Prehistory Down Under: Archaeological Investigations of Submerged Aboriginal Sites at Lake Jasper, Western Australia
Dortch, Charles, Antiquity
Much of Australian prehistory lies under water. Although confined to the continent's extreme southwestern corner, field studies described in this report show that this submerged prehistoric component is very real, with numerous archaeological sites and former land surfaces awaiting investigation on the floors of Australia's lakes, rivers and estuaries, and on its submerged continental margins.
Since 1989 I have directed Western Australian Museum and volunteer divers investigating prehistoric sites on the floors of fresh-water lakes and estuaries in the extreme southwest of Western Australia. These underwater and related investigations, which have produced new kinds of archaeological evidence in settings largely ignored or given only cursory attention, complement the growing number of archaeological studies investigating Aboriginal subsistence and occupation patterns in this part of Western Australia dating back to the Late Pleistocene (Anderson 1984; Balme et al. 1978; Baynes et al. 1975; Bird 1985; Dix & Meagher 1976; Dortch 1979; 1984; 1991; in press; Dortch & Gardner 1976; Dortch & Hesp 1993; Dortch & Morse 1984; Dortch et al. 1984; Dortch 1994; Ferguson 1981; 1985; Hallam 1979; 1987; 1989; Lilley 1993; O'Connor et al. 1993; Pearce 1978; 1982; Pearce & Barbetti 1981; Schwede 1990; Smith 1982; 1993).
In southwestern Australia, first-hand accounts compiled mainly by early to mid 19th-century British colonists give direct insight into the traditional land-use patterns and subsistence activities of the Nyungar-speaking Aboriginal hunter-gatherer population. These ethnohistoric documents are invaluable sources of inference in the assessment of economic and other aspects of the prehistoric coastal occupation under investigation. Of particular relevance here is the information they provide about wetland/lacustrine subsistence, which ranks with fire drives for game, estuarine fishing and rhizome and tuber gathering as one of the key economic activities of the Nyungar population (Hallam 1975; 1989; Meagher 1974; Meagher & Ride 1979).
The Lake Jasper underwater site complex described in this paper is seen as only one component within a regional pattern of occupation and subsistence. Judging by the environmental diversity of this part of the Southern Ocean coast, and by what may be inferred from the regional ethnohistoric record, from Nyungar traditional knowledge and from archaeological site locations, southwestern hunter-gatherer economy was based on the exploitation of food and other resources from 'contiguous environmental zones' (Anderson 1984: 1); in the coastal area under study these are estuaries, inshore marine waters, lakes, wetlands and a wide variety of terrestrial habitats.
The Lake Jasper investigations
Lake Jasper is situated in a swampy corridor of coastal sandplain (elevation 20-40 m a.s.l.) between a low plateau (40-60 m a.s.l.) to the north, and, on its seaward side, an aeolian calcarenite ridge (150-195 m a.s.l.; [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]). Present at depths to 10 m on the 4 sq. km freshwater lake's floor [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] are extensive scatters of flaked stone artefacts, and in their growth positions numerous stumps of trees and grass trees (Xanthorrhoea sp.). I first identified several of the Lake Jasper prehistoric stone artefact scatters (sites 1-3: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]) after severe 1988 drought conditions had lowered the lake's level, revealing artefact scatters and tree stumps on exposed parts of its floor, and in shallows less than 1 m deep. The following year a Western Australian Maritime Museum team of underwater archaeologists joined me for detailed recording of sites 2 and 3 in the lake's inshore waters (Dortch et al. 1990). In 1990 a mainly volunteer diving team recorded site 5 located on a shoal in the lake centre, and sites 8 and 9 in some of the lake's deeper parts (9-10 m), showing for the first time that most of the lake floor is a former land surface (Dortch & Godfrey 1990).
Radiocarbon dates based on wood samples from tree stumps at various depths on Lake Jasper's floor are interpreted as evidence for the lake expanding to its present size, thus killing the trees, c. 3700-4020 b.p. (TABLE 1). This radiocarbon age is consistent with the lake having formed through water-table rise on this coastal plain, following glacio-eustatic marine transgression stabilizing at present height during the Middle Holocene (Chappell & Thom 1977). Lake formation, taking place during a period of increased regional precipitation, was probably augmented by blockage of ground water flow caused by massive encroachment of parabolic coastal dunes over drain lines between the lake and the Donnelly River [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. These processes are assumed here to account for the filling of numerous smaller lakes on the Southern Ocean coastal plain.
TABLE 1. Radiocarbon dates of wood samples from submerged tree stumps in growth position on the floor of Lake Jasper, southwestern Australia [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. laboratory uncalibrated species site depth number radiocarbon number in metres age (b.p.) SUA-2931 3700[+ or -]60 ? 5 2 SUA-2777 3740[+ or -]60 Casuarina sp. 3 1.3-1.6 Beta-38420 3810[+ or -]60 ? 8 8.7 SUA-2816 3820[+ or -]60 Melaleuca sp. 1 0.5-0.8 Beta-30158 4020[+ or -]70 Melaleuca sp. 3 2.6
Late Quaternary Lake Jasper
Pre-dating Lake Jasper's expansion to present size was a much smaller lake that probably had formed very much earlier in what is now the present lake's southeastern, deepest corner [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. This original water body was a relatively deep lake rather than a swamp or marsh, as implied by a massive accumulation of peat, marked by dashed lines in FIGURE 2, that is by far the thickest part of a peat deposit extending over most of the present-day lake's floor. The original soundings recorded in this demarcated zone are now known to measure not the true depth of lake floor there, but only depths within the less dense parts of the overlying peat. This problem exists simply because all of the team's soundings from 1989 to 1993 were done with a marked line attached to a rectangular 1-kg lead weight. Tests in 1995 showed that a small weight this shape cannot penetrate the peat deeper than 1-2 m.
Divers probing with steel rods in 1995 showed that this part of the lake floor is very much deeper than previously considered, with the deepest probes, which still did not penetrate the peat to the underlying lake floor, indicating a minimum depth of c. 16 m, half being water depth and the other half thickness of peat. In its thickest part, this peat deposit is estimated to be no less than 30,000 years old, and is perhaps twice that age. This rough estimate is based on peat thicknesses in the range 1-50 cm in other parts of the lake floor, that began to accumulate only as the lake was filling to present size no more than c. 4000 years ago. If the base of the peat in Lake Jasper's southeastern corner is Upper Pleistocene in age, then the deposit, which contains datable charcoal and wood, has the potential for providing for the first time in the lower southwest a Late Quaternary vegetational history based on a single, radiocarbon-dated pollen sequence.
Submerged campsites and quarry-factories
The topographic or stratigraphic positions of several sites, and their depths below water, provide clues to their former environmental settings, and to their ages - both absolute and relative to the lake's formation. Sites 8 and 9 can thus be interpreted as entirely pre-dating the lake's expansion to present-day size, with the latter situated directly on the shore of the earlier, smaller lake. Site 5 would have been practically inaccessible when isolated as a small island when the lake was filling up. This site, when last occupied, was a 2-4-m high timbered dune overlooking woodland, possibly interspersed with wetlands, that dominated the pre-lake locality. Site 3, at least in part, also pre-dates the lake's formation, or its expansion to its present size, since stone artefacts there are eroding from the face of a 3-m high source-bordering dune presently being cut by the lake. However, the greater part of site 3's artefact assemblage, lying in shallow water on a sheet of soil hardpan unconformably underlying the eroding dune, cannot be shown to derive from it, and may represent lake shore rather than the pre-lake occupation implied by the artefacts in situ in the actively eroding dune.
These open-air camp-sites' locations near shore-lines, whether of the lake at its present size or at lower levels during the past, suggest that they were occupied by groups engaged in the exploitation of lacustrine foods, e.g. crayfish, turtles, waterfowl and probably the roots of rushes (e.g. Juncus sp., Typha sp.). Sites 3, 5, 8 and 9 also feature many silcrete and quartz retouched tools and small finely made flakes that are suggestive of use in a variety of domestic tasks. Present in smaller numbers are flakes of Eocene fossiliferous chert probably deriving from now-submerged outcrops in Middle to Late Eocene sediments located on the outer parts of the continental shelf (Glover 1979; 1984: 17-18; Glover & Lee 1984), and chert flakes of this kind are the most characteristic artefactual component of Late Pleistocene to Middle Holocene in coastal districts of southwestern Australia (Dortch 1979; 1984; 1991; Dortch & Gardner 1976; Dortch & Hesp 1993; Dortch & Morse 1984; Dortch 1994; Glover et al. 1993; Ferguson 1981; Hallam 1987; Pearce & Barbetti 1981; Smith 1993). Other, smaller, less important sites (6, 7 and 10) have not yet been closely investigated, though they seem to have been shoreline camps. Exceptions are sites 1 and 2, readily identifiable as quarry-factories, and featuring numerous flaked pebbles, fragments and unretouched flakes, all made of the same kind of quartz and quartzite pebbles comprising the gravel beds on which they are situated. The site 2 quarry-factory is centred on an 80x140-m quartz gravel bed; its shallowest, central part (depth 0.3-1 m) is thickly covered with stone debitage. This site could have been a quarry-factory both prior to the lake's formation and during times of low water level, as in 1988, when this part of the gravel bed was exposed, forming a 60-sq. m islet.
The presence of geometric microliths and microlithic debitage at sites 5, 8 and 9 is an important chronological marker, since the radiocarbon age for the lake's filling to present size (3700-4020 b.p.: TABLE 1) is only a few centuries younger than nearly all of the oldest dated assemblages of these tools in Australia (White & O'Connell 1982: 120), and seems to suggest that these submerged microlithic assemblages do not long pre-date lake expansion. Artefacts from other of the submerged sites, however, may pre-date the lake expansion by many millennia, the notable example being site 1. Here a 40x40-cm test pit, dug through a 20-cm thick strongly indurated iron-humic hardpan horizon at a water depth of 2 m, revealed more than 30 quartz/quartzite flakes and cores, including several conjoinable pairs, lying on a gravel bed unconformably underlying the hard-pan [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. Nearer the shore, stone artefacts, including a large notched Eocene fossiliferous chert flake suggestive of Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene age, are embedded in the hardpan unit, that in all respects resembles those developed as the B horizons in iron-humic podzols characterizing the pedology of poorly drained parts of the south coastal plain (Churchward et al. 1988). Onshore this hardpan unit is buried beneath a source-bordering dune, and offshore it slopes downward toward the lake centre before disappearing beneath the lake's peat layer 300 m from the shore, at a depth of 3 m. The radiocarbon-dated tree stump shown in FIGURE 3 is in situ in unconsolidated sands, that are probably younger than the hardpan unit. This date gives a minimum age for the latter deposit, since removal of the upper horizons of the 'pre-lake' soil and cessation of further hardpan development presumably took place no later than when the tree was inundated and killed by lake-level rise. Similarly, SUA-2777 and Beta-30158, based on wood samples from tree stumps in identical stratigraphic positions to the dated stump at site 1, imply a minimum age for the hardpan unit underlying the source-bordering dune at site 3 ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]; TABLE 1).
Lake Jasper's western two-thirds have not been investigated, except by means of depth soundings and 'hookah-tow' traverses, in which pairs of divers, attached by their compressed-air lines to the dive boat, are towed along the lake floor. A half-dozen traverses at different bearings showed that the sandy lake floor is mostly covered by peat, and that stone artefacts are present on parts of its relatively shallow western two-thirds [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], which will probably not be further examined in the present project.
No wooden artefacts, occupational features such as hearths, or any faunal remains have been found in the investigations. The sometimes very large tree stumps (with trunk diameters c. 1.5 m) in growth position in the lake are very well preserved, though they seldom extend more than 50 cm above the lake floor and often are planed off level with it.
Dortch & Godfrey (1990: 30-31) discount the possibility of stone artefact redeposition by wave action at most of the Lake Jasper sites. Their opinion is mainly based on the presence of several 'conjoinable' pairs or 'sets' (three or more pieces) of flaked artefacts present among concentrations of artefacts at sites 5, 8 and 9, and on the contrasts in the size distribution of artefacts at site 5, where there is a cluster of tiny microlithic pieces in one area measuring 1 sq. m, with much larger artefacts more broadly scattered elsewhere on the site's surface.
Unlike many coastal districts in southwestern Australia, archaeological survey has never been carried out around Lake Jasper, and very few prehistoric sites have been recorded within a 20-km radius of the lake. Moreover, site detection is extremely difficult in the forests, densely vegetated, swampy sand plain, and impenetrable scrub covering the dunes on this part of the Southern Ocean coast. The lake's Nyungar name is unknown; its European name commemorates the death in 1864 of an infant son of one of the region's British settler families. Although there appear to be no written or oral records of Nyungar hunter-gatherer groups in this district, a dozen place names of Nyungar origin are in use there.
Planned excavations at Lake Jasper
Lake Jasper's archaeological record can be further developed through excavation of its sandy floor, using dredge or air-lift techniques (Galili et al. 1993: 134-6). Excavations carried out at the submerged, former open-air camp-sites 5, 8 and 9 would have the aim of establishing radiocarbon-dated occupational sequences of long duration in the locality during its pre-lake phase. Combining that record with a contemporaneously dated pollen sequence from the massive peat deposit in the lake's southeastern corner could create a regional picture of prehistoric occupation and vegetational history complementing the Late Quaternary cultural and faunal sequences from Devil's Lair, Tunnel Cave and other Late Pleistocene to Late Holocene sites in the Naturaliste Region 60 km to the northwest ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]; Balme et al. 1978; Baynes et al. 1975; Dortch 1979; 1984; Dortch 1994; Ferguson 1981; Lilley 1993). A secondary aim of excavation, long considered (Dortch & Godfrey 1990: 32), would be to obtain radiocarbon dates of material in situ in the uppermost part of the lake floor sediments that could show whether the artefact assemblages present on the surfaces of these sites are the same age as dated or datable tree stumps in growth position at each (TABLE 1). Establishing the contemporaneity of artefact scatters and tree stumps, whose species had been determined through wood thin-section analysis - which with Lake Jasper wood samples has been mainly unsuccessful - or by other means of identification, would enable the reconstruction of the plant associations surrounding these sites when they were occupied.
Environmental change and coastal subsistence
The regional investigations reported here and elsewhere (Dortch in press) are largely concerned with the ways and to the degree that successive prehistoric coastal populations were affected by glacio-eustatic marine transgression and other Late Quaternary changes in physical conditions. However, in contrast to Ferguson (1985) and O'Connor et al. (1993), a view taken here is that in the Naturaliste Region and other coastal districts of temperate lower southwestern Australia these physical changes did not necessarily have lasting or profound economic and ecological consequences for successive hunter-gatherer populations, which are likely to have been sparsely distributed (Hallam 1975: 105-11; Lilley 1993: 40) and, through the probable use of fire in controlling vegetation, relatively unrestricted in their range of movements. These populations also are likely to have had through millennia a relatively wide range of subsistence choices, perhaps in most respects similar to that available to Nyungar coastal groups during the period of European settlement (Meagher 1974; Meagher & Ride 1979. Cf. Balme et al. 1978; Baynes et al. 1975; Dortch 1994). For example, during the Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene millennia of glacio-eustatic marine transgression, fishing and other shore-line subsistence activities may have continued more or less without hindrance along the estuaries of the outer part of the southwestern continental shelf as it was being progressively inundated. Estuaries existing transiently on this shelf are here considered as having had continuously renewed fish stocks, judging by modern faunal records for several estuaries in the low-rain-fall districts east of King George Sound [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], which show that marine/estuarine fish populations, periodically destroyed by hypersalinity and other adverse conditions caused by drought and prolonged periods of entrance-bar closure, are quickly replaced when the bars open temporarily following heavy winter run-off (Hodgkin & Clarke 1988: 24-6, 28; 1990: 43-7; Hodgkin & Lenanton 1981: 309, 318; Lenanton 1974; 1984).
Similarly, at Lake Jasper, shore-line occupation and presumed exploitation of lacustrine/wetland resources should not have been interrupted as the lake expanded to its present size. This is suggested by the presence of sites 8 and 9 submerged at depths of 8-10 m near or on the shore-line of the original small lake in the present lake's southeastern corner, and by the presence of other sites located on or near former shore-lines at lesser depths (e.g. site 5: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]). The evidence for the presence of a smaller lake in what is now Lake Jasper's deepest part accords with radiocarbon-dated pollen cores showing that sedge communities and other wetland associations had been present in various widely separated southwestern districts throughout the Early Holocene (Churchill 1968; Newsome & Pickett 1993). It is assumed here then that during this period, and perhaps earlier, prehistoric groups had ample opportunity for the exploitation of lacustrine/wetland foods. Thus, the expansion or filling of Lake Jasper and scores of smaller lakes on the Southern Ocean coast and on the Swan Coastal Plain may not have had significant implications for human subsistence patterns, other than possible increases in the availability or the quantities of lacustrine/wetland food resources.
The Lake Jasper study and related investigations, both underwater and terrestrial (e.g. Glover et al. 1993), are gradually providing more accurate and more comprehensive data that should enable rigorous appraisals of site distributions, chronology and function in this continuing assessment of hunter-gatherer economy in coastal districts of southwestern Australia. The successful use of underwater techniques in this region should encourage the development of similar investigations elsewhere.
Acknowledgements. The field investigations in this project were partly funded by grants from the National Estate Grants Programme, as were most of the radiocarbon datings. The Western Australian Museum gave logistical support, and the Western Australian Maritime Museum provided diving equipment and advised. I sincerely thank the more than 40 people, including a dozen volunteer divers, that since 1989 have helped or advised in this project.
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Publication information: Article title: Prehistory Down Under: Archaeological Investigations of Submerged Aboriginal Sites at Lake Jasper, Western Australia. Contributors: Dortch, Charles - Author. Journal title: Antiquity. Volume: 71. Issue: 271 Publication date: March 1997. Page number: 116+. © 2008 Antiquity Publications, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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