“Harry Butler’s got nothing on me,” she said, a little self-consciously, before negotiating the muddy opening of the place scientists believe is too precious to flood. There were several minutes of silence as Ms Langford and three other members of the Tasmania Aboriginal Centre wandered about in what is a nearly inaccessible and almost perfectly preserved stone age home.
“You can sense the spirit here,” Mike Mansell, a member of the party, said. “This is the sort of stuff we need to get the dreaming back. We have been cut off from the past.”
More than 15,000 years ago, Mr Mansell’s ancestors, people who had walked across what is now Bass Strait to Tasmania, were similarly cut off when the ice age ended.
They occupied Fraser cave, archeologists believe, for about 5000 years, and have left behind more than 100,000 artefacts as clues to their battle with wild animals and a glacier-covered environment.
In just one dig of a cubic metre near the mouth of the cave, experts have unearthed 80,000 stone artefacts and claim many more remain. They say about 1000 species of insects, not known to science, exist in the vicinity, along with “Biglandulosum”, a second cave said to be potentially more important than Fraser cave.
If the Tasmanian Government has its way, it will all be under 50 metres of water as part of a $453 million plan to create a 178 mega-watt dam on the Gordon-below-Franklin River.
Mr Mansell, in common with many of Australia’s leading scientists, cannot understand the decision. “Every race of people strives to respect and preserve its heritage, not destroy it,” he said. “Can’t they see this is a beautiful place? If anything in Tasmania is a sacred site, this is it.”
Mr Mansell. 31, of Hobart, leaned against the limestone wall of the cave and gazed into the rainforest where glaciers once existed.
“She’s a moving place, all right, because of the people who once lived here,” he said. “It gets to you a bit when you’re inside. You can sort of feet their presence.”
Fraser cave is as big as a suburban house, about 20 squares. Carbon-dating shows it was first occupied by man about 19,500 years ago, before human beings arrived in the Americas, and more than 12,000 years before Egyptians began settling along the Nile.
At that time the Antarctic Ice sheet was just 1000 kilometres south of Tasmania, the average temperature was about six degrees lower than it is today, and Bass Strait was a huge, grassy ridge linking Melbourne with Launceston.
About 4500 years later, the ice began to melt and the sea engulfed the southern tip of the mainland, isolating its inhabitants for the longest period in history — around 15,000 years, until Abel Tasman sailed into the Roaring Forties.
As the ice age ended, rainforest covered Fraser cave, closing it off as a “frozen camp site”, until 1977 when a Hobart geomorphologist, Dr. Kevin Kiernan, stumbled on it while rafting down the Franklin.
Archeologists, like Professor John Mulvaney, from the Australian National University, believe the site is in the top five in the world. They liken Fraser cave to the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa and the famous French Dordogne valley system.
It is regarded as the most significant find on the western Pacific rim, and marks the beginning of the southern-most extension of man’s spread on the globe.
It is considered amazing that man managed to live there and hunt wallabies, wombats and possums with primitive stone weapons and little or no protection from freezing conditions.
According to Dr. Kiernan, “we Europeans are only young invaders — we have only been here 150 years and we are rapidly destroying it”.
Older remains of human life have been found in Australia, one in Keilor, an outer Melbourne suburb, but none are nearly as intact or complete as Fraser cave.
It holds the secrets of man’s earliest survival in the southern hemisphere, and to flood it, the experts say, is an act of vandalism. They dismiss as nonsense claims by the Federal Government that the area can be fully excavated or preserved before the controversial dam is built.
Yesterday, Ms Langford, 35, and Mr Mansell were adamant they would fight to retain the Franklin valley. “The best way to do that is to get people here so they know what is at stake,” Mr Mansell said. “This place has literally got to be defended.”
According to Mr Mansell, none of the Aboriginal party felt strange entering the cave yesterday. “We felt part of it,” he said. “Everything else we have seen has buildings around it – this is in its natural state. It is so pointless to destroy it.“
Ms Langford picked at the ferns and moss covering the entrance to Fraser cave and said she had trouble putting into words just how she felt about the site.
“It is just so incredible that something is left after all these years,” she said.
When the party first entered the cave yesterday morning, they began imagining how their forebears, 900 generations away, would have lived. “We usually laugh and joke, yet all of a sudden everyone became serious,” Mr Mansell said. “We weren’t sure what to expect but now I’m here I can see how those people lived a very full life.“
There are 11 proven archaeological sites in the Franklin basin, including more than 20 caves, many of them still to be fully explored.
There is no doubt the area is a goldmine of pre-history, perhaps even more important than the wilderness area also threatened by the dam. Walking around the site yesterday it seemed ironic that the very remoteness which has so far kept the Franklin intact, is now making it a prime target for Tasmania’s dam-happy Hydro Electric Commission. The Tasmanian Premier, Mr Gray, is able to call the area a “leech-ridden ditch” because no more than a handful of people have so far seen what Fraser cave has to offer.
It is an anomaly which the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre hopes to correct. They plan to take people into the cave as soon as the State’s National Parks and Wildlife Department begins a walking track early in the new year.