas of Central Australia until comparatively recent times, until Europeans first ventured into their area. And it was only about 60 years ago that an Aboriginal was found in the Bulloo Channels country of north-western New South Wales, who had never seen a white man before.

Tales of European contacts with pygmy tribes in north Queensland date back at least 100 years. Until European settlement finally drove the tribes deeper into the mountains, these natives had created a problem for the farmers with their repeated foraging raids on crops and livestock for food. Such foraging raids had become rare nowadays.

In 1914, farms in the Mareeba district inland from Cairns were having frequent pygmy raids. On one occasion a very frightened male was cornered in a stockyard by a rifle-brandishing farmer, when the little Aboriginal had tried to sneak through the farm in the early morning light, loaded with vegetables he had picked nearby. After calling out his family, to have a good look at the terrified man the farmer let his prisoner escape.

At Tully in 1942, another farmer was aroused one morning by his fowls at the rear of the house. Suspecting dogs he dashed outside with his shotgun, only to find two Aboriginals crouched in a corner of a shed. Lowering his gun he tried talking to them, but seeing they could not understand him he realised they were still wild natives. He judged their height to be just over one metre. The farmer motioned to them and go and they bolted for the nearby scrub.

In 1977, a small Army group made contact with a party of 20 pygmies while exploring an area about 80 km south of Cape York. At another location further south they later stumbled upon an abandoned pygmy camp. Here the men found tree shelters and several bark humpies. They also retrieved a number of small stone implements scattered across the soil.

Scientific interest in the pygmies was first aroused in the late 1800's, their habits being studied in 1913 by Swedish anthropologist Dr E. Mjoberg, while he was engaged in a survey of Aboriginal tribes of far north Queensland. But who were the north Queensland pygmies? One theory of anthropologists is that they are merely a smaller type of Aboriginal, their smallish size the result of generations of adaption to their rainforest environment.

Another theory, first put forward by Australian anthropologist Norman B. Tindale and American professor Joseph Birdsell in 1939, suggested their ancestors migrated to Australia thousands of years ago from south-east Asia. To support thier theory Tindale and Birdsell pointed to the general Negroid features, crinkly hair and small stature {their height rarely exceeds 1.43 metres}.

Perhaps they are related to the now extinct Tasmanian negritos, whose smallish physcial features were similar to those of these little natives. They are shy and secretive, preferring the remoter wilderness regions. According to Aboriginal traditions, they were hunted from the more open country by the fiercer Aboriginals centuries ago, forcing them to seek shelter in the more inaccessible mountainous regions of eastern Australia.

A distinctive cultural feature of these forest dwellers in the art of roasting the poisonous alkaloids from many of the seeds and nuts of the rainforest, then crushing them up and sifting the powdered remains so they can be eaten. Large piles of nutshells betray pygmy camp sites in the Queensland jungles, and stonepiles-believed to be pygmy graves-occur in many locations of these vast rainforest.

There are also numerous cave paintings, often thousands of years old, believed made by these people, hidden deep in jungle-covered rock shelters throughout the Atherton-Cape York ranges. In 1978, I made an inspection of one of these cave art sites, which besides depicting the stenciled arms and hands of these small artists, included various animals and hunting scenes of long ago.

Hard to believe, though it may seem, old settlers traditions and recent sightings claims suggest, that pygmy tribes may still exist in other eastern Australian mountain ranges. About 20 years ago, a farmer near the base of the rugged Carrai Range west of Kempsey, northern New South Wales, claimed he fired shots at a group of small Aboriginals after they had emerged from jungle to spear and butcher a cow.

Bushmen living in the Barrington Tops near Muswellbrook, northern New South Wales, last century {1800's} claimed pygmy-sized Aboriginals had been seen roaming the forests of the high country, sometimes watching cattlemen mustering stock. It was these early bushmen who first gathered information on the culture of the pygmies. They knew, for example, that these natives were more primitive than the Aboriginals, lacking the spear-thrower and boomerang and various stone tools of the Aboriginals.

In 1975, Mr Craig Francis, while mending a property fence in the Barrington mountain range foothills one day, spotted a group of small figures huddled in nearby bushes. He immediately realised he was being watched by several small Aboriginals, both males and females, some clothed in animal skins.

"I had no sooner spotted them than they turned and dashed off into the scrub", Craig told me.

Some stockman often had the uneasy feeling of being watched while mustering cattle in this scrub, and some farm hands after experiencing this feeling have often refused to work unaccompanied in lonely areas. Pygmy-sized natives claimed to have been seen in the vicinity of "the wilderness", a vast region extending for hundreds of square kilometres north of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, between Kurrajong and Singleton on its eastern side, and the Newnes district to the west.

Like most inaccessible regions of our continent, this wilderness area has been mapped from the air, but is largely unexplored on the ground. Its interior remains unknown.

In 1978, bushwalker Steve Curtis, while fighting his way through valley scrub north-west of Kurrajong, spotted smoke rising through trees ahead of him. Believing it to be another hiking party's fire he pushed on in that direction. Finally reaching the spot, he found before him three crude bark shelters. A few stone implements {which he salvaged} littered the cleared area about which were also numerous little bare human footprints. It was apparent that his noisy approach had alerted the occupants of what looked to be a modern say stone-age camp. Steve soon had the uneasy feeling that he was being watched from the surrounding forest, so he hastily left the area.

Claims of still-wild, pygmy-sized natives inhabiting this wilderness are not new. In the early 1900's two timber cutters while logging in wild country near Kurrajong came face to face with a hunting party of five small Aboriginals carrying spears and two wallabies they had killed. In 1955, a farmer living at the north-eastern tip of 'The Wilderness' near Singleton, was shocked one night when he caught two 1.3 metres tall black natives in the act of uprooting vegetables from a back paddock garden in the glare of his torch. They escaped into nearby scrub.

In the Newnes district near Lithgow seven years ago-on the western side of the wilderness-three bushmen were exploring dense forest in an isolated gully when they discovered a huge crack in a cliff big enough to walk through and which descended into a deep valley further below. As they climbed down through this crack they spotted below them a small, naked black native. Seeing the men the native fled into scrub, leaving tracks which the men found in powdery soil at the cliff base.

Nearby, etched into the wall of a rock shelter, the men later found cave paintings, stencils of human hands and arms more common to Aboriginal cave art, but much smaller than average Aboriginal examples. Were these stencils the work of ancient-Aboriginal artists, or the work of long-dead pygmies? These cave paintings were examined by me during a recent visit to the area. They are centuries old, and if indeed the work of pygmies are an indication of just how long these secretive little forest dwellers have inhabited these wild mountain ranges.