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The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser
Date: May 25, 1830
Page Number: 3
Posthumous portrait of Lang, circa 1888.
On the other hand, the Rev. John Dunmore Lang, who announced the 1830 discovery in the Sydney Press, was ill-equipped to evaluate
the find from either an intellectual or a theological viewpoint. It was his Presbyterian fundamentalist opinion that the discovery
offered 'convincing proof of the universality of the deluge'; and rushed to put his retardataire opinion before a wider audience while
on a visit to England in 1830-31. It is surely
indicative of the lack of scientific expertise in the Australian community at the time that Lang's opinion should be the first to circulate internationally -- while in Britain he submitted his Sydney Gazette letter for publication in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal.
At first the international authorities considered the bones to be from a rhinoceros or hippopotamus. In the earliest days of palaeontology, however, opinion was not consistent, and the elephant and the dugong were also considered possible candidates. In March 1837 Mitchell left Sydney for England to arrange for the publication of his journal and while there he approached his former colleague, Professor Owen.
No local authority was capable of evaluating the significance of these fossil finds, and it would be another six years before Charles
Darwin visited Sydney briefly, and almost another 30 years before his Origin of the Species was published. Eventually, however, these
Wellington Valley fossils were to have a significant impact on European biological thinking. Together with observations in South America,
Darwin was inspired to formulate the law of succession of types and, thus, evidence in favour of- evolution: 'existing animals have
a close relationship in form with extinct species ... and were first clearly observed in regard to Australia.
Despite his daring, George Rankin's name is usually eclipsed by that of Thomas Mitchell, the surveyor and explorer, who led a later expedition (which included Rankin) to the caves.
The complex, situated on the Mitchell Highway just eight kilometres south of Wellington, is one of the most significant
fossil sites in the world.
It provides a physical link to the time when the large ancestors of Australia's marsupials roamed around
the Caves area. The Caves contain the largest deposit of Plio-Pleistocene mammal fossils in Australia and are the site of the first
discovery of marsupial fossils in 1830.
The discoveries attracted international attention during the 19th century and were important
in the development of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
The professor was the most eminent British authority deferred to by the colonists, and his letter of 1838, in which he named the Diprodoton, was reprinted in Mitchell's journal. The choice of Diprodoton (meaning two protruding front teeth) defined an extinct marsupial, somewhat like a giant wombat, over three metres in length, which had lumbered trough the ancient waterholes of Australia.
Holden, R. (2001) Bunyips: Australia's Folklore of Fear. National Library of Australia: Canberra, ACT. pp 86-88.
Revelation in the Age of Bigfoot
A Naked Yowie Project Initiative
To the Editor of the Sydney Gazette.
SIR, SYDNEY, 21st MAY, 1830. I beg you will allow me a spare corner of your paper, to inform your readers that a discovery, which will doubtless excite very considerable interest in the scientific world, both in Great Britain and on the continent of Europe, has just been made in the interior of this Colony, by that very respectable Colonist and Magistrate, George Rankin, Esq. of Bathurst. The discovery I allude to is that of a great quantity of fossil bones, in a cave near the penal settlement of Wellington Valley, and about 210 miles west from Sydney.
The country in the neighbourhood of Wellington Valley is of limestone formation, and the limestone ridges are perforated by numerous subterranean caverns, branching off in every direction, and forming chambers of the most grotesque and at the same time of the most imposing appearance. The remarkable feature in the physical conformation of that part of the territory is not peculiar however to the limestone ranges of Wellington Valley. Similar caves are met with in Scotland, in Yorkshire, and in other parts of Great Britain, on the continent of Europe, in North America, and in short wherever lime-stone abounds.
In a late excursion to Wellington Valley, Mr. Rankin visited and explored a remarkable cave about two miles from the settlement, the existence of which had been known for a considerable time, and the entrance of which is in the face of the limestone range, on the south side of the river Macquarie, by a gentle declivity. Immediately beyond the entrance, the cave in question expands into a lofty and spacious chamber, the roof of which is beautifully ornamented with stalactites, many of which, however, have unfortunately been broken off by the scientific barbarians of the neighbouring settlement. In beating gently with a hammer on the sides of the cavern, the sound in one part of it indicated the existence of another chamber separated from the first by a thin partition; and accordingly, on breaking through the thin dividing wall of limestone, a second chamber was discovered, though of smaller dimensions than the first. At the farther extremity of the first chamber, Mr. R. discovered a downward passage, which he determined to explore, and which he found terminated in another cave or chamber, the entrance into which was by a precipitous descent. On lowering himself down into this third chamber, into which no mortal man had ever entered before (for the Aborigines have a superstitious repugnance to entering any cavern, saying Koppa, the spirit of the caves in the aboriginal mythology, Koppa sit down there), Mr. R. observed, to his very great surprise, a piece of bone lying on the floor of the cavern. It struck him at first that it might have belonged to some bushranger who had attempted to hide himself in the cave, and had subsequently died; but on a more minute examination, he discovered a vast number of other bones of various sizes and generally broken, some strewed on the floor of the cave, but the greater number imbedded in a sort of reddish indurated clay along its sides. The rope by
which he had lowered himself into the cavern had been fixed to what appeared a projecting point of the solid rock, but on its breaking off, in consequence of the weight attached to it, it was ascertained to be a large fossil bone Ė the thigh bone, I conceive, of some quadruped much larger than the ox or buffalo, and probably of the Irish elk, the rhinoceros, or elephant.
Mr. Rankin collected a small quantity of the bones, or rather fragments of bones, and has brought them to Sydney, with a view to their being for warded to Professor Jamieson, of the University of Edinburgh. They will doubtless excite much interest among the geologists of Great Britain, and will probably lead to interesting results, in regard to the geological history of this vast island. It may perhaps be deemed presumptuous for an individual, who has little acquaintance with the science of comparative anatomy, and none whatever with that of fossil osteology, to anticipate those results. But the discovery in question has developed certain facts of the utmost interest in regard to the past history of this continental island, from which certain inferences, which it would be difficult to dispute, are clearly deducible. Those facts and inferences I shall therefore take the liberty to submit to your readers.
1. It is quite evident that the greater number of the bones in question are not those of animals of the species at present inhabiting this territory. The aborigines are very good authority on this point in the absence of such men as M. le Baron Cuvier, Professor Jamieson, or Professor Buckland, for when shown several of the bones, and asked if they belonged to any of the species at present inhabiting the territory, they uniformly replied, Bail that belongit to kangaroo, Bail that belongit to emu, &c. &c.
2. It is equally evident that the bones in question have been brought to their present locality by some beast of prey ; for no other supposition will account for the cavern's becoming the general cemetery for animals so various in size, and so different in habits, as those to which they must have once belonged.
3. It is not less evident that the animals that owned these bones could not have died a natural death, for most of them have evidently been subjected to great violence, and exhibit fractures in every direction. The floor of the cavern is strewed over with a sort of dust, consisting of minute fragments of decomposed bone, which burns readily when ignited.
In short, there is reason to believe that the cave at Wellington Valley is somewhat similar to the one which Professor Buckland examined at Kirkham, in the north of England, and which he ascertained, be- yond the possibility of doubt, to have been the den of a hyśna (of the variety now existing only at the southern extremity of Africa) before the deluge. Both of these caves are in limestone ranges. They both contain innumerable fragments of fossil bone, deeply imbedded in stalagmiteĖthe substance formed from the droppings of water in caverns of the kind in questionĖor in indurated clay. I cannot pretend, however, to describe either the nature or the relative position of the substance in which the bones at Wellington Valley are imbedded, having only seen a minute portion of it adhering to one of the bones.
From these ascertained facts, I conceive we are warranted to deduce the following inferences :
1. That this vast island is not of recent or post-diluvian formation, as is generally asserted, without the least shadow of evidence.
2. That at some former period of its history it was inhabited by various races of animals that are either extinct or no longer existing in this part of the world.
3. That the physical convulsion that destroyed these various races of animals did not materially change the external appearance of the country; for the wild beasts' (probably the hyśna's) den at Wellington Valley has in all likelihood the very same appearance that it had when inhabited upwards of four thousand years ago.
While this very interesting discovery supplies us, therefore, with another convincing proof of the reality and the universality of the deluge, it supplies us also with a powerful motive of gratitude to Di- vine Providence for that long-forgotten visitation. For if this territory were over-run with such beasts of prey as the antediluvian inhabitants of the cave at Wellington Valley, it would not have been so eligible a place for the residence of man as it actually is. The tiger or hyśna would have been a much more formidable enemy to the Bathurst settler than the despicable native dog, though indeed they would certainly have afforded a much nobler game to the gentlemen of the Bathurst Hunt. And if the huge rhinoceros had inhabited the lagoons of Hunter's River, it might have been a much more serious work to displace him than to shoot the pelican or emu.
I cannot conclude this letter without expressing my unfeigned regret that while this territory is becoming daily more and more interesting to the geographer and geologist, to the man of science as well as to the agriculturist and the merchant, the interesting youth of Australia should hitherto have been debarred, in consequence of their want of instruction in the various branches of Natural History and Natural Philosophy, from prosecuting the numerous and interesting paths of discovery which this vast island presents to every man of science and research. Could a Lecture not be established in Sydney under the patronage of the Sydney College! There are surely men in this Colony not less able than our brethren in Van Diemen's Land, to give a course of Lectures that would interest, instruct, and stimulate the youth of Australia! I should like, for instance, if your able Correspondent Rus would fix himself for a while for this purpose in urbe. He would then deserve the appellation which he has hitherto, perhaps, rather inaccurately assumed.
I am, Sir, your obedient Servant,
[L = Rev. John Dunmore Lang]