Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Demographic Transition in a Hunter-Gatherer Population: The Tiwi Case, 1929-1996

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Demographic Transition in a Hunter-Gatherer Population: The Tiwi Case, 1929-1996

Article excerpt

Populations that have been isolated for extended periods and that have a well-documented contact history are rare and those for which there is reasonable demographic information are even rarer. This paper examines the evidence for demographic transition in what is one of the better documented such population isolates.

In Australia there have been three known population isolates, all on islands. The largest isolate was the 4,000 or so people who made up the population of Tasmania at any one time and who were completely cut off from all external contact for at least 10,000 years. Unfortunately, however, there is no detailed information on the demographic structure of this population at the time of contact and subsequently the population was subjected to genocidal reduction. A second group of people, who stand in strong contrast to the Tasmanians, were the Kaiadilt of Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. At a known maximum they numbered only 123 people in 1942 (Tindale 1962b, 297) and they appear to have had only very limited contact with outsiders for the previous 140 years or more (Evans 1995, 17, 24-27; Tindale 1962a). For these people there is reasonable demographic data collected in 1960 (see Tindale 1962a, 1962b). The third population is that of Melville and Bathurst Islands, which lie in the Arafura Sea off the coast of the Northern Territory (see Hart and Pilling 1960).

As far as can be established, the thousand or so Tiwi who lived on these two islands were completely isolated from the mainland of Australia for at least the last 6,000 years until the eighteenth century. Since then there is a documented history of interaction with outsiders.(1) In 1929, CWM Hart completed a comprehensive census of the whole population. At this time over three-quarters of the population were supporting themselves off the bush. Given the availability of subsequent population counts, and using certain assumptions about the closure of the islands' population, it is possible to trace the demographic transitions that have taken place over the subsequent 60 years as people have moved from an independent hunting and gathering way of life to dependency on the state.

This period covers three successive phases of government policy for Aboriginal people. Hart's material relates to the protectionist era which began at the turn of the century and lasted until the Second World War. The second period was the assimilation era which ended at the beginning of the 1970s. The data for this period comes from the annual returns of the Catholic mission on Bathurst Island to the Northern Territory administration and later returns from the government settlement at Snake Bay on Melville Island. The third period of, so-called, self-determination was ushered in with the election of the federal Labor government in 1972 and is covered by the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the national census from 1971.(2) In addition to these data, there is a comprehensive demographic study of Bathurst Island by Lancaster Jones (1963) and an excellent anthropologically informed study of both islands by Jane Goodale from 1962 (1971).

From April to November 1928 and May to October 1929, CWM Hart carried out fieldwork with the Tiwi. He published seven papers based on this fieldwork and a book, The Tiwi of North Australia (1960), co-authored with AR Pilling who worked with the Tiwi in 1953-54. The census was a major aspect of Hart's fieldwork: it was based on contact with almost everybody covered by it and on detailed genealogical records covering the whole population of the two islands on which the Tiwi live. This census, which was never published and which was only partially worked up by him, forms the stimulus and basis for this paper.

We will begin with a brief history of the Tiwi, followed by a sketch of the relevant features of their social organisation and a consideration of some general aspects of Hart's census before presenting the details. …

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