Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Mid Holocene Maritime Economy in the Western Torres Strait

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Mid Holocene Maritime Economy in the Western Torres Strait

Article excerpt


Results from a new mid Holocene site in the central-western Torres Strait, north-eastern Australia are presented. AMS determinations from Dabangai on Mabuyag provide evidence for two settlement periods. Phase 1 (7180-4960 caIBP) is associated with recurring/ permanent occupation involving marine-based subsistence during the poorly documented period of marine transgression. Phase 2 (230BP-present) is a period of increased site use including an escalation of marine subsistence activities. Results provide the first direct evidence for marine settlement and subsistence practices on Torres Strait islands after their initial formation.

Keywords: Torres Strait, archaeology, marine subsistence, mid Holocene, island formation


In island studies, the transition between open and closed boundaries (i.e. land bridge to island) is expected to result in major physical and conceptual shifts in a resident community (Keegan and Diamond 1987). This may involve altered settlement (frequently abandonment) or alternatively the implementation of adaptive patterns of behaviour capable of dealing with new ecological constraints and/or possibilities (Fitzpatrick 2007). Indicators include altered subsistence practices (e.g. a greater focus on marine resources) and/or the development of new technologies and strategies for managing ecosystems (e.g. burning regimes and specialised subsistence strategies, Fitzpatrick 2007; Nunn 2003).

In the Australian region significant social transformations occurred during the period of shallow-shelf inundation and island formation. Previous studies suggest variable human responses with behaviour "not necessarily explicable in terms of models derived from either 'common sense', or the behaviour of other animal species" (Bowdler 1995: 956). In the majority of cases island formation results in significant reductions in site use or abandonment for several thousand years (O'Connor 1992; Sim and Wallis 2008; cf. Barker 2004). Marine transgression is further expected to influence subsistence economies with marine resources becoming increasingly prominent (Barker 2004; Hall and McNiven 1999; O'Connor and Veth 2000). Data are scattered, however, leaving human responses to island formation and environmental stabilisation in Australia a subject for ongoing debate (Barker 2004: 146; O'Connor 1992: 58; Sim and Wallis 2008: 104).

The Torres Strait Islands (north-eastern Australia) offer significant potential for addressing this point. During the Last Glacial Maximum (26,500-19,000 years ago) the Western and Eastern high islands of present-day Torres Strait formed peaks and ridges which extended approximately 150 km between Australia and New Guinea (Barham 1999; Clark et al. 2009; Willmott et al. 1973; Woodroffe et al. 2000). Based on sea level curves, swamp cores and coral dates this mountain range was breached sometime between 9000-7000 years ago (Chappell 2005: 525; Larcombe et al. 1995; fig. 1). After a sea level high-stand (approximately 6000 years ago) seas dropped to their current level within the past 4000-3000 years ago. Barham (2000: 291) predicted that the limited areas of platform/ fringing reefs (between 7500-6500 years ago) were destabilised during a "high energy window" between 6500-5000 years ago. Beach progradation and sea-grass/ reef development occurred after 4000 years ago (Barham 2000: 290-92; Barham and Harris 1983: fig. 1; Woodroffe et al. 2000). During this period (3500-3000 years ago) mangrove forests which had expanded prior to marine transgression decreased dramatically (Barham 1999; Rowe 2007).

Until recently there was no evidence for human activity in the Tortes Strait during the marine transgression. It was hypothesised that Islander communities were "ill equipped to deal with insularity" and perished or abandoned their island homes (Rowland 1985:131). It was further suggested that sustained settlement required sheltered living space and predictable subsistence economies which were not available until 4000BP (Barham 2000: 290; Fuentes et al. …

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