The History of the Great Barrier Reef

Research indicates that the coral rock that forms the base of the modern Great Barrier Reef is mostly about 2 million years old, although in some northern parts the reef’s foundations date back to more than 18 million years.

In today’s living Great Barrier Reef, the corals are much younger and have developed within the past 18,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age. Many of the areas that support the reef today were part of the land during the last Ice Age. As the global temperatures increased, the ice melted and retreated back to the poles and mountain tops, the sea levels rose to their present levels. This created an ideal habitat for corals to develop along the tops of what used to be the coastline.

Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef Region and have lived adjacent to the reef for more than 50,000 years. The Indigenous tribes have dream stories about the sea country portraying stories from their ancestors who lived on the coastal plains near the edge of the continental shelf. This area was covered by the last sea rise 15,000 years ago, forming the Great Barrier Reef. Different aspects of the marine environment are depicted in their storytelling, art spirituality, music and dance of the coastal Indigenous people.

Sacred places on the Great Barrier Reef and accounts of the past provide a connection to traditional clan areas and the heritage of the Great Barrier Reef. Indigenous people used to travel through the reef waters to collect resources and trade with other clan groups, sometimes island hopping, or travelling long distances in outrigger canoes using the wind and constellations as navigation. Fishing in the Great Barrier Reef has been practiced for thousands of years by indigenous groups living along the coast of the reef.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners hold a vast knowledge of the marine environment, marine animals and reef habitats.  So much so, that indigenous people have been influenced by their natural reef environment and marine animals in many ways.  Dugong, turtle and fish are still a principal part of their diet and hold particular importance for feastings and ceremonies. In some communities, people fish and hunt to provide food for their families.

Marine animals are totems for some traditional owner groups. A bird, reptile or fish may be adopted as a family clan emblem. Images of sea creatures and other animals are carved in wood and engraved on combs and shells.

Turtle shells have been used for different purposes sometimes being made into fish hooks and used on ceremonial masks. Traditional dancing is an important social activity for both indigenous men and women, sometimes the dance will imitate marine creatures.

Indigenous groups are currently working with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in creating Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements. The traditional owners are working together with marine management agencies to develop culturally appropriate strategies for the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef.