Origin and Development of Australian Aboriginal Tropical Rainforest Culture: A Reconsideration

By Cosgrove, Richard | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Origin and Development of Australian Aboriginal Tropical Rainforest Culture: A Reconsideration


Cosgrove, Richard, Antiquity


Human use of rainforest

Rainforest ecosystems appear peripheral to the interests of early hominids during global colonization, with little archaeological evidence indicating their long-term exploitation by successive modern human ancestors (Gamble 1993: 197). Although Homo erectus fossils have been found in what are rainforest zones today, Bellwood (1990: 259) has argued that they were unable to exploit rainforest to any great degree. Recent arguments contend that it was only within the last 10,000 years that anatomically modern humans were able fully to exploit rainforest - and then only by benefit of access also to agriculture, open woodland resources or marine foods (Bailey et al. 1989; Headland & Bailey 1991). These arguments have been challenged on the narrow definitions of 'rainforest' and 'pure forager', on the view that 'agriculture' and 'foraging' are two separate modes of life, and on the constitution of 'undisturbed rainforest' (e.g. Brosius 1991; Dwyer & Minnegal 1991; Harris 1989: 16). Further, important new evidence from Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Brazil shows Palaeoindian adaptations to tropical rainforest with a well-developed foraging technology and subsistence base by at least 11,200 b.p. (Roosevelt et al. 1996).

In my view, hunter-gatherers inhabit tropical rainforest according to anticipated resource costs and social use - factors determined by density, distribution and return in food value. As Dwyer (1986) points out, those depend upon the structure of those economic resources and whether the ecosystem possesses the appropriate food attributes. The tropical Australian evidence is important in this wider debate since Aboriginal subsistence strategies were always hunter-gatherer. Although Aborigines were familiar with - and exploited - plants used in horticulture elsewhere in southeast Asia, Chase (1989: 51) argues that no agriculture was developed. Exploitation of tropical rainforest was carried out in the absence of agriculture. So archaeological evidence within core rainforest zones of this region will shed considerable light on the origin, character and antiquity of tropical rainforest exploitation.

With a focus on northeast Queensland, this paper discusses two earlier notions:

* occupation of Australian tropical rainforests was originally linked to Pleistocene behavioural pre-adaptations in Southeast Asia (Bowdler 1983);

* the northeast Queensland rainforest culture only developed within the last 5000 years.

New palaeoecological and archaeological data have implications for these ideas.

Bowdler's 1983 hypothesis

Bowdler (1993) set forth two hypotheses for human use of rainforests in northern New South Wales, discussing two geographic areas outside the sub-tropical rainforest zone, Tasmania and northeast Queensland, as extremes of possible Aboriginal exploitation in temperate and tropical rainforests. In FIGURE 1 'Tasmanian rainforest as colonizer' and 'Queensland rainforest as colonized' models are summarized and expanded upon with new data from tropical and temperate rainforest research projects carried out after 1983 (Cosgrove et al. 1990; Cosgrove 1995; Allen & Porch 1995; Horsfall 1987; Horsfall & Hall 1990; Kershaw 1994). In developing her Queensland model, Bowdler relied heavily on ethnographic evidence, particularly that of Tindale & Birdsell (1941), Golson's observations on Aboriginal plant foods (1971), and Kershaw's long pollen sequence (1974). At that time no archaeological data had been published on the antiquity of tropical rainforest exploitation.

Northeast Queensland

Encompassing the tropical rainforest region of northeast Queensland between Mossman, Cardwell and the Atherton Tablelands [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], this area of approximately 12,000 sq. km contained a pre-contact Aboriginal population approaching 5500 people; it lies as a significant and concentrated Australian outlier of the tropical rainforest band of Southeast Asia (Tracey 1982). …

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