Human Reactions to the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition in Greater Australia: A Summary

By O'Connell, James F.; Allen, Jim | Antiquity, Annual 1995 | Go to article overview

Human Reactions to the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition in Greater Australia: A Summary


O'Connell, James F., Allen, Jim, Antiquity


Introducing the book, we began with the broad pattern of change in human behaviour associated with the end of the last glaciation. This pattern - the 'Archaic' of the New World, 'Mesolithic' of the Old - is often attributed to environmental change, specifically the appearance of modern climates and habitats. Adjustments to a new array of economic opportunities and constraints are seen to have had demographic, technological, social and political implications. In short, environmental change provided the catalyst; major changes in human behaviour resulted. This line of argument, best developed for parts of western Eurasia and the Americas, is widely favoured.

General acceptance of this proposition rests heavily on the gross temporal correlation between environmental and behavioural change. There is no equally general agreement about processes linking these phenomena, even in areas like the Near East where, despite a long history of research and a rich archaeological record, mutually exclusive arguments persist about the ways in which terminal Pleistocene environmental change affected behaviour.

Greater Australia presents an interesting case in this context. Although it sustains essentially the same suite of Pleistocen-Holocene environmental changes, and witnesses the development of many of the same patterns in human behaviour associated with that transition elsewhere, the coincidence in timing between the two is said to be much less close in Australia. Although some Mesolithic, elements appear very early, well before the Last Glacial Maximum, most are seen to be quite late in the Greater Australian sequence, post dating major changes in climate and environment by several millennia. It is for this reason that many Australianists have avoided or down-played environmental explanations. Instead, some argue that changes in social relationships were catalytic, while others appeal to population pressure, and still others cite the impact of exotic technology. Whatever the identified stimulus, adjustments in subsistence economy are said to follow. Local environments simply provide the arena in which the developments take place. Terminal Pleistocene climatic change is, by implication, irrelevant.

Phrased in the simplest terms, this argument has a more general implication. As we said, the conventional 'climate as catalyst' model draws support primarily from the commonly observed correlation between environmental and behavioural change. Because the specific processes involved remain the subject of debate, any significant mismatch between climatic and behavioural change, especially on a scale as large as Greater Australia, draws the entire argument into question. Global mechanisms should have global effects. To the degree these models are challenged anywhere, they are challenged everywhere. It is for this reason that archaeological evidence of human reaction to the transition in Greater Australia deserves a closer look. As we said in the Introduction, the recent literature suggests close links between climatic, environmental, and cultural change in this region. Contributors to this volume find this, and show that - as else where - the precise nature of these relationships is not fully understood.

Here we summarize general points emerging from this volume and identify their implications. We speak first to the pattern of environmental change, then to the evidence for behavioural reactions to it.

Environmental change

Kershaw summarizes the data for Greater Australia as a whole; other contributors provide additional details. In broad terms, climatic and environmental change displays a relatively simple trajectory from Last Glacial Maximum through mid Holocene. At the beginning of this period, sea-levels were about 130 lower than at present; now-submerged areas of Bass and Torres Straits, the Arafura Sea, and the Gulf of Carpentaria were exposed, joining Australia, New Guinea, Tasmania and islands on the continental shelf into a single land-mass covering some 11. …

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