AAA2020 Virtual Conference Banner 7 - 10 Dec

A Continent in Isolation: Plants and Animals in Australasian Archaeology – Part 2

Erin Mein
School of Social Sciences, University of Queensland

India Ella Dilkes-Hall, Discipline of Archaeology, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia
S. Anna Florin, CABAH, University of Wollongong

Due to its evolution over a long period of relative isolation, the continent of Sahul (including mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea, and the Aru Islands) has an extraordinarily diverse and distinctive biota. Indeed, Australia and New Guinea today are classified as ‘megadiverse’, with more than 80% of Sahul’s plants and animals considered unique and many regions exhibiting high degrees of endemism. The challenges and opportunities presented by its distinct ecological environments are important factors in the human history of this continent. Adaptation to Sahul’s plants and animals during initial colonisation, and through changing climatic and environmental conditions over the last ~65,000 years, not only affected diet and subsistence strategies but also played an important role in shaping Indigenous technological and sociocultural innovations, oral traditions, belief systems, and community values. Due to this, archaeological research which aims to explore the unique history of this continent must necessarily also adapt and innovate.

In this session we have compiled a multidisciplinary series of papers that consider the effects geographic and ecological isolation has had on the diverse subsistence and cultural practices of people living in Sahul, and the methods required to best explore them.

Fauna on the Floodplains: Late Holocene Culture and Landscape on the Sub-Coastal Plains of Northern Australia

Sally Brockwell
Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra & Archaeology and Natural History, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

From 2000 to 1500 years ago, vast seasonal freshwater wetlands formed on the floodplains of large rivers draining the coastal plains of the Top End of the Northern Territory. Aboriginal people developed specialised subsistence strategies and technology to take advantage of the rich resources of fauna and flora. Based on analysis of archaeological collections held at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, this paper describes the faunal record from an archaeological site located on the freshwater wetlands of the South Alligator River and compares it with that from the Adelaide River. The information characterises freshwater wetland resources and their use by Aboriginal people, providing a snapshot of life on the floodplains in the late Holocene. Although these two wetland systems appear similar, and extractive technology in the form of bone points is also similar, the faunal assemblages show that Aboriginal hunting strategies differ between the two regions. These differences can be explained by variations in regional topography and seasonality of site use.

A Plant Macrofossil Analysis of Plant use in the Ivane Valley, Papuan Highlands, PNG

Elise Matheson
School of Social Science, University of Queensland

Andrew Fairbairn, School of Social Science, University of Queensland
Glenn Summerhayes, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Otago
Matthew Leavesley, University of Papua New Guinea

The plant-based subsistence practices of contemporary communities throughout New Guinea are highly variable, drawing on the use of native and introduced plant species. It is assumed that such variability was also the case in the past, though throughout the island the long-term development of plant exploitation remains poorly understood. Archaeobotanical evidence from the Ivane Valley in the highlands of PNG has the potential to greatly inform understandings of the antiquity and development of highland plant exploitation practices, with contexts dating from the Late Pleistocene to the mid-Holocene. Of particular interest in previously published work has been the exploitation of endemic highland Pandanus species, including P. iwen identified through macrofossil analysis, USO’s (underground storage organs) and other highland fruits/nuts (identified as starches). This paper discusses recent research on the plant macrofossil assemblages from sites in the Ivane Valley which confirms the use of Pandanus at in the valley throughout its sampled occupation, though demonstrates the presence of other plant resources, including USO’s and endocarps. Spatial differences in plant use are seen between occupation sites and a possible transition in Pandanus use in the mid-Holocene. While clearly focused on native and endemic taxa, the evidence demonstrates a dynamic and varied history for plant use in the Ivane Valley.

Ichthyophobia and other Red Herrings

Fleur King
Department of Archaeology & History, La Trobe University

Jillian Garvey, Department of Archaeology & History, La Trobe University
Richard Cosgrove, Department of Archaeology & History, La Trobe University

The great Tasmanian fish controversy has been a lightning rod for debates about the social and technological impact of long-term geographic isolation on past human populations. The origin of this contentious issue centred around the interpretation of two Tasmanian caves; Rocky Cape north and Rocky Cape south, excavated by Rhys Jones between 1964-67. Jones argued that Tasmanian Aboriginal people dropped fish from their diet 3,500 years ago, along with bone points in response to an undefined social ‘regression’. He saw this as a loss of ‘useful arts’ and the dropping of a resource, not due to environmental change, but to societal stasis and isolation.

During the excavation of Sisters Creek in January 1964 Jones collected several midden samples from exposed sections in Squares A, D, H, and E at Sisters Creek cave, but these were not analysed further. They were moved to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2007 and after a hiatus of 56 years, these have been the subject of a detailed analysis by King. The analyses show that fish continued to be a minor dietary item throughout the occupation history of the cave and thus runs counter to Jones’ earlier narrative. The analysis of subsistence activities shows a high degree of resource flexibility in both space and time. It is concluded that fish may have only played a minor dietary role at Sisters Creek, as well as at many other sites. Its decline in consumption appears as a gradual replacement over time, in response to a broadening of the diet, rather than the rapid cessation, as previously argued. Here we advance an alternative view of the past coastal economy of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, one that challenges the notion of ichthyophobia and, the narratives of statis, isolation and degeneration that ensued it.

Exploring Records of Starchy Plant Use in Prehistory

Judith Field
School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of New South Wales

Adelle Coster, School of Mathematics & Statistics, University of New South Wales
Richard Cosgrove, Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University

The last few decades have seen the rising importance of functional studies of stone tools, and what they may tell us about subsistence practices over time and in different environmental contexts. Ancient starch studies have been particularly important in recognising the varied and targeted use of starch producing plants, yet the methodology for clearly identifying unknown starch grains to plant taxa is considerably challenging. We will present the results of our most recent investigations and the methodological challenges of pursuing the study of these particular microfossils.

The Hidden Stories of Archaeological Charcoals: Examination of Anthracology through the Application to Three Varied Western Australian Sites

Chae Byrne
The University of Western Australia

This paper presents doctoral research centred on the application of anthracology at three vastly different Western Australian archaeological sites. The spatial locations of the sites range from coastal islands to arid deserts, and, temporally, the periods covered are ancient to historic presenting different methodological challenges and generating important new anthracological datasets. Results and conclusions from anthracological analysis will be shared, leading to discussion surrounding the vast possibilities that anthracology promises to the future of Australian archaeology.

Assessing the Spread and Uptake of Tula Adze Technology in the Late Holocene across the Southern Kimberley of Western Australia

Tim Ryan Maloney
Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University

India Ella Dilkes-Hall, Discipline of Archaeology, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia

One of Indigenous Australia’s unique stone tools, the tula adze, is traditionally viewed as a hafted wood working tool of the arid zone. Unlike most stone tool innovations in Australia and around the world, the spread and adoption of the tula adze has been described as rapid and instantaneous. The conditions which underlie this technological change are critically assessed in this study, with risk minimisation and diffusion models examined in a study area with unclear tula distribution—the southern Kimberley of Western Australia. The spatial distribution of these tools is reviewed and new discoveries outlined. Reduction sequences and morphological trends observed elsewhere are examined, and compared to the Kimberley record. Some of the archaeological sites analysed also preserve evidence of wood working activities, such as wood shavings and wooden tools indicative of hardwood craft production. We use these records, augmented by the identification of hardwood species from macrobotanical records, to associate tulas with hardwood species availability in the late Holocene archaeological record of the Kimberley. We conclude with support for the model that hardwood craft production proliferated in the late Holocene, as a likely result of both diffusion of information and foraging risk minimisation. Future directions for experimental verification are explored.

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