Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Resilience in the Whitsunday Islands

Evidence found on several islands was used to reconstruct economic practices in the Whitsunday Islands (Barker, 1991, 1996, 1999, 2004; Lamb & Barker, 2001). Humans became archaeologically visible by the discovery of evidence in Nara Inlet 1, a large rockshelter on Hook Island, which dated to 10,000 BP, when the rising sea level was still several metres below the present level, brought the ocean to within a short walk of the site. At that time the rockshelter was part of the mainland of Australia, situated in a narrow valley at the northern end of a long peninsula. The rising ocean cut through the peninsula to create a chain of islands 8,900 BP. About 7,500 BP the valley below the shelter was flooded to form the inlet on Hook Island as the sea level continued rising. Foragers used the shelter over the period of sea level rise, and following the separation of the island from the mainland by the ocean they continued to visit the island, that was then 20 km from the mainland, throughout the mid- to Late Holocene. The shelter was occupied repeatedly throughout 10,000 years, which demonstrated that people were living on the coast over the entire period of rising sea level and the formation of the islands; the transformation of their landscape proved not to be a barrier to successful foraging. It was concluded by Barker that throughout the Holocene coastal foraging was economically diverse, which enabled the foragers to shift the emphasis to new resources as the abundance and location of the previous resources varied.

Barker has identified in his excavations at Nara Inlet 1some of the economic shifts that occurred over the thousands of years of environmental change. Large quantities of stone artefacts were found at the base of the archaeological sequence that were made from a distinctive grey rock that was fine-grained, the only known source of this rock is a hilltop on  South Molle Island of the present (Barker & Schon, 1994; Lamb & Barker, 2001; Lamb, 2005). South Molle Island was formed almost 10,000 BP when the rising ocean flooded the deep valleys that surround the island. In the Early Holocene people crossed the ocean gap of more than 2 km to reach the quarry on South Molle Island and brought stone to Nara Inlet 1 to make stone artefacts (Lamb, 2005). The transport of stone from South Molle Island is evidence indicating that the inhabitants of the Whitsunday Islands had watercraft more than 9,000 years ago (Barker, 1991, 1999,2004), though use of the quarry and the transport of the artefacts that had been made there, reached a peak of intensity between 9,000-6,500 BP. It was suggested (Lamb, 2005) that foragers carried and used standardised stone tools during that period of rapid environmental change; a technological device that aided them in the exploration and exploitation of the region at a time of high foraging risk. Lamb hypothesised that in the Early Holocene hunters relied on stone tools to butcher large marine animals, such as turtle and dugong, as well as possibly the manufacture of fishing and boating gear. Nara Inlet 1has provided archaeological evidence that in the period 7,000-6,000 BP, before sea levels stabilised, foragers hunted many types of marine animals, such as fish, marine mammals, molluscs and crabs, which demonstrated that foragers exploited the rising ocean with technological aides such as watercraft and stone artefacts. Territories were even expanded, with the colonising of newly formed islands, and as Lamb suggested, the exploration of the islands depended on watercraft and reliable tools. On the remote Border Island large numbers of such tools have been found in levels dating to the Early Holocene.

It is more contentious what happened in the Late Holocene. What is known is that the coastal economy, which included the way resources were harvested, was not constant. Fish bones were deposited regularly in the Nara Inlet 1 site, but much greater amounts of mollusc shells and fragments of mud crab (Scylla serrata) were deposited during the past 4,000-2,000 years. Bones of sea turtles and a small pilot whale were recovered only from upper strata of the deposit, though a change in regional hunting patterns need not be indicated by these specimens as more than 6,000 years ago turtles were being caught at Border Island (Lamb, 2005). Over the past 4,000 years, however, there was less frequent transport of artefacts, with points, hooks and scrapers beginning to be fashioned from organic material such as bone, shell and wood, which indicated that the stone, which was costly to obtain, was being replaced by materials that were readily available on each island.

Diversification of subsistence activities in the Late Holocene was argued by Barker to have had greater emphasis on marine foods such as molluscs and crabs, which indicated the emergence of a society and economy that was specialised for island use. It was hypothesised by Barker that local foragers had initially been coastal generalists who exploited foods that were shore-based, becoming marine specialists with a greater emphasis on hunting and fishing on the open ocean, based on the presence of an Aboriginal group in the Whitsunday Islands in the early historic period who collected marine animals using canoes and shell or bone fish hooks. He suggested this change in subsistence and technology took place 4,000-2,000 BP. Barker believed that the maritime society that had been observed in the historic period had begun less than 3,000 years ago, with its economic and social configuration evolving recently. It is an interpretive challenge to explain the change in economy in the Whitsunday Islands during the Late Holocene, and Hiscock suggests that the model proposed by Barker that involved an emphasis of foraging in the open ocean is only one possible interpretation. It was noted that the abundance of turtle bones recovered from the lowest levels of Border Island Rockshelter (Lamb, 2005) Lamb hypothesising that the beginning of open ocean foraging occurred more then 7,000-6,000 years ago. The undoubted use of watercraft to transport stone artefacts from South Molle Island in the Early Holocene makes the theory by Lamb plausible, though the inferring from archaeological turtle bones that the turtles were hunted in the open ocean is complicated the possibility that some turtles were caught as they came ashore to nest.

Hiscock suggests that Barkerís model that involved maritime specialisation can be inverted to provide another interpretation of economic change that is stronger. Not much fish or marine turtle bone has been preserved at Nara Inlet 1 levels that date from the Early Holocene, but at Border Island Rockshelter, the other site with a long archaeological sequence, evidence has been uncovered that much more marine foods had been consumed, which included turtle, in the Early Holocene than at later times.

Also, greater use of foods such as mollusc and crab since 4,000 BP indicates an increased concentration of foraging on the Shore in the Late Holocene rather than a decrease. Barkerís evidence demonstrating that local mollusc populations were harvested intensively over the past 2,000-1,000 years indicated that there was a trend away from deep water foraging towards the collecting of shore-based animals. Throughout the Holocene mangrove forests were present around the islands, though in the Late Holocene they could have become more productive. As a consequence, the greater availability of shores with muddy sediments and mangroves fringing the islands may have led to an increase in shore-based foraging over time; it would probably have been less costly and more reliable to forage in these habitats than hunting in the open ocean. According to Hiscock greater exploitation of island shores is evidence of the breadth of the diet during the Late Holocene, and not a narrowing of the focus of foraging. Greater exploitation of the shores of islands is evidence of an expansion of the breadth of diet during the Late Holocene, and not a narrowing. The economy altered in these islands from foraging that was focused on deep water fishing and hunting in the Early- to Middle Holocene to an economy that was a more generalist economy in the Late Holocene, when a large range of islands and resources from the open ocean were the focus of foraging.

It is not clear what the cause of these economic adjustments was, whether initiated by cultural decisions or a changing local ecology. Social dynamics was claimed by Barker to be the primary cause for economic change, and not environmental circumstances, though the evidence for this is not compelling. Barker concluded that the main environmental change occurred 4,500 years ago, citing a pollen investigation at Whitehaven Swamp, too early to trigger the altered forager behaviour that he believed occurred 3,000 years ago (Genever et al., 2003). The changes in the pollen sequence have not been dated, being estimated with unknown accuracy, and it reflects terrestrial vegetation modifications on Whitsunday Island; it is not a record of shoreline changes where ancient people collected molluscs, crabs and other foods. To trigger a minor mangrove expansion, that would form shoreline ecologies that were more varied and allow for more foraging opportunities, would not require dramatic climate change of the kind that might be visible in terrestrial; altered conditions could have produced altered conditions, such as localised accumulations of sediment or minor sea level changes. The timing, nature and cause of shoreline resources at the islands are still to be investigated.

In one respect the archaeological evidence that has been uncovered on the Whitsunday Islands is unambiguous: exploitation of the topical east coast continued throughout the sea level rise. In archaeological sites the trend that has been recorded, that hunters in the Early to mid-Holocene that were focused relatively on hunting in open ocean changed to diversified coastal foragers which had a greater balance of open ocean and shore-based resource use, reveals the transformation of coastal economy that occurred as island ecologies evolved and social life altered. The remarkable capacity of local people to reconstruct their economy to deal with environmental and social circumstances that were changing is demonstrated by repeated change in procurement of materials, tool manufacture, method of foraging and diet. The point made by Barker, that coastal economies have been flexible and resilient, has been demonstrated by this; simultaneously revealing how the particular environmental and social histories of each region shaped the economic response of the foragers occupying them, a diversity of responses across the continent was a consequence of long-term adaptation. Instead of an economic response that was continent-wide, as forgers adjusted to the opportunities and risks that confronted them. Also, specialised or intensive exploitation of marine resources was not confined to the Late Holocene, as Beaton had predicted. According to Hiscock these patterns are seen clearly in the economic histories of other coastal regions of northern Australia.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Hiscock, Peter, 2008, Archaeology of Ancient Australia, Taylor & Francis.



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 28/03/2017
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