Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Darumbal Voyaging – The Increasing Use of the Shoalwater Bay Islands, Central Queensland, over the past 5,000 Years

The most distant islands off the coast of tropical central Queensland that were used by pre-contact Aboriginal people for the last 5,200 years are island archipelagos including Collins, Otterbourne and High Peak Islands, which are up to 40 km from the mainland coast, where excavations have revealed evidence of voyages offshore and marine specialisation in the Shoalwater Bay region. Up to 3,000 years elapsed after the islands formed before systematic use of the islands took place which McNiven et al suggest may reflect a delay in the development of key marine resources. Hiatuses in occupation of various lengths between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago are, according to McNiven et al., associated with increased levels of ENSO activity. Within the past 1,000 years intensified use of the islands is primarily a social phenomenon that was associated with continuing demographic pressures and the development of mainland groups that were more coastally and marine-focused, settlement patterns of which increasingly encompassed adjacent islands. Offshore canoe voyages which were undertaken were risky, and their viability was dependent on 2 high-return activities, hunting green turtles and collecting their eggs. As well as subsistence and the quarrying of quartz, a key motivation for visiting the islands may have been restricted socially, such as ceremonial practices.

The history of the long-term use of the diverse offshore islands of Australia by Aboriginal people has remained an important Archaeological question that generates debate (Hiscock, 2008: chapter 9; Mulvaney & Kamminga, 1999: chapter 18). It was concluded (Bowdler, 1995: 956) in an important overview that there is a “lack of obvious patterning” in use of the islands by Aboriginals beyond most use of the islands occurring within the past 3,000 years, and in the past 1,000 years, intensified use. It was pointed out recently (Sim & Wallis, 2008) that there is little or no direct evidence for the use of small offshore islands by Aboriginal groups during the “initial post-insulation (island) phase” between about 6,500 BP and 4,500 BP. This view challenges the hypothesis of Baker (2004) of 9,000 years of continuous occupation of the Whitsunday Islands, coastal central Queensland. The suggestion (Sim & Wallace, 2008: 104) also challenges the social model of Barker (2004) for increased use of the Whitsunday Islands over the past 3,000 years, suggesting there were similar increases during the late Holocene in the use of islands across northern Australia which were “a direct human response to weather regimes becoming more conducive to coastal habitation and watercraft travel” (Sim & Wallace, 2008: 104). In this paper McNiven et al. present the results of their test of the broader applicability of these divergent views with the results of excavations carried out on offshore islands from Shoalwater Bay, central Queensland. This research by McNiven et al. also tests the longstanding claim (Rowland, 1996) that patterns of island use along the coast of central Queensland were influenced by changes in sea level and changing configurations of marine resources, by the use of recent evidence of the expansion of coral reefs across the southern Great Barrier Reef region within the past 3,500 years. Between 12,000 BP and 8,000 BP a series of hilltops across the continental shelf were flooded as the sea rose in association with global warming in the Pleistocene at the close of the last Ice Age which formed the Shoalwater Bay Archipelago. According to McNiven et al. the region provides an excellent opportunity to test the hypotheses of Barker, Rowland and Sim & Willis, as well as answering 2 questions asked by the Darumbal – contemporary Traditional Owners of the region, which whom McNiven et al. worked closely: What is the history of use by Aboriginal people of these islands and did it change over time?


The results of excavations on the Shoalwater Bay Islands carried out by McNiven et al. demonstrate that the islands of central Queensland continue to have the capacity to produce archaeological evidence that contributes to, and also challenges broader models of the use by Aboriginal people of the offshore islands around Australia. The most compelling evidence available for any part of Australia is provided along the tropical coast of central Queensland that indicates there was continuous, or near continuous, occupation of island archipelagos over the past 7,000 years. It is of equal importance that the Shoalwater Bay excavations of McNiven et al. have produced evidence supporting previous insights for the broader central Queensland coast that the key environmental variables that affected use of the islands relate to marine resources. In this sense the hypothesis (Sim & Wallace, 2008) of the impact of climate change on the use of the islands during the late Holocene is considered to be of secondary importance, unless it can be shown that such changes impact the availability of marine resources. The broader impact of this relationship remains to be demonstrated, though it has been posited (Sim & Wallis, 2008) there is a relationship between an increase in storm activity, which is linked to an increase in ENSO activity, and the reduction of the area covered by mangroves and the associated resources such as shellfish. McNiven et al. say they endorse explorations of the impact changes of the amplitude of ENSO have, and on the way in which Aboriginal people responded to such changes in terms of the perceived viability and risks associate with island voyaging. A question for future archaeological research is whether such changes impact in a similar manner and extent on the marine resources along the coast of the mainland adjacent to Shoalwater Bay, with a similar occupation hiatus at sites, midden deposits in particular, variously between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago. It has been documented (Ulm, 2006: 250) there was a period of “ephemeral low intensity occupation” between 2,000 BP and 1,000 BP within the midden sites of the southern Curtis Coast, which is located to the south of the Keppel Islands, which is consistent with the possibility of mainland sites registering such a hiatus.

The Shoalwater Bay Islands research of McNiven et al., following Rowland’s pioneering research into past use by Aboriginal people of offshore islands of the southern Great Barrier Reef, has built upon previous detailed work (Barker, 2004; Border, 1999), further demonstrating long-term population of the islands, and thereby reinforcing the case for major broad-scale cultural changes occurring about 3,500-3,000 BP and within the past 100 years. The Shoalwater Bay region has not produced evidence for a separate Islander people with minimal contact with the mainland, which differs from the situation in the Whitsunday Islands to the north and the Keppel Islands to the south. McNiven et al. suggest it will require comprehensive excavation along the mainland coast of the Shoalwater Bay region to provide an answer to this question of separateness. Further exploration and testing on the boundedness of the Shoalwater Bay Islands is needed, on a wider range of inshore and offshore island sites, and extending the research of Border (1999) to other islands in the Northumberland Group, including the Percy Islands. McNiven et al. say that in terms of exploratory frameworks their research has tapped into new palaeoenvironmental evidence for major changes in the productivity of marine resources within the past 3,500-3,000 years that requires testing in a broader range of island and mainland coastal contexts, such as coring mangroves and freshwater swamps. According to McNiven et al. the Shoalwater Bay region presents a broad range of opportunities to explore the extent to which the long-term history of the Darumbal people has been shaped by social and environmental issues, together with dramatic increases in the intensity of occupation of islands within the past 1,000 years, which appear to reflect complex social changes in regional socio-economic systems. McNiven et al. say, based on previous experience, the results of this future research will have important implications for the broader coast of central Queensland, as well Australian islands more generally.

Sources & Further reading

  1. McNiven, I. J., N. De Maria, M. Weisler and T. Lewis (2014). "Darumbal voyaging: intensifying use of central Queensland's Shoalwater Bay islands over the past 5000 years." Archaeology in Oceania 49(1): 2-42.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 03/07/2015
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