Journal of Australian Studies, Vol. 34, No.
3, September 2010, 377Á398
A LECTURE BY THE RETURNING CHAIR OF AUSTRALIAN STUDIES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY 2008 09
Australian archaeology as a historical science
University of Queensland and University of New England, Australia ‘Archaeologists make up stories about the past, but not just any stories.’ Archaeological stories are written principally from the interpretation of material remains. Increasingly we also use evidence from a variety of other sources, such as genetics and linguistics. In Australia, as in other countries colonised from Europe, the stories are about the past of Indigenous peoples and so are generally believed to have an important relationship with the ethnographic description of traditional behaviour. But the relationship is not straightforward. Ethnographic accounts show that there are oral and other histories that account for the way those people are. For this reason, archaeological histories are not always easily adopted by Aboriginal Australians, particularly as they are, in almost all cases, written by non-Aboriginal people. I suggest that an alternative approach is to look at the record of ethnographies and historical material culture around Australia as indicating what is to be explained through the analysis of archaeological materials, just as geneticists and linguists begin from the analysis of the variation in modern samples. An archaeological approach to the diversity of peoples in Australia requires an understanding of the symbolic construction of identity in the past. But symbols, because of their very nature, are difficult to interpret, so special care is needed to work out how the diversity was constructed, and attention needs to be paid to different scales of analysis. Archaeology has proceeded rather as other sciences proceed, by putting up hypotheses, testing them, and moving on to the next hypothesis once the test is satisfactorily conducted. The conclusions must be understood as historical though the methods of arriving at them are like the process of science. In this regard, just as an unchanging Dreaming is said to be successively revealed as new claims are established, so archaeological history, too, is successively revealed. Keywords: Australian archaeology; historical narrative; hypothesis testing; science; demography
Australian archaeology at Harvard It is an immense privilege to have held the Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard. I begin by recognising my two predecessors who held that Chair in Archaeology, both far more distinguished than me: John Mulvaney (1984Á85), who founded the discipline in Australia, and Rhys Jones (1995Á96), whose many contributions included making the narrative accessible, often with some of the most beautiful historical writing in Australia. And there is a third predecessor, the zoologist, now
ISSN 1444-3058 print/ISSN 1835-6419 online # 2010 International Australian Studies Association DOI: 10.1080/14443058.2010.498494 http://www.informaworld.com
public intellectual, Tim Flannery (1998Á99). These three have made a common central contribution to Australian archaeology in that they created strong narratives of the history of people before writing in Australia. I recently criticised the latest synthesis of Australian archaeology suggesting that it relates no central narrative.1 I will argue here that there must be a narrative to be told, and that we approach an understanding of it stepwise by advancing hypotheses and testing them on new evidence rather in the manner of science. John Mulvaney wrote the first synthesis of Australian archaeology in his book The Prehistory of Australia. Rhys Jones was the Druidic bard of Australian archaeology, and Tim Flannery, through his argument that people have been destructive in the Australian environment, made us realise that the deep history of people has relevance to understanding the present the better to deal with the future, something that I agree with very strongly.2 Mulvaney’s contributions are many and great and generally well known: the first date showing the colonisation of Australia took place in the Pleistocene Ice Ages,3 the first synthesis of Australian prehistory based on archaeological evidence, his long contribution to heritage with major contributions to nominating World Heritage Areas in Lake Mungo, Kakadu and The South West forests of Tasmania,4 and his long support for Aboriginal interests. So my examples here are trivial by comparison, but fit with my theme of the hypothesis testing, constructive nature of the history derived from archaeological evidence. I call such history ‘archaeohistory’. In his first synthesis, Mulvaney drew maps of the distribution of stone tool types, such as the tula adze that was fundamental to woodworking in arid zones (Figure 1), drawing attention, thereby to the variation that could be discerned in the archaeological record. By the time of his third edition, thirty years later, archaeological work had filled in some of the gaps. Knowledge was produced as a hypothesis and modified by subsequent discovery. But we can go further. Ian McNiven found tula slugs outside the distribution in his research,5 and it is or was quite easy to find out from the Queensland database (I worked with Malcolm Connelly on this) that tulas have been found outside this distribution in consultancy. If we suppose that such distributions are a significant component of the narrative (and we may not), then such findings are highly significant and would suggest that there have been major results from the billion dollar commercial archaeology industry. The truth, alas, is more disappointing. In 1982 White and O’Connell cited two reports in a bibliography of 775 references, in 1999 Mulvaney and Kamminga cited six reports to developers and eight to government departments in a bibliography of 735 references, but in 2008, Hiscock cited no unpublished reports in about 730 references.6 Clearly the story has not changed radically as a result of the huge expenditure on archaeological surveys in the Environmental Impact Assessment process. Rhys Jones began his work in Tasmania,7 and Carmel Schrire wrote of this:
. . . a soul invigorates Jones’ vision of Tasmania Á from its Pleistocene beginnings in a glaciated land, through the knell of the returning sea, to the final shores of Flinders Island Á and invests it with a humanity seldom glimpsed in archaeological renditions of the human past.8
But his early work was to establish the pattern of first occupation of Australia,9 when, on remarkably slight evidence, he argued that people (whom he called ‘man’)
36. The Prehistory of Australia. 1969. The Prehistory of Australia. (B) From I.J. Maps of the distribution of tula adzes (shown in (E) in an unworn and a worn out state). Mulvaney. or 2 cm a year. Thames and Hudson. and for a 15.
colonised rapidly into all environments of Australia. and the modelling of past environments has improved out of sight. Allen and Unwin. St Leonards.000 they were in the central deserts and people were navigating in the seas off the north east of New Guinea with relative ease. (A) From D. and (D) Created by I. This low sea-level joined Australia and New Guinea into a continent of Sahul for most of the last 100. London.
. Davidson and M. though they were not far off both of those. (C) From D. Kamminga. no. except grassland and temperate rainforest. Australian Archaeology. ‘Tula adzes and bifacial points on the east coast of Australia’. The first colonisation can be put in the context of the known pattern of climate change during the human history in Australia (Figure 2).000 years. Although the technology of mapping changed. and sea-levels were down to 120 m lower than today.000 Á most. The ‘knell of the returning sea’ saw sea-level rise about 120 metres over 6 millennia. McNiven. Connelly. Mulvaney and J. 1999.Journal of Australian Studies
Figure 1. the story of relatively rapid colonisation has remained quite constant10 and the language no longer excludes women. 1993.000 year period of the time of the maximum extent of polar and mountain glaciers in the ‘glaciated land’ (known generally as the Last Glacial Maximum) they were about 88C cooler. Recent work shows fundamentally the same story as Jones put it forty years ago:11
people were in most habitats in Australia by 40. And by 30. We know that temperatures have been at least 48C cooler for most of the time people have been in Australia.
-M.R. J. Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420. Pepin.16 long after people were in Australia and Timor. and ´ M. Chappellaz. M. Delmotte.000 years before. Morwood has suggested a northern route that is more consistent with the other evidence from the palaeontological record. G. Delayque.380
I. Homo floresiensis. I suggest. Barkov.000 years using data from the Antarctic Ice Cores (Petit et al. Jouzel. J. Timor. may have been colonised from Australia. M. Barnola. L. V. who was not ancestral to us. and recognising the vicious currents that make it unlikely that very early hominins could have accidentally rafted to Flores along a southern route through Bali and Lombok. Legrand. Basile. Stievenard. 1999].000 years ago although they had probably left Africa more than 40. said that a bamboo raft could be made with ‘minimal cutting technology’ by ‘lashing’ poles together. and Flores colonised subsequently from the east. Lorius. earlier than the colonisation of Australia. there is some genetic evidence18 that the early human populations of Bali seem more likely to represent a colonisation from further east in Indonesia or from Melanesia. identified the apparently easiest routes to Australia thus revealing the extent of the maritime achievement that the colonisation of Australia represents. Bill Noble and I pointed out how difficult it was to find evidence. Raynaud. Second.
Long ago. D. First. M. no. E. Joseph Birdsell. Y. Mike Morwood set out to find the earliest evidence of human ancestors in the islands of Indonesia. Saltzman.000 years from the Vostok ice core. Kotlyakov. M. C.17 In support of this argument.
. 399. Davis. M. Antarctica. I. Nature. a Harvard PhD. One view would be that the finds in Flores have been misinterpreted and do. J. Modern humans appeared there only after 11.15 As a result. indicate the passage of modern humans along the southern route.14 For this and other reasons the watercraft represented very early evidence for the cognitive abilities associated with language. however. Homo floresiensis. Pattern of changes of temperature over the last 140. somehow. Petit. of artefacts that involved tying things together.12 Jones. [J. Bender. Lipenkov. Ritz. 1999). discovering both a new species of hominin. I. V. Another would be that they demonstrate that the southern route was not taken. C. survived on Flores until 17.000 years ago. N. Davidson
Figure 2.13 There were two consequences of this setting out of these hypotheses.
Baynes. M. S. Science. Quaternary Science Reviews. Wroe and J. L. Laslett. T.000 years shows animals that survived at that date. in what we might now call the FlanneryÁRoberts Extinction Window. At 60. H.Journal of Australian Studies
Tim Flannery. (2001) and Wroe and Field (2006).
. First. pp. Olley. J. M. After 164. [R. Ayliffe. K. At 50. M. ‘A review of the evidence for a human role in the extinction of Australian Megafauna and an alternative explanation’. has written several things related to the archaeology of Australia.000 years. G.000 years shows animals known to have been present when humans arrived. Jones. Flannery argued that the extinctions happened rapidly. 1888Á92. Flannery. A. Smith. Those species that are extinct are indicated in black. Before 164. the third of my predecessors in the Harvard Chair. New ages for the last Australian megafauna: Continent-wide extinction about 46. A. Smith.000 years.
Figure 3. most notably beginning with his attempt to solve the intractable problem of the extinction of the giant fauna Á the megafauna Á of the continent. 2001. Dating from Roberts et al. Yoshida.000 shows animals dated to that early time. vol. F. and B.19 Flannery published an image (Figure 3) showing the apparent extinction of all of the largest animals known in Australia which was hugely influential and a major component of his crusade to demonstrate that the human impact on Australian ecosystems has been destructive. some of the species in Flannery’s image have not been dated within the last 160. Prideaux.21 Then there was another bout of extinction in the ten millennia before humans arrived.G. the Tasmanian tiger and devil are shown in grey. 2006. In addition. no. image as shown in Flannery 1990. R.20 It turns out that the story is a little more complicated than this. Images of Australian mammals. J. G. L. early in the time of people. and others were extinct shortly afterwards. Roberts. 2692Á703]. Field. 292. 25.000 years ago. pp.
and tigers became extinct in Tasmania too. at least in part. to delve deeply into these disciplines. Subsequent research has demonstrated that there are several issues arising from this: first. and. Tasmanian tigers and devils eventually died out on the mainland. the relation with speech and language production is complex because induced point mutations in mice affect motor learning29 but animals genetically modified to ‘humanise’ their Foxp2 genes by the introduction of the two amino acids that emerged in evolution.32 I will pass over the problems associated with demographic studies from molecular genetic evidence. and neural control of the musculature associated with speech seem fundamental to the emergence of language. If we do not pay attention to the interaction between these sources of narrative.23 second.34 For more than 20 years we have been familiar with the argument that all people can trace their ancestry to a small number of people. whenever there is a television documentary that discusses the emergence of language. the gene occurs widely in animals including birds. the language deficit arises from a specific mutation in the gene. or indeed the expertise.382
I. at its most extreme might be said to have increased in rate after the arrival of humans. The continuous nature of this process of extinction shatters the glass in the Flannery-Roberts extinction window. on 7 September 1936. But I will say a little about two other issues where archaeological evidence has some contribution to make. but Flannery’s case is also undermined by the late survival of megafauna at Cuddie Springs and Seton Cave. the process of extinction is (still) a continuous one. who have an apparently genetically determined disorder that affected their speech. rather uncritically. but elsewhere. not only in Australia and New Guinea. or indeed one woman Á whom journalists call ‘the Mitochondrial Eve’ Á in Africa some
.28 third. then the story of the past will be impoverished. but suffice it to say that both of them offer methods of reconstructing something of the history of the deep past without particular reference to the archaeological record.27 though some caution is advised in the last case.33 though some of these involve arguments about Australia.30 FOXP2 is not a gene for language or speech but synaptic plasticity. exploratory behaviour. The story emerges.24 mice. and our own storytelling powers. Language emergence is. due to the emergence of powerful analytical techniques in genetics and linguistics. and in doing so show important aspects of the way in which genetic variation changes with distance from the origin of modern humans in Africa. an archaeological issue31 and in which the first colonisation of Australia may be relevant. also showed changes in their vocalisations.22
Sources of evidence about the past Genetics Recent years have seen the emergence of what might be an existential crisis for archaeology. I do not have time. Geneticists have the capacity to make inferences from their data which can show the patterning of human colonisation of the world. were found to have a mutation on the gene known as FOXP2. in their patterns of exploratory behaviour. The field was given a dramatic start when some members of a family.26 and Neandertals.25 other primates. Davidson
In fact. and where there are implications for archaeology which are not necessarily those that are usually mentioned. and in the synaptic plasticity in their basal ganglia.
Linguistics When we turn to linguistics. which includes evidence from archaeology. Importantly.Journal of Australian Studies
time after 200. at least.40 I interpret this to suggest that it makes sense to consider one colonisation of Sahul along its north coast and another south of the New Guinea Highlands.36 A new study of the mtDNA in the bone from the tip of a human little finger produced a story that will take a while to strike home. First we will never be able to analyse fossils to extract ‘ancient syntax’ as molecular geneticists extract ‘ancient DNA’. but I will do so anyway. and about 700
. This chimes in with a study of a region of Chromosome 6 which showed coalescence back more than two million years. and could be fitted to one available interpretation of the fossil record (and with manageable difficulty for the interpretation of the archaeological record of human accomplishments). because this. There is knowledge of more than 250 languages on the mainland subdivided (by some) into 27 families.41 while New Guinea had 200 languages in the Austronesian family. Several studies now converge to suggest that some of the genetic variation (known as Haplogroup Q) to the north of New Guinea seems to have been isolated from Australian genetic variation since first settlement. the genetic analysis produces hypotheses that can be tested using independent evidence. the content of languages may contain clues about the behaviour that people spoke about and we have reasonably complete maps of language distributions which allow us to understand something about populations as they were at 1788 (or thereabouts).000 years ago.39 The moral is that we should be cautious before going all out and opting for one interpretation of genetic data without archaeological support. there is a similar story with many detailed and complex pieces of evidence. perhaps. there are several fundamental differences from genetics. so that one of the tasks of an archaeological study is to explain how the Australian continent (Sahul) came to have so many languages. while Haplogroup P seems to have shown some minor sharing between the islands of Australia and New Guinea which are islands now but were not then.37 The study suggested that the root of the connection to the mtDNA of all of the rest of us was more than a million years old. in a manner probably different from genetic analysis. But the comfortable story is beginning to be questioned. adventurous in this context to refer approvingly to results of studies of mtDNA. a time when the genus Homo had not emerged and there were not even any stone tools. Sahul was first colonised by a small number of people speaking a small number of languages. But. seems to be consistent with studies of other parts of the genome Á and there is no possibility of admixture with earlier human ancestors. and there seems to be strong evidence for assimilation of migrating African populations with pre-existing populations outside Africa. The appropriate way of talking about this is to say that the genetics suggest a hypothesis with several implications that can be explored through archaeological evidence. In the spirit of what I am saying.35 This argument was based primarily on the analysis of the DNA in mitochondria of modern humans.38 Other studies confirm that the picture is much more complicated when more areas of the genome are considered. It is. indeed one authority has been quoted as describing ‘the entire field as a series of anecdotes ranging from the plausible and interesting to the absurd’.
55 Stephanie Moser dissected such views (and her analysis was used effectively by Hiscock) and analysed the inconsistencies between the archaeological evidence and the representations in one imaginative reconstruction of what it might have been like at Lake Mungo tens of millennia ago. so that they can take ownership of the story that archaeology can tell. in the ecologically rich north and northwest of the continent. and still is. Several analyses attempt to link PN expansion to elements of the archaeology. there are good oral histories in different Aboriginal communities which tell stories of how they ‘came to be’ in historical terms. particularly emphasising social relationships. We now know that the principal determinant of the view was a naivety about the way in which the archaeological record in such sites reflects the behaviour of people. And the biggest challenge in archaeology in Australia is to engage with Aboriginal people whose history this is. the major adaptations to the continent had been made by 30. to try to mimic those stories as they are in such literature. and generally after there had been substantial destruction of those societies by what Walter Roth referred to as ‘privation.44 Comparative analysis of the PN languages through the words for social.56 In the image. The pitfalls can be illustrated by an incautious comment by Rhys Jones discussing the emerging evidence from Lake Mungo: ‘the distinctive Australian economy was already in train and . disease. then. Davidson
Papuan languages in about 60 families. .52 Even among such ravaged societies. as well as a broader set of cognates48 have shown that many aspects of the patterning of behaviour across Australia can be reconstructed.51 They are mostly accounts of how Australians and New Guineans were when Europeans first described them.45 botanical.46 and technological47 features.54 Although Jones otherwise rejected the nineteenth and early twentieth century view that Aborigines were an ‘unchanging people in an unchanging environment’. The subject matter is different and the nature of explanations will also be different. mostly the apparent changes of the last 5000 years. There may indeed have been great continuity. except that the work at Mungo arose from research which was based on showing that there has been a consistently changing environment.50 I suggest that there is a central task that faces those of us who want to write a narrative of the history of Australia before the arrival of Europeans Á how did all that diversity emerge in Australia alone. alcohol and lead’. To remain the same.384
I.49 though these changes are less coherent than it once seemed. Oral history and archaeology The problem with writing such a narrative has always been that there are perfectly good descriptions of how people have behaved in Australia without the use of methods invented by the Europeans who came here. . the animal species were shown accurately Á and that was really what Jones was talking about Á and it showed people using nets to catch fish which is probably appropriate57 but to show people using a
.53 The great fallacy of archaeology has been. he slipped up here. the non-PN languages.42 The Pama-Nyungan (PN) languages of Australia43 occupy (or occupied) about 80 percent of the country with the remainder.000 years ago’. and especially in Australia and New Guinea? No narrative of change in the archaeological record of the greater Australian continent begins to approach an account of the emergence of this diversity. while all around was changing would have been a remarkable achievement.
[Davidson. that reflects what happened in the past must be that the history of people in Australia shows how they were a changing people in changing environments. Stone hatchets were certainly of importance within the last 1000 years. I. Ross. Paton. Canberra: Aboriginal History Inc.Journal of Australian Studies
stone axe is several thousand years too early here. Macfarlane. 101Á128. A.’’ in Many exchanges: archaeology. Fischer. and S. huts. sexual division of labour and initiation scars were all injected into the scene from the ethnography.-J. J. Ridges. M. and R. D. Mount Isa. Mountain. J. M. Tamworth.. We have been able
Figure 4. Moore Creek. personal ornaments. 2005. therefore. but this was an achievement of late prehistory. Edited by I. community and the work of lsabel McBryde. not a given from the time of first colonisation. adapting in remarkable ways to the challenges and opportunities of their surroundings.58 and clothing. Tumut. Cook. Sutton. ‘‘Archaeology in another country: exchange and symbols in North West Central Queensland. history. Melbourne. pp. Sources can be found in Davidson et al. This forced the viewer to think of the people as unchanging and thus reinforced stereotypes of what makes up ‘Aboriginalness’ which generally have not been faithful to the archaeological past or to the benefit of modern Aboriginal peoples. clockwise from North and West: Lake Moondara. N. M. Distribution of axes from major quarries in eastern Australia.59 My research in a small part of the region of exchanges of axes (marked by a rectangle in Figure 4) has contributed to an understanding of this. Mt William. (2005). Aboriginal History Monographs 11. and the trade in them created massive connections from north to south of Australia. The central narrative.]
000 years ago. that in the two places where there are both ethnographic and rock art images there has been change in the types of watercraft available in different regions. one for the anthropomorphs (Figure 5A) and one for the other motifs (Figure 5B).000 links. telling me (and in Mrs Hansen’s case singing with accompanying sand drawings) Dreaming stories which crossed the region and reflect the movements recorded by Walter Roth in the 1890s. My friends Tom Sullivan. The question is whether orally transmitted knowledge might on occasion take us back that far. the archaeological evidence complements the ethnographic evidence. The Tasmanians had no watercraft capable of crossing Bass Strait.61 Analysis of ochres in the paints from the Selwyn Ranges shows that ochres were traded into a region where there were other ochre quarries that were themselves used for paints.000 until 14. Isobel Tarrago and her mother Mrs Hansen worked ´. but what both sources show is that the whole region was connected by trade and by social interactions mediated through the telling of stories that related people and places. The calculations were formidable involving 33. Thus the art may well have been part of the whole network of social relations that connected the Gulf of Carpentaria to Lake Eyre. but no inhabitant of Tasmania had seen any person from outside the island since it was cut off by the rising seas 14. Davidson
to show.62 In this case. and produced a highly patterned outcome. that the traded axes were used as they passed through the region. Around Australia the historical evidence of watercraft shows few that were much more substantial except where there had been contact with New Guinea. and then from just before 40. strongly suggesting that the exchange of materials was for social rather than utilitarian reasons. Malcolm Ridges. The few rock art images do not suggest anything much more robust. When the Tasmanians witnessed the arrival of Abel Tasman in November 1642 they had never before seen a European. By replicating the craft made from tied bundles of reeds. earlier than the arrival of people in Sahul. It is the case.
. Rhys Jones and Jim Allen graphically demonstrated in the Tom Hayden film The Last Tasmanian? that they were not suitable for travel in the open sea. though.386
I. He used the database developed for the Honours thesis of another student Á June Ross Á together with the power of the Geographic Information System he had developed for all of our Selwyn data. but also suggests that there may have been a time perhaps more than 1000 years ago when the situation was quite different. The French scientists of the Peron expedition visiting Tasmania in the early nineteenth century drew pictures of their boats. took on the task of making a systematic comparison. When I began looking in the same region at aspects of rock art motifs that were similar between sites Á such as similar fern head dresses among the anatomical design elements of the human-like figures or anthropomorphs Á one of my students. or rather two patterns. This we take as suggesting that the art was involved in promoting social cohesion within the group and in expressing external links with other groups. I have much to say on this. but will confine myself to one example from Tasmania.000 years before Á at the end of the last Ice Age. and that local raw materials were also used to make axes. with me on my research in North West Queensland.000 years ago.63 Dry land access to Tasmania was only possible briefly before 60. by geological analysis of the sources.60 This story is not identical to the one we could construct from the archaeology.
. (A) Anthropomorphic images from Selwyn Ranges showing variations on a similar pattern. Photos Iain Davidson. Photos Iain Davidson.Journal of Australian Studies
Figure 5. (B) Non-anthropomorphic images from the Selwyn Ranges.
This suggests that. . There is patterning but the nature of that patterning cannot be predicted for any given situation.
The natives of the East Coast have a tradition that this Island was settled by emigrants from a far country. historical traditions retain good information for the last 5 generations. Robinson reported.68 One view is that there is not much archaeological evidence of symbol use early in Australian colonisation. . [New Holland] in which case the tradition would be true.70 In addition the most abundant evidence of symbol use comes from rock art.72 Another view is that ‘modern human behaviour’ consists of a whole ‘package’ of traits.
Archaeology and symbols I have spent much of the last 25 years exploring the importance of symbols in the archaeological record.66 By analysing and cross-checking an enormous range of evidence Á 186 genealogies from 86 tribes Á in Highland New Guinea. archaeologists have been reluctant to commit to hypotheses that depend on claims about the antiquity of rock art. or 50 times as long. that there was a tradition of dry land crossing.69 more sites have symbolic evidence among the early sites than among later ones.D.65 Just how astonishing this was can be seen from the work of Wiessner and Tumu reporting on the orally transmitted knowledge of the Enga of the New Guinea Highlands. as Robinson described it. but this is notoriously difficult to date.
. for aught we know V. it is extremely unlikely that accurate information is retained in oral histories for more than a couple of hundred years.73 Others disagree74 but in any case the ‘package’ view ignores the distinctive feature of modern human behaviour that. as he travelled around the island bringing in the last people living in the bush.L.67 about the trimming of kinship genealogies when they get more than 12 generations long.64
If we are to believe that the tradition was indeed ‘true’. that the sea was subsequently formed. the Tasmanians were isolated for more than 500 generations.H.75 The most important feature of the ‘package’ of modern human behaviour is that there is no package. and genealogies may go back 10 generations (8Á14). that they came here on land. by comparison with the behaviour of any other species. These numbers are supported by evidence from elsewhere.388
I. . Davidson
The isolation of Tasmanians had been a matter of curiosity in the nineteenth century. By comparison. although material signs such as rock art may act as mnemonics. such as in Africa. then it was astonishing. The first colonists of Australia can be shown to have had symbolic communication and thought. and that these cannot be found together in early Australian sites. with the consequence that the extent of the evidence for early symbol use is underestimated. they showed that flexibility was part of their behavioural repertoire. [Van Dieman’s Land] might at an early period have been joined to N.71 As a result of the dating difficulties. they have shown that oral traditions preserved information which could be cross checked across tribes back 7Á8 generations. it is flexible. the histories constructed could be tied to the known dates for the introduction of the sweet potato or the eruption of a volcano in the seventeenth century. and in their ability to cope rapidly with novel environments. long before there was any evidence to that effect. In the best of cases.
77 On the other hand. If we accept that there were a million Aboriginal people in 178883 and that we know the likely date of first arrival of people84 then we can calculate the growth rate over that period. Shell ornaments seem likely to have marked something about personal relationships.78 The archaeological evidence synthesised in the databases of radiocarbon dates collected by Sean Ulm and Jill Reid79 and by Mike Smith and others80 shows that for most Australian regions. the marking of places through painting and/or engraving probably indicated both to members of the society and to outsiders what was the relationship of the artists to their country. The first step has been to understand the way in which the first colonists of Sahul adapted to the new continent. I believe this is the default hypothesis. Although there are many other factors that contribute to the small numbers of sites. possibly at the level of roles within social groups. the numbers of sites in any 5. Jo McDonald.00010/yr or 0. Using the same formula we can calculate the total population of Australia at that growth rate. A much longer argument concerns the importance of symbols in successful adaptation particularly to the hazardous variations of Australian environments. Nikki Stern. from Puritjarra in Central Australia. These well documented sequences across the north. so we know how long after first landfall that was. if the initial colonists were 20 people.
. This differentiation of art styles relatively early in the northern part of the continent makes the point that symbolism was used to mark some aspect of identity over areas much wider than the sporadic occurrences of sites which have produced personal ornaments or fragments of ochre. Mike Smith estimated that there were between one half and five artefacts per year in the whole shelter for every year of use before 10. we may leave out some of the most important elements of the achievements of the first Australians. symbols seem likely to have conveyed information important to the successful colonisation of the arid and semi-arid regions. And I think it is supported by some bizarre aspects of the demography of Australians. It is very small.81 Given that Gould estimated that one man alone in the arid zone might have used 23 adze flakes during a year82 it is highly likely that use of the rockshelter was at best intermittent. and Peter Veth76 we have explored the implications of the surviving symbolic evidence.000 year period were very small (Figure 6) and this is confirmed by the small numbers of stone artefacts found at sites. perhaps in the order of 0. because if we do not.000 years ago. We have advanced the argument that the well documented art sequences across northern Australia indicate an early symbolic differentiation of populations Á probably before the Last Glacial Maximum. even if regular. We know that Tasmania was occupied almost as soon as the land bridge opened. show divergent regional art traditions in the Pleistocene. The narrative of Australian archaeology requires that we put up hypotheses that include the rock art. then the total population of Australia by the time they reached Tasmania would only have been 33 people! Something else was going on.Journal of Australian Studies
In two recent papers with Jane Balme. In the most detailed study. from the Pilbara round to Cape York Peninsula. In these complementary respects.01% per year. and it would have been tiny. Early Australians were already making their distinctive marks by the symbolic structuring of their relationships with the environment and each other. The general impression is that occupation of regions was discontinuous.
it is difficult to corroborate the information contained in the memory. but not unchanging.94 My hypothesis is that episodes of extreme environmental variation have been so persistent through the period of human history in Australia that successful adaptation was finally achieved only through special sorts of information sharing about resource variation.
It is much more likely.95 When fatal environmental hazards occur at intervals beyond the memory of individuals. flood or bushfire. as I argued 20 years ago. theme for much of the time of human occupation of Australia. in the Northern Territory92 or the Selwyn Ranges.89 the Central Queensland Highlands90 and Central Australia. perhaps with little variation through time (Figure 7). Symbolic connection with other people and with the landscape was a common. there appear to be art traditions which date primarily from the late Holocene.
.87 and more than one region of Cape York88 the later rock art comes at the end of a long sequence. Davidson
Figure 6.91 The dynamics of change between one style and another are poorly understood. In the Victoria River Downs. the Victorian bushfires or the Queensland floods. Abundance of archaeological sites by 5000-year period. In societies without writing. in northwest Queensland93 and elsewhere. So the important question changes to become: how did people overcome the problems of periodic environmental disaster? In each of the major rock art regions.390
I. the risks and hazards of extremely variable environments pose problems for survival and must be dealt with through information sharing. showing new sites and sites previously occupied. Data as described in text.86 Kakadu. Sequences have also been published for the Pilbara. Kimberley.85 that growth rates were often higher. such as drought. but there were local and regional crashes as a result of environmental disasters. as we have seen recently in the recent drought.
96 Several recent studies have asked when those different beliefs that get lumped together into what is now called ‘The Dreaming’ might have begun.sa.
There is some evidence that hunter-gatherer societies. Tindale’s map downloaded 4 May 2010 from: http://www.samuseum.99 A consequence of this is that. Canberra: Australian National University Press.asp?site 0 2&page 0 TIN_Tribal [Tindale. within the last 2.97 Bruno David. and the symbolic differentiation of languages might be related and that the social networks enshrined in this way were the crucial factor that enabled people to survive well in all environments of Australia despite the hazards of extreme environmental variation. limits. even in a situation where people can talk about the various meanings of non-iconic signs. Distribution of major rock art regions superimposed on Tindales’s (1974) map of tribal boundaries.au/page/default. above all define the social relationships and connections in distant places that will enable them to survive. at least in its modern manifestation. the late occurrence of the Dreaming. and cannot be understood simply from the images (or the sites) themselves. Peter Hiscock and Pat Faulkner seem to be concluding that there is ¸ good evidence that.100 the system can adapt to new meanings as appropriate. gov.98 I look forward to exploring a hypothesis that the recent expansion of rock art. Aboriginal tribes of Australia: Their terrain. distribution. faced with such irregular but crucial hazards. environmental controls. The relationships between art and the beliefs are complex. And as June Ross and I have shown. 1974. and proper names. even when talking to people embedded in the belief system. N. these beliefs are a recent phenomenon. enshrine the appropriate responses in myth and ritual. Paul Tacon.000 years.Journal of Australian Studies
Figure 7. which. there are ways of identifying ritual behaviour in the activity of producing rock art. making it impossible to infer
as with Mulvaney’s mapping of artefact distributions. there was dry land with good fresh water joining northern Australia to southern New Guinea. These groups of images showed quite early diversification between regions and in each region where rock art seems to have been established early.392
I. so what are the elements of that narrative that result from this critique?. For about 30. Bear in mind that I offer these elements as hypotheses. These connections may have had a function to allow people to connect to other regions when the environmental hazards made it difficult to survive in their usual country. and Flannery’s grand claim for role of people in transforming the Australian environment. and marked their presence in the landscape by distinctive paintings and engravings on rocks. Initial populations were small and occupations of particular places were brief and intermittent. All of the elements of this narrative are likely to be modified in light of new discoveries. and then crashed as a result of the randomness and unpredictability of environmental variations. rock art seems to have been initiated relatively recently. One view suggests that this may be associated with a relatively recent emergence of the various ritual behaviours and beliefs known (since the 1890s) as ‘The Dreaming’.
.000 years.000 years ago and some colonised south of the New Guinea Highlands. it is not a constant. Early populations signalled the relationships within their groups by personal decoration. are subject to continual testing as the archaeological record is successively revealed. sometimes informed by the interpretation of documented behaviour of living people in a rich theoretical framework. and the variation it shows between different regions of Australia. All of these statements about the history of people in Australia are derived from interpretation of the archaeological record. They arrived some time not many millennia before 45. relatively not very diverse groups who first arrived in Sahul. These first people colonised most environments of Australia within about 5000 years of arrival. In other regions. Populations probably increased rapidly at times. that. this is the key to continuity and change among Australian hunter gatherers Á the system is structured to appear unchanging so that changes can be easily incorporated. and in all probability people from different origins colonised to the north. One of the successes of this spiritual system was its support for ceremonial connections between groups in different environments. The archaeological record documents change more faithfully. Davidson
meanings or associated beliefs from images that were made long before the memory embedded in oral histories. shown by the distribution of materials between zones where they were equally available. there were successive changes in art style. Jones’s mapping of rates of colonisation. as with the Dreaming. but. It is only the archaeological record which can provide a detailed picture of how the diversity of different Aboriginal groups emerged from the rather small. Conclusion I promised a narrative. This may be one way in which populations were able to grow much more rapidly and survive consistently in the last couple of thousand years. In many respects. from tropical rainforest in the islands north east of New Guinea to the expanded arid zone of Central Australia and the margins of temperate rainforests in Tasmania. It can only acquire relevance to Aboriginal people whose past it represents through successive revelation. A small number of people made a succession of sea voyages to reach the continent of Sahul which stretched from Tasmania to New Guinea for most of the period that people have been here.
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