Towards a Late Holocene Archaeology of the Inland Pilbara

By Ryan, Ian; Morse, Kate | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Towards a Late Holocene Archaeology of the Inland Pilbara


Ryan, Ian, Morse, Kate, Archaeology in Oceania


Abstract

Stone artefact scatters dominate the archaeological landscape of the inland Pilbara. While the archaeological record from rockshelter sites suggests human occupation consisting of brief. intermittent visits by small groups of people, artefact scatters which range from small, discrete single flaking events of perhaps 5-10 artefacts to widespread and varied scatters, sometimes of hundreds of thousands of stone artefacts extending over hundreds of thousands of square metres, clearly tell a different story. This paper presents an analysis of stone artefact assemblages from nine inland Pilbara surface artefact scatters and demonstrates that sites of this type have the potential to contribute much to our knowledge of human occupation of the region. We propose a testable model of Aboriginal occupation of the Pilbara during the Holocene.

Keywords: Pilbara, artefact scatters, surface archaeology

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The Pilbara region of Western Australia has been subject to some of the most intensive archaeological surveying of any part of Australia. At least 10,000 sites are now listed on Western Australia's Register of Aboriginal Sites for the region and most of these have been recorded as a result of heritage surveys undertaken in response to mining and other developments. But what do we know about prehistoric Indigenous occupation of this landscape? Published site descriptions are few and far between; most are lost deep in the grey literature of consulting reports.

In a region abounding in rockshelters, archaeology in the Pilbara has been guided by questions of antiquity. Research has focused on identifying the timing of initial occupation and the response of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers to the last glacial maximum (Comtesse 2003, Edwards and Murphy 2003, Marwick 2002, Maynard 1980; Troilett 1982; Veitch et al. 2005, Veth 1993). Pleistocene layers in excavated rockshelters typically contain only small amounts of faunal material, charcoal and other organics and are characterised by small assemblages of stone tools (Maynard 1980:4-7, Troilett 1982, Brown 1987:24-33, Hughes and Quartermaine 1992). The general consensus is that occupation of the Pleistocene Pilbara consisted of brief and intermittent visits by small groups, reflecting a mode of adaptation based on a high level of residential mobility (Brown 1987:53, Marwick 2002:14).

Archaeological evidence from Holocene rockshelter sites appears to follow a similar pattern. Although organic material is more common in Holocene layers than in those of Pleistocene age, it is typically scarce (Hughes and Quartermaine 1992:102, Maynard 1980:5, Edwards and Murphy 2003, Veitch et al. 2005; Fiona Hook pets. comm. June 2006). Fragments of burnt and unburnt mammal and macropod bone dominate sparse faunal assemblages. Infrequently, transported baler shell and ochre is found. Plant remains include occasional plant fibres, resin and wooden fragments (Comtesse 2003, Marwick 2002, Ryan and Morse 2005, Veitch et al. 2005). Backed artefacts and other small tools, rock art and seed grinding technology also appear in the archaeological record at this time (Marwick 2002; Comtesse 2003). Despite this momentary excitement, the Holocene rockshelter evidence, like that of the Pleistocene, suggests an archaeological landscape of sites occupied for archaeologically brief moments by small groups of people.

But is this picture consistent with other archaeological and even ethnographic evidence of Aboriginal occupation of the inland Pilbara? Ethnographic and anecdotal accounts of Pilbara Aboriginal people (e.g. Brown 1987, Brehaut and Vitenbergs 2001) clearly show that rockshelters were not the focus of human occupation. Rockshelters and caves were used only during rain or dust storms and were sometimes used to cache wooden artefacts and other materials. Sandy creeks and their banks were the preferred location for large-scale camp sites with long term seasonal camps located where reliable sources of water could be easily accessed. …

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