The Australian Transition: Real and Perceived Boundaries

By Frankel, David | Antiquity, Annual 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Australian Transition: Real and Perceived Boundaries

Frankel, David, Antiquity

The Pleistocene to Holocene transition is both a reality of climate history, and a notion of the prehistorian. A century of approaches to Australian archeology guides the frameworks of the issue today.

Over the last 20 to 30 years several major issues have consistently been identified as key to Australian archaeology (Table 1). Most of these, as Horton (1991: 349) has noted, are old themes with 'no new questions but rather considerable refinements of the old questions, based on improved techniques and a rapidly expanding body of knowledge'. They reveal strong continuities in Australian research, some of which go back to the 19th century. At the head of almost every list are questions of origins, antiquity and early adaptations to different environments.

Table 1. Summary lists of issues in Australian archaeology
deemed significant since 1961.

1961 (Mulvaney 1963: 34-6)
Social and anthropological
  Migration routes and dispersal
  Tasmanian origins and antiquity
  Human biology and palaeopathology
  Cultural adaptation and inventiveness in the
     new environment
  Cultural succession in all areas
  Origin and development of art (chronology and
  History of later diffused techniques
  Technology (and ethnoarchaeology of
  Trade, exchange, social relationships
  Associated research in Indonesia, Melanesia
     and beyond
Environmental significance
  Prehistoric climate, vegetation and human
     impact on ecology
  Faunal history, megafaunal extinctions
  Date of introduction of the dingo
  Human responses to volcanic activity

1968 (Anon 1968)
  Antiquity of man
  Tool typology and distribution
  Man's exploitation of his environment:
     mobility, seasonality
  Origin of Tasmanian and Australian Aborigines
  Macassan contacts
  Historical archaeology
  Rock-art documentation and explanation
  Melanesia: agricultural origins, exchange

Future directions
  Interdisciplinary work
  Method and theory of hunter-gatherer research
  Computer applications

1975 (Lampert 1975)
  Culture history and technological succession
  Man and land: environmental adaptations,
     megafaunal extinctions, demography and
  Ethnography and archaeology
  Human palaeontology

1991 (Horton 1991: 349-52)
  Evolution (unity and diversity of Aboriginal
  Age of occupation
  Megafaunal extinctions
  Tasmania - settlement and change
  Stone tools, the small tool tradition and other
     recent innovations
  Environments and human impact

1991 (Frankel 1991: 26)
  Time of first arrival
  Variation in physical form of early populations
  Colonization and adaptation to different
  Regional comparisons
  Changing population densities in different
  Changes in the environment
  Impact of the environment on society, economy
     and technology
  Intensification, 4000 years ago
  Comparison of past and present Aboriginal

First fundamentals in Australian


The 19th-century recognition of the Pleistocene antiquity of people in Europe was closely bound up both with developments in geology and the new Darwinian biology, and with parallel views of other cultures. In the Old World the geological divide between the Ice Ages and the Recent provided a natural division for human history. The initial demonstration of great antiquity was a result of the acceptance of the co-occurrence of stone tools and the bones of extinct animals from Pleistocene geological contexts. These artefacts were readily recognized as those of simpler - Stone Age - technologies, perhaps the products of less developed types of people. In contrast, later, post-Pleistocene, material was seen as the work of agricultural Modern Man. The geological or climatic division became inextricably associated with biological, social and technological transformations, even when not used as a formal element in explanations of change.

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