Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Niche Production Strategies and Shell Matrix Site Variability at Albatross Bay, Cape York Peninsula

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Niche Production Strategies and Shell Matrix Site Variability at Albatross Bay, Cape York Peninsula

Article excerpt


Albatross Bay, near Weipa on western Cape York Peninsula, is well known for the large number of anthropogenic late Holocene shell mound sites that occur in the region. Recent research on shell mound formation and use both here and elsewhere across northern Australia has focused upon the extent to which mound formation may have been tied to intensive use of periodically available gluts of the intertidal bivalve Anadara granosa. This paper explores whether such a model applies in the Albatross Bay region, drawing on data available from 477 shell matrix sites recorded in this region. Data on site size, morphology, composition, substrate type, proximity to contemporary shorelines and shell mound chronology support a model of Abariginal people episodically and strategically targeting a highly variable niche estuarine resource base rather than intensively focusing on one species. It is proposed that these production strategies were characterised by a high degree of flexibility in terms of resource focus, at times involving a considerable emphasis on A. granosa, but also incorporating other estuarine resources, and that the level or intensity of production was able to be scaled up or down in line with resource availability and abundance. This production system was based upon nuanced knowledge of annual and intra-annual ecosystem dynamics along with social organisation and communication networks that facilitated a high degree of flexibility around the strategic exploitation of variable estuarine resource bases.

Keywords: coastal archaeology, Cape York Peninsula, Aboriginal economy, shell mounds.


Shell mounds are distinctive sites found at many locations across coastal northern Australia that are usually characterised by a dominance of the remains of the small intertidal bivalve Anadara granosa. They typically contain little or no non-molluscan fauna, few artefacts and have matrices dominated by shell with very low proportions of soil (Bailey 1977; Bailey et al. 1994; Bourke 2000, 2004, 2005; Faulkner 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010; O'Connor 1999; Veitch 1996, 1999). Albatross Bay, near Weipa on western Cape York Peninsula (Figure 1), evidences a coastal archaeological landscape that includes a spectacularly diverse array of shell mounds as well as other shell-bearing sites including dispersed scatters and concentrated non-mounded middens. These are collectively termed here as "shell matrix sites" (after Claassen 1998: 11). Upwards of 300 shell mound sites alone have been previously recorded in the Albatross Bay region, with some up to 12 metres high, though more commonly less than 2 metres in height (Bailey 1994). As such, Albatross Bay represents one of the largest concentrations of shell mound sites in northern Australia, making it an ideal context in which to explore questions about their role in late Holocene hunter-gatherer societies and the character of coastal economies in tropical Australia.

One prominent set of issues that has recently emerged in northern Australia relates to the character of the production strategies associated with the formation of shell mound sites (Bailey 1999; Bourke 2000, 2004, 2005; Clune 2002; Clune & Harrison 2009; Faulkner 2009, 2010, 2011; Harrison 2009; Morrison 2003; O'Connor 1999; Veitch 1999). The term "production strategy" is used here to describe the means by which people acquired food, including foraging strategies, settlement patterns, techniques, technologies, social organisation and associated cultural practices (Ingold 1988; Keen 2004; Lourandos 1988; Marquardt 1988; Narotzky 1997; Povinelli 1993; Sahlins 1972). Some have argued that the production strategies associated with shell mound formation involved highly intensive foraging practices targeting the r-selected species A. granosa (Faulkner 2006, 2009, 2010; Morrison 2003). Although sound evidence supporting a model of intensive harvesting of A. granosa is available elsewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria (see especially Faulkner 2009, 2011), the further development of such models at Albatross Bay has been limited by lack of new field data, with little new material published on shell matrix sites since initial work in the 1970s (Bailey 1975, 1977; see also Bailey et al. …

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