Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

King Island

Remains were found in a cave on King Island in Bass Strait off the northwestern tip of Tasmania. It was reburied after being studied in situ by Thorne. Charcoal adhering to parts of the skeleton has been dated to 14,270 +/- 604 BP (ANU-7039). At that time the sea level would have been low enough for the site to have been connected to both Tasmania and the Australian mainland by dry land, and would have been about 20-25 km from the sea, on the side of a raised plateau that overlooked a wide coastal plane. It is the oldest evidence known of the physical form of the early Tasmanian Aboriginal People, as well as of the burial customs, secondary burial, and the use of ochre in what are believed to be burial rites. (Flood, 2004).

It is believed the burial was of the secondary disposal type, the bones being collected in a pile and covered with a pile of rocks in the cave. No artefacts were found with the remains, but small pieces of ochre were found in the cranium and femur. It is not known if the ochre had been added at the time of the secondary burial or if it had been on the body and hair prior to decomposition, as had been recorded by explorers. The ochre must have come from some distance from the site. The explorers Baudin and Peron reported the bodies being covered with ochre.

The bones found included a cranium, mandible, a femur, fibula, tibia, vertebrae and other fragmentary bones. Measurements of the bones indicated that it was male, between 25 and 35 years of age. It is believed to be of the gracile type, the cranium being fully rounded, with a flat, moderately sized face (no prognathism), and lacked pronounced development of brow ridges.

It has been suggester by Brown that the remains were actually those of a woman, but the original measurements, as well a photographs of the femur head, which was 49 mm in diameter, with a scale, demonstrate that it is outside the range for a woman. The femur had a big head and was relatively short, which is a classic feature found in cold-adapted skeletons, as in those of the Inuit and Sherpas. Aboriginal People had been living in Tasmania since about 35,000 BP, and by 14,000 BP, the age of the King Island remains, it appears they had adapted to the cold conditions in the usual way, becoming shorter and stockier.

The fact that this skeleton was of the gracile type has been claimed by some as further evidence that the most southerly people were of the gracile type. This would imply that the first of the people to arrive in Australia were gracile, the later arrivals being more robust.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing, 2004
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 30/09/2011
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