Badu 15 and the Papuan-Austronesian Settlement of Torres Strait

Article excerpt


Archaeological excavations on the island of Badu have for the first time revealed evidence of people in Torres Strait before 2500 years BP. We interpret this evidence as representing three phases of island use and occupation. Phase 1 (8000-6000 years BP), when the high islands of Tortes Strait were part of terminal Greater Australia, saw permanent occupation of the region. During Phase 2 (6000-c.3500/3000 years BP), the Western Islands of Tones Strait were occasionally visited from Cape York. And in Phase 3 (c.3500/3000 years BP to present) the islands became occupied mainly by speakers of languages with strong Papuan and Austronesian elements from the north and northeast. We argue for Austronesian influences at the tip of Australia during the late Holocene.

KEYWORDS: Torres Strait, Badu, island colonisation, Austronesian, New Guinea


Torres Strait, named after the Spanish navigator Luis Baez de Tortes who sailed through the Strait in 1606, is a 150-km-long chain of islands, coral reefs and cays located between the southern Papuan coastline and Cape York Peninsula, and occupies an intriguing position between two cultural realms: Aboriginal cultures of northern Australia and Melanesian cultures of New Guinea. Before global sea levels began to rise after the Last Glacial Maximum, a land bridge existed across the Strait (Harris 1977; Walker 1972). Reef coring in the region has demonstrated that as sea levels started to rise, Torres Strait began to take on its present form approximately 8000-7000 years BP (e.g. Barbara 1999; Woodroffe et al. 2000), although island formation is ongoing (Barham 2000). The geographic positioning of Torres Strait has generated considerable debate as to whether Torres Strait has acted as a bridge or barrier to cultural, genetic, linguistic and environmental forces between Australia and New Guinea (e.g. Walker 1972).

Geographically, Tones Strait can be divided into four main island groupings: Western, Top Western, Central and Eastern. The geologic makeup of the islands reveals high acid volcanic and granitic rocks in the Western and Central Islands. The Top Western Islands--with the exception of Dauan--are flat and muddy, devoid of any rock. The Eastern Islands--Dauar, Waier, Mer, Erub and Ugar--are made of acid volcanic rocks. Linguistic divisions also exist across Torres Strait. The traditional Eastern language was, and in a few instances continues to be, Meriam Mir (a Papuan language), whereas elsewhere dialects of the traditional Western-Central Language (1) (an Australian language) were, and in many instances continue to be, spoken: Kala(w) Lagaw Ya (Western Islanders); Kalaw Kawaw Ya (Top Western Islanders); Kulkalgaw Ya (a.k.a. Dhadhalagaw Ya) (Central Islanders); and Kawalgaw Ya (a.k.a. Kowrareg) (South-West Islanders) (cf. Shnukal 1998; Shnukal & Mitchell 1998).

The 1898 'Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits', under the leadership of Alfred Cort Haddon, placed Torres Strait on the world anthropological map (Herle & Rouse 1998). This was one of the most successful broad-scale ethnographic studies undertaken in the modern era. Haddon and his colleagues recorded many aspects of Torres Strait Islander culture, including oral traditions, religion, magic, kinship, music and art. These ethnographic details were published in six volumes between 1901 and 1935 and remain to this day the single most important ethnographic research undertaken in the region.

Inter-regional interactions, including trade relations and kinship ties, have played important roles in Islander culture. Haddon (1904) noted three different types of trade occurring across Torres Strait: intra-insular trade, trade with New Guinea, and trade with Cape York. Alliances were also frequently established between neighbouring islands. Islander settlement focused on 'home' islands supplemented by seasonal visits to allied islands and smaller islands to exploit seasonal foods from surrounding seas, to perform secret ceremonies, to maintain and develop land and sea based territories, and to undertake trade. …