Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Tasmanian Archaeology and Modern Human Behaviour

According to Cosgrove et al. there is still much debate concerning what constitutes the behaviour of modern humans (Gamble, 1002); Holdaway & Cosgrove, 1997: Marean et al., 2007; McBrearty, 2007; Shea, 2011b). Opinion on the first appearance of modern human behaviour has shifted from enigmatic cognitive changes that claimed it first appeared about 45,000 BP (Klein, 2000) to intensification of social and economic activity during the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe, which Cosgrove et al. suggest is enshrined in ideas about developing ‘cultural complexity’. Alternative arguments have been made for the various regions, Australasian region (O’Connell & Allen, 1997), Europe (Powell et al., 2009) and Africa (Henshilwood & Marean, 2003), which suggests an alternative explanation for the earlier emergence of complex technologies, subsistence strategies and art could possibly be explained by population increases that were driven by competition for resources or intensification. According to Cosgrove et al. it is ironic that there were no restrictions on development of:

·         50,000 BP Seafaring (O’Connell et al., 2010)

·         45,000 BP Deliberate burial (Webb, 1998)

·         45,000 BP early movement of raw materials over 300 km (Summerhayes & Allen)

·         45,000 BP montane plant exploration (Summerhayes et al., 2010)

·         44,000 BP Hafted axes (Groube et al., 1986; O’Connell et al., 2010)

·         35,000 BP grinding technology at (Fullagar & Field, 1997)

·         35,000 BP at least, symbolic expression (Morse, 1993a; Balme & Morse, 2006); Balme et al., 2009)

·         20,000 BP translocation of animals (Allen et al., 1988; Flannery & White, 1991; Leavesley, 2006)

·         20,000 BP early deep-sea fishing (O’Connor et a.,, 2011a)

·         15,000 BP at least, backed artefacts (Slack et al., 2004)

as a result of the smaller population in Sahul (Brumm & Moore, 2005), (Table 14.1).

The Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition has also been characterised as being an evolutionary process from simple to complex. Cosgrove et al. suggest this has been a strong organising principle in the categorisation of human societies into developmental stages, which link them in terms of the capacities of humans, and their position as an organism that is evolving. This stems from the view in Europe that the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic is categorised as having an economic pattern that is more transitionary, stone technologies that are more conservative, and lower populations that have simpler social, economic and organisational networks than is present in the Upper Palaeolithic, which is viewed as being more dynamic (e.g., Bar-Yosef, 2007: 209). the idea of socio-economic complexity that is increasing from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic foragers to the Upper Palaeolithic that is a logically organised system is clear (Binford, 1980). Based on the presence or absence of stone types such as scrapers, handaxes, blades, projectile points and microliths in an archaeological assemblage the Upper Palaeolithic is viewed as reflecting increased “efficiency” along with a greater degree of cultural complexity. Cosgrove et al., suggest that in turn this has been viewed as reflecting the differences in behaviour between their makers.

Cosgrove et al. suggest, however, that one of the problems of European Palaeolithic research has been its solipsism, with all else being measured against the array of stone tool typology resulting in the production of a cultural continuum. E.g., stone tools in Tasmania have been described as being from the Middle Palaeolithic, and inappropriate analogies have often been drawn , in spite of the fact that Aboriginals in Tasmania are anatomically and behaviourally modern (Holdaway & Cosgrove , 1997; Cosgrove & Pyke-Tay, 2004). This is paradoxical, as the transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic is viewed in Europe as a watershed separating earlier archaic hominids from modern humans. A greater degree of scrutiny of the defining characteristics of human behaviour has been called for by critics of these analogies (Holdaway & Cosgrove, 1997; McBrearty, 2007; O’Connell & Allen, 2007; Brumm & Moore, 2005; Shea, 2011b). According to Cosgrove et al. it is rare for references to be given to areas such as Sahul, which lack the classic cultural progression from handaxes, to scrapers, to blades, given that many European analyses stem from this perspective.

The confounding nature of the Late Pleistocene in Tasmania and the archaeological record of the Neanderthals have been pointed out by an earlier paper (Holdaway & Cosgrove, 1997). These 2 groups, that were closely aligned by scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries; one ‘modern’ and the other ‘archaic’, made similar stone tools associated with a range of other behavioural attributes that were commonly identified as Middle Palaeolithic behaviour. Though according to Cosgrove et al. when the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic records of Tasmania, Australia, and Europe are compared (Table 14.1), a highly variable range of cultural attributes is shown, which is to some degree comparable to that observed in the African record (McBrearty, 2007; Shea, 2011b, 2011c).  The classic evolutionary continuum was not followed by the settlers in Sahul. As Cosgrove et al. say it is also clear that a lack of modern capabilities is not indicated by the absence of modern human behavioural ‘traits’ (O’Connell & Allen, 2007). It is in this respect that the evidence from Australia, and in particular Tasmania, is important in debates concerning which material evidence represents human modernity and any degree to which it was gradual or punctuated.

It is suggested by Cosgrove et al. that a comparative approach is required to unravel these contradictions, which focuses on the identification of archaeological variability, with archaeological records at commensurate times and places being compared. E.g., there were Late Pleistocene populations in Tasmania that were using Middle Palaeolithic lithic technology; with non-hafted organic technology, they practised art and hunted systematically and seasonally with an approach to land use that was structured. The populations of Neanderthals also had a hafted lithic technology, hunted systematically including prime-age selection of prey, seasonal resource acquisition and buried their dead. This should indicate that either the Tasmanian Aboriginal people were ‘archaic’, a description that does not fit with the emerging archaeological evidence, or there needs to be a reassessment of the definition of ‘modern’ and ‘archaic’ behaviour. As there have been major advances in theory and material evidence over the past 14 years, Cosgrove et al. suggest it is time to revisit the question of behavioural variability and modernity as it relates to these archaeological records.

Palaeoenvironment of Tasmania

An important theme in Late Pleistocene archaeological research in Tasmania is the importance of gaining an understanding of the palaeoecological structure and the influence it has on the hunter-gatherer resources (Cosgrove et al., 1990; Holdaway & Porch, 1995). It is undeniable that the environment provided a range of subsistence options from which the Aboriginal people could choose how and when to exploit these resources. According to Cosgrove et al. the evidence is important to provide a framework in which there can be examination of human responses to changing environments and climatic conditions.

Tasmania was connected to the Australian mainland by a land bridge during the Late Pleistocene at the time sea levels began dropping after 40,000 BP.  At this time colonising people took the opportunity to colonise Tasmania where they occupied caves, open places and rock shelters. Tasmania experienced only limited glaciations and had a climate that was more maritime than such places as the southwest of France and northern Spain, both of which are at similar latitudes to Tasmania. Glaciation was limited to small ice sheets on the high elevations, with the climate being cool temperate during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 3 and MIS 2, which was transitional between glacial and interglacial (Mackintosh et al., 2006). At the height of the last glacial average annual temperature depressions of at least 6oC occurred across the region. The major vegetation structure consisted of open grasslands in central and eastern Tasmania and infertile soils that supported low shrubs in western Tasmania (Colhoun, 2000). Temperature depressions in Europe at the same time of at least 12oC and possibly 15oC have been suggested (Gilligan, 2007a). The forests that remained retreated to lower coastal situations. A general though variable vegetation pattern across the region has been supported by pollen data from western and central Tasmania. Herbs and Poa sp. grasses were supported on substrates underlying discontinuous areas of fertile soils, while low shrubs and button grass sedges in other places were supported on acid peats and infertile quartz substrates (Kirkpatrick & Fowler, 1998). It is believed that a patchy distribution of grasses that were attractive to grazing wallabies in western Tasmania was produced by this palaeoecological structure (Cosgrove et al., 1990; Cosgrove, 1999). Bordered on grassy patches on which the wallabies fed, was limestone geology in which there were caves and rock shelters from which the occupants hunted the wallabies.

At about 20,000 cal BP the coldest periods occurred, and the annual precipitation in western Tasmania would have been more than 1,500 mm, probably in the form of snow, though the rainfall was down by 50 % of the values of the present. In areas to the east there would have been droughts, as the annual precipitation would have been reduced to between 200 and 150 mm. As a result of reduced vegetation cover in the Midlands at this time dune and lunette building was common, and pockets of Eucalyptus sp. and rainforest with a shrub understorey in the east and west survived in locations that were protected (Kirkpatrick & Fowler, 1998). Cosgrove et al. suggest that at this time it is likely rain and snow would have been brought to the west coast as a moist maritime climate would have prevailed on the west coast of Tasmania, instead of a continental climate, which is reflected more at inland locations like Lake Mungo on the mainland of the present (Bowler et al., 2003).

It appears that human impact on the environment was coupled with deterioration of environmental conditions and instability of the landscape that resulted from reduced precipitation and vegetative cover (MacIntosh?et al., 2009). The reasons for the extinction of the range of megafauna present in Tasmania have been contested. It is suggested by evidence from Tasmania that though at about 40,000 cal BP it appears there was human overlap with 2 large kangaroo species, Protemnodon anak and Macropus giganteus titan, no bones of these animals have been found in any of the archaeological sites in central or western Tasmania (Cosgrove et al., 2010), with all of the prey species being smaller than extant species of wallaby and wombat. The marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, and the Pleistocene species of the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus laniarius, and Thylacinus cynocephalus were the only large carnivores that have been recorded in Tasmania. There were no bones of these animals present in archaeological sites. The situation in Europe was quite different where, unlike in Tasmania, the European hyenas, cave bears and wolves, are believed to have posed more competition to humans for prey resources and potential occupation of caves. Sarcophilus laniarius and Thylacinus cynocephalus were not much larger than a medium-sized dog and both hunted or scavenged individually. Cosgrove et al. suggest it is possible Thylacoleo carnifex, about 87-130 kg (Wroe et al., 2003), was extinct before humans reached Tasmania, the latest date known for this animal being 53,000 ± 4,000 BP (Cosgrove et al., 2010).


It has been observed that much of the Tasmanian Aboriginal stone technology is similar to that of the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe, though it does not include the Levallois technology, and was mainly composed of multiplatform and single platform cores, primary flakes, retouched flakes, and scrapers of various sizes (Jones, 1977). Little if any change in technology occurred for at least 25,000 years, though there were additional items such as small denticulate flakes, delicate ‘thumbnail’ and end scrapers, which indicate a greater range of types of tool. Cosgrove et al. suggest that organic technology probably comprise wooden spears and clubs, which were familiar and flexible technology, as well as some equivocal evidence of the presence of bone armatures (Webb& Allen, 1990). No direct evidence has been found of hafting or the use of resins or mastics for gluing. There were no large, dangerous prey species or large carnivores that could be considered as competitors. There was no need for heavy-duty stone points and less need for scrapers for the preparation of hides, as the available marsupial prey was thin-skinned with no subcutaneous fat. The use of static traps, falls and the use of fire to capture prey is suggested by ethnographic evidence from Tasmania. The possible range of techniques used in hunting has been discussed (Cosgrove & Allen, 2001) and deduced from the early ethnography from Tasmania. No evidence has been found of the use of lined hearths in sites from the Late Pleistocene, most being simple fire pits used for cooking. Limited evidence is known of an organised use of space, though there appears to have been a greater spatial use in Nunamira Cave, Bone Cave and Stone Cave dated to around 16,000 BP, which suggests there was some organisation of activities. There has been no large-scale spatial excavation undertaken, however, to further investigate this, though Mackintosh Site has been investigated with open-area investigation, though without detecting strong dispersal of activities (Stern & Marshall, 1993). The lack of research in this area is suggested by Cosgrove et al. to be reflected in the limited evidence of organised space within these caves, as there have been only small amounts of deposit excavated (Allen, 1996a, 31-39).

According to Cosgrove et al. the use of fitted clothing would possibly have been encouraged by the sub-Antarctic conditions, and bone points with use-wear polish have been recovered from archaeological deposits (Webb& Allen, 1990). It is suggested by ethnographic descriptions of Aboriginal people in Tasmania that a wallaby or kangaroo skin ‘cloak’ that was worn loosely across the shoulders was their only form of clothing (Plomely, 1966, 531). It has been suggested by research on ‘clothing’ and human energetic requirements during the Late Pleistocene (Gilligan, 2007a; 2007b) that fitted or ‘complex’ clothing did not develop as a result of wind chill, which is a significant factor in the tolerance of humans to cold, did not reach critical levels. It has been pointed out (Gilligan, 2007a) that in Tasmania climatic conditions were more similar to those of MIS 5b and 4 in Europe, rather than MIS 3 or 2 in the Northern Hemisphere, a suggestion which has been supported to some extent (Mackintosh et al., 2006). According to Cosgrove et al. the point that is made here is that the technological items, such as blades and fine needles that are required to make fitted clothing, have not been found in either Middle Palaeolithic assemblages in Europe or in assemblages from Tasmania (Gilligan, 2007a). It is suggested that these technological developments respond more to specific environmental and social needs that have a tendency to appear when the tolerance of humans to cold moves beyond the critical thermal threshold (Gilligan, 20007a).

There are 3 sources that have provided evidence of the movement of raw material across southwest Tasmania.

1.      Darwin glass was moved inland from Darwin Crater on the west coast of Tasmania in straight-line distances of at least 100 km, being found only in limestone caves in southern Tasmania. Small thumbnail scrapers have been made from this quite brittle material.

2.      Blue-grey chert, which was made into thumbnail scrapers, originates in the Ragged Range and is commonly recovered from the easterly sites in the southwest Tasmanian region (Fig. 14.1). This material has been recovered from Bone Cave, 10 km from the site of this raw material, Nunamira Cave, 15 km, Warreen Cave 37 km, and Pallawa Trounta Cave, 45 km from the site of origin (Sheppard, 1997).

3.      Also, brecciated chert has been recorded from Kutikina Cave (Burch, 2007, 26). This material originates at Parwee Quarry in northern Tasmania, which is 130 km away (Cosgrove, 2000). This same raw material has also been found in the Parmerpar Meethaner site which is 60 km southwest of the site of origin.

According to Cosgrove et al. the movement of these raw materials for the manufacture of artefacts in the Late Pleistocene, though in small amounts, suggests that movement of raw material was relatively extensive, particularly as distances would have been much greater when that movement would have been via river valleys and other routes that are not direct. A degree of social connectedness between the western regions of Tasmania during the Last Ice Age is also reflected.

Subsistence and land use

Understanding of the economic behaviour of Aborigines in Tasmania during the Late Pleistocene has been enhanced in recent years by investigations into the use of caves on a seasonal basis and studies of the economic utility of prey species (Pike-Tay et al., 2008; Garvey, 2010). Cosgrove et al. say a convincing picture has emerged concerning the seasonal exploitation and butchery patterns of these prey animals. It has been shown clearly that caves at elevations greater than 400 m above sea level were used in summer, whereas caves at lower elevations, such as Warreen and Kutikina caves, were occupied at least during the winter. At these locations records show that most wallabies were killed between autumn and spring, though at Nunamira and Bone Caves, which are located in the upper mountains, hunting was practised in summer. It is believed this scheduled hunting was driven by the need to secure higher quality fat and marrow, as well as thick fur pelts, in the cooler times of the year (Cosgrove & Allen, 2001). It has been shown by seasonal and spatial studies of the distribution of the wallabies via marrow, muscle and brain quality that irrespective of season they supplied a reliable, stable protein and fat supply (Garvey, 2011). There didn’t appear to be great difference between male or female wallabies, or between different altitudes or seasons. These results differ greatly from Northern Hemisphere animals, such as caribou herds, in which fat is depleted over winter and into early spring resulting in the quality of the meat and marrow is highly variable (Cosgrove, 2011). It has also been shown clearly that in spite of the small size of the wallabies selective butchery was carried out. Caribou studies in the Northern Hemisphere have shown that these large animals were butchered selectively, with some elements being carried back to rock shelters and caves (Castel et al., 2002). The same pattern is found in Tasmania where the focus was on the lower limb bones contained the highest amount of meat as well as bones with the highest content of marrow (Cosgrove & Allen, 2001; Garvey 2006). The eating of marrow provided a substitute for carbohydrate that played an important role in the metabolism of the protein of meat (Cosgrove et al., 1990; Cosgrove, 1995a). The large number so of wallaby leg bones that had been smashed systematically that have been found in archaeological deposits is evidence of how crucial it was to access marrow, for both thermoregulation and digestion of lean meat. The commonest animal remains found in all the caves were the wallaby and the wombat, their bones comprising 75%-90% of all faunal remains at densities of more than 250,000 in less than 1 m3 of deposit. Though it is assumed plant material formed part of their diet, in spite of the cooler growing seasons and the lack of suitable geophytes, no evidence has survived of the exploitation of plant food.

Among bird bones that have been found in the archaeological deposits at Kutikina and Nunamira Caves in Tasmania are the native hen (Gallinula mortierii) of medium size, and the large Tasmanian emu (Dromaius diemenensis). Emu eggshell was recovered from Nunamira Cave and at Mannalargenna Cave eggshell of the Cape Barren goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) was found (Brown, 1993; Cosgrove, 1995b; Garvey, 2006). The remains of the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) have been found at OSR 7 Cave, Warreen Cave, Bone Cave and Nunamira Cave, which indicates that the people occupying these cave had a detailed knowledge of the behavioural ecology of this animal. The platypus live in burrows, they reproduce by laying eggs, and are mainly nocturnal, though are known to be diurnal, and feed by foraging for food on the beds of rivers coming to the surface to breaths (Bethge et al., 2009). Cosgrove et al. suggest the hunters of these animals would need to largely plan their hunting rather than hunting opportunistically if they were to be successful at killing the platypus. It has been argued that the platypus would have been an attractive source of fat and fine pelts (Marshall, 1992). The echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), the other monotreme, has been found at Warreen Cave, where it was represented by 3 bones, though it is possible these bones are the remains of food it seems that if it was part of their diet it was a negligible part. The eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus), barred bandicoot (Perameles gunnii) and the Tasmanian bettong (Bettongia gaimardi) are either rare or not present in bone assemblages from Tasmania. As in the case of the echidna these animals prefer the drier, open grassy woodland habitats. It has been found (Cosgrove et al., 2010) that no remains of megafauna were present in the food refuse, and it is suggested by archaeological data that medium sized, 12-25 kg, animals, were hunted during the Late Pleistocene occupation.

Stencil art

In 1986 it was confirmed that rock art dated from the Ice Age. Red ochre hand and arm stencils were found deep in the limestone caves of southwest Tasmania (Fig. 14.3). Stencilled hands are a motif that is commonly found in cave art from around the world dating to prehistoric times. Examples where hand stencils found are the French caves Peche Merle, Gargas and Cosquer (Clottes, 2007, 86-87, 92-93, 98). At least 5 sites are known in Tasmania: Ballawinnie Cave (Harris et al., 1998, 94-95), Judd’s Cavern (Cosgrove & Jones, 1989), Keyhole Cavern (Allen, 1996a, 35-36), and Mount Riveaux (unpublished).

Ballawinnie Cave in a limestone doline, which was the first to be discovered, is now deep within thick temperate forest. The cavern, which is about 20 m underground, is reached by a narrow tunnel which leads to a large cavern. There are about 18 human hand stencils and splashes of red paint along the walls. As far as can be determined all are adult hands in negative stencils, which had been executed by ochre, adhesive and a liquid mixture being blown over a hand to make a stencil (Cosgrove & Jones, 1989). Some of the stencils are of only certain fingers being held against the wall to produce the various hand stencil shapes.

In Judd’s Cavern, a large stream cave about 30 m from the entrance on the western side is an area of  level shelf about 8 m above the water level with evidence of cave art. There is an area with 5 hand stencils composed of 4 adult right hands and 1 left hand on the sloping lintel about 2.4 m above the floor. It is suggested by the height above the floor that the person making the stencil needed to raise his or her hand up against the rock face then spray red ochre paint from the mouth (Cosgrove & Jones, 1989).

There were another 6 stencils on the south wall that were placed within 2 concave channels that had formed by differential erosion, separated by a raised harder formation. The channels are about 16 cm wide and 3 red ochre hand stencils have been placed in each of the 2 channels in a linear fashion. Right adult hands are represented by 2 of them and 1 is a perfectly formed child’s hand and 1 stencil consists of a single finger. An activity of a family group is suggested by the stencil of the child’s hand. There are 7 complete arms outlined in red ochre 1 km further into the cave but the details are as yet unpublished (Cosgrove, 1999).


There are many of the qualities of the Middle Palaeolithic in the archaeology of Late Pleistocene Tasmania, particularly in the stone technology, though with a degree of variability that simultaneously challenges the meaning of ‘archaic’ and ‘modern’ human behaviour as it is usually defined by European archaeologists. A remarkable variety of the cultural repertoire of the Aboriginals people of Tasmania is shown that allowed them to prosper during the glacial period on the southern peninsula of Sahul. According to Cosgrove et al. many of the attributes that are common to the Tasmanian inhabitants of the Ice Age can also be found among the behavioural attributes of the Neanderthals (Table 14.1). The question of using simple 1-to-1 correlations between technology and biology to define evolutionary developments between groups of humans is raised by the Tasmanian people clearly being anatomically and behaviourally ‘modern’. The clear differences in environmental structures and about 500,000 years of evolutionary divergence are what separates Neanderthals from the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. The similarities in their technology, hunting behaviour, butchery and selection of prey are suggested by Cosgrove et al. to give cause to re-evaluate the perceptions of what it means to be part of the human lineage. Cosgrove et al. asks the question if the Aboriginal people of Tasmania are modern humans who behave technologically like the people from the Middle Palaeolithic, as seems to be the case, what does it say about the classification of the Neanderthals and what are the wider implications for understanding the archaeological attributes of modern human behaviour?

The Neanderthal case

Knowledge of Homo neanderthalensis, the closest known fossil relative of modern humans has increased greatly over the past decade. Various aspects of the skeletal material of Neanderthals have been the subject of study (reviewed in Hublin, 2009; Weaver, 2009), chemical studies of the bones have produced information on the dietary signal (e.g. Richards & Trinkhaus, 2009), on their archaeological record and distribution (Roebroeks, 2008) and important studies of their genetic characteristics. Understanding of the evolution of Neanderthals and their relationship with humans has increased as a result of genetic studies. It is indicated by these genetic studies that Neanderthals and modern humans have a common ancestor that lived about 400,000-700,000 years ago, and according to Cosgrove et al. the picture that is emerging from their skeletal remains is somewhat comparable (Hublin, 2009).

According to Cosgrove et al. 2 different lineages of hominin emerged, building on the same bauplan: in Africa, modern humans, and in western Eurasia, Neanderthals, which culminated in Neanderthals in the last glacial. These were thought until very recently to have been extinct by about 35,000 years ago. When the draft Neanderthal genome was compared with the genomes of living humans it was discovered that humans of the present outside Africa have genomes that contain between 1 % and 4 % of Neanderthal ancestry. Importantly, the results of these studies indicate that Neanderthals were among the ancestors of some modern humans. Also, some living humans outside Africa can trace part of their ancestry to an Asian hominin group that is as yet not known, the Denisovans, who have a genome that differs as much from the Neanderthal draft genome as the Neanderthal draft genome differs from that of living humans (Reich et al., 2010).

A very schematic overview of the biological, behavioural and cultural differences between Neanderthals and modern humans from the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe is given in Table 14.2. Such an overview needs to be too short in the context of this volume to do justice to the complexity of the record, though it is also necessary to acknowledge that Neanderthals and modern humans had aspects of their biology and behaviour that were very similar. Nevertheless there are very striking differences (see Table 14.2). They are usually interpreted in terms of, and they often result from, the lack of fully modern language in Neanderthals (see Roebroeks & Verpoorte, 2009 for discussion). The presence of language patterns that are more complex and sophisticated cognitive abilities are thought to be shown by the archaeological record in such interpretations by the time of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe, and even 10s of thousands of years earlier in the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa. Cosgrove et al. say there is a problem with these explanations that are cognitive and language based in that they can lead to tunnel vision in which the accomplishments of “modern humans” are treated as more complex in any domain and superior to anything the ‘archaics’ ever accomplished (Corbey & Roebroeks, 1999). An example is evidence that is presented (Brown et al., 2009) from Pinnacle Point is Southern Africa where heat treatment was regularly employed by humans to increase the quality and efficiency of the manufacturing process of stone tools 164,000 years ago. Their inference is that a novel association between fire, its heat, and a structural change in the stone is required in this technology that consequently resulted in flaking benefits that demanded “an elevated cognitive ability”. They also suggest that their ability to alter and improve available raw material and increase the quality and efficiency of stone tool manufacture could have provided a behavioural advantage when they encountered Neanderthals as early modern humans moved into Eurasia. It is pointed out by Cosgrove et al. that there is solid and well-published data that by at least 200,000 years ago onwards European Neanderthals used fire to synthesise glue from birch bark for the hafting of stone tools (Mazza et al., 2006). Therefore the hypothesis of Brown et al. is not tenable, on the basis of the current understanding of the archaeological record of the use of fire, and this evidence for the processing of pitch in particular (Roebroeks & Villa, 2011). The failure to address the fact that “fully modern” humans had left very diverse archaeological signatures, in some cases showing a strong resemblance to what Neanderthals had left in the landscape of Western Europe, (Roebroeks & Verpoorte, 2009), is another problem with these cognitive explanations. As discussed here the Pleistocene record of Aborigines in Tasmania shows many of the hallmarks of the record of Neanderthals (Holdaway & Cosgrove, 1997). It is noted by Cosgrove et al. that the colonisation of wider Australia has been interpreted as the ”earliest evidence of modern human behaviour” (Noble & Davidson, 1996, 217). Cosgrove et al. suggest that in the view of Noble & Davidson, that humans were probably responsible for behaviour that can be identified as ‘linguistic’, when “the archaeological record shows that actions were taken upon materials that show evidence of forward planning to achieve a goal” (1996, 217). The arrival of humans in the Australian region, according to this view, is based on such behaviour, as this could only have taken place if seagoing vessels were constructed to a plan. Thousands of years later and a few thousand kilometres to the south, the planners of the seagoing vessels descendants created the archaeological record that that has been discussed earlier, that shows strong resemblance to the Middle Palaeolithic record in Europe (cf Holdaway & Cosgrove, 1997).

Table 14.2 Biological behaviour and cultural comparisons between the Late Middle Palaeolithic and the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe

Industry and time period

Late Middle Palaeolithic, Europe

Upper Palaeolithic, Europe (about 40,000-10,000)



Modern humans

Body form & energy requirements

Robust, costly

Gracile, less costly

Hunting efficiency & diet breadth

Efficient, with a relatively narrow focus on larger mammals, evidence of cooked plant material

Efficient, prey choice somewhat broader, including smaller, fish, plants

Stable isotopes

Top carnivores, heavy emphasis on larger mammals

Comparable to Neanderthal signal, some individuals consumed significant quantities of fish

Northern limits to distribution

South of 55o

Range expansion

Lithic technology

Laminar reduction, discoidal and Levallois

Variety of strategies, including bladelet production

Hunting weapon technology

Thrusting spears, little investment in projectiles

More investment in projectiles in bone, antler, ivory, and stone

Investment in on-site structures

Limited, simple fireplaces

Remains of dwellings present, also structured hearths


Without identifiable grave goods


Art, personal ornaments, pigment use

Ochre use, possibly pigments

Parietal art & figurative and personal ornaments

Modified after Cosgrove et al., in Dennell & Porr, 2014

An alternative to the cognitive explanations of difference in the previously mentioned record has resulted from a focus on the ecology of hunter-gatherers, Neanderthal and modern human. In contrast to the cognition-based explanations, these explanations focus on the costs and benefits of various behavioural strategies, and they account for the diversity that is observed within the record of modern human hunter-gatherers (e.g., Verpoorte, 2006). Such explanations reduce the “proxies” for language to the outcome of cost-benefit analyses, by placing the focus on the different trade-offs the hunter-gatherers needed to deal with.

Cosgrove et al. say there is now a rich picture of other aspects of the life of Neanderthals. This has resulted from the new genetic studies, the use of other cutting-edge methods such as isotope studies and detailed archaeological research, which is often stimulated by dichotomous views. Populations of Neanderthals were rather low and subject to local extinction (Hublin & Roebroeks, 2009; Roebroeks et al., 2011). They occupied a wide range of environments covering a range from full interglacial to cold steppe environments. They differed from the early humans in that they are indicated by the faunal evidence to have hunted and butchered large mammals in a manner that can compare to that of humans from the Upper Palaeolithic (Burke, 2004; Voormolen, 2008). The dominant species among the large mammals they hunted included large herbivores living in herds such as bovids, equids and cervids, as well as solitary animals such as rhinoceros (reviewed in Gaudzinski-Windheuser & Niven, 2009). Beginning with their earliest lineage they hunted with weapons including simple spears (Thieme, 1997), though not investing much effort in the production of projectiles. A large proportion of their dietary protein is suggested by the isotopic signal to have come from meat, which reflected a diet that was relatively narrow (Richards et al., 2000a). The scarcity of game that was relatively fast moving in sites from the Middle Palaeolithic in the Mediterranean region also infers a narrow diet (Stiner et al., 2000). There were also smaller game in their diet, such as tortoises, rabbits and birds, which has been documented from some sites on the southern edge of their range in detail, at for instance Bolomor Cave in Spain (Blasco, 2008; Blasco & Fernández Peris, 2009). Cosgrove et al. suggest that it appears that in the Middle Palaeolithic some Neanderthals targeted birds for their feathers (Peresani, et al., 2011). Evidence has also been found in northern sites of the exploitation of birds, e.g., from Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, Germany (Gaudzinski-Windheuser & Niven, 2009). Neanderthals also ate plant food, some of which was cooked, and their use of fire was not much different the from manner in which it was used by hunter-gatherers in the Upper Palaeolithic (cf. Henry et al., 2011).


Cosgrove et al., suggest there appears to be enough variability in the archaeological records of Neanderthals and Tasmanian Aboriginals from the Pleistocene to require the labels of ‘archaic’ and ‘modern’ to be reconsidered for the archaeological record. In the data from Israel and northern populations across the very large time and space evidenced in skeletal form and diet, there is clear variability in the behaviour of Neanderthals that possibly reflects different environmental adaptations (Conrad & Richter, 2011). There are also differences in the distributions of Neanderthal populations across their range. In the archaeological records from the Late Pleistocene of Tasmania and mainland Australia are also clearly detectable. These allowed a vast continent to be colonised while using a straightforward flaked stone technology with a component of ground-edge technology that is considered to be the oldest in the world (Geneste et al., 2010). The development of symbolism and language is further confirmed by other material items and cultural adaptions and developments, such as the appearance of rock art in the Late Pleistocene. Planning depth and specific land-use focus is suggested by the evidence of prey selection in Europe in the Middle Palaeolithic and in Tasmania in the Late Pleistocene. Also, there is a degree of similarity in the lithic distribution, movement and technology of Neanderthals and Tasmanian Aboriginal populations in the Late Pleistocene that cannot simply be explained away as was attempted in claiming that “so far as stone implement-making furnishes a test of culture, the Tasmanians are undoubtedly at a low palaeolithic stage, inferior to the Drift and Cave men of Europe” (Taylor et al., 1895, 336, 340). The Tasmanian Aborigines were also characterised as living relics of Palaeolithic peoples, at the turn of the last century, writing of “this isolated people, the most unprogressive in the world, which in the middle of the nineteenth century were still living in the dawn of the Palaeolithic epoch” (Sollas, 1911, 70). It has been noted repeatedly that the archaeological record of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, which at that time in the Late Pleistocene were the most southerly living people, resonated with the Mousterian of Europe (Jones et al., 1977, 191), that included its prevalence of scrapers and no known blades, microliths, hafted bone tools and carved bone ornaments. Nonetheless, the first occupants of Tasmania were anatomically modern people, as were all the first colonists of Sahul. The models that have been used to describe human groups as either ‘archaic’ or ‘modern’ have been shown by this to be faulty and are clearly unhelpful in explaining issues such as the transition in Europe from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic. Cosgrove et al. suggest the uncoupling of ‘simple’ to ‘complex’ social evolutionists’ paradigm is necessary to really comprehend the process of changing humanity, and understand the archaeological record in terms of its cultural variability reflecting the wide range of responses to solving social and environmental problems that are similar that humans are capable of.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Richard Cosgrove, Anne Pike-Tay & Wil Roebroeks in Dennell, Robin & Porr, Martin, eds., 2014, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Search for Human Origins, Cambridge University Press.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 29/08/2015
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