Australia's Not-So-Dry Bones

By Innocent, Christopher | History Today, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Australia's Not-So-Dry Bones


Innocent, Christopher, History Today


* Recent research by one of Australia's leading archaeologists has opened to question two major historical `facts' relating to the original inhabitants of the continent: their population at the time of British invasion and the current explanation for major physical differences between two groups who lived in the Murray-Darling River Basin of New South Wales.

The controversy has arisen following the discovery of the country's most extensive Aboriginal burial site by Dr Colin Pardoe, curator of physical. anthropology at the South Australian Museum (famous for its ethnographic research into Aboriginal cultures).

Situated in New South Wales at Lake Victoria, near the border with both Victoria and South Australia, the burial site stretches for two miles, contains the remains of at least 10,000 Murray-Darling people and could date back 7,000 years. It is believed that the last burial was in the mid-1800s.

The `graves' are contained in sand dunes around the lake's edge, thought to have been chosen because they were highly visible landmarks on the river flood plain. The dunes would originally have been safe from wave action erosion, but now become islands when the level is at the artificially-created height necessary to supply the water needs of South Australia.

The size of the `cemetery' was realised purely by accident when, last May, the lake was drained to repair a water regulator. A number of spots near the customary waterline, where three or four human remains were known to be buried, were examined for erosion. It was intended as a one-off conservation exercise but when the remains of sixty-nine skeletons were uncovered at the first spot and others in large numbers elsewhere, the scale of the site became apparent.

Co-operation between elders of the Barkindji (meaning Darling River people) tribe, who are descendants of those buried at the site, and Dr Pardoe's team of eight archaeologists has been integral to the proceedings. Dr Pardoe has worked closely with the Barkindji for a decade receiving their full assistance in gathering relevant data. As a result there was no debate over the removal and reburial of many skeletons and the protective measures necessary to preserve the hundreds of others that had been revealed.

The excavations are the first in twenty years to have been permitted by Aborigines in Australia. Aborigines are very sensitive about issues relating to death and believe the theft of body parts by British archaeologists, and anthropologists in particular, have prevented their ancestors from returning to the spirit world.

Of greater controversy, from the colonisers' viewpoint, are Dr Pardoe's asse-rtions stemming from the discovery that the estimate of a native population of 300,000 in 1788, made in 1918 by Radcliffe Brown, should be nearer the 3 million mark, and that the publicly accepted theory that two separate migrations occurred more than 25,000 years ago from China and Java is probably wrong.

`If, as we now know, there were large, thriving and permanent communities along the Murray River so many thousands of years ago, the often-quoted 300,000 figure is way out. Indeed, Radcliffe Brown did stress it as a minimum figure but it has been perpetuated and accepted by the public. And, if the population was actually ten times the size that analyses have been based on, it dramatically affects our views of the archaeology of this continent,' said Dr Pardoe. …

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