Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Tasmanian Aboriginal Interaction in the Past – Raw Material Movement and Implications for Isolated Human Population Dynamics

An important factor in understanding patterns of long-term human interaction has been the study of the distribution of raw materials for the manufacture of stone artefacts from point sources to archaeological sites. Many studies have emphasised the proximity to raw material sites, in particular the distance travelled by the items and the nature of social interactions that is reflected in such patterns. Tasmania is an example where an important role in the characterising Aboriginal Society and tribal relationships has been played by ethnohistorical documents. The archaeology of such organisation has been elusive, though the works of Brian Plomley, Rhys Jones and Lyndall Ryan, have provided a glimpse of the structure of society and interaction. Cosgrove has aimed this paper at discussing the evidence of the movement of raw material as a proxy for the patterns of past interaction between Aboriginal people in Tasmania.

A number of workers have investigated the distribution of raw materials that were used in the production of stone artefacts in Tasmania over the past 40 years (Cosgrove, 1995a, b, 2000; Cosgrove et al., 1990; Holdaway, 2004; Jones, 1963, 1971, 1984; Lourandos, 1977; Sheppard, 1997; Sutherland, 1972A large-scale museum study of Tasmanian stone artefacts that were well-provenanced has been carried out (Sutherland, 1972: 15) that led Sutherland to argue that the distribution of the used or raw materials was related to geological outcrops. In eastern Tasmania hornfels, quartzite and quartz was the dominant rock type used and in the north it was chert and brecciated chert that dominated and in the west spongolite, black chert and quartzite were commonly used for stone artefacts. In western Tasmania detailed archaeological investigations have tended to support this general distribution of exploitation of local raw material, in Holocene and Late Pleistocene contexts (Cosgrove, 2000; Holdaway, 2004; Jones, 1971). Raw material that originated more than 30-80 km from sites contain only small quantities of rock types such as red ochre, brecciated chert, blue chert and Darwin glass (Cosgrove, 1999; Sagona, 1994; Sheppard, 1977). No specific ethnographic information is available for how the materials were distributed. It is not known if the materials were acquired by trade/exchange, as has been documented for arid Australia (Smith, 2013: 270-271).

The distribution of raw materials for Aboriginal artefacts is examined in this paper by a study of the large open archaeological site at Armistead, northern Tasmania (Tasmanian Site Index number 9666). It is located strategically at the intersection of the North Midlands, Big River, North and North West Tribal groups.  This location intersects with known Aboriginal seasonal band movement, and is located centrally to 3 major quarry sources of stone artefacts – brecciated chert, spongolite and hornfels – and also within the sphere of important Aboriginal ochre mines (Ryan, 2012). Cosgrove aimed his analysis at (i) to examine the use of stone raw materials that were available locally and (ii) to identify the frequency with which exotic raw materials for stone artefacts had been moved from western to eastern Tasmania.


In the east and northeast regions of Tasmania archaeological excavations and surveys that have been carried out over the last 40 years have demonstrated that very few “exotic” raw materials have been moved from the west to the east (Cosgrove, 2000; Kee, 1990, 1991; Sheppard, 1997). According to Cosgrove nearly all known archaeological occurrences of red ochre the came from the Gog Range mine, as well as haematite from Penguin (Sagona, 1994), are located within the tribal areas that had friendly social relations with the North Tribe, and it was the North Tribe who controlled access to the mines (Ryan, 2012). The movement of high quality raw material for artefacts, such as spongolite and brecciated chert, that came from quarries at Rebecca Creek and Parrawe in the northwest, was largely restricted to the tribal territories to the west, northwest and north coast. Excavated deposits at Parmerpar Meethaner, in the Forth River Valley, have produced 2 brecciated chert artefacts that have been dated to 25,000 BP (Cosgrove, 1995a). In Kutikina Cave 1 piece was identified that dated to 20,000 BP (Burch, 2007). At Parrawe Quarry a hearth was dated to between 3,490 ± 60 BP and 2,770 ± 80 BP (Cosgrove et al., 2010). At least 2,500 BP spongolite and black cherts were imported into Rocky Cape Caves, which is a straight-line distance of 60-70 km (Jones, 1977: 194). As far as is presently known these raw materials are sourced only from western Tasmania, where they occur abundantly on middens (Bowdler, 1984; Jones, 1971; Neden, 1984) and open sites Cosgrove, 1990, 2000; Cosgrove & Murray, 1993). It has been reported that a single piece of spongolite has been found 320 km from its source (Sutherland, 1972: 18). According to Cosgrove it is not known why such high quality material materials were not transported to the east beyond Armistead, as it would seem that it would be desirable to have access to such quality material for the production of stone tools.

It has been argued by a number of researchers that there would be a link between linguistic differentiation and tribal relations (Crowley & Dixon, 1981; Jones, 1971; Mulligan, 1857). There were earlier assertions by Schmidt (Jones, 1971) that there was a distinctive east-west language divide which was described in the ethnography, possibly anchored in the deep past, that were supported (Bowen, 2012), who identified 5 macro-families of Tasmanian languages by the use of phylogenetic techniques. 3 in the east (northeastern, Oyster Bay and southeastern that had weak relationships, while there was a weak association between the northern language and the west.

Cosgrove says if there were long-term social exclusion and language boundaries that were sufficiently strong, as is suggested by the distribution of raw material it is perplexing that this does not appear to have affected gene flow between different Aboriginal tribes. In non-metrical skeletal traits there is not a great differentiation between Tasmanian Aboriginals, who were of a similar appearance to the southern people of Victoria (Pardoe, 1991). Throughout about 14,000 years of isolation of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people there was not trend towards bottlenecking or great physical changes (Pardoe, 1991), which there was a significant population size, that Cosgrove suggests probably was greater than the figures that are often quoted of 3,000-5,000 at the time of first contact  (Jones, 1971). This contrasts with the situation along the Murray River on the mainland of Australia where social exclusion and environmental pressure during the glacial period appears from the evidence to have led to the robustness of the populations at Kow Swamp (Pardoe, 1988; Stone & Cupper, 2003).

The physical similarity between the Tasmanian Aboriginal people and the mainland groups in southern Australia, even after being isolated for 14,000 years, therefore signals genetic connectedness across Tasmania (Pardoe, 1991). According to Cosgrove this would signal there was fluid seasonal movement along distinct, well-beaten tracks (Ryan, 2012: 17-42) that linked groups together biologically. In contrast to this, the material evidence that is discussed in this paper and other publications (Cosgrove, 1995a, b, 2000: Holdaway, 2004, Jones, 1977; Sheppard, 1997) suggests there was little contact between east and west, even after 40,000 years of settlement. This discord between the archaeological and genetic/historical datasets appears to be paradoxical. Cosgrove suggests it begs the significant question of how open or closed their economic networks were (Gamble, 1993; Smith, 2013), whether the pattern was one set in great antiquity, or possibly one that changes over time.

Cosgrove says that in this paper he has attempted to identify some of the lithic assemblage of Tasmanian Aboriginal groups and to examine why the pattern that emerges may have an underlying social explanation as much as an economic explanation, and suggests further work on these aspects of the archaeology of Tasmanian Aboriginal people should make these patterns more understandable.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cosgrove, R. (2015). "Raw material movement and past Tasmanian Aboriginal interaction: implications for understanding isolated human population dynamics." Archaeology in Oceania 50: 70-82

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 11/07/2015
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