Australia is a very interesting continent; the tremendous variability of the indigenous people and the situation surrounding their ancestors arrival has plagued anthropologists for decades. Investigations into Australian prehistory have led to some very startling finds. For instance, there is growing evidence that speaks for a Homo arrival as early as 176,000 years ago and a penetration of the arid zone as early as 30,000 years ago. Of course, in the wake of wonders such as these lies an intriguing and complex culture—of which we are only now scrapping the surface.
Since the first Australian find of a Pleistocene human skull in 1886, known as the Talgai skull, two distinct forms of Australian Homo have been identified—referred to as the robust and the gracile. Several hypothesis have been advanced to explain the distinction. Rhys Jones believes the two groups entered Australia at very different times to later merge or hybridize (multiple-source hypothesis). Jones suggests the Robust people colonized the continent first about 50,000 years ago, occupying the well-watered regions. This was followed by the entry of a more gracile form from south-east Asia which was able to occupy large areas of the continent due to their superior technological powers. Eventually the two groups met, and intermarriage between them led to a new group, from which evolved the modern Aborigine. Another hypothesis has both groups entering Australia at a similar time but from different places to hybridize upon contact. A third possibility, proposed in 1969 by A. A. Abbie, is that a single, widely varied, founding population, ancestral to both the robust and gracile forms entered Australia perhaps as much as 100,000 years ago and underwent considerable change and diversification. Finally, a proposal by Phillip Habgood, known as the homogeneity hypothesis, suggests that the founding population was anatomically homogeneous and the significant variations are the act of cultural and genetic processes.
Regardless of which form entered the continent first it is generally thought that the migration would have taken place during a period of maximum glaciation some time within the Wurm (or Wisconsin) glaciation. During periods of glaciation the sea level can drop dramatically, for much of the world’s water may become frozen into ice sheets at the poles. At no time during the Pleistocene was there a land bridge connecting Asia and Australia, although, with a drop in sea level of 65 meters it would have been possible to walk from Burma to Bali, from New Guinea to Northern Australia and from southern Australia to Tasmania (Chappell and Thom 1977). However, the journey would still have involved at least 8 sea crossings—even at the lowest sea level (Birdshell, 1977).
Except for a change in the arrival dates, Jones’s entry model is the most widely accepted. It is currently thought that the gracile people entered Australia at a time of very low sea level, coming from China about 50,000 to 55,000 years ago and that the robust people entered earlier, perhaps about 70,000 years ago from Indonesia. However, there is controversial evidence from a site in northern Australia that could push the entry as far back as 176,000 years b.p. and evidence from the study of mitochondrial DNA shows that the continent was colonized at least 15 times, which could cloud the picture even further.
The morphological differences between the two forms are astounding. The main differences are seen in the facial characteristics, bone thickness, and size. Apart from minor regional variations most robust skulls have prominent brow ridges, long sloping foreheads (extreme frontal recession), exceptionally thick cranial bones and large mandibles. Temporal bones have been found that measure up to 1.8 centimeters thick and most others average around 1.3 centimeters. The cranium is extremely wide and there are specimens with craniums measuring 210 millimeters long! Viewing from above the robust skulls show pronounced inward curvature behind the eye sockets, resulting in a “flask” look (this character is most apparent in the Kow Swamp populations). The gracile people, on the other hand, lack the marked superorbital tori , receding foreheads, and thick bones. Both populations have a cranial capacity that is within the modern range (Brown 1987).
Several models have been proposed for the peopling of the continent. However, one must keep in mind that the Pleistocene coast would have extended far beyond the present day shoreline. Thus any evidence confirming the travels of the firsts colonists will have long since vanished at sea. Joseph Birdshell’s hypothesis assumes that the normal size of a colonizing group was 25 persons and that new colonist groups split off when a population had reached 60% of an areas carrying capacity. With this reasoning he argues for a radiation throughout the continent via the original point of entry. Birdshell also suggested that the inland regions were populated more quickly than the coasts. The drier inland regions could support fewer people so the land’s carrying capacity would be reached sooner, causing groups to split and move more often. Sandra Bowdler contests Birdshell’s hypothesis and has offered her own in its place. She suggests a coastal adaptation, in which colonists expanded about the periphery of the continent and relied on fish, shellfish, and small mammals. Their marine-based subsistence remained unchanged for thousands of years, but gradually they expanded along inland rivers and lakes. It wasn’t until much later that the arid zones in the heart of the continent were occupied, supported by the use of grindstones to exploit grass seeds as food. A third hypothesis, proposed by David Horton, suggests that all but the arid core of the continent was occupied by 25,000 years ago. Then, when the continent began to dry up and the megafauna became extinct the people retreated to the coast—not returning until the present climate was established about 12,000 years ago.
The growing archaeological data, and the subsequent cultural insights will hopefully provide an accurate picture as to the peopling of the continent and life in Pleistocene Australia. Recently there has been a slew of fascinating discoveries that are helping to answer crucial questions such as: What kinds of tools did they use? What did they eat? What else, apart from tools, was created? And what was the significance of their art?
In 1968 Jim Bowler, a geomorphologist at the Australian National University, was studying the nature of sediments in the Willandra Lake systems (which have been dry for the last 15,000 years) of western New South Wales with hopes of piecing together the pattern of climatic change for the last 100,000 years. Bowler’s study concentrated on Lake Mungo, where he happened across the first evidence of Paleolithic human occupation in the region: stone artifacts and mussel shells buried within a sand dune. Shortly thereafter Bowler “noticed some burnt, carbonate-encrusted bones protruding from a low hummock on the dunes” (Flood 1990:42). By March of 1969 Bowler, with the help of the Australian National University had uncovered an extensive Pleistocene culture. The find at Lake Mungo includes five hominid specimens, as well as examples of cremation, elaborate funeral rites, and an uniquely Australian tool industry. Bowler’s initial find, officially called Mungo I, was a young adult female of slender build and small stature with a height of 148 centimeters. She has a very round head and small eyebrow ridges, especially when compared with the more robust Australian skulls. The results of radiocarbon dating, 26,000 ± 1120 BP, supports the age derived from its position in the Mungo sediments of approximately 26,000 BP. Mungo I also provides the oldest evidence of a ritual cremation in the world. “Careful analysis of the surface and fractures of the bones tells us that the corpse was first cremated, then the burnt skeleton was thoroughly smashed, and finally the ash and smashed bones were gathered together and deposited in a small depression beneath or adjacent to the cooled funeral pyre” (Flood 1990:44). At Mungo III, the burial site of a male dated close to 30,000 BP, there is no evidence of cremation, rather a 1974 excavation by Bowler revealed a complete skeleton—thickly coated with red orche and laid in a shallow grave. Like Mungo I, Mungo III is fine-featured and far more gracile than its twentieth century counterparts of the same region, the Bagundji. Several ovens, shallow depressions filled with ash and charcoal have been found at Lake Mungo, most date around 30,000 years ago (Bowler, Jones, Allen, Thorne 1970). The tools found at lake Mungo are a good representation of the entire Australian stone industry, termed “the Australian core and scraper tradition.” The main components are “large core tools [known as horsehoof cores], steep-edged, chunky, high-backed scrapers and concave, notched and ‘nosed’ working edges” (Flood 1990:50). Flatter, convex-edged and round scrapers are also present. Within tool kits, regional variations occur that reflect a specific environmental adaptation, for example, the tool kits of the arid zones (and the Willandra lakes region after it begins to dry) include grindstones and mortars, to take advantage of the small, hard grass seeds, whereas small bone points are found in well watered regions—perhaps used as fishing lures. Limited to northern Australia, in Arnhem Land, are Pleistocene stone axes. The axes are known as ground-edge axes and date back to 23,000 years b.p. A ground-edge tool has a much more effective cutting edge than a flaked tool. Also, several of the axes have a niche or groove which most likely facilitated hafting the axe-head to a handle. Previous to the Arnhem Land find, ground-edge axes in Australia were thought to be an innovation of the last few thousand years.
As Bowdler suggested, the diet of Australia’s Pleistocene populations was initially marine-based, and probably remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. However, new evidence indicates that the change may have occurred sooner than originally thought. The arid zone, which currently constitutes more than two-thirds of the continent, has the reputation of being the most crucial test for a successful adaptation to all the major ecological zones throughout Australia (Thorley, 1998). Excavations at Kulpi Mara, in the central arid range, and Cuddie Springs, in the south western arid range, have provided substantial data which clearly shows penetration of that particular biome by 30,000 years b.p and, as would be expected, a significant change in diet. Kulpi Mara, literally translated, means “cave of hands”—named for the numerous hand-stencils within the rock shelter. Apart from the hand stencils, cultural materials include grindstones, charcoal pits, bone, wood and resin artifacts, as well as spun fiber. While the latter, wood and resin artifacts and spun fiber are relics of a more recent occupation the charcoal pits, grindstones, and bone have been dated as first occurring 30,000 years ago. Paleoclimatic evidence suggests Kulpi Mara was cooler and wetter during the initial occupation. There is a very slow accumulation of artifacts and sediments between 24,000 and 12,000 years b.p. during the heightened aridity of the last glacial maximum which indicates less frequent occupation. Yet despite the fluctuating frequency of occupation, the presence of grindstones and the lack of marine life indicates a shift in diet from seafood to grains.
Another phenomenon of the last glacial maximum was the vast extinction of the continents megafauna. It has been suggested that many of the animals perished because they were tied to diminishing water holes, unable to adapt to the rapidly drying environment. An alternative suggestion was that people were the cause of extinction, but until recently the notion of exploiting megafauna to their demise had not been substantiated by the archaeological record. In 1994, excavations at Cuddie Springs revealed the first Australian “evidence for the interaction and overlap (in time) of people and megafauna” (Furby, 1996:1). The fauna include the giant flightless bird, Genyornis newtoni, large wombat-like creatures (about the size of a modern rhinoceros) called Diptrodon, and kangaroos known as Sthenurus. Plus the bones of the modern red kangaroo (Macropus rufus) have also been found in an overlapping context. The butchering tools at Cuddie Springs are similar to those found in America and Africa. They included hammerstones, for breaking bone and muscle attachments, and flaked stone for cutting and skinning the animal. The residues of butchering are still present on some of the tools, in the form of blood film and hair. A large percentage of the bones found had been charred in charcoal ovens. Radiocarbon dates for the periods of human/megafauna interaction extend back approximately 40,000 years b.p. (Fullagar, Field 1997). Thus, while it is clear that people were exploiting megafauna for food, use of the word “hunting” is still premature. The first evidence for hunting, boomerangs and spears, does not show up until thousands of years later (10,000 years b.p.)
Hunting, gathering, and the quest for survival is only part of the story. The seemingly non-utilitarian aspects of Pleistocene life, such as art and ritual, are often the most difficult to understand. The artist and his purpose have long since vanished, leaving behind only snippets of an archaic culture. Devil’s Lair, a cave in the extreme south-west, is one of the most fascinating examples of the non-utilitarian aspects of paleolithic life. 15,000 year old bone beads are the first indication in Australia of ornamentation. The beads were made on short sections of naturally occurring long bones, and X-rays have shown that the perforations extend right through. Attempts have been made to recreate such beads, in order to get a better idea of how they were manufactured. Using flaked tools, a fresh kangaroo long bone was deeply cut around its shaft then snapped in half. The process was repeated 2 centimeters from the broken edge and snapped again. The cavity was cleaned out with a sliver of bone or wood and the bead smoothed by abrading with a piece of limestone. The significance of such beads is unknown. Another object of interest from Devil’s Lair is a perforated fragment of soft marl in the shape of a bird’s head, also dated to 15,000 years b.p. The perforation, which may be either natural or artificial, could have had a couple of functions: 1) it could have been used to polish the shafts or tips of wooden spears or bone points. 2) The object might have been an ornamental pendant, with the perforation as a point of attachment. Considering the scarcity of Pleistocene sites and data, it is no wonder that ascertaining the specific meanings of cultural relics has proved such a puzzle.
Another such puzzle is found in northern Australia, at the site complex of Jinmium and Granilpi. Jinmium consists of two major shelters, KR1 and KR2, and a variety of smaller ones, which are basically eroded sandstone outcrops lying on a forested sandy plain near the Keep River. The walls of the shelters are covered with cupules. Cupules are rounded engraved pits, hollows and cup-like forms on the walls and floors of rock-shelters, boulders, and large slabs of sandstone. They are considered non-utilitarian marks and should not be confused with grinding hollows, which are larger and confined to horizontal surfaces, nor should they be mistaken with the individual peck marks that often infill engraved animals of more recent periods. (Chaloupka 1993; Flood 1996) Cupules “tend to relate to the form of the surface into which they were pecked and/or abraded, often conforming to or accentuating natural cracks, crevices, joints, and boundaries” (Tacon, Fullagar, Ouzman, Mulvaney 1997:942). The Jinmium sites are characterized by cupule covered walls, whereas the Granilpi sites (50 miles north of Jinmium) exhibit a strong prefrence for placing cupules on horizontal shelter floors and boulders. In neither site were coupules ever placed in holes or passageways, rather they were used to mark the boundaries or limits of the holes and passageways. Initially the sites were thought to have an approximate age of 58,000 years b.p., however further excavations by Richard Fullagar, in September of 1996, produced the startling number—176,000 years b.p. Fullagar’s team dated the lowest sediments with thermoluminescence, which can be problematic, for one can never be sure when the sample’s clock was actually set to zero. The TL dates taken at the upper levels do match the radiocarbon dates derived from charcoal fragments. However, beyond the age 60,000 years radiocarbon dating no longer produces accurate results, thus there are no controls such as bone or teeth that can confirm the TL dates.
If the Jinmium dates could be confirmed a serious reconsideration of human history would surely follow. “If it could be demonstrated that people were in Australia more than 100,000 years ago, we would have to rethink everything we thought we knew about the later phases of human evolution,” remarked Stanford paleoanthropologist Richard Klein during a September interview with Science. However, proponents from the other side of the spectrum view the potential dates as corroborative evidence for the multiregional hypothesis. Until further evidence is produced we can only wonder and speculate as to just what went on during the pleistocene down under.
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