Subsistence and Settlement Patterns in the Darwin Coastal Region during the Late Holocene Period: A Preliminary Report of Archaeological Research

By Burns, Trish | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Subsistence and Settlement Patterns in the Darwin Coastal Region during the Late Holocene Period: A Preliminary Report of Archaeological Research


Burns, Trish, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Introduction

The Darwin coastal region is a relatively neglected area in terms of archaeological research. This project seeks to amend the neglect through archaeological investigation of open sites located in the region. These sites are mostly Anadara shell middens and mounds, but earth mounds, and artefact scatters containing large heavy stone artefacts such as edge-ground axes, pestles and portable grinding stones (mortars), also occur. An Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Research Grant was used to fund the fieldwork component of this project, which forms the basis of a PhD in Anthropology at the Northern Territory University in Darwin. This report describes the results of fieldwork carried out over the dry season of 1996.

Aims of the research

The aims of this project are to formulate a chronological model of subsistence and settlement patterns around the coastal areas of the greater Darwin region through the late Holocene period. The project concentrates on the coastal strip around Darwin Harbour and at nearby Hope Inlet, and in particular focuses on examination of the numerous shell middens and mounds recorded during the archaeological surveys. It complements other current postgraduate research to the southwest of Darwin in the Fog Bay region and Finnis River wetlands, and to the east in the Adelaide River region. This research will be vital to cultural resource management in the Darwin region, which is subject to increasing development pressures.

This study adds to the body of knowledge on origins and formation processes of shell deposits which contributes to our understandings of human interaction with the landscape during the late Holocene. It is relevant to broader debates in the archaeological literature, for which data from other cultural shell deposits in Australia have been used as evidence. This includes the `intensification' debate by archaeologists on postulated human population changes, and/or changes in social organisation, during the Holocene (e.g. Beaton 1985; Cribb 1986; Lourandos 1985; Rowland 1989). It is also of relevance to hypotheses on the extent of dependence on littoral, coastal and terrestrial resources in coastal areas; on the extent to which shell deposits are representative of the coastal economies of peoples in the past (e.g. Beaton 1985; Gaughwin and Fullagar 1995; Hallam 1987).

The study area

Location

Included in the study area are the coastal zones around Darwin Harbour and Hope Inlet, Shoal Bay, 25 km to the northeast, an area of some 1500 sq km. The study area around Darwin Harbour is bounded to the south by Cox Peninsula Road, and to the east by the Stuart Highway; while northeast of Darwin it is bounded to the south by the Stuart Highway and to the east by Gunn Point Road (Figure 1). Surveying for this project was limited to the coastal strip, up to a few kilometres inland, outside the built-up areas of the residential city of Darwin and outlying town of Palmerston.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Climate and geomorphology

The Darwin coastal region has a monsoonal tropical climate with two main seasons: a dry season between the months of April and November, and a wet season between December and March, with periodic cyclones during the wet.

Studies in north Australia have demonstrated that sea levels stabilised following a rise to their present levels at around 6000 years BP (Chappell and Grindrod 1984; Woodroffe et al 1988). The evolutionary model of estuarine development and Holocene deposition demonstrated for the Alligator Rivers is said to apply broadly, with local variations, to other river systems in the Top End, including the relatively minor river systems of the Darwin region (Michie 1988; Woodroffe 1995). Darwin Harbour is a drowned river valley, and its present-day shape, of indented embayment and associated rivers, tributaries and peninsulas, was formed by a process of marine flooding and sedimentary infill (Semeniuk 1985; Woodroffe and Bardsley 1988).

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