AAA2020 Virtual Conference Banner 7 - 10 Dec

A Continent in Isolation: Plants and Animals in Australasian Archaeology 

Anna Florin
CABAH, University of Wollongong

Erin Mein, School of Social Science, University of Queensland
India Ella Dilkes-Hall, Discipline of Archaeology, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia

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.

Archaeology of the Recent: Wooden Artefacts from Western Arnhem Land

Harry Allen
Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, University of Auckland

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

Anbangbang and Djuwarr are two rockshelter sites, located next to large permanent billabongs in Kakadu National Park, western Arnhem Land. They contain exceptionally well preserved archaeobotanical remains dated to the late Holocene, as well other archaeological materials, and rock art. In 1985, Annie Clarke analysed these archaeobotanical assemblages, which are now held in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin. This paper describes the results of a re-examination of 49 wooden artefacts from Anbangbang and 20 wooden artefacts from Djuwarr, in terms of their morphological and functional attributes. They are interpreted within the context of ethnographic observations and information from Arnhem Land archaeological sites of a comparable age, particularly those combining archaeology with rock art research. The study shows convergence between the archaeology, rock art and ethnography, indicating the importance of spears in the life of Aboriginal people, in this case reed spears and spears with barbed heads. The study also documents variability in seasonality of site use and hunting patterns in response to environmental changes around 1,500 BP.

A Macrobotanical Assemblage from an Underfloor Archaeological Deposit in Fremantle, Western Australia

Helen Runciman
The University of Western Australia

In colonising Australia, Europeans cleared and modified native vegetation on a massive scale in order to cultivate food, fodder, and fibre crops and to try to recreate familiar landscapes. Experimentation and innovation were needed to obtain adequate yields in environments where the soils, seasons, and rainfall patterns were unfamiliar.

This analysis of an underfloor deposit from the 1895 Artillery Drill Hall in Fremantle, Western Australia, utilises archaeobotanical and documentary evidence to expand our knowledge of settler innovation and people-plant relationships. The site was previously part of the Fremantle convict cantonment, where thousands of British Imperial convicts were housed and fed between 1855 and 1886. The geographic isolation of Fremantle in the 1850s resulted in acute vegetable shortages and high prices, prompting prison authorities to establish vegetable and fodder gardens. An 1877 map indicates the site was being used for gardening purposes, but whether this garden was related to vegetable or fodder production is not known.

The study was driven by three main questions: What was the function of this garden within the convict cantonment? Does the archaeobotanical evidence indicate which plants were grown? How did they successfully grow domesticates on the dry, infertile soils of Fremantle? The macrobotanical assemblage was comprised of over 85 types of seed or fruit, and several exotic and native taxa were identified. This talk will review the project findings and discuss some interpretive challenges that were encountered.

The Study of Ground Stone Tools in Isolation and in Collections

Colin Pardoe
College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

Elspeth Hayes, Centre of Archaeological Science, University of Wollongong
Richard Fullagar, Centre of Archaeological Science, University of Wollongong

Ground stone tools are not peculiar to Neolithic societies on the road to farmlands, domesticated species and city life. Nor is grinding and pounding technology for processing plants, animal tissue and minerals unique to modern humans. However, the ground stone tools found in the earliest toolkits of the first people in Australia and the New Guinea highlands are rare finds suggesting novel cultural practices perhaps indicating adaptation to a new home. In fact, these implements are rare in nearly all excavated archaeological sites. The diversity of grinding and pounding technology only becomes apparent with the study of collections from larger areas. Study of these collections informs us about access to and use of stone and other resources within ecologically isolated regions (highlands, deserts, tropical woodlands, rainforests, riverine corridors). They also provide a reference for what archaeologists might look for among excavated cobbles and stones they might otherwise regard as manuports or not recognise as artefacts.

Utilising Contemporary Economic and Nutritional Composition Studies of Marine Fauna to Better Understand Holocene Coastal Aboriginal Australian Diets in North-Western Tasmania

Emmy Frost
La Trobe University

Dr Jillian Garvey, La Trobe University
Prof. Richard Cosgrove, La Trobe University

The middens at pinmatik/Rocky Cape along the north-western coastline of Tasmania are thought to be one of the largest and most complete records of Holocene coastal occupation in the state. Rhys Jones excavated these sites in the 1960s, showing that the caves were occupied from 8000 to 400BP. Jones asserted that while fish bone was abundant up until 3800BP, sometime between 3500 and 3800BP fish disappeared from the assemblage. Jones controversially suggested that this change was due to the simplification of Tasmanian technologies because of their geographic isolation. However, there was a missing gap in Jones’ data; a detailed analysis of the shellfish from the site. This paper will discuss the current re-investigation into dietary change at pinmatik, using a combination of archaeological shell analysis combined with experiments into the economic and nutritional quality of marine foods from this region. This research is a part of a larger investigation into changing Aboriginal Tasmanian diets during the late Quaternary and will focus primarily on species common to the pinmatik shell deposit sites in north-western Tasmania.

This paper will present the results of contemporary experiments on the flesh-to-shell/bone ratio (economic utility) and nutritional content of the most common marine foods (both fresh and cooked) found in middens along Tasmania’s north-western coastline. By applying these modern analytical methods of nutritional composition to marine foods in conjunction with economic utility and prey ranking studies, a clearer understanding of resource selection and dietary adaptation in coastal Indigenous Australian communities emerges. This paper will also discuss the benefits of utilising a nutrition-focused approach to understanding resource selection in traditional diets.

Islands in the Sky: Broad Spectrum and Specialised Hunting Dynamics in the Montane Forests of Northern Sahul

Dylan Gaffney
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Glenn R. Summerhayes
Sindy Luu
James Menzies
Kristina Douglass
Megan Spitzer
Susan Bulmer

When Pleistocene Homo sapiens moved into montane rainforests for the first time in northern Sahul it marked a distinct ecological shift on the same order of magnitude as encountered moving between novel island habitats. However, we have a limited understanding of the evolutionary constraints and opportunities offered by these biogeographic zones and the dynamics of how hunting practices shifted in response to climatic changes through time, especially as extreme cold conditions during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) meliorated at the terminal Pleistocene–Early Holocene, and as megafauna disappeared at high altitudes. Did montane forests exacerbate difficulties of subsistence maintenance, and did humans moving into these environments organise themselves as broad-spectrum foragers or were they prompted to specialise in hunting a limited number of species, targeting high-ranked game and calorie-rich plant foods? In this paper we assess zooarchaeological evidence from Yuku and Kiowa, two sites that span that Pleistocene to Holocene boundary in the New Guinea Highlands. We present new AMS radiocarbon dates and a revision of the stratigraphic sequences for these sites, and examine millennial scale changes to vertebrate faunal composition based on MNI, NISP, and linear morphometric data to shed light on variability in hunting practices, processes of natural cave deposition and taphonomy, and the local palaeoenvironment at the end of the LGM through to the Late Holocene. We then integrate other zooarchaeological data from the wider Highlands zone to build a model of generalist-specialist hunting dynamics and examine how this more broadly contributes to our understanding of tropical foraging in Australasia during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene.

Many ways to see Plants: A Relational Ecology of Plantforms in the Aboriginal Rock Art of the North-East Kimberley

Emily Grey
CRAR+M, The University of Western Australia

This paper outlines a relational-ecology approach to exploring the unusually plant-rich rock art of the northeast Kimberley region of Western Australia, where depictions are identified from each stylistic period and include the round yam Dioscorea bulbifera, long yam Dioscorea transversa, various fruits such as Vitex glabrata and Ampelocissus acetosa, and a range of non-diagnostic botanical forms. The recurrent themes of plants in Kimberley rock art demonstrates their visual salience in forager-hunter communities, who experience and conceptualise plants within an agentive cultural landscape. Circumnavigating the traditional Western approach, which assume the presence of linear nature-culture separations in forager-hunter lifeworlds, I draw upon data derived from Indigenous biocultural knowledge, phytogeographical and phytosociological studies, and concepts of landscape co-habitation and multi-species salience. These various contexts are used to explore the sociocultural modalities of particular plants in forager-hunter communities, which are engaged with to varying material intensities through the process of image making, or rock art production. These intensities both reflect and embody the different relationalities of people-plant relations in the Kimberley through time, and demonstrate the unique nature of plant-depictive rock art in global forager contexts. I acknowledge the important involvement of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) and Kimberley Visions: rock art dynamics of northern Australia (LP 150100490) in this project.

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