Themes in the Prehistory of Tropical Australia

By Morwood, M. J.; Hobbs, D. R. | Antiquity, Annual 1995 | Go to article overview

Themes in the Prehistory of Tropical Australia


Morwood, M. J., Hobbs, D. R., Antiquity


The wetter tropical zones of northern Australia are linked by their monsoonal climates. Their archaeology shows its own distinctive pattern as well, and rock-art is an important source of evidence and insight. This study focusses on a part of Queensland, setting this local sequence alongside Arnhem Land (reported by the paper of Tacon & Brockwell) and in the northern pattern as a whole.

No matter what route was taken by the first Australian immigrants, the earliest sites in Australia should be in the tropical north (Birdsell 1977). This same region is likely to document continued cultural and genetic input from adjacent island southeast Asia and New Guinea. Certainly in the historic period, the impact of Indonesians in the Kimberley and Arnhem Land (MacKnight 1976), and of Papuans across Torres Strait (McCarthy 1939) is well documented. Furthermore, the sudden appearance of the dingo in Australia c. 4000 b.p. is indisputable evidence for Asian contact in the mid Holocene (Gollan 1984). It also suggests that Asian contact has occurred at least sporadically throughout the entire Australian cultural sequence.

Parts of northern Australia also have longstanding technological, artistic and linguistic traits, which clearly distinguish them from more southern areas, and warrant more detailed archaeological investigation. Edgeground axes, found in Pleistocene contexts in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and Cape York Peninsula (as well as in the New Guinea Highlands and parts of southeast Asia), only appear in the rest of Australia in the mid to late Holocene. What this early north-south difference in Australian stone artefact technology means is unclear, but Arnhem Land, the Pilbara and the Kimberley also have a degree of artistic and linguistic complexity not evident in the rest of the continent. These areas have complex figurative rock-art styles, which contrast markedly with the geometric and track emphasis of central Australian art and with the recent Simple Figurative rock-art styles found elsewhere around the margins of the continent (Maynard 1979). In addition, there seems to be a close association between the `Northwest Australian Rock-art Province' and linguistic complexity: of the (possibly) 29 Australian Aboriginal language phylla, 28 are found only in the Arnhem Land and Kimberley regions (McConvell 1990). Dated rock-art evidence indicates that the distinctiveness of symbolic systems in northwest Australia may have a Pleistocene antiquity.

This paper examines the evidence for generalized economic, material and demographic responses across northern Australia to the long-term climatic changes which occurred between 15,000 and 7000 b.p. However, interpretations of change in the archaeological record are seldom straightforward or unambiguous, even where there appears to be good correlation with climatic fluctuations. Inadequacies in the available data-base also preclude detailed reconstructions of developments in Aboriginal land-use in the tropics, a point emphasized by recent research in southeast Cape York Peninsula.

The Australian tropics

The Australian humid and semi-arid tropical zones are here defined as those areas north of the Tropic of Capricorn (23[degrees] 26' 5" S) with annual rainfall greater than 500 mm. Most of the region is characterized by a highly seasonal, summer (monsoonal) rainfall pattern. Differences in the predicability and magnitude of summer rains between say, the rainforest areas of northeast Queensland, the flood-plains of western Arnhem Land and the eucalypt savanna of the North Queensland highlands mean that Aboriginal adaptations to specific environments were similarly varied.

Recent Aboriginal land-use

In parts of the tropics, high and predictable rainfall has a major impact on the geographical and seasonal availability of faunal and floral resources, and Aboriginal communities responded accordingly; thus, coastal areas normally have higher population densities than inland regions (e. …

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