Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

West Point Midden

This midden, 60 km west of Rocky Cape, is one of the largest occupation sites, and one of the the richest known in Australia. It is in the form of a grassy hill from which the view to the east is over reefs, bays and islets, and to the west are swamps and tea tree scrub. The base is a pebble bank covered by a dune, above which the midden rises 6 m above the surrounding flat land. The midden is 90 m long and 40 m wide, on top of which are about 8 circular depressions, each about 4 m wide and 0.5 m deep. It is believed these were the bases of dome-shaped huts that were known to be present at a number of places in Tasmania in historic times. Such huts were built of a framework of pliable branches, at least sometimes of tea-tree branches, thatched with bark, grass or turf and lined with skins, bark or feathers (Flood, 2004).

Many huts of this type were seen on the west coast in the 1830s, many of which were grouped into villages, especially were they were close to freshwater and good foraging areas, as was the situation at West Point Midden. Near the site was what is believed to have been an elephant seal colony, though elephant seals now come no closer than Macquarie Island to breed. Elephant seal pups were being eaten at West Point between about 1,800 and 1,300 years ago. The hunting of elephant seal pups would have been in summer when they breed.

Seals were a major food source for the people at West Point, together with abalone, other shellfish, wallabies, small mammals and lizards. There were only 3 fish vertebrae known from the 75 m3 of the deposit.

It has been estimated the site was probably occupied for several months each year by about 40 people, probably over the elephant seal breeding season, for about 500 years. It is believed that the men hunted the seals and the women dived for shellfish. At present seal colonies are attractions for white pointer sharks, so they probably patrolled the waters at the same time the women would have been collecting shellfish.

At places like West Point the division of labour of hunter-gatherer people seems to have been a bit skewed in favour of the men, at least for the part of they year they occupied the huts. At this site the hunting seems to a consisted of strolling to the local seal colony, clubbing a young seal or 2 and taking it back to the camp. In stark contrast, "the women's work was never done". The women were observed by a number of Europeans diving for shell fish. When they dived they had rush baskets suspended from their necks that they filled with shellfish they pried from the rocks with small wooden wedges. They collected crayfish, even when the sea was rough, by diving up to 4 m, sometimes pulling themselves down along the strands of giant kelp, where they pulled the crayfish from under rocks and flung them onto the shore. It was commented on by a number of European observers that the women were excellent swimmers who could hold their breaths for long periods.

Another popular food source was mutton birds that nested in burrows on offshore islands such as Trefoil. The women swam 1-2 km across the sea to these islands to drag the nestlings out of the burrows. The mutton birds flesh was very oily, making them an energy-rich food. At the time of contact some men couldn't swim, all the swimming connected with foraging being done by women. It has been suggested that the reason the women did all the swimming may have been because the women had a larger amount of subcutaneous fat that partially insulated them form the cold water in these southern latitudes. The swimmers rubbed their bodies with the fat of seals or mutton birds mixed with red ochre, to aid in the insulation. G. A. Robinson was told by a woman that in the west, where shellfish were an important food source, the women excelled at swimming and diving, but in the east, where shellfish were less important, they excelled at climbing after possums (Flood, 2004).

The division of labour on the Australian mainland was different, here the men climbed after possums, cutting toe holds into the trees to assisting climbing. In Tasmania the women contributed much more to the survival of the group than the men, much more than in other parts of Australia where the division was more equal. As well as providing most of the food, they carried the spears and game, as well as the babies, toddlers, all the gear when travelling. Added to this, they mined the ochre. Robinson reported witnessing a group of Aborigines that were caught by a sudden storm. The men sat down while the women built huts over them (Flood, 2004).

More than 30,000 stone artefacts have been recovered from the West Point midden, mostly steep-edged scrapers that are believed to have been used to make wooden implements such as digging sticks, spears and clubs. As with the upper layers at the Rocky Cape sites, there are no bone points present.

Human Remains

The West Point midden also contains the first prehistoric human remains that have been found in Tasmania. One molar among the several teeth found in the midden had severe erosion of the root indicating periodontal disease. There was a small cremation pit at the base of the midden and 2 other small cremation pits in the middle that have been dated to about 1,800 years ago. The pits were about 45 cm wide and 30 cm deep in the sand or the sandy midden. The bodies appear to have been burnt, the bones broken, then buried with the ashes in small pits.

A number of wallaby foot bones and the talons of a large hawk were found in one pit, and a 32-shell necklace of pierced shells were found in another. These were apparently grave goods, providing evidence that the burial practices of Tasmanian Aborigines and the necklaces worn by them in the 18th century had continued for at least 1,800 years. At Lake Mungo cremation was also practiced 25,000 years ago. It seems the burial practices may have been taken to Tasmania with the first arrivals there.

The human remains  in West Point Midden are fragmentary, but display strong similarity to modern Aborigines from mainland Australia. A burial has been found in a sand dune near the Mount Cameron West engraving site, in which a woman's skull was set upright, facing northeast and 2 long bones crossed in front. On the western side were a series of carbonised remnants, believed to have been poles that had been set in the sand to form a wooden 'wigwam'. Similar structures had been observed on Maria Island, off the northeast coast of Tasmania by Francois Peron, where they were erected over burial pits. Dates obtained from the carbon of the poles, and flecks found associated with the skull, were 4,260 +/- 360 years ago. These remains show signs of being partially cremated after death, after which the bones had been smashed. Her teeth showed signs of chronic periodontal disease and molar wear, but there was no tooth decay (Flood, 2004). The skull was of Tasmanian type, but was within the range of variation of the Australian mainland Aborigines.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing


  1. The Tasmanians: Part 8b: Archaeology and the Oldest Tasmanians
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 30/09/2011
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