Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Bones of Contention: Reply to Walshe. (Comment)

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Bones of Contention: Reply to Walshe. (Comment)

Article excerpt


A recent critique by Walshe of taphonomic analyses made at three key arid zone sites is addressed. We defend our position that the extreme reduction of bone elements in these sites during the Holocene is most likely the product of Aboriginal behaviours rather than natural processes. We argue that the Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus, is not implicated in the reduction of bone; indeed there is no convincing evidence that Devils were even present in the Western Desert. We make the case that the likely effects of dingo on these assemblages is not consistent with the observed patterns of bone breakage through time.


Walshe (2000:74) has recently made a case that the highly fragmented and burnt bone assemblages characteristic of the vast majority of Australian archaeological cave sites are indicative of predator activity. The Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus, is seen as the "... most significant factor in modification of cultural assemblages" throughout Australia, including the arid zone. With this as her guiding premise she sets about critiquing the faunal studies from the arid zone sites of Puntutjarpa, Intitjikula and Serpent's Glen (Gould 1977, 1996; O'Connor et al. 1998). At these sites we have argued for human agency as a significant contributor to the reduction of the faunal assemblages. Bone reduction is posited to have been a likely consequence of attempting to extract the most in a meat poor environment. Walshe (2000:80) dismisses the `dietary stress hypothesis' and suggests that it was our eurocentric "... expectations of the pre-contact environment ..." that led to its formulation.

In our reply we wish to address the specifics and some of the factual inaccuracies of Walshe's critique in the wider framework of research on the Australian Desert Culture.

The `risk-minimisation model' and the `dietary stress hypothesis' in the context of the Australian Desert Culture

Early expressions of the `risk-minimisation model' (cf. Gould 1974) were based largely on historical and ethnographic data and primary ethnoarchaeological research (Gould 1967, 1969, 1971), and not as Walshe suggests on our own `expectations of a pre-contact environment'.

Multiple studies have emphasised the exceptionally low population densities of Australian desert inhabitants on the global scale, the very high levels of mobility and the vast geographic alliance networks that provided access to neighbouring lands during times of scarcity (see review in Tonkinson 1991). While a nutritionally balanced diet may have been experienced (on the average) by most desert groups (see Smith 2000:65) the overwhelming weight of historical evidence indicates that cyclical regional and long-term droughts constituted unique challenges to desert inhabitants. Extreme forms of residential and territorial mobility were employed to mitigate ensuing resource stress (cf. Gould 1991; Veth 2000). Our recognition of the extremely reduced condition of the bone in cultural deposits from the arid zone sites suggested to us that bone reduction may have been occurring to extract the most from the available protein resources and more particularly to remove fatty bone marrow.

Fatty foods are highly valued by hunter-gatherers from all latitudes not only for their desirable taste but also for nutritional reasons (Jochim 1981). Not only is fat a highly concentrated source of energy but it assists the body to metabolise dietary protein from lean meat (Speth 1983:104). Bone marrow is one of the richest sources of fat, especially on lean species. In times when the animals being hunted are nutritionally stressed it can be particularly important as bone marrow fat is one of the last body fat reserves to be mobilised (Speth 1983:102-104).

The last decade of archaeological research has set out specifically to examine the issue of variation in the productivity of Australian desert landscapes and changing human responses to aridity (cf. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.