Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Occupation of south central Tasmania in the Pleistocene - Fauna

The authors have made some tentative observations concerning the fauna associated with the sites under discussion.

They believe that the vast majority of the faunal remains in the excavated sites reflect human activity. At Nunamira Cave about 12,000 bones of small mammals, mostly whole and unburnt, have been found in the upper units that are believed to have come from owl pellets (Dodson & Wexler, 1979; Marshall, 1986; Hoffman, 1988), most being found below the overhang at the front of the cave that provides a suitable roost for owls. Also in the top levels of Bone Cave, a high proportion of the bone that was highly fragmented is suggested to have been the result of activity of the  Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) (Douglas et al., 1966; Marshall & Cosgrove, forthcoming in 1998). It has been found that in deposits where there are hearths and numbers of stone tools, the indicators of non-human predators are greatly reduced or absent. In layers in which there is little or no evidence of non-human predators, bone and bone fragments display various indications of processing by humans such as burning, breakage that is patterned, transverse incisions indicating cut marks, and in the margins of some fractures, impact notches.

Most of the bone that has been interpreted as being the result of human activity in the southwest Tasmanian caves being discussed here is from a single animal species, the red-necked wallaby, Macropus rufogriseus. Among the minor elements the wombat, Vombatus ursinus. The same 2 animals are also found to dominate the faunal remains in Kutikina Cave (Kiernan et al1983; Geering, 1983). Other caves, such as M86/2, Nunamira Cave and Bone Cave, all contain among the minor prey animals a wider range of species than found in Kutikina Cave, such as platypus, emu, Tasmanian native hen and native cat. Also found in the deposits, though in small numbers, is the eastern grey kangaroo, Macropus giganteus, not found in this part of Tasmania at the present.

Emu eggshell, which has been found only in Nunamira Cave, is believed by the authors to indicate an expansion of grassy habitats after about 20,000 BP, as well as suggesting that humans were present at this site in late winter and early spring (Dove, 1925: 221-2, 300; 1926: 213, 290-1).

The authors suggest an increasing vegetation cover in this region in the terminal Pleistocene is probably indicated by the presence in the Nunamira Cave of the wallaby, Thylogale billardierii, late in the sequence, and very late in the sequence at Nunamira Cave and Bone Cave, the presence of the ring-tail possum, Pseudochirus peregrinis. According to the authors, a large difference in the environment in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene of central Tasmania and the south-eastern section of the mainland Australia is indicated by the absence of the ring-tail possum throughout most of these sequences, as it is ubiquitous in faunal assemblages on the mainland at this time.

The apparent differential representation of body parts of the red-necked wallaby in many sequences  are believed to suggest that the animals were initially processed off-site, possibly representing differential treatment and its breakage, it remains to be tested if the pattern changed through time. At Nunamira Cave and Bone cave, about 25 km apart, the bone is more fragmented and more often burnt in the earlier layers, the average fragment weight increasing and the percentage of burnt bone decreasing over time. At Nunamira Cave, and at about the same time at Bone Cave, the changes occur 24,000-21,000 BP, a time when the cold was intensifying. The authors suggest more recent Bone Cave and Nunamira Cave configuration is reflected in the sequence at M86/2.

Wallaby marrow bones display a consistent and regular breakage pattern, the long bones being systematically smashed, producing helical fractures to the diaphyses, the metatarsals and phalanges being split longitudinally. Similar patterns are found in experimental and ethnographic studies of marrow extraction (Noe-Nygaard, 1977; Binford, 1981: 148-61; Johnson, 1985; Lyman, 1987; Todd & Rapson, 1988). According to the authors it was not clear at the time of writing [1998] what was indicated by the distinctly different patterns of bone refuse in the earlier and later parts of the sequence. This difference between the earlier and later layers of the deposits at Bone Cave and Nunamira Cave is not believed to be site specific, as the change occurs in the deposits at both caves, and it is not considered to be coincidental that the pattern of activity area changes at both sites, as both sites are small. Exploitation of different species between the 2 caves has been ruled out as a reason for the change, as the same species are involved throughout all the sequences. The authors suggest it may reflect a change in the general use of the sites through time, or possibly a change in the economic utility of red-necked wallabies or a specific change in the procedures followed in the processing of the animals that occurred over time. The authors suggest that an intensification of the marrow extraction processes over time might be seen as the reason for the change, a less efficient or less complete use of the marrow is not indicated by the burnt and smashed bones in the earlier layers of the deposits. They also suggest that if it is found that marrow bones were selectively brought back to the sites when the upper levels were being deposited, but not earlier than the change, this might imply that the marrow bones being targeted more selectively.

The remains of extinct megafauna animals have not been identified among the bone assemblages at these sites.

For more information, illustrations and photos see Source 1.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Richard Cosgrove, Jim Allen & Brendan Marshall in Murray, Tim, 1998, Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia, Allen & Unwin.
Author: M.H. Monroe
Last Updated  15/04/2013



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