Part 8: Archaeology and the Oldest Tasmanians
Table of Contents
8.1. Entering Tasmania
8.4. Holocene Sites (less than 12,000 years old)
- Rock art
8.6. Pleistocene Sites (more than 12,000 years old)
8.6.1. Pleistocene Northern Islands
8.1. Entering Tasmania
The earliest dates for people in Tasmania go back to around 35,000 years before the present . I is likely that the truly first arrivals immigrants would have arrived at least some thousands of years before that. The most likely route for the first humans to reach Tasmania is shown below by the red arrow below.The white areas on the map were unbroken dry land when sea levels dropped 60 m below present levels (see also chart further below).
All prehistoric people who entered Australia from mailand Asia must have had some form of water craft (rafts, boats, etc) since Australia has not been connected to mainland Asia for eons before the development of even the earliest proto-human animals.
If the earliest earliest humans seeking to reach Tasmania already had seaaa-going boats, they would not have needed to wait for the land bridge to Tasmania to fall completely dry but could have used their boats for island-hopping. In this case, they could, at least theoretically, have arrived in Tasmania as early as 50,000 years ago, i.e. a relatively short time after the first humans had arrived in Australia. No traces of such very early arrivals have been found, however.
The most likely route into Tasmania for the earliest Tasmanians was the Flinders island route (1). The waters there are relatively shallow and with sea levels sinking during the ice age the land-bridge opened up earlier and remained dry longer than on the alternative Kings Island route (2). A landbridge need not indicate that the first Tasmanians had no boats. In fact, the most likely path of entry into Tasmania was along the coasts of the landbridge where the sea as well as the land could provide ressources. The migrants also then did not need seaworthy boats but could have been fishing with boats rather like the unseaworthy canoe-like reed boats that their distant descendants used until the early 19th century.
The reason why there is doubt about whether the first Tasmanians could have crossed the stormy waters of the Bass Strait as it is today, is that, the the time of the British arrival, theTasmanians had nothing really deserving to be called "boats" (for what they did have see Boats). Of course, the Tasmanians could have lost their original boat-building skills in the intervening several 10,000s of years, as they mysteriously lost other skills (see Fish and Bone-tool Mystery).
Every time the sea was around 60 m
or more below today's level, a landbridge between mainland
Australia and Tasmania formed. Dry land routes from Australia to Tasmania (for dates
when the routes were dry land see chart below): 1. The primary
Flinders island arc route (the most likely route) 2. The secondary King
island arc route
Every time the sea was around 60 m or more below today's level, a landbridge between mainland Australia and Tasmania formed.
Dry land routes from Australia to Tasmania (for dates when the routes were dry land see chart below):
1. The primary Flinders island arc route (the most likely route)
2. The secondary King island arc route
The question of when the first Tasmanians reached their homeland remains open. That they could have walked (or hugged the coasts with boats) has been established: during the past 150,000 years the landbridge between Australia and Tasmania has been flooded for no more than 30,000 years.
The following graphics show when the landbridgewas dry and Tasmania could be reached without the need to cross open waters. How imprecise estimates of sea levels at specific times in prehistory remain is illustrated by the various results supplied by different scientists using different methods. What is not in question, however, is that there were periods with a dry landbridge between Audstralia and Tasmania. The question is only when this landbridge was dry and when it was flooded.
Sea levels of the last 150,000 years and landbridges between Tasmania and Australia (estimated by various scientists using various methods).
Graphic adapted from James D. Wright, Kenneth G. Miller, Robert E.Sheridan, and Benjamin S. Cramer, 2004, "Late Pleistocene Sea-Level and Deep-sea Temperatureee Changes Constrtained by US Mid-Alantic Margin Sequenes," Geology.
Just how widely estimates of sea levels (and consequently estimates of when the landbridge was dry and when it was flooded) differ over the past 55,000 years is shown by this graphic with different estimates of sea levels
The question of the crucial landbridge has been summed up nicely by Rhys Jones (adapted from Annual Review Anthropology, 1995, 24:423-426) as follows:
The critical issue concerning the initial colonization of Tasmania is the timing of the periodic exposures of the shallowest topographic sill between island and continent, namely the Bassian Rise located between Flinders Island and Wilson's Promontory and lying at a depth of ca. 55 m. The problem is that this depth is close to the level of considerable fluctuation of the sea level during the time period between 50,000 and 29,000 years before the present. Simple bathymetric comparisons are not sufficient because there was probably also a complex process of isostatic adjustment. From a human perspective, a sea level existing only slightly higher than the 55 m level would have exposed an archipelago with only short cross-sea distances, which had there been even simple watercraft, might have been traversible. A land bridge may have been available between ca. 55,000 and 50,000 years and again at ca. 37,000 before the present. Given the present evidence, the first colonists may have availed themselves of the opportunities offered by the latter event. Luminescence dates from two sites in northern Australia indicate human presence there at between 53,000 and 60,000 years before the present. Whether there were people present on the southern part of the Australian continent at the time of the earlier possible land bridge is the subject of considerable debate. We need to get hard field evidence from Tasmania first and worry about the paleogeography later.
8.2. Archaeological Overview
The map below gives an overview of prehistoric finds in Tasmania, i.e. only finds predating the year 1800. The distribution of such finds gives a rough-and-ready indication of population distribution over the past 30,000 years.
Map of prehistoric tool and other material finds to give an rough overview of population concentrations in Tasmanian prehistory. No comparable data is availbable for the northern King island and the Furneaux group of islands.
Large red dots: ochre mines (to which all tribes seem to have had access to)
Medium-sized grey dots: Archaeological finds and sites of all kinds except surface stone tools
Small black dots:
surface finds of stone
Map in part adapted from
Light gray area: parts not inhabited or visited often by Tasmanian aborigines at the time of or shortly before the European arrival around 1800. Groups on their wandering are known to have passed through the area but they did not set up camps there. There are few finds of surface tools in the area so it may not have been used for hunting or gathering for a long time. The unique "silent rainforest" that still exists in parts of the area today may well have been unproductive for hunter-gatherers.
Dark grey oval area: What is remarkable is that most of of the the major ceremonial caves and sites found are close to or in the "deserted" area. No convincing explanation for this apparently very ancient and strict separation has been given yet. Could the ceremonial caves have been "cathedrals in the wilderness" and the area used only for ceremonies?
Ochre is a mineralized earth of reddish to orange and yellow colour that has been used since very early human times (and possibly even by the still earlier forerunners of Homo sapiens) for body painting, wall painting and perhaps other purposes.
All tribes made seasonal wanderings to hunt and gather specific seasonal items, and these often led through enemy territory. Safe passage was sanctioned by a tradition at specific times of the year for specific purposes. A traditional truce was particularly important in the search for ochre: the red mineral was of major importance to the spiritual welfare of all prehistoric Tasmanians (as it was to most prehistoric people around the world from the earliest times). Ochre was used for body painting and and cave art as well as for many other ritual ands ceremonial uses. Surprisingly, no trade in this important resource developed between the have tribe and the have-not tribes. Each group had to go and collect its ochre themselves and this even if they lived at the other end of Tasmania. Ochre is found in Tasmania above all in an area belonging to the Northern tribe. There is another source of ochre in the southwest that seems to have been used only by the local Southwestern tribe on whose land is was located but not (for unknown reasons) by any other tribe. The regular tribal visits to the northern ochre mines may date back to the earliest Tasmanian settlement, 30,000 or more years ago and must have been a strong influence over the millennia on Tasmanian identity.
An ochre grinder of unknown age.
Many Tasmanian men until well into British times used to paste down their hair with ochre in the manner shown here. The picture is of the chief of the Loch Lomond tribe, Mannalargenna.
We have not been able to find a picture of a Tasmanian ochre mine (the modern Tasmanians, white or aboriginal, seem to be less than keen on the new-fangled art of photography).
We want our readers to see how an ochre mind can look liike and so enclose a picture from one such in southern France that may have contributed the ochre colour to the famous cave paintings of France, more than 30,000 years (almost at the same time when ochre was coming into use in Tasmania).
8.4. Holocene Sites (less than 12,000 years old)
With the subject of stone tools we touch on the wide area between traditional Tasmanians of the last few hundred years before 1800 on the one hand, and their truly ancient ancestors of many thousands and tens of thousands of years ago. Although a slow change of types of tools can be made out, there was no substantial ord systematic differences between tools of a time shortly before the British invasion and truly ancient tools.
Until the arrival of outside visitors, the Tasmanians have used only their traditional wooden, stone and bone tools. The tools used around 1800 show little or no change against tools that are known to be thousands of years old. Some strange changes in the Tasmanian tool box have nevertheless taken place and are discussed above. Overall it seems that the ideal tool set had been assembled at around 3,500 years ago and that no substantial changes were made until the sky fell in on the Tasmanians shortly after 1800.
Holocene sites (less than approx. 12,000 years
Among the least understood Tasmanian artefacts are the petroglyphs (stone carving) which have been found mostly along the west coast of Tasmania, with only one exception on the north coast.
Their age is very difficult to establish but it is thought that they might have begun to be made 3,000 years ago with the last ones made 1,500 years ago. The purpose of these stone carvings is unknown. Perhaps they were connected to ancestor whorship and/or funeral rites.
What is so surprising about these petroglyphs is the enormous effort that an allegedly simple subsistence-level hunting-gathering society must have invested into these stone carvings. Clearly they were very important to the people who made them. The hard stone had to be laboriously chiselled out of hard rock by people whose most sophisticated hard tools were stone chips. The stone carvings are tmong he most baffling artefacts of a people that is very baffling in so many other ways. It is all the more unfortunate that we do not know what they meant to the Tasmanians or why they were made.
Circles are the predominant motif with the circles ranging in diameter from more than 1 m at Preminghana to only 3 cm at Mersey Bluff. There are also concentric circles, spirals and rows of dots. Figurative motifs depicting animal tracks, shells and emus are rare but occur at a few sites.
Rock art in Tasmania has in recent years been increasingly
vandalized and not many sites are open to the public anymore. Among
those few that are left for viewing are the following three, all
within a small area around Marrawah in northwesternmost Tasmania:
- Green Creek, near Marrawah (Tasmania's westernmost settlement and25 km south of Cape Grim)
- Preminghana (Mount Cameron West), (ca. 8 km north of Marrawah
- Sundown Point, 23 km south Marrawah (and 8 km south of the mouth of the Arthur River)
in map above.
The extensive cliffside Aboriginal petroglyphic carvings on the northwest until 1930 ware covered with consolidated sand dunes. The carvings are huge and rocks in the picture are taller than a grown-up human.
Japanese claims that their sailors reached Tasmania and made these carvings there in the 15th century are nonsense.
Photo © Ludo Kuipers, OzOutback (web-site: http://ozoutback.com.au )
Drawing of a Tasmanian petroglyph of unknown age from the eastern part of Tasmania (no precise location given). The sample is in the style of eastern petroglyphs which are much less common than those of the west coast, perhaps because they are smaller and much harder to spot that the large western specimens.
(adapted from Brian Plomley, 1993. The Tasmanian Aborigines. The Plomley Foundation)
Ansons Bay stone line
Location of the Ansons Bay stone line.
Location of the Ansons Bay stone line.
The Ansons Bay stone lines consists of two rows of stones, one on top of the other, with the top line 138 stones long (only a part of the top row is shown below) with an overall length of 82 m long. The flat stones are arranged like a pathway in a roughly north-north-easterly direction. The entire arrangement is on the surface of a long midden parallel to and about 36 m away from the sea shore. A trench dug across this alignment in order to try and investigate the relationship of the stones to the midden. A second row of stones roughly parallel to the first but aligned a little more easterly was found around 30 cm below the surface.
The base of the midden rests on the dune sand.The stratigraphy argues for an the aboriginal origin of both lines and the midden contains charcoal, stone flakes and bone fragments.
Bonwick (1870) mentions circles and piles of stones in the centre of Van Diemen's Land, but as no location or reference is given, his claim cannot be substantiated. On the Australian mainland such stone arrangements marked ceremonial sites as totemic centres or initiation grounds. While the aboriginal nature of the Ansons Bay stone line is not proven (no stone tools or other artefacts were found associated with the lines), it is unlikely that European settlers would have had any use for such a construction atop a midden hill.
The stone lines (if they are indeed aboriginal) provide evidence of the continuation of the Australian tradition of stone arrangement building for an archaeologically appreciable length of time. A carbon date for the bottom feature, although probably of no great antiquity, would be of interest to archaeologists and social anthropologists alike. Strangely enough, not has ever been reported. It is likely, however, that the lines and the midden are of Holocene date.
Stone lines are common in Australia but only one has been
located in Tasmania. (adapted from Jones, R. 1965. "Excavation on a Stone
Arangement in Tasmania." Man, 78-79, May-June
Stone lines are common in Australia but only one has been located in Tasmania.
(adapted from Jones, R. 1965. "Excavation on a Stone Arangement in Tasmania." Man, 78-79, May-June issue).
Rhys (1965, see reference above) then goes on to describe some peculiar features of the stone lines and their association with the midden as follows:
A small-scale excavation was carried out in order to ascertain the relationship of the stones to the underlying midden. The trench (A) revealed a depth of 12 inches (30 cm) of undisturbed midden material, with charcoal, stone flakes and some bone fragments, resting on clean dune sand. The flaked assemblage was made of crystalline quartz, and although the artifacts were plentiful, their use to the typologist is limited. The flat stones of the alignment were about three inches thick and were sunk into the midden with their top surfaces flush with the surface of the ground. Directly beneath the top feature, and separated from it by six inches of shell midden were found other stones. The excavations were extended at right angles to the first trench, so that an area 12 feet (3.6 m) by three feet (0.9 m) was uncovered. In this cutting, an irregular row of 12 rounded sub-angular stones could be seen, aligned approximately in a 145 to 325 degrees direction. All of these stones had their bases set a few inches deep into the sand underlying the midden, and two of them had been extensively flaked prior to being placed in situ. The midden itself had accumulated around this structure, for no traces could be seen of any holes dug through the deposit to let the stones into the sand. There was a depth of 12 inches (30 cm) of shell deposited in the time between the building of the two arrangements. About six inches of niidden had been laid down after the total disappearance of the bottom feature before the top one was constructed. In the ease of the lower feature, it is impossible to say as yet whether it was intended to be a straight line of stones as is the ease in the top one, or whether the stones exposed are part of some more complicated arrangement. Further work is required, to strip off the midden, so as to expose the full extent of lower structure, before any meaningful descriptions can be made.
Rocky Cape South site
The Rocky Cape South cave excavation in progress under Rhys Jones during the summers of 1963-65.
View of the northern corner of the cave.
The measuring stick is marked in feet (1 ft = ca. 30 cm). The bottom 5 feet are part of the "bottom complex" on top of which there are a maximum of 5 feet of "top complex".
Rocky Cave South faces eastwards and there is a midden at its entrance that extends some 30 m into a narrow crevice near the entrance. The cave itself is small: 1.8 x 1.5 m. The maximum depth of undisturbed midden is 3 m with 60 cm of disturbed material above this. Below the midden excavation was difficult because the sand there was packed tightly between large boulders. The sand, however, did not contain any flakes, bones or traces of charcoal.
The midden has been divided by its excavator Rhys, into a top and a bottom complex:
This complex was six feet or 1.8 m thick. One foot above the bottom of this complex, a C14 date of 8,120 ±160 years before the present has been reported. The bottom complex consists of horizontal layers of sea shell deposits (limpet and winkle) and brown earthy midden material. Bones found came from elephant seals but fur seals, wallaby, bandicoot and fish were also represented.In the bottom complex there were around 10 stone tool flakes per cubic foot, only a few of which were retouched implements or cores. All the materials used for tools was locally available. The tools were what the excavator called "crude and relatively undifferentiated." The 35 bone tools found contrasted with the simple stone tool set: they were carefully made from walllaby fibula that were broken into two with the broken ends being ground and polished until smooth. There were two types of bone tools: long single-ended points (max. 145 mm long) and spatulae that were a little longer.
This complex was 4 feet or 1.2 m thick . The complex was embedded into the bo0ttom complex as if it had been deliberately excavated, perhaps in an attempt to increase the headroom available. The deposit consiste mostly of ash, burnt and crushed shells and large nodules flecked with fine charcoal of a soft white deposit. Stone tools were present at a density of between 60 and 100 tools per cubic foot (a total of 1,500 artefacts).. Burnt bone was mostly unidentifyable, but fish was present. The materials used for tool making was the same as that of the bottom complex, with the exception of ssome superior materials such as cherts and silified breccia. These do not occur locally and must have been imported from the only part of Tasmania where they occur naturally: the west coast. Some tools were also more carefully made than had been the case earlier. No bone tools were found.
There s some evidence that Rocky Cape South was occupied by human groups earlier than Rocky Cave North (which we do not discuss here in detail).The possibility has been raised that the people of the southern cave moved to the norhtern cave after their original cave had become too construczed because of the debris accumulated over the millennia.
Abalone shells against the wall of Rocky Cape South cave have lain there undisturbed for an estimated 6,000 years before the present (photo W. Ambrose, by courtesy R. Jones; from Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, 1983, University of Hawaii Press).
A variety of stone tools was found at Rocky Cape South cave (drawing adapted from from Jones, in Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, 1983, University of Hawaii Press).
Blackman's site (Sister's Creek)
(adapted from Rhys Jones in 1966, "A Speculative Archaeological Sequence for NW Tasmania", Records of the Queen Victoria Museum Launceston, 26:1-12)
Blackman's Cave in Sister's Creek is situated some 45 m above sea level on the side of a quartzite cliff. The entrance is 10 m long and the cave leads to a chamber 4.5 m high, 9 m long and 6 m broad. A small stream at the back disappears into an accumulation of rock debris. Beyond this chamber a narrow crack enters the rock to a further distance of 6 m. We found a maximum depth of five feet of midden resting on four or five feet of sand, itself resting on the bedrock. We get a picture of the cave filling up with sand, with no occupation, and then the midden is built up on the accumulation of sand.
The midden itself is continuous and the junction between sand and shell is very marked.We excavated three adjacent pits, each 1.5 x 1.5 m in the area where the midden seemed to be deepest, and the roof of the cave was only 60 to 90 cm above the surface of the deposit. We obtained a maximum depth of 1.5 m of midden, and although we found large quantities of bone, the yield of worked stones was rather low.
I then moved my attentions to the area just under the lip of the shelter where there is plenty of light and a headroom of six feet. Almost immediately our efforts were rewarded, and we found ourselves excavating very rich occupational material. There was one hearth complex which yielded up to 100 pieces of chipped stone per cubic foot. After having extended the trench, there remained a problem to be solved, namely were the differences to be seen between the two groups of excavations a function of time (i.e. representing some kind of cultural " sequence "), or were they a function of their position within the cave? The nature of the stratigraphy, consisting as it did of scores of limited and interleaving lenses of hearth material and shell, meant that one had to obtain at least one complete section joining up the two areas of excavation. When this had been done, resulting in a section 9 m long, it could be seen that the deposits excavated in the two sets of pits were synchronous, and the conclusion is that the differences in the assemblages must be interpreted as being due to their position in the cave. Obvious and trivial as this may be, we should note that when working in an unknown area, a single pit dug into a cave can sometimes produce misleading results. Perhaps there is the more general point that there are great local variations to be found in the shell and artefact content of shell middens. A large number of pits and disturbances, both recent and prehistoric, were noted, in particular one circular pit 20 cm in diameter and 60 cm deep, which was sealed by undisturbed hearths and had been filled with large mutton fish shells.
Two latex impressions of excavated sections were made, and carbon, shell, and pollen samples were taken. The discovery of unidirectionally worked pebbles in the furthermost, and completely unlit recess of the narrow crack at the back of the cave helps dispel the rumour so often quoted, that the Aborigines did not go into dark caves. Other excavations were then back-filled and disguised as much as possible.
Stone tools: The artefacts were made mostly from siliceous quartzites, but basalt, chert, quartz and metamorphic rocks were also used.
- Flakes with plane platforms; or sometimes
with two or three facets on the striking platform. Many flakes have
three, four, five or more primary negative scars on their dorsal
- Cores-some showing alternate negative flake scars, other with flakes having been taken off around a central pivot, at right angles to a single face.
- Unidirectionally and bidirectionally flaked pebbles commonly called choppers ". In two cases the sharp edge had been very badly bruised, showing that they at least had been used for a chopping or smashing purpose.
- Pieces with a steep step-like retouch, sometimes the side is straight, and other times the retouch forms a steep concave edge.
- Small circular or semi-circular retouched pieces; one example smaller than a threepenny bit has over 35 tiny flake scars on it.
- Pieces with several primary scars arranged concentrically around a central pivot, the concave edges thus formed show secondary retouch or use fracture. (7. Retouched flakes-a large range of flakes showed secondary retouch around the margins.
- A piece of soft micaceous shale (1'9 inches by 0'7 inches), with a small circular hole drilled or cut into it. The shale had split in prehistoric times across part of the hole. This is to my knowledge a unique implement from Tasmania and when complete could have been used as a pendant. Morphological comparisons with similar objects from some late Paleolithic sites in East Europe might be interesting.
Bone tools: Two bone tools were found, and as far as I know they are typologically unique for Tasmania
- A stout piece of bone (3.8 x 2 cm), with
one end having been rubbed, so that it was shaped into a completely
smooth convex curve.
- A portion of a macropod longbone (6 x 1.2 cm)), which had been split down the middle giving it a U-shaped cross section. The two margins have been extensively chipped so as to make them into sharp edges. This type of flaked bone tool is quite common in Paleolithic assemblages.
Other tools: Other finds include several kinds of hrematite ore, symmetrical prismatic crystals of quartz, and one tiny red crystal of semi-precious stone zircon.
Dietary Evidence: The pH value of the soil was seven, and thus there was abundant bone in the site. The following animals were represented: seal, small and large macropods, wombats, possums, several types of large bird, marsupial rodents etc. Of particular interest was the discovery of hundreds of fish bones. Vertebrre and jaws were found of more than one fish, and although the identification is not final, many bones of parrot fish are believed to be present. The extremely abundant remains of fish bones confirm the finds of Meston (1956) and Gill and Banks (1956) at Rocky Cape, and do not agree with the general ethnographic conclusions which were gathered together in H. Ling Roth's authoritative monograph, and re-used so often by later authors. Large shell samples were taken from the midden, but no study has yet been made.
The majority of the shells are gastropods, with many mutton fish and a few oysters.
Carbon Sample for Dating: One sample
was sent to Professor Green at the University of New South Wales. The
sample came from a hearth immediately above the sand and it was
associated with the rich stone industry noted in the description of
the excavation. A date
of 6,050 ± 88 years before the presentwas obtained.
Conclusion: There was nothing discovered in the excavations which could not be found within an hour's walking distance of the cave. The kind of picture which emerges therefore, is that of a self-sufficient hunting and gathering economy exploiting intensively a varied and rich environment.
(Adapted from Prof. Rhys Jones)
The shelter is small with a shallow floor, but it contains three bone tools worthy of note:
- Double-ended bone point (9 cm x 0.7 cm), One of the ends is broken but extensive oblique abrasion marks can be seen along the length of the tool, showing the way in which it had been fashioned.
- A Small, burnt, single-ended bone point (2.2 x 0.7 cm), again with oblique abrasion marks.
- Roughly triangular fragment of bone (dimension of the sides being 4.5 x 3.5 x 1. cm), with several incised marks on its surface, forming two groups of lines crossing each other at roughly right angles. Whether this represents some form of "decoration" or whether the lines are due to some utilitarian purpose (for example, the cutting of meat or sinews) can only be determined when other finds of a similar nature are made.
West Point midden site
Excavation in progress at the West point Midden (from Rhys Jones in 1966, "A Speculative Archaeological Sequence for NW Tasmania", Records of the Queen Victoria Museum Launceston, 26:1-12)
A sounding 1.5 x 1.5 m was put into this
site, and 2.1 m of continuous midden resting on at least 1.2 m of
sand was found. There are several points to be made:
- the depth was the greatest that I found in the reconnaissance
- the stone tool industry was quite rich, and a change of raw material could be seen.
In the top three feet, out of a total of 1,000 pieces of chipped stone, 94% were made of fine-grained spongy chert, 5% of quartzites and 1% of basalt. Below just under 1 m there was a marked change, and in the next meter, out of 400 artefacts, 40% were made of chert, 30% of quartzites and 30% of basalt.
This change was associated with a band of sand about nine inches thick. The middens above and below the sand were quite different in lithology, the former being blacker, denser and less sandy than the latter. Below about four feet we only excavated half the trench, so that the apparent paucity of artefacts in the lower group is only illusory. If we measure the concentration indices of artefacts, we have roughly comparable figures for the two midden deposits. In both cases we were finding about 12 artefacts per cubic foot (ca.0.03 cubic meters) and in the sand this figure was reduced to about five artefacts.
The sounding was excavated in 12 spits, and the change in raw material was sudden and could be correlated closely with the sandy band. The length of time represented by the stratigraphic break cannot be estimated, due to the ease with which sand is blown onto and off middens even now.
Carbon samples were taken at the base of the sounding and also at the level of the sandy band.
There was a very large quantity of bone to be found. Out of our cutting we obtained about 2,000 individual bones. The following animals were represented: seal (two varieties), wallaby, whale, native cat, Tasmanian devil, mutton bird, several other types of large bird, cuttle fish and a few fish bones. More species will probably emerge under detailed study. The bones of migratory creatures such as mutton bird and perhaps seal, will enable seasonal occupation to be studied.
Some human remains were also found. See Human Presence - West Point.
There was a marked variation in the frequencies of individual bones, especially in the case of the seal. In particular the lower jaws, and the portion of skull surrounding the ear-bones, were over-represented. This kind of data will give information concerning butchering techniques, food preferences etc.
A second molar of the right lower jaw of a human was found. The tooth was heavily worn, and severe periodontal disease had caused marked erosion of the roots. This is the only human bone that I have found so far in my examination of the material, and as it is the first such specimen found in a recorded archreological context in Tasmania, a full description is being prepared by Professor Macintosh and Mr. Barker of the School of Anatomy at the University of Sydney.
Stone tools from West point midden, top complex
King River Valley open sites
At a first survey carried out in 1990 in the King River valley, the investigator Joanna Freslov found no a large number of open sites (i.e. sites not in caves or rockshelters) in this valley. As She reports (J. Freslov, 1993, "The Role of Open Sites in the Investigation of Pleistocene Phenomena in the Inland Southwest of Tasmania," in: Sahul in Review, eds. M.A. Smith, M- Spriggds, and B. Frankhauser, Dept. of Prehistory, ANU, Canberra, Australia, pp. 233-239):
In 1990 I Carried out survey work in the valley and located 47 open sites of varying size, some with hundreds of stone artefacts made from a variety of local materials including quartz, quartzite, chert, sandstone and slicrete. These results augment previous environmental impact studies in the valley which located 97 archaeological sites. The distribution of artefacts within sites was mapped and 4000 artefacts collected. Fourteen sites were excavated, resulting in the recovery of artefacts and charcoal within a number of distinct soil horizons. Most artefacts in the northern part of the valley were found within a widespread and distinctive grey, ashy silt likely to date to the late Holocene. In the middle section of the valley, artefacts were found mainly in a strati graphically older, orange podzol, likely to postdate the last glacial maximum. Although excavations on sites were small, the areal extent of sites was tested further by employing shovel test pits. Shovel test pits were also dug in a number of landforms to investigate subsurface stratigraphy. Several arte facts were recovered incidentally from these test pits.
No bones were found but since bone does not survive well in open sites, this need not mean that there were none. Oddly, no Darwin Glasss was found even though Darwin Crater is not far from the valley. As to the dating, the excavator has this to say:
... Only one radiocarbon date has been processed so far, a date of 460 ±60 years before the present for charcoal in the grey, ashy horizon. On stratigraphic grounds, this site and others with artefacts in a similar grey layer are most likely to date to the late Holocene and those in the orange podzol are likely to be older, but to postdate the glacial maximum. ... In contrast to earlier assessments of Holocene landuse, fleeting visits using the rivers as highways, the evidence from the King River sites suggests more regular use, by people who were familiar with local lithic resources and who appear to have used the sedgelands rather than the rivers as highways.
The King River valley, although underlain by limestone, has no karst formations as such and therefore lacks the cave systems found in many southwest river valleys. Although occupation of this valley during the Pleistocene cannot be ruled out, no evidence for its use at this time can be found on degrading Pleistocene landforms, even though the valley forms a natural access route to the Franklin-Gordon river system. A valley without the welcome shelter of caves in bad weather may have been less attractive during the more severe climatic conditions of the glacial advance. Contrasting patterns of landuse may therefore have resulted from the lack of facilities such as caves.
Brown dots: Location of the King River Valley sites.
8.5. A Human Presence
A human presence in Tasmania can be traced back to around 35,000 years ago. It is likely to be somewhat older (perhapsd 40 to 50.000 years ago) since initially the traces of the few number of humans present and their impact on the environment would have been so faint that it could be discovered today only with an enormous amount of luck.
The thick blue bar in the graphic below indicates that around 40,000 years ago at the Parmerpar Meethaner site there is no archaeological evidence whatever of a human presence.
The thick red bars indicate a clear human presence in the archaeological record.
The numbers with the site names refer to the numbers on the archaeology map below.
Finds of human remains in Tasmania are not as rare the the meagre list below might indicate. Many finds (especially skulls) that had been held in foreign museums are being returned to the Palawa to be cremated.
Crowther in his report on the discovery of a Tasmanian burial (W.E.L.H. Crowther (1938, "Notes on the Habits of the Extinct Tasmanian Race: 'No. 4: On the Discovery of Tasmanian Aboriginal Remains at Mt. Dromedary'", Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, see also Mt. Dromedary remains below) makes the following remarks on Tasmanian burial practices:
The methods by which the extinct Tasmanians disposed of their dead ... In some cases the body was bound in a strongly-flexed position and was usually either incinerated or left in a hollow tree. The position of flexion was not attempted in all cases and many remains have been discovered in sand-dunes and elsewhere hat appear to have been simply left where they died without any attempt at systematic disposal.
Human remains of all periods
For the dates of these finds see text below.
King Island remains (14,500-17,000 years)
When the first European explorers visited the islands north of Tasmania (namely King island and the Fureneaux Group), they found them uninhabited. Surveying archaeologists did find a scattering of difficult-to-date but definitively prehistoric stone tools indicating that humans had visited the islands in the past, perhaps seasonally. A number of shellfish midden was also found that indicated occasional visits by Tasmanians over considerable periods of time until the arrival of the Europeans.
Then an unexpected major find of human remains was made in 1989 by Robin Sim who was test excavating a coastal cave in southwestern King island. Around 2 m below the surface of the cave floor, human bones were found that were tentatively dated by C14 method to 14,300 years old from small pieces of charcoal found adhering to the bone. The remains showed signs of having been exposed to the elements for some time before being buried. The discoverer notes (R. Sim, 1994. Prehistoric human occupation in the King and Furneaux Island regions, Bass Strait;; in: M. Sullivan, S. Brockwell and A. Webb (ed.), Archaeology in the North: Proceedings of the 1993 Australian Archaeological Association Conference, pp. 358-74. Darwin):
curiously, no stone artefacts, food debris or any other evidence of human habitation [apart from "a few small pieces of red ochre" mentioned elsewhere by Robin Sim and Alan Thorne, 1990 - ed.] was found in the deposit containing the human skeletal material - nor were archaeological remains recovered from any of the other cave and rockshelter deposits investigated. It appears that in the King island region, caves have not been a focus of prehistoric human activity, either in the pleistocene or more recent times.
Measurements made on the bluewin.ch. and teeeth in the brief time before the remains had to be re-buried only allow the conclusion that they "fit comfortably within the range exhibited by Aborigines of southeast Australia during recent prehistoric times" (J. Mulvaney and J. Kamminga, 1999, Prehistory of Australia, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, p. 163). The remains had to be quickly reburied in the presence of a TAC observer to comply with the condition of the excavation permit.
The excavator then continues:
Apart from the human remains, the only other dated evidence of human occupation of the King Island area from the period of lower sea levels is the Cataraqui Monument quarry site [near the cave site of the human remains mentioned here] where charcoal and artefacts were excavated from the basal levels of a 75 cm deep pit (in a non-aeolian landform). A radiocarbon date of 10,180 ± 240 years before the present was obtained from the charcoal. Use of the quarry site therefore can be dated to the time when King Island was part of a greater landmass, and quite likely still part of greater Tasmania...
Only two of the kitchen midden (accumulations of human detritus ranging from the remains of shellfish consumed in pehistoric times to discarded beer bottles thrown away after a modern picnic) found on King island date back to prehistoric times: one dating to around 1,100 ± 78 years and the other to 1,912 ± 69 years before the present.
14,500 years ago, the landbridge between Australia and King island had not yet been flooded by the rising sea and the cave would have looked out over a dry plain been flooded while the landbridge between King Island and Tasmania was shrinking but still there. King island 14,500 years ago was a peninsula of Tasmania. It did not become a full island until around 10,000 years ago.
Robin Sim who found and dated both the human remains on King island and the two prehistoric midden mentioned above thinks that when King island did finally became an island it was abandoned by its ancient human inhabitants, only to be re-inhabited again by (occasional) visitors between 2,000 and 1,000 years ago. These later inhabitants may have been a series of castaways from Tasmania who could not get back to their home island against the prevailing wind and sea currents and who remained trapped on the island.
The King island human remains have been dated between 14,500 and 17,000 years old and in the nearby Cataraqui Monument quarry site, charcoal at the bottom of a 75 cm deep pit has been datedat a C14 age of 11,916 years before the present.
(chart adapted from Robin Sim and Alan Thorne, 1990. "Pleistocene Human Remains from King Island, Southeastern Tasmania", Australian Archaeology 31: 44-51).
Cavity excavated for removal/reburial of main find of human
bones (found: a cranium, tibia, mandible, femur and
West Point (Mount Cameron) remains (age unknown but holocene)
In the late 1960s a partial skeleton was found in a large kitchen midden just south of Preminghana (Mt. Cameron West), only a few kilometers south of the rock carving shown below. The entire area is rich in aboriginal traces. The midden is inside a group of midden located inside one of several parabolic sand dunes that are advancing inland. The dunes developed only after the kitchen midden had been accumulated by the Tasmanian aborigines. The midden contained various kinds of shellfish (mussels, halitotis and turbo shells), marsupial bones, and human artefacts.
Rhys Jones in 1966 (in "A Speculative Archaeological Sequence for NW Tasmania", Records of the Queen Victoria Museum Launceston, 26:1-12) has the following description:
...at West Point. There were several single teeth in the midden, and a lower right second molar ... belonging to an adult, probably male, was heavily worn, and had severe erosion of the roots due to periodontal disease. In the sand between the top and bottom complexes, we found two small pits filled with burnt and broken human bones, and at the base of the lower complex, there was another similar pit. There were fragments of skulls and post cranial material. Some of these, although burnt, were in good condition. Altogether, there were several individuals represented, and a detailed anatomical description is being prepared by Mr. A. G. Thorne. Apart from their anatomical value, these finds give some information about prehistoric burial customs at the site. The evidence points to burning under conditions which did not allow complete incineration of the bone. The bones were then in some cases broken systematically, and collected together with charcoal, and deposited in little pits eighteen inches wide and twelve inches deep dug into sand or sandy midden. This may have occurred on the site, because there was a wide scatter of burnt human fragments, charcoal and black sand near two pits, and in most cases, the edges of the burnt broken bones were unabraded. In one pit were the foot bones of several wallabies, and the claws of a large hawk. In another were 30 small and two large shells, each pierced with a small circular hole. Following ethnographic specimens I suggest that the shells and also the animal's feet were parts of necklets of some sort, placed with the ashes of the diseased as grave goods.
Ross E.Jones 1970 described a similar find in the same area (in "Notes on the Discovery of Aboriginal Remains at Mount Cameron West Tasmania", Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, vol. 104, p. 113-114) described the find as follows:
The remains were found near the top of a low conical midden to the north of the site. The body appears to have lain with the head directed to the south in a full prone position. The cranium, consisting of three large segments and several smaller pieces, was separated by several inches from the partially exposed maxilla and mandible. Sections of long bones were also partly visible, the arm bones on the right side lying parallel to the body but those of the left limb exhibiting some flexing.Both legs appear to have been fully extendedtogether. Bone fragments were observed in the upper part of the body and up to 1.5 m (5 feet) away on the down slope of the midden. Blackened pieces of thin tabular bone-like material were found in the pelvic region.
Initial observation of the maxilla and mandible showed some fragmentation, apparently through natural weathering processes. Dentition appeared to be complete. Most teeth were in situ, the flat surface of the molars and lack of structural defect being readily noted.
Excavation and removal of the remains was carried out by Dr. W. Bryden and Mr. A. Dartnall of the Tasmanian Museum. Digging and screening of the immediate area revealed more bone remains; however none were found more than 15 cm (6 inches) below the surface. Long bones tended to display decay and weathering of upper and lower ends. The shaft of the left femur was broken in two parts towards the centre. No evidence of bones from the vertebral column was found. The flat bones were found to be extremely friable and moist. Initial work on. the reconstruction of the cranium indicates that the greater part of the bones were recovered.
The excavated zone consisted of weathering shell material interspersed with sand and a half- dozen flints of inferior quality which did not appear to have been systematically placed. Two flat circular stones of approximately 20 cm (8 inches) diameter were found at the foot of the remains.They were similar to others found in the area.
Cornwall (Mt. Nicholas) Ash Pouch (250 years?)
A pouch containing human remains was found in Tasmania 1920 near the village of Cornwall close to the town St. Marys and ca. 15 km inland from the north-eastern Tasmanian coast (see letter D in archaeological map) At least two other such objects are said to have been found earlier at unspecified locations.
The circumstances of the find are described by Robert Pulleine in 1924 as follows:
Mr. Bradbury was walking along the base of the escarpment of the Mount Nicholas Range, near the village of Cornwall, when he found a deep cleft beneath an overhanging sandstone rock.On the floor of the cleft he discovered a skin bag covered with stringy bark and held down by two stones. On examining the contents of the bag he found it to contain two dried hands, five bones, two shells, and some skin and other matter which resembled dried viscera. Bradbury took the bag and contents to the Police Officer, at St. Mary's, and an inquest was held on them at the Court House at Fingal, where the medical witness testified that they were human remains of old but uncertain age.
The pouch survived only because it was placed in a dry, deep cleft facing south and overhung by a sandstone roof that protected it from theweather and from bush fires. The material looks like tanned leather but is in fact some kind of undetermined vegetable substance.
The pouch with human remains and sea shells found in the Mr. Nicholas range in northeastern Tasmania.
The flat shape was caused by the pouch being placed originally under stones.
Very similar pouches are known to have been used by Tasmanians as water containers.
The two hands in the bag are slender and those of a dark-skinned adult. On the right hand (measuring 16 cm from the carpus to the end of the middle finger); the two terminal joints of the little finger are missing. The left hand has three strips of the skin of the arm removed with it and these are still attached to the base of the thumb. The fingernails are missing.
Some bones are also included in the pouch: the right and the left humerus, the right radius and the right and left ulna.
Two sea shells in the bag were of the species Pectunculus flabellatus, a common bivale of the eastern Tasmanian littoral.
Also included in the bag is a mass of unidentified tissue (possibly internal organs, including probably kidneys) that is much disturbed by insect activity.
Bonwick, in his Daily Life of the Tasmanians notes
So many skulls and limb bones were taken by the poor natives when they were exiled to the Straits (Flinders Island/Wybalenna) that Captain Bateman told me that when he had forty with him in his vessel they had quite a bushel of old bones among them.
Stokes in his Discoveries in Australia adds:
When being conveyed to Flinders Island, Mr. Bateman, commanding the colonial brig Tamar described them [the Tasmanians] as reconciled to their fate, though during the whole passage they sat on the vessel's bulwark, shaking little bags of human hones, apparently as a charm against the danger to which they felt exposed.
Nothing is said said by Pulleine about the age and the pouch or its contents have not been dated.
Wearing of human remains is known from the Andamanese as well as some Papuan groups.
Mt. Dromedary remains (no date available)
In September 1938 human bones, including a cranium, were discovered by N. Johnson who was looking for birds' nests on the northern side of Dromedary, ca. 10 km north of New Norfolk or 30 km northwest of Hobart, as the crow flies. The find was made in a deep valley running down towards the Back River. In the soft sandstone of the area a number of rockshelters and caves have developed, named after a bush-ranger of the 1840s the Martin Cash's Caves.
W.E.L.H. Crowther (1938, "Notes on the Habits of the Extinct Tasmanian Race: 'No. 4: On the Disovery of Tasmanian Aboriginal Remains at Mt. Dromedary'", Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania) reports on the find:
At the site where the bones were found, the scarp slightly overhangs the base, and there are several recesses, which although not actually caves, give shelter from all weather except for the NW and N. The sandstone itself is soft and deeply fretted in places, resembling lace-work, and there is a general tendency for the stone to weather rapidly. The bones were found in a shallow recess about 12 feet (3.6 m) above the base of the scarp. ...
There was no evidence that the human remains had been wrapped or preserved.
The bones found were
(1) the facial portion sof the cranium
(2) the right os innominatum (incomplete)
(3) the left os innominatum (incomplete)
(4) two pieces of the left femur
The author summed up the find:
... it may be concluded that the skeletal remains are from the one individual, an immature Tasmanian aboriginal. The characters of the sutures and dentition of the cranium indicate an age of 16-17 years, possibly less.
The racial chharacters, while not so strongly marked as in an adult skull, are definitively Tasmanian. The weight and size of the bones (especially those of the pelvis) point to their being those of a female. None of the bones show signs of attempts at incineration or damage from teeth of carnivorous animals.
8.6. Pleistocene Sites (more than 12,000 years old)
The pleistocene coastline with landbridge to Tasmania and its vegetation as it was ca. 18,000 years before the present (map adapted from Kiernan K., Jones R. and Ranson D."New Evidence from Fraser Cave for glacial age man in south-west Tasmania." Nature, 301: 28-32, 6 Jan 1983)
a. basalt plain, grassland
Caves and other sites used by humans at the time:
1. Beginners Luck
8.6.1. Northern Islands
The Northern Islands
Cave Bay cave on Hunter island
Mannalargenna cave on Prime Seal island
Beeton rock shelter (Badger island)
King Island Cave
See above in Section "Human Presence": King Island
Cave Bay Cave on Hunter Island
A sudden dramatic charcoal increase in this cave dated to 22,750± 420 years strongly suggests the arrival of humans on the island at that time.
Bone tools from Cave Bay Cave.
The short needle is the oldest and comes from a pleistocene layer dating to 18,000 years before the present. The other tools (needles and spatulas) date from the holocene, i.e. are less than 12,000 years sold.
These early tools raise the question of what needles were used for. The Tasmanians found by the first visitors in the 16th and later centuries went virtually naked and are not known to have had needles. It is possible (but unproven) that 22,000 years ago, at the depth of the ice age, they did have some form of clothing which they discarded when the climate warmed after 12,000 years before the present.
(drawing adapted from S. Bowdler, 1974. Coastal Archaeology in Eastern Australia, Dept. of Prehistory, ANU)
The stratigraphy and dates of Cave Bay Cave.
(drawing adapted from S. Bowdler, 1977. Coastal Colonisation of Australia, in: J. Allen, J. Golson and R. Jones, eds., Sunda and Sahul: Prehistoric Studies in SEAsia . London, Academic Press).
Cave Bay cave was visited intermittently but intensively between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago with more ephemeral visits lasting to perhaps 15,000 years ago before ceasing altogether. Mannalargenna cave on the other hand was used most intensively by humans between 18,500 and 15,000 years ago with occasional and perhaps brief visits until around 8,000 years ago (see immediately below).
Mannalargenna Cave on Prime Seal Island
Mannalargenna cave was discovered for archaeology in December 1986 when Steve Harris and Nigel Brothers found and reported a small cave with open artefact scatter on remote Prime Seal island. In 1988 a est excavation was carried out in 1988 and a major excavation conducted in 1989 by Steve Brown who also named the cave after the chief of the Tasmanian Loch Lomond tribe.
The cave is located on the eastern-facing side of the island and is about 50 m above the present high water mark.
Beginning the excavation work at Margenna cave in November 1989.
(Illustrations and data adapted from Steve Brown, 1993, "Mannalargenna Cave: a Pleistocene Site in Bass Strait,", pp. 258-271, in: Sahul in Review, eds. M.A. Smith, M. Spriggs and B. Frankhauser, Department of Prehistory, ANU, Canberra).
Top view of the Mannalargenna site.
The excavation area was laid out in a three-by-three one-meter grids.
Side view of the Mannlargenna site and thee excavation area.
The excavation of Mannalargenna cave:
Solid black areas: Charcoal (incl. charcoal-rich
lenses and -sand).
Youngest finds are dated
to 8,000 years before present (no post-contact
artefacts were found).
Charcoal lenses are dated
to 16,700-18,650 years before
Robin Sim (1994. "Prehistoric human occupation in the King and Furneaux Island regions, Bass Strait." In: M. Sullivan, S. Brockwell & A. Webb (ed.), Archaeology in the North: Proceedings of the 1993 Australian Archaeological Association Conference, pp. 358-74.Darwin, North Australia Research Unit (ANU) also investigated Mannalargenna Cave in 1990 and reported the following dates:
- 10,034 ±130 years before the present for the uppermost cultural level, about 10 cm below the surface
- 21,033 years before the present from a hearth about 1.75 m below the surface, which was associated with levels containing relatively more archaeological remains, and
- 21,890 years before the present from a hearth overlying other cultural remains, about 4 m below the surface and about half a metre above bedrock.
More than 1,000 stone tools have been found at Mannalargenna cave. The excavators note that to judge from the material used, all with the possible exception of those of silcrete were made of material available locally in the Furneaux group of islands.
Use of the tools found have been described by Steve Brown as follows:
Activities represented by the stone artefacts include stone working, the production and rejuvenation of stone tools, and a low level of wood or skinscraping. A few of the quartz artefacts also have a red staining on their surfaces. This appears to be ochre.
Unusual for Tasmania where such had not been found before, fossil shells were used as scrapers and some by their stains probably as containers for carrying ochre.
Some nodules of ochre were also found within the cave but no direct evidence for the use of ochre has been found.
A large amount of animal bones (but no human remains) have been found at Mannalargenna cave. So much indeed that Steve Brown, its excavator, has called it "one of the most important subfossil cave deposits in southeastern Australia" (we know what he meant, so let us tactfully ignore the question of whether Tasmanian offshore islands are indeed "southeastern Australia".Ed.). Moreover, around 30% of the bones found were charred, a "fairly reliable indicator of a human activity" as the excavator notes.
Indications are that Mannalargenna cave was visited occasionally (probably by hunting parties that stayed only a short time) but that it was not inhabited by humans for longer periods. Mannalargenna cave was used most intensively by humans between 18,500 and 15,000 years ago with occasional and probably brief visits until around 8,000 years ago when human visits ceased. Another northern Tasmanian off-shore island cave Cave Bay cave, on the other, hand was visited intermittently but intensively by humans between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago with more ephemeral visits until perhaps 15,000 years ago before ceasing altogether.
Beeton Rock Shelter on on Badger island
The best short description of this site has been written by Robin Sim (1994. "Prehistoric human occupation in the King and Furneaux Island regions, Bass Strait." In: M. Sullivan, S. Brockwell & A. Webb (ed.), Archaeology in the North: Proceedings of the 1993 Australian Archaeological Association Conference, pp. 358-74.Darwin, North Australia Research Unit (ANU):
Beeton Rockshelter on Badger Island contained sediments up to 2 m deep, the upper half metre or so of which comprised a prehistoric shell midden deposit. The midden was sealed by a thin, sterile, coarse sand layer, and the entire deposit was protected by a resilient capping deposit of consolidated animal excreta about 20 cm thick. The excreta layer is attributable to historic use of the site as a stock shelter, and it appears that rather than disturbing the deposit in this particular case, a century or more of low level stock activity has in this instance produced a protective covering for the cultural remains.
The presence of artefacts in the deposit underlying the [holocene] midden remains indicates that this site was also being used in the late Pleistocene greater landbridge phase: ... the range of evidence recovered and types of artefacts are markedly similar to those recovered from the Mannalargenna Cave investigations.
Two excavations were undertaken at this latter site by me in 1990, and earlier by Steve Brown in 1988-89 (Brown 1991). Results from my investigations concur with Brown's findings, and indicate a fairly consistent but relatively low level of occupation at this site from late Pleistocene to early Holocene times, with a possibly more intense phase around the peak of the glacial maximum 18,000 years ago. Charcoal samples suitable for C14 dating were collected from virtually all levels of the 4.4 m deep deposit. The results I have obtained so far are:
The most notable feature of both [Mannalargenna and Beeton] sites is the consistency on an intra- and intersite level of a distinctive suite of cultural remains. This includes worked and retouched fossil shell artefacts; a high percentage of quartz artefacts distinguished by numerous high grade clear and smoky quartz crystal flakes and cores; small amounts of ochre; scallop shells which are not food remains but rather appear to have been collected for ornamental purposes; and food remains including extinct emu eggshell fragments, some of which are burnt, and grey forester kangaroo (Macropus giganateus) bone. This macropod species is now locally extinct in the Bass Strait region.
Flinders island sites
Flinders island was the largest single component of the land bridge that grew or shrunk between Australia and Tasmania every time sea levels fell or rose during cold and warm climatic periods. The movement of the first Tasmanians almost certainly came along the landbridge of which Flinders island formed a major part.
The highest points of Flinders island (and of the entire Furneaux Group) are the Strzelecki peaks which reach to 756 m above sea level. They are near the southwesternmost point of Flinders island. This area was never flooded in the periods relevant to a human presence in the area.
Picture taken from Trousers Point beach, facing northwest towards the Peaks (reproduced with permission from Joe and Mary Louide Bates, www.josephandmary.net)
Archaeological finds have been made on several islands north of Tasmania, including Flinders island. Present-day islands were then mountain tops rising from the dry plains that spread between Australia and Tasmania for as much as 25,000 years before the sea rose and left only the island-mountain tops as islands 10-12,000 years ago.
No human remains have been found on Flinders island but there are many traces of a human presence, from fire places, stone and bone tools to kitchen midden.
Shell samples from Flinders island midden were dated by C14 method to between 7,000 and 5,000 years old. What remains an open question is whether the makers of these kitchen midden were a relict population that had been cut off by the rising sea at the latest 9,000 years before the present, or whether they were occasional visitors to the island which would presuppose boats of a much higher sophistication than those the Tasmanians used when the British arrived around 1800.
As Robin Sim wrote (1994. "Prehistoric human occupation in the King and Furneaux Island regions, Bass Strait." In: M. Sullivan, S. Brockwell & A. Webb (ed.), Archaeology in the North: Proceedings of the 1993 Australian Archaeological Association Conference, pp. 358-74.Darwin, North Australia Research Unit (ANU):
As the post-glacial melt proceeded to sever the Furneaux region from mainland Tasmania, the higher ground of what is now Flinders Island would probably have offered a much more hospitable and diverse environment than the dune fields of north-east Tasmani). Moreover, because of the diverse range of environments and resources, and the spectacular landforms in the Furneaux region, it is considered highly likely that this area was an established area of significance to north-east Tasmanians in the Pleistocene. The nature of the archaeological evidence certainly suggests a long-term familiarity with local resources.
It is now clear from the Flinders Island shell dates, that some people did choose to remain in the Furneaux region as rising seas inundated the Bassian plains, and eventually severed the Furneaux peninsula from mainland Tasmania. The investigations ... demonstrate that people who remained on Flinders Island were in fact permanently isolated from Tasmania for some 4,000 or 5,000 years. It is considered that the demise of this population about 4,500 years ago is probably not attributable to a single cause. However, recent Holocene changes in the greater Tasmanian archaeological record suggest that environmental factors most probably played a significant part in the extinction process.
Detail of the surface of a midden on Flinder's island. Most obvious are shells of various sea creatures that can only have been discarded at the dry-land site by humans.
Some of the midden are growing again today: bottles, chocolate wrappers, plastic bags and other contemporary debris is being deposited on them, no doubt to the delight of future archaeologists who will be able to date these new layers precisely.
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