Late Holocene Human Remains from Northwest Queensland, Australia: Archaeology and Palaeopathology

Article excerpt


A human burial of late Holocene age was recently excavated from inland northwest Queensland and studied prior to reburial by the Indigenous community. Bones from the lower thoracic region to the feet were recovered. The person had been interred in a crouched position, resting on their lower legs (shins) and wrapped in paperbark. Similar burial techniques have been described in the region's ethnographic literature, and this site represents the first known archaeological example.

Ascertaining a firm date for the burial is problematic owing to the nature of the radiocarbon calibration curve in recent centuries. A detailed analysis of the bones indicated the individual to be an adult female, most likely of middle age. There are some significant pathological lesions present that are indicative of treponematosis. The geographic and cultural context of the burial leads us to suggest the most likely diagnosis is treponarid.

Keywords: Australian Aborigine, treponematosis, northwest Queensland, skeletal remains, burial practice


A rare opportunity to conduct a detailed study of the remains of an 'Old Person' followed the report in 2002 of human bones eroding along a creek-line on a pastoral station in inland northwest Queensland. Members of the Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation (WVAC) examined the site and requested that the remains be excavated and relocated elsewhere in the vicinity to prevent their further erosion and destruction. As part of this process it was agreed that the remains could be temporarily relocated off-site by researchers and studied in order to provide the community with information about the Old Person concerned. In August 2004 the remains of a partial human skeleton were excavated and removed to James Cook University, Townsville. Community members rebuffed the remains during April 2005. This report presents the detailed assessment of the skeletal remains particularly focusing on the burial practice and the evidence for disease and its significance in its archaeological context.

The study area

The study site is located in northwest Queensland, Australia, approximately 100 km south of the small township of Richmond, in a biogeographic region known as the Mitchell Grass Downs (MGD) (Figure 1). The MGD is an extensive area of semi-arid Mitchell grass tussock grasslands covering low relief, cracking clay plains (Wilson 1999). The region experiences a short wet season between December and March with up to 450 mm rainfall per year, and extended periods of drought are common. High temperatures occur all year round, coupled with extreme evaporation (typically more than 2000 mm per year). Hydrologically the area is dominated by small, ephemeral streams, creeks and drainage lines, which feed into the larger, though often intermittent, river systems. These environmental conditions place constraints on human movement through the MGD, making it largely impassable following heavy rainfall. At other times of the year Aboriginal population density was generally low, with extensive trade networks operating in order to ensure people's resource requirements were met (Roth 1897; Wright 1988).


The skeletal material

Initially assessment during 2002 revealed human skeletal material visibly eroding from a slightly elevated ridge approximately 100 m south of an ephemeral drainage line (Figure 2A). Subsequent excavation in 2004 uncovered much of the lower half of the skeleton of a single individual (Figure 2B). There were additional areas of bone fragments concentrated along the erosion gully north and north-northwest of the burial (Figure 3) up to approximately 5 m away. While it is possible these scattered fragmentary remains could be derived from other burial(s), we believe they belong to the same individual, as there is no duplication of bones or teeth. They have probably been displaced from the main burial as a result of sedimentary erosion and water movement. …