Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal Bark Burial: 700 Years of Mortuary Tradition in the Central Queensland Highlands

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal Bark Burial: 700 Years of Mortuary Tradition in the Central Queensland Highlands

Article excerpt

Abstract: There has been a long interest in the burial practices of the Central Queensland Highlands, most notably the burial of the deceased in often highly decorated bark coffins. This has led to considerable speculation as to the antiquity of this burial custom, with some suggesting that it is a recent response to European settlement and influences in the region from around the 1850s. In this article, we present a series of dates that provide, for the first time, some definitive insights into this question. We clearly show that this burial tradition is one of considerable antiquity that absolutely predates both the contact and settlement periods not only within the region but for Australia as a whole. We also explore the factors that are responsible for the long-term survival of these funerary objects. Finally, the implications of the antiquity of these dates and the continuity and maintenance of cultural traditions within the context of native title are also discussed.


The study of Aboriginal burial practices has a long tradition in Australian archaeology. Over the last 40 years numerous studies have been undertaken. For instance, Meehan (1971) undertook the daunting task of reviewing a wide range of historical and anthropological material relating to burial practices and traditions throughout Australia. During the 1960s and early 1970s the direct dating of burials also was a common practice. Perhaps the most famous dates are those from Lake Mungo in southwestern New South Wales, some of which related to Pleistocene cremations recognised as the oldest in the world (Bowler et al 1970). The dating of the Kow Swamp burials to the late Pleistocene, and the comparison of those remains with the Mungo material, sparked an ongoing debate on the genetic origins of Aboriginal people (Thorne 1971; Thorne and Macumber 1972). Excavation of the Roonka site on the Murray River in South Australia resulted in the discovery of unique mortuary practices, as well as a range of burial goods (Pretty 1977).

The debates of the late 1970s and early 1980s about the ethics of such research and larger questions of ownership of cultural heritage (e.g. Langford 1983; McBryde 1985; Mulvaney 1981; see also Lahn 1996) led some to a pessimistic position that such work would inevitably grind to a halt (see Meehan 1984). Others accepted the challenge of developing culturally appropriate means of approaching burial studies in Australia. As a result, such people were able to continue their research and indeed were expressly invited to undertake work, under the aegis of the Aboriginal custodians. Pardoe was at the forefront of this approach (e.g. 1991a, 1991b, 1992). With the endorsement of Aboriginal custodians, he and others have published numerous papers on the dating and analysis of human remains found in the Murray-Darling Basin, and explored the cultural and biological implications of these (e.g. Pardoe 1988, 1993a, 1993b, 1995; Witter et al 1993).

Little such work has, however, been undertaken in Queensland, with either an explicit research or a management focus. The Broadbeach burial ground was excavated in the mid-1960s (1965-68) after its disturbance by local soil contractors (Haglund 1975). Our own inquiries at Taroom examined, using noninvasive techniques, the location and nature of two cemeteries on the old Aboriginal reserve (L'Oste-Brown and Godwin 1995; L'Oste-Brown et al 1996). That study ultimately had profound management implications relating to the construction of a dam on the Dawson River. More recently, human remains unearthed on Palm Island during infrastructure development have been the subject of detailed analysis (A. Border, pers. comm.). The research reported in this paper differs somewhat from these other studies in that, while management-driven, it was not undertaken as an imperative deriving from development pressures.

The bark coffins (1) found in the Central Queensland Highlands, commonly called 'burial cylinders' in the earlier literature, have long excited the interests of researchers as well as the attention of unscrupulous collectors (e. …

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