Pleistocene Seed-Grinding Implements from the Australian Arid Zone

By Fullagar, Richard; Field, Judith | Antiquity, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Pleistocene Seed-Grinding Implements from the Australian Arid Zone


Fullagar, Richard, Field, Judith, Antiquity


Seed-grinding technologies in prehistoric societies have been linked to the development of agriculture and complex societies (e.g. Smith 1995) and the increased incidence of seed-grinding implements to the earliest evidence of sedentism around 12,800 b.p. (although grinding slabs for processing tubers have been identified at Wadi Kubbaniya in Egypt as early as 19,000 b.p.: Hillman 1989; Wright 1994). Macroscopic study indicates these early grinding-stones are multifunctional plant processing implements, part of a broad spectrum revolution following the peak of the last glaciation (Wright 1994; Edwards & O'Connell 1995). Edwards & O'Connell see Australia as providing a venue for testing the hypothesis that the terminal Pleistocene climatic change was a catalyst for this broad spectrum revolution.

This paper reports new evidence from Cuddie Springs for the antiquity of seed-grinding in Australia, and discusses implications for the role of technology and plant-food processing in the settlement of arid environments. Limiting factors on resource exploitation include climate and resource abundance which can be evaluated from palaeoecological and archaeological evidence; and social processes, more difficult to assess from archaeological data (Edwards & O'Connell 1995). The Cuddie Springs site, in the arid zone of eastern Australia, provides a unique climatic, faunal and archaeological record for the region. It has been known for over a century as a fossil megafaunal location. Excavations in 1991 and 1994 established the presence of an archaeological record overlapping with fossil megafaunal remains; 33 grinding-stone fragments reported here were recovered from a 2x2-m excavation. Of these, 26 were recovered from stratified sediments dating from the present to more than 30,000 b.p. including 21 from levels where fossil megafauna were also found (units 1 to 4, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], TABLE 1).

Cuddie Springs

Cuddie Springs is an ephemeral freshwater lake, approximately 2 km in diameter, in central northern New South Wales [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Within the semi-arid zone, it receives approximately 400 mm/year precipitation (Dodson et al. 1993). A claypan in the centre of the lake floor fills after local rain to a depth of approximately 30 cm. The vegetation on the grey soils of the lake floor comprises a eucalypt woodland (Coolabah and Blackbox) interspersed with Acacia stenophylla and Chenopodiaceae with lignum in the areas where semi-permanent swamps are found. The red soil plains surrounding the lake support different plant communities that include Callitris, Casuarina, Eremophila and Flindersia species (Furby 1995).

The archaeological record comprises stone, bone, ochre and other artefacts of human occupation beginning at approximately 1.7 m depth and continuing to the present land surface. Recent excavations revealed sequential occupation units with evidence of butchering megafauna and activities associated with a domestic campsite (Furby 1995). The association of megafaunal bones and stone artefacts is in a sealed unit of stratified lacustrine clays from 1-7 m to approximately I m depth below surface [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Fourteen radiocarbon determinations have been obtained for the archaeological levels (1-7 m to surface), and the lowest levels date to [greater than]30,000 b.p (Furby 1995) (TABLE 1). The faunal record extends to at least 10 m depth, beyond the limits of the radiocarbon technique. Megafauna are not found in the upper 1 m of deposit.

Six archaeological units have been identified [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Unit 1 has been identified as a butchering location, formed when Cuddie Springs experienced extended lake full conditions. Units 2 and 3 represent periods of increasingly irregular inundation with extended dry conditions and a corresponding increase in the accumulation of stone, bone and other artefacts of human occupation. …

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