Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Point Technology in the Kimberley – New Data

More robust data for point technology have been obtained from Bunuba Country, southern Kimberley, than have been available previously. At 3 sites in the southern Kimberley direct percussion points have been recovered associated with radiocarbon dates of 5,000 calBP, though the earliest pressure-flaked points have consistently been associated with dates within the past 1,000 years. It is therefore suggested that the earliest known direct percussion points predates the earliest known pressure points by 4,000 years in this region.

In museum holdings and displays direct percussion and pressure-flaked points from the Kimberley region are abundant, though they are mostly from surface collections in shelters and open sites, and they are poorly documented, though they are from well dated contexts. It is indicated by previous research that the earliest production of direct percussion points predates the earliest known production of pressure-flaked points (Dortch, 1977; Harrison, 2004; O’Connor, 1999); though the determination of the relationship between these classes of artefacts and their temporal separation has been made difficult by contexts that are poorly dated and the confusion over nomenclature. It is necessary to understand the temporal framework for production if an examination of these implications of these changes in terms of the technological restructuring are to be attempted. In this paper Maloney et al. review previous studies that relate to the chronology of the production of stone points in the broader region of the Kimberley, and then use the data from their new excavations in the southern Kimberley to describe the points and dating contexts

Point technology in the Kimberley has previously been described as being a range of ad hoc classifications. The term “Kimberley Point” has, e.g., been used to describe any artefact that has been retouched on an elongated flake which has converging margins, irrespective of retouch attributes (.g. Veitch, 1996: 70-2, 74, 76, 77, 79; see Veitch, 1999: 356). The term “Kimberley Point” to produce pressure-flaked points that display “denticulate” or “serrated” margins, however, has been used by Akerman & Bindon (1995). Alternatively, these authors have distinguished a Kimberley Dentate point (Akerman & Bindon, 1995: 93-4), where the notches that separate the teeth are wider than the teeth. In this paper Maloney et al. follow Harrison (2004: 2) by recognising a class of points that have been retouched by direct percussion, which are distinct from those that are produced by pressure-flaking, to avoid the confusion that can arise from the application of different typologies.

Discussion and conclusion

In 3 sites that have been excavated in the southern Kimberley there are 3 examples of  direct percussion points that have been dated to earlier than 5,000 calBP and 4 pressure-flaked points that have been dated to the past 1,000 years. In the review of the literature by Maloney et al. it has been demonstrated that direct percussion points that have been recovered from excavated sites throughout the Kimberley consistently predate pressure-flaked points by more than 4,000 years. Points as old as those from the southern Kimberley have been reported from stratified sites in the Northern Territory (see Jones & Johnson, 1985: 206), though direct percussion points occur at a significantly earlier time in the southern and western Kimberley than in the north and east of the Kimberley.

At this stage of research knowing whether regional variation in the timing of the first appearance of point technology is difficult or if this appearance is an artefact of sampling, or is a result of differences in the spread and the uptake of new technologies. It has been argued (Hiscock, 1993: 177) that the size of a sample must be investigated to determine the relationship between vertical movement, dates and occurrences that are isolated occurrences of rare types of technology, such as points. It was stressed further by Hiscock that in any investigation into the earliest observations of new technologies analyses of sample size need to be carried out, arguing that the recovery of a rare type in a deposit reflects only the first known instance of discard within the boundaries of the area being discarded (Hiscock, 1993: 175). The appearance of bipolar backed artefacts in Australia in the Early Holocene has been claimed (Hiscock & Attenbrow, 1998: 170), based on 2 artefacts that have been dated by association (see also Hiscock & Attenbrow, 2004). Hiscock & Attenbrow (2004) argue there is no a priori reason for the uptake of new technology being uniform over time and space, and the possibility that new technology may spread and proliferation resulting in a widespread signature in the archaeological record thousands of years after its inception. In this sense, Maloney et al. suggest it is not unlikely the temporal patterning of pressure flaking across the Kimberley, as presented in this paper, is the proliferation of this new technology and earlier evidence of this technology could possibly still be recovered with a larger sample size.

Maloney et al. believe that though it is unlikely, it is also possible that artefacts that are associated with older dates have been subjected to vertical movement downwards in the deposits in the shelter. The direct dating of mastics or binders on the artefacts themselves will be the ultimate test of these alternatives. Those in the southern sites of the Kimberley that are discussed in this paper have been examined, but there is no remaining mastic. In other regions of the Kimberley future excavations are required to refine the dating and gain a better understanding of regional variability in the production of points.

The degree of similarity of the underlining causes of morphological variation in point technologies throughout the Holocene will, according to Maloney et al., remain a question for Australian archaeology. An example of a question to be answered that is given by Maloney et al. is the degree of ecological, environmental or population change that has driven the development of, and the changes to point technology, in the Kimberley.

 According to Maloney et al. it appears there has been a major change in the lithic production in the Kimberley within the past 1,000 years. The introduction of pressure flaking occurred earlier in the southern Kimberley than in the Northern Territory, where the technology was still being taken up as late as the 1930s. It appears that pressure flaking moves from the south to the north, on the basis of archaeological accounts and on accounts from ethnography. There are, however, parallels between the Kimberley and the Northern Territory, both being regions where there is evidence for the adoption of new types of projectiles about 1,000 BP. During this time different technologies were being adopted in Wardaman country in the Northern Territory, such as the increased production of large hafted blades which occurred during the past 1,000 years (see Clarkson. 2007: 104; Davidson, 1935: 68-70). Maloney et al. say that though they have dealt with the chronology in this paper, it should be a priority of future investigation to investigate these changes in association with evidence from archaeology and the environment for economic and social change.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Maloney, T., S. O'Connor and J. Balme (2014). "New dates for point technology in the Kimberley." Archaeology in Oceania 49(3): 137-147.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 18/07/2015
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