Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Occupation of south central Tasmania in the Pleistocene - Stone Industries

A high degree of variability has been found in the individual assemblages present at the sites in the study area, though the stone tool types that are characteristic of the 'Australian core tool and scraper tradition', that includes such types as single platform, steep-sided cores, horsehoof cores, and steep-edged, flat and notched scrapers (Bowdler et al., 1970: 49-52) could be extracted from some of the site assemblages. A large amount of analysis will be required to quantify the material in detail, as some of the observed variability results from the availability and physical reduction of different raw materials. The focus here is on the similarities and differences between the assemblages that combines sites into a south-western Tasmanian Pleistocene province, though also indicating differences between them. According to the authors, as well as the distinctive pattern of exploitation of the fauna at these sites, there is also a distinctive pattern of the stone assemblages at the sites.

Similarities and differences between the assemblages are exemplified by the stone raw materials. Comprising 97 % of the stone used in the manufacture of artefacts at M86/2, quartz is the predominant raw material used in the western part of the Tasmanian southwest, as well as very small amounts of chert, crystal quartz, hornfels and silcrete. At sites such as Nunamira Cave in the east the local availability of raw materials is reflected in the use of fine-grained cherts, quartzites, silcretes and hornfels, quartz being uncommon in this deposit. The river in front of Bone Cave was the source of raw materials used in the stone assemblages at that site, tools being predominantly of fine-grained quartzite, as well as some crystal quartz from the Weld Valley. Crystal quartz was brought to Nunamira Cave from the south and hornfels and silcrete at Bone Cave were sourced from the north as well as possibly from the east. According to the authors, it is indicated by preliminary identifications that local sources are predominantly used, raw material distribution similarities between these sites are expected to diminish with distance. When considering stone raw materials there is a stronger similarity between Bone Cave and Nunamira Cave than to the western sites, very small amounts of chert, hornfels and silcrete may possibly have come from the east. The authors suggest the movement may be incidental, and not deliberate, movement of the stone materials within the overall region, though eventually a measure of the association between sites, may derive from the number of these types of raw materials, that might in turn indicate the pattern of movement between sites of people using them.

It is believed the movement of Darwin glass, impactite, from Darwin Crater (Fudali & Ford, 1979) in the western part of the southwest, to a number of sites up to about 100 km from the impact site was intentional. With the exception of OSR 7, Darwin glass has been found in sites located in 6 of the river valleys of the southwest, and all sites that have been discussed here. 10 pieces have been found at M86/2, 5 at Nunamira Cave and 1 piece at Bone Cave, the site that is the greatest distance from Darwin Crater in which Darwin glass has been found.

A small, round type of thumbnail scraper found in Kutikina Cave (Kiernan et al., 1983: 30) is commonly found in all excavated sequences, with the exception of OSR 7, none being found at that site. All specimens from the western sites have been made from milky quartz, and at Bone Cave and Nunamira Cave all specimens were made from fine-grained chert. Among the artefacts of the Australian Pleistocene stone industries it is an unusual type of tool that is likely to have restricted distributions, spatially and temporally, and distinguishes theses assemblages from the Australian core tool and scraper tradition, as found in mainland Australia.

In the Kutikina sequence the first appearance of Darwin glass and thumbnail scrapers has been dated to about 17,000 BP (Jones, 1988: 36). The authors say that the suggestions that these introductions were simultaneous or an 'artefactual disconformity at the level of the assemblage' (Jones, 1988: 36; 1989, 770) that is reflected in the appearance of the thumbnail scrapers, is not supported by more recent evidence. The discrepancy between the dates of introduction of these items is suggested by the authors to be more likely to result from the inadequacy of the present samples than to be real temporal differences.

In the earliest levels of all these sites no Darwin glass or thumbnail scrapers have been found. In Tasmanian assemblages from the Holocene, such as Rocky Cape and Sisters Creek (Jones, 1965: 195, 197; 1966, 7), Darwin glass may have become inaccessible or simply dropped from the raw materials used.

A quartz thumbnail scraper has been found at Cave Bay Cave that has been dated to 19,000 BP (Bowdler, 1984, 122), and 18 thumbnail scrapers, 16 of which were made from quartz, in the Green Gully site near Melbourne in Victoria. Though poorly dated, these river terrace sites are believed to be more than 8,000 years old (Mulvaney, 1975: 172). Neither of these sites suggests other connections or is a reflection of behavioural patterns similar to those in the southwest of Tasmania. In the context of the Australian Holocene, thumbnail scrapers appear more widely, though the authors suggest they might be separated from the Pleistocene groups (Wright, 1970: 1987).

In Bone Cave, at a level older than 23,000 BP, a single, atypical flake with denticulated edges was found that is the first indication of simple flaking by the pressure method known from Tasmania. In the Australian industries of the Pleistocene this technique is rare, though a piece that is very similar has been found, that dated to about 20,000 BP, at Burrill Lake Shelter on the coast of New South Wales, as has been illustrated (Lampert,  1971: 52). At this site 5 examples from the Pleistocene includes 3 that have double edges that have been called 'saws' (Lampert, 1971: 28). In Devil's Lair, in Western Australia, 2 have been found that dated to 12,000 BP (Dortch, 1984: 52). Other examples have been found that date to the Late Holocene (White & O'Connell, 1982: 70).

Bone tools

It has been suggested that bone points, and other implements made from bone, that were recovered from M86/2 and Bone Cave were systematically used in some activities at some sites. Among the uses that have been suggested are skin processing, cloak toggles, marrow extractors and possibly spear points. In the deposit excavated at Nunamira Cave there were no bone implements.

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 21/10/2016



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