An Ice Age - Walk to Tasmania

In the Pleistocene from at least 60 000 to 10 000 years ago the most southerly part of the Australian continent was the southeast Cape region of Tasmania. A drop in sea level of only about 55 metres exposed the floor of what is now Bass Strait, producing a land bridge of 15 million hectares (figure 9.1). The present islands of Bass Strait would then have been hills overlooking a broad plain.


Since beginning field work in Tasmania early in the 1960s, Rhys Jones had always put forward the hypothesis that Tasmania was occupied by means of this land bridge at a time of lowered sea level. He had also argued that most of the Pleistocene sites at a time of lowered sea level. He had also argued that most of the Pleistocene sites would have been coastal, since during the height of the last glacial period extensive ice sheets covered the central highlands, and much of the present island of Tasmania was treeless and inhospitable. Archaeological work during the last decade has proved Jones's first prediction correct, but his second wrong. Due to his work and the work of others, a great deal more is now known about Tasmanian prehistory, although many questions still remain to be answered.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

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Cave Bay Cave

On Hunter Island, 6 kilometres off what is now the northwestern tip of Tasmania, an occupational sequence embracing the past 23 000 years has been found in a large sea cave at Cave Bay. Signs of both Aboriginal and European visits were found when the site was visited by Bowdler in 1973 at the suggestion of local residents. On the dusty floor there were shells and animal bones, and on the walls numerous graffiti, the oldest of which read 'Walrus 1867'. Excavation revealed that Pleistocene occupation of Cave Bay Cave began by 22 750 BP (figure 9.2). Over the next 2000 years, half a metre of deposit built up, characterised by layers of thick ash, a few bone points and stone tools, and the smashed and burnt bones of various land animals.

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The stratigraphy of the Cave Bay Cave site, Hunter Island. The
7000 BP date for the bottom of the lower midden has now beencorrected to 6600 BP.

Both the stone and bone tools resemble tools from mainland Pleistocene sites, yet are also forerunners of later Tasmanian forms. One bone point, 9 centimetres long and made on a macropod shin bone, was associated with charcoal dated to 18 550 BP: the others were similar, but belonged to levels of between 4000 and 6600 years ago. The remains in the lower layers of Cave Bay Cave are best interpreted as the debris of occasional inland hunting parties. The sea at this time would have been 30 to 40 kilometres away from the cave, which would have looked out over the vast Bassian Plain. The marsupial animals in the ice age levels of the cave are, in order of frequency, the brush wallaby, barred bandicoot, tiger cat, native cat, Tasmanian pademelon and wombat. None of these are extinct animals, but the wombat, native cat and bandicoot are not found in more recent sites and were absent from Hunter Island in historic times.

This early occupation was sporadic and fleeting, and it was followed by a phase of heavy rock-fall, which may represent the peak of the last glacial episode about 18 000 years ago. The extreme cold would have caused water to freeze in the rock cracks and crevices, and the expansion of the ice would have led to widening of the cracks and the fall of rock slabs. From about 1800 until 7000 years ago, when the sea reached its present level, the cave was effectively deserted. One small isolated hearth, dated to about 15,000 years ago, indicates that humans were still present then, but otherwise the main occupants of the cave were owls and carnivorous predators. Large quantities of tiny intact rodent bones are indicative of the regurgitated pellets of owls, and masses of macropod and possum bones chewed into small fragments suggest the presence of the Tasmanian devil.

Then about 18 000 until 7000 years ago, when the sea was close to its present position and marine shellfish were easily obtainable, the cafe again came into use. The remains in the cave suggest the new occupants had a well-developed coastal economy. The contents of this midden are similar to those from the lowest levels of rocky Cape south, excavated by Rhys Jones and dated to around 8000 years old. At Cave Bay Cave, there was a dense shell midden - its base dated to about 6600 years ago - containing the bones of small macropod and mutton birds, the shells of rocky coast species and a few fish bones. Bone points were in layers older than 4000 years, and so were stone tools (such as quartz and quartzite flakes) and pebble tools. Sandra Bowdler interprets this midden as representing the period when coastal people, possessing a well-developed fishing economy, had been pushed back by the rising seas to a 'Hunter Peninsula', just before the land link with Tasmania was finally severed. After this midden was deposited, the cave was not occupied for several thousand years, until Hunter Island was recolonised 2500 years ago by Tasmanian seafarers.  

The Southwest

Tasmania's southwest gave up a stone age secret on Sunday 11 January 1981, to archaeologists Rhys Jones and Don Ranson, who were carrying out a two-week survey for Aboriginal relics in the Gordon River Valley, threatened with flooding by a proposed hydroelectricity scheme. The now uninhabited region is one of the world's last remaining temperate wildernesses and contains some of the densest rainforest in the world. This is some of the world's most inhospitable terrain. When the first Europeans settled in Tasmania in the early 1880s, Aboriginal occupation was largely coastal, confined to a narrow coastal strip only a few hundred metres wide that was kept open by the use of fire. The people lived mainly off the resources of the sea, and travelled up and down the coast. One or two tracks through rainforest were also kept open by fire - for example, from Port Davey across to the south coast, a short cut across the southwest corner of Tasmania - but there was little or no occupation throughout the rest of the southwest wilderness.

As well as the notorious horizontal scrub, which is very difficult to talk through, the rivers of the southwest are extremely swift-flowing and hard to cross. They would have been a formidable obstacle to Aborigines, but provided a means for people of the twentieth-century to reach the heart of the wilderness. But only jet boats can make headway against the current, and they have to be carried around waterfalls and some rapids. The first Aboriginal site to be discovered in the southwest rainforest was found on the bank of the Denison River 300 metres from its junction with the Gordon River (figure 9.3). In the words of Jones: 'I noticed that on a bank a great tree, a Nothofagus, had fallen down, taking some of the earth with it. We stopped in the little boat we were in, walked up the bank, and found stone tools. Afterwards we found more, in situ, buried in  clay deposit on the high river bank. This was the first evidence we have had of any prehistoric occupation of this region by man - a very interesting discovery.

When the giant Nothofagus beech tree had fallen, its roots had exposed a patch of clay as they were wrenched from the ground. Thee was found a quartz pebble core with flakes chipped from it scattered around. The flakes, which would have been used as knives and scrapers, could be replaced exactly on the core, and were still as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel. Twelve tools were found, including a quartzite hammer-stone. The camp site that these tools marked was originally thought to be very old, but a preliminary date on charcoal associated with the tools is 300 +- 150 BP. This means that the southwest must at least have been traversed by Aborigines in recent times. The finding of these stone tools in dense rainforest was a million-to-one chance, but it was followed less than three weeks later by the discovery of rich Aboriginal cultural remains in a huge cave in the same primeval forest of southwest Tasmania. 

Kutikina Cave

The massive cave, extending 170 metres into the cliff of limestone, is 35 metres back from the east bank of the Lower Franklin River and 10 kilometres from its confluence with the Gordon, at an elevation of about 40 metres above sea level. It was found in 1977 by a geomorphology student, Kevin Kiernan, and named Fraser Cave after the Prime Minister, because 'we were trying to direct the attention of politicians to the area' (colour plate 9, figure 9.4). Fraser Cave has now been given the Aboriginal name Kutikina (pronounced to rhyme with miner), meaning 'spirit'). Stone flakes and animal bones were noticed on the cave floor, but the cave's discoverers did not realise their significance. Then, in February 1981, Kiernan revisited the cave on an expedition of the Tasmanian Wilderness society and its archaeological potential was realised. Three weeks later he returned with Rhys Jones and officers of the National Parks and wildlife Service (now the Department of Parks, Wildlife and Heritage) of Tasmania.

Ice age sites in Tasmania, showing the coastline at 14 000 BP,
and the drowning of the land bridge of about 10 500 BP.

The cave has a floor area of about 100 square metres, covered with a 1- to 2-metre deep carpet of bone debris, tools and fireplaces. Some 250 000 animal bones and 37 000 stone flakes have beenfo9und in less than 1 cubic metre of deposit, giving an average density of 70 000 artefacts and 68 kilograms of bone per cubic metre. Jones suggested it was probably a base camp occupied by twenty to thirty people for a few weeks each year. They hunted the area for wallabies and other animals bringing their game back to the cave to be butchered, cooked and eaten. In places, a faint glimmer of daylight penetrates through openings in the high roof, and under each of these 'skylights' is a mass of tool manufacturing debris where an ice age craftsman sat and flaked his tone choppers and knives. A few bone points have also been found. The type of tools and sediments revealed by Jones's small test excavation of 1 cubic metre caused him to suggest a Pleistocene antiquity for occupation long before the radiocarbon dates were received. These have proved his predictions correct.

The floor of the cave was capped by a thin, white, hard layer of calcium carbonate, often called moon milk. Found immediately below this was a 30- to 40-centimetre thick occupation layer of interleaving hearths, where people had been camping. Charcoal, ash and burnt earth in shallow depressions from old fires made this a dark-coloured layer, fantastically rich and artefacts and charred animal bones. The top of this hearth layer has now been dated to 14 840 +- 930 BP. Below the hearths was something quite different: small limestone blocks and angular fragments probably fallen from thereof. Such roof-fall would have occurred under very different climatic conditions from those of today. Stone tools and charcoal are present through this rubble layer and the clay below it, right down to bedrock. Dates from charcoal have shown hat people first camped in this cave about 20 000 years ago.

The stone tools may be characterised as a regional variant of the Australian core tool and scraper tradition found in mainland Australia during the last ice age. This is typified by steep-sided, domed 'horsehoof' cores with a single striking platform and steep-edged, notched and flat scrapers. The rocks used were mainly quartzite and quartz. Most remarkably, cutting tools were made from natural glass, of Darwin glass, as it is called after the Darwin meteorite crater. Darwin glass is a true glass which was formed when a meteorite crashed into the earth. The high-energy collision melted the rocks around the collision point, forming glass. Small seams of these contorted glass 'impactites' occur around the meteorite crater, which is some 25 kilometres northwest of Kutikina Cave and was only discovered by geologists twenty years ago. The Aborigines, however, for thousands of years, selected the glass, collected it in bags, and carried it back to their cave for manufacture into sharp cutting tools.  

Archaeological detective work by Loy, involving residue analysis with high-powered microscopes, has revealed some of the ways in which ice age hunters used these glass artefacts. Examination of a tool's cutting edge, magnified 300 times, has revealed a residue of yellow fleshy tissue. This proved to be made up of two proteins, collagen, which is found in some bones and tissue, and haemoglobin, which gives blood its red colour. The haemoglobin was crystallised, and it was found to be from the blood of a red-necked wallaby, Macropus rufogriseus (also known as Bennett's wallaby). Haemoglobin crystals are like fingerprints; the shape and growth rate of the haemoglobin crystals of each animal species are unique. When the haemoglobin crystals from the tool were compared with those from a modern red-necked wallaby, they were found to be identical. This piece of Darwin glass was used as a sharp knife to cut up wallaby meat, but probably also had a multitude of uses, rather like a modern penknife.

In the lower layers between about 19 000 and 17 000 BP, 99 percent of the artefacts are quartzite, but around 17 000 BP there is a change in dominant raw material to 99 percent milky quartz. These were fashioned by the bipolar hammer and anvil technique, which is particularly associated with the manufacture of hard, intractable quartz. The greatest density of archaeological debris was in sediments deposited between 17 000 and 15 000 years ago, with more wallaby and wombat bone and the first appearance of both Darwin glass and other new tools. Particularly surprising was the find of 160 tiny thumbnail scrapers, small round-edged scrapers roughly the size and shape of a thumbnail. On average, they measure 20 by 15 millimetres, and 8 millimetres thick, but some are as small as 11 by 7 by 5 millimetres. Thumbnail scrapers are common in the Holocene small tool tradition of the mainland, but were virtually unknown in Pleistocene assemblages until these discoveries in southwest Tasmania. In spite of the superficial resemblance, detailed analysis may show significant differences between the Holocene and Pleistocene groups, and there is no evidence to suggest that the Pleistocene examples wee ever hafted to a handle. The Kutikina thumbnail scrapers are all of quartz fashioned by bipolar working, but examples are now been found at other sites in chert, Darwin glass and other materials. The conclusions of functional analyses by Loy and Fullager of thumbnail scrapers from Kutikina and Nunamira caves were that they wee handheld, for there were no signs of hafting or use-wear. The curved retouched steep edge represents backing to prevent injury to the user's hand, and residues were found on the unretouched sharp edge, which was the 'business end'.

A study was carried out by Loy and Jones comparing the residues on a sample of thumbnail scrapers from the upper assemblage with those on the working edges of the large flake scrapers of the lower industry. Jones summarised as follows: 'Surprisingly, in both samples evidence for somewhat similar broad-range functions were found. Some 30-40% of tools from both samples had probably been used for cutting meat and other butchery functions; bone-working accounted for 20% of functions, whereas evidence for plant working of various kinds was found in about 15%. Evidence for woodworking was found on about 10% of tools in both assemblages. Jones, Loy and Fullager concluded that both the apparently specialised thumbnail scrapers and the rather amorphous flake-scrapers performed the same generalised range of functions, such as the butchering of carcasses and the working of bone, skin, wood and plant materials. Bone points made from the shin bone (fibula) of wallabies wee also found. Only a few pieces of animal bone had been modified, but there were 250 000 pieces of animal bone in all, which tell us a great deal about the hunters' diet, environment and way of life. Bone is seldom preserved in achaeological sites, and even where it is, it is usually almost impossible to distinguish the prey of human hunters from bones of animals which died there of natural causes. But here the bones must be the result of human meals, for the long bones are smashed to extract the marrow, almost all the bones have been charred, and only certain body parts are present. Marrow was a very important source of essential fatty acids.

these bon deposits give a unique picture of the hunting strategies of Pleistocene Tasmanians. Most (75 percent) of the bones belonged to red-necked wallabies, but wombats accounted for 12 percent, and the other 134 per cent came from from another fifteen species. Red-necked wallabies were then plentiful, but now occur in only very low numbers in rainforest-dominated southwest Tasmania, occupying open shrubland and sedgeland habitats, where they graze on grasslands and herbfields. The surrounding country was completely different at the height of the last glaciation. Annual average temperatures were only about 4 degrees Celsius, that is about half (to about 1500 millimetres per year). It was cold, windy and relatively dry, and icebergs would have sailed past the nearby coast. Glaciers flowed down the high mountain valleys to only about 800 metres above sea level, and the treeline was depressed by at least 230 metres. The only trees were bands of forest along the rivers in sheltered valleys. This provided red-necked wallabies with forest edges and open grassy plains similar to their modern habitat. 

Like their contemporaries in the northern hemisphere, the ice age hunters of Tasmania made use of deep caves to survive the freezing temperatures. The remains found in Kutikina Cave have been compared by Jones to those from the caves of Dordogne in southern France. The stone tools are similar, the cooking methods are similar, even the hunting strategies are similar, although northern hunters concentrated on reindeer and the Tasmanians on wallabies.

Rock Art

The presence of ochre pigment in the Kutikina Cave deposit raised the exciting possibility that these ice age Tasmanians were practising art. In January 1986, the first rock art was found in southwest Tasmania, in the Maxwell River valley which runs parallel and about 12 kilometres to the east of the Franklin, during the first archaeological survey of this rugged region (led by Ranson). In all, six limestone caves which showed evidence of human occupation were discovered. One (M86/2), now called Warreen Cave, revealed a 2-metre deep cultural deposit, described below.

The most exciting find of this 1986 expedition came when Steve Brown and Roy Nichols were examining hundred of metres of passageways and caverns beyond the daylight section of a nearby complex cave. Suddenly their torch beam lit up the outline of a human hand, stencilled in red ochre. Further examination revealed sixteen hand stencils in two groups, and a total of twenty-three have now been identified on two panels located between 15 and 25 metres inside the cave. The stencils were made by grinding up iron oxide and mixing it with water and possibly animal fat into a red ochre paste, then placing the hand flat on the rock wall and spray painting it, probably by taking a mouthful of the paste and spitting it over the hand. At least five individuals were responsible for the art. Both left and right hands are equally represented. Some of the hand stencils are stunningly clear, standing out in a vivid red against the pale grey dolomite wall: others are quite indistinct. One one hand, it is evident that the middle finger is missing at the first joint; this could be due to either accidental or ritual mutilation.

In the same chamber there are small patches of red ochre on various parts of the ceiling. The chamber is in total darkness about 25 metres from the entrance, and would probably have been approached by the light of burning grass torches. Near the entrance to the passage which leads down to the hand stencil gallery, five rock protuberances are emblazoned with dramatic large streaks of blood-red ochre. These may have acted as some kind of warning marker to a special area of ritual significance. A total of sixteen ochre smears have now been identified on the cave's wall, ceilings and floors. Beyond the main entrance to the cafe there is a small occupation deposit in a narrow chamber, sealed by a thin, hard, white calcareous layer, dated elsewhere to about 14 000 years old. Below this layer are tiny fragments of ochre associated with charcoal. This find proves the ice age antiquity in Australia of hand stencils and, by implication, of rock painting. Hand stencils are associated with paintings in very many younger Australian rock art sites, but until this find neither stencils nor painting had been found in indisputable ice age contexts in Australia, whereas in the Pleistocene cafe art of Europe hand stencils often accompany paintings. This site proves once and for all that Tasmanian Aborigines practised painting in prehistoric times. Ironically, the island which has produced the first ice age stencils of Australia has a remarkable lack of more recent rock art sites, with less than twenty on record.

Significantly, the art of Ballwinne Cave (pronounced Bal-w-win-ee and meaning 'ochre'), as the Maxwell River site has now been named by Tasmanian Aborigines, it in complete darkness. This is extremely rare among Australian art sites, but more nearly parallels decorated caves of Europe such as Lascaux and Altamira. In prehistoric art, hand stencils are a worldwide motif, and this find shows that the first Tasmanians shared a common global cultural template in the marks they left behind on the walls of caves. Once this first painted site had been found, the search was well and truly on, with archaeologists fantasising about discovering 'the frieze of the leaping wallabies'! Eighteen months later ano9ther decorated cave was found in southern Tasmania, 85 kilometres to thesoutheast of Ballalwinne Cave. This discovery was announced by Aboriginal archaeological consultant Darrell West, geomorphologist Kevin Kiernan, and archaeologists Richard Cosgrove and Rhys Jones in the Weekend Australian of 1718 October 1987. The cave, Wargata Mina (pronounced War-gata Mee-na, meaning 'my blood', lies deep within the southern Tasmanian rainforests in the Cracroft Valley, bordering on the World Heritage Area of the southwest. Wargate Mina is one of the largest river caves in Australia, with passages, alcoves and caverns extending over 4.3 kilometres. One has to negotiate a way through age-old stalagmites to reach the painted alcove, some 35 metres from the entrance and at the very last glimmer of daylight penetration. The chamber is the size of a suburban house - dark, dank and bedecked with curtains of stalacites. Yet there on the wall are hand stencils, faint pale impressions of hands with red ochre sprayed around them.

There are at least twenty-three stencils, very similar to those at Ballawinne Cave, and possibly dated to over 12 000 years ago. The stencils' age has been estimated through geomophological evidence; the art is covered by a thick layer of calcium carbonate accretions, some of which extends continuously to a thick layer of flowstone on the floor and stalagmites more than a metre thick join ceiling to floor. Likewise, some stalactites have grown in front of the stencils, demonstrating that they post-date the art. The age of this calcium carbonate deposition has been dated in other southwest Tasmanian caves, using uranium thorium and other radiometric, methods, to the humid phase at the end of the glacial period about 12 000 years ago.

Both adult and children's hands were stencilled, and thee are also extensive expanses of red ochre painted or smeared onto the walls. Some of these patches are several metres across. Analysis by Loy of tiny sample of the 'pigment' from two painted panels has revealed traces of blood proteins and red blood cells from human blood. These blood samples were dated using accelerator mass spectrometry to 10 730 +- 810 BP (RIDDL-1268) and 9240 +- 820 BP (RIDDL-1269). This seems to be the first time that blood has been biochemically identified as present in rock art anywhere in the world. These cryptic signatures in blood and red ochre on the rock are a symbolic statement about identity, religion and land, reaching down across the centuries. Their similarity to early cave art in Europe and elsewhere bears witness to the evolution of humankind on a global scale and the cultural elements common in human behaviour. 

Eight More Excavations

Archaeolgical discoveries in Tasmania came thick and fast in the last decade. The impetus for further site survey and research came mainly from the battle for the Southern Forests between conservation interests and the forest industries, who were applying for renewal of licences for woodchip exports. The Australian national university's archaeological survey. In addition, the southern forests Archaeological Project was set up independently by Jim Allen and Richard Cosgrove from the archaeology Department at La Trobe University, Melbourne.

Both these initiatives have borne great fruit. More than fifty Pleistocene sites have been found in southwest Tasmania, in an area of about 160 by 80 kilometres, or around 13 000 square kilometres. Caves have been excavated from the Franklin river in the west to the Weld River in the east, and in the north, further than Lake Mackintosh on the Pieman River. At least on e Pleistocene open site has been found, the flying fox site on the Franklin river, dated to about 17 000 BP. By 1993, more than 100 Pleistocene radiocarbon dates had been obtained on sites in the southwest. The number of ice age art sites has risen to three and the known time of human occupation in Tasmania has been extended by more than 10 000 years.



The first human remains of apparent Pleistocene age have been found in Nanwoon Cave in the Upper Florentine Valley. There had been previous research in the Florentine Valley by Albert Goede and Peter Murray, who had discovered Beginner's Luck Cave. There it seemed that stone tools were associated with the bones of extinct fauna about 20 000 years ago, but it now appears that the megafauna dates from much earlier (about 40 000 years according to aspartic acid racemisation dates), and the artefacts and fauna are not contemporary. At Nanwoon Cave, on the other hand, there appears to be no evidence of extinct animals, but instead, numerous stone tools associated with charcoal and burnt and unburnt remains of modern animal species. On the floor of the cave part of human skull - an occipital bone - was found. This is now in the custodianship of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, but examination by physical anthropologist Steve Webb has been permitted. His conclusions are that the skull is that a young adult, probably a woman in her late teens or early twenties. The remains are gracile in form, but unfortunately too fragmentary to compare with human skeletal remains from mainland Australia. Their age is also unknown, although circumstantial evidence makes it likely that they are probably more than 12 000 years old.


This large cave (M86/2, renamed Warreen, meaning 'wombat') lies on top of a limestone outcrop overlooking buttongrass and tea tree plains in the flat Maxwell river valley, east of Kutikina, at an altitude of 200 metres about sea level. It was discovered in 1986, and a preliminary test pit was dug. Further excavation by Allen in 1990 revealed the oldest occupation yet found in Tasmania, with a basal date of around 35 000 years. Analysis is still in progress and full publication is awaited, but Allen and other members of the La Trobe University Research team have reported a rich assemblage of animal bones and artefacts, with a density of up to 35 000 artefacts in every 1 cubic metre. The numerous stone artefacts are still being studied by Tom Richards and others.

The beginning of occupation may even be older than the 34 7990 +- 510 BP date for charcoal found at a depth of 1.7 metres, for the excavators dug to 2 metres but did not reach a sterile layer, although the quantity of cultural material was decreasing and appeared to be petering out. From 35 000 to 30 000 BP, human use was slight and sporadic. Occupation became intense between 24 000 and 22 000 BP. The earliest Darwin glass is in a 24 000 BP layers, and the earliest thumbnail scrapers (made of quartz) at 20 000 BP. The most abundant animal bones are red-necked wallaby bones, but minor prey species, such as wombat and platypus, are in greater numbers here than in Kutikina Cave. Almost all the stone artefacts are made of quartz, and 80 per cent are less than 1 centimetre long, suggesting that they are waste chips from stone-working in the cave. Ochre occurs throughout the sequence, including some faceted lumps and ochre-stained limestone. More archaeological debris accumulated before the last glacial maximum than afterwards, and the site was abandoned about 16 000 years ago, when the collapse of part of the cave seems to have prevented its further use. Warreen is believed to have been originally a very large shelter, but roof collapse later reduce3d the interior floor area to about 15 square metres.

Approximately 9 kilometres north of Warreen Cave and 15 kilometres from Kutikina, a large limestone rock-shelter (previously ACH/84/1 = TASI-2448) faces almost due west in the small Acheron River valley at about 170 metres above sea level. The floor area is about 40 square metres and the deposit is at least 140 centimetres deep. The findings regarding the long sequence excavated by Allen in 1991 have not yet been published, but it is understood to span the period from 30 000 to 13 000 BP, when the cave was abandoned.
Three highland sites with basal dates of around 30 000 years have been found further east on rivers flowing to the southeast: Bone Cave at 400 metres above sea level in the Middle Weld Valley; Nunamira Cave (previously bluff Cave) at 400 metres above sea level in the Florentine Valley; and Cave ORS 7 at 440 metres, on the edge of the Central Plateau in the Shannon River Valley.

Bone Cave is a very small, vertical limestone cave close to the Weld river. Infilling by sediments since it was first occupied has now reduced the floor area to about 9 square metres and 1 metre high. Charcoal from the base is dated to about 29 000 BP, and the uppermost cultural remains, to about 13 700 BP, after which the cave was abandoned and the deposit became sealed with a layer of moon milk. Bone points, stone artefacts and burnt bone are present in the small chamber, and Allen's 1988 excavation trench (2 metres long by 0.5 metres wide by 1.5 metres deep) revealed an extremely rich deposit, with more than 24 000 stone artefacts from 0.8 cubic metres of excavated sediment. Between 29 000 and 24 000 BP, human use seems to have been sporatic, and the most intensive human use of the cave occurred after the glacial maximum between about 16 000 and 14 000 BP. Thumbnail scrapers came in about 24 000 BP (see figure 9.6), but only one piece of Darwin glass was found, dated to 16 000 to 14 000 years ago. Bone Cave is at present the most distant site from the Darwin crater to contain the Darwin glass, and the straight-line distance of 100 kilometres between the crater and the cave may have been doubled if the most convenient route across the rugged terrain was taken.

Ian McNiven, in his analysis of the stone artefacts, has found locally available quartzite predominates as raw material, followed by cert and quartz, and very small quantities of chalcedony, silcrete and hornfels. The percentage of quartz used increases in the upper occupational levels (16 000 to 15 000 BP), accompanied by increased evidence of bipolar anvilling, the best method of fracturing the small water-rolled pebbles or crystals of hard quartz. Large flakes of quartzite or chert are common throughout the sequence, many of them being steep-edged scrapers. The fauna is being studied and in bone and Nunamira caves, red-necked wallaby is preponderant throughout the sequence, with wombat as a common minor element, but thee is a wider range of minor prey animals there than at Kutikina.

Nunamira Cave (meaning 'sleeping place') is a small limestone shelter now surrounded by wet selerophyll scrub and rainforest in the flat, wide florentine River valley, 25 kilomeres north of Bone Cave. It lies at 400 metres above sea level, below the Mount Field massif, which rises to 1400 metres. The shelter has a sharply sloping roof and a usable floor area of only about 15 square metres. The cultural deposit excavated by Cosgrove in 1987-88 is sealed by a layer of calcium carbonate flowstone. Although only 60 centimetres deep, the deposit spans almost 20 000 years, with a date of 11 630 +- 200 BP on charcoal only 5 centimetres below the surface and a basal date of 30 420 +- 690 BP. The site is extremely rich, with a small excavation of 1 cubic metre yielding high concentrations of charcoal, some 30000 stone flakes and 200 000 pieces of bone. Animal remains include red-necked wallaby, pademelon, platypus, wombat, grey kangaroo, native hen and cat, bird bone and emu eggshell. The presence of emu eggshell is particularly important, as it indicates occupation in late winter to early spring, and the expansion of grassy habitats at the time. Emu eggshell is present at 28 000 BP and, in the richest bone deposit, between 16 000 and 13 000 BP. In both Nunamira and bone Cave the ringtail possum, Pseudocheirus peregrinus, appears very late in the sequence, probably indicating an increase in trees in the region at the end of the glacial period, at Nunamira between approximately 12 000 and 10 000 years ago.

No bone tools but a wide variety of stone is used for tools, including cheRt, silcrete, crystal quartz, chalcedony, agate and hornfels. Large numbers of very small stone chips suggest on-site stone manufacturing of various local stone raw materials. Many of the finished tools are 'thumbnail scrapers', first found in layers dated between 24 000 and 21 400 BP. Five pieces of Darwin glass were also found, the lowest piece associated with a date of 27 770 BP. The Darwin meteorite crater is 75 kilometres to the west, and transport of this raw material would have necessitated a journey of over 100 kilometres along the main river valleys.

Further east at 440 metres above se level, a large sandstone rock-shelter currently known as ORS 7 faces northeast in the deeply-cut Shannon River valley, in the catchment of the upper Derwent River. An in situ hearth, only 60 centimetres below the surface but at the base of the occupational material, gave a date of 30 840 +- 480 BP, associated with 179 artefacts. Three cubic metres of deposit were excavated by Cosgrove in the same summer as Nunamira, and contained about 2000 artefacts, a rich site but not so rich as the caves to the west. In the lowest layer, artefacts are mainly unretouched flakes of quartzite and grey, fine-gained hornfels, together with some bones of red-necked wallaby (the major prey throughout the sequence), native cat and broad-toothed rat, and pieces of emu eggshell. Then, after 17 660 BP, there is a greater range of stone raw material used, but the site has a significantly lower artefactual density than other sites in southwest Tasmania. It was also occupied, or reoccupied, in the Holocene period, the youngest occupation dating to only about 2500 BP. There are other important differences between ORW 7 and all the other caves excavated so far in the southwest. In particular, it is the only site where no Darwin glass and no thumbnail scrapers have been found, and this is thought to be a real absence rather than the result of small sample size. Cosgrove has suggested that an eastern boundary to the transport of Darwin glass has been recorded at ORS 7. It is the most southeasterly Pleistocene cave excavated to date, and lies in central rather than southwestern Tasmania.


In 1993 Nicola Stern and Brendan Marshall published an account of a limestone cave currently known as Mackintosh 90/1 in western Tasmania. This is located in a bluff 320 metres above sea level. The cave faces east and has a floor area of some 320 metres above sea level. The cave faces east and has a floor area of some 12 square metres. The cultural sequence here is of particular significance because human occupation is confined to a 2000-year time span (represented by a 50-centimetre deep band of cultural material) immediately following the last glacial maximum, thus acting as a window into the period between 17 000 and 15 000 BP. The artefacts are mainly of quartz and resemble those in other caves of southwest Tasmania. They included thumbnail scrapers and pieces of Darwin glass; indeed, some of the thumbnail scrapers are made of Darwin glass. The Darwin crater lies about 70 kilometres to the south. Hunters seem to have targeted the red-necked wallaby and wombats almost entirely. The site does not appear to have been abruptly abandoned, but the increasing predominance of the scats (animal droppings) of marsupial carnivores, mainly the tiger cat (Dasyurus maculatus), suggests gradually decreasing levels of human activity.


An important new Tasmanian site is Parmepar Meethaner at 350 metres in the Central Highlands, a limestone cave in the north-flowing Forth River Valley, east of Mackintosh 80/1 and Cradle Mountain and northwest of Warragarra Shelter. At Warragarra (location in figure 13.1) occupation is very sparse between 10 000 and 1000 BP, when site usage increases. Cosgrove's excavation of Parmepar Meethaner (funded by the Tasmanian forest Research council) has revealed a continuous sequence from about 34 000 to 780 BP. Between 18 000 and 10 000 BP, thee are thumbnail scrapers but no wallaby bones. Between 10 000 and 3000 BP, there is low density occupation, but at about 3000 BP artefact numbers increase as at Warragarra. Significantly, Parmepar Meethaner, which lies outside the southwest, is the only known Tasmanian site with undisturbed deposit that continued to be occupied throughout the late Pleistocene to Holocene.


Analysis of the excavated assemblages is till at an early stage, but a few preliminary features are beginning to emerge. In their overview published in the journal Antiquity in 1990, Cosgrove , Allen and Marshall focus on 'some of the inter-assemblage similarities and differences which combine sites into a Southwestern Tasmanian Pleistocene province but which also indicate distinctions between them. While this discussion moves us towards the notion of a southwestern stone industry, perhaps as a regional variant of the  Australian core tool and scraper tradition, the distinctiveness of the faunal exploitation pattern seen in these sites is matched by the distinctiveness of the stone assemblages.

Important features are the presence of tools such as steep-edged flat and notched scrapers characteristic of the Australian core tool and scraper tradition, as originally defined at Mungo, among the 'largely amorphous stone industries in these sites'. The raw materials used reflect available local sources, quartz predominating in the western sites but being rare in the east. Elements which distinguish these southwestern assemblages from the wider core tool and scraper tradition are their richness and the presence of thumbnail scrapers, common in mainland Holocene sites but very rare in other Pleistocene ones.

Thumbnail scrapers were evidently used for butchering carcasses and for working skin, bone, wood and plant material. They are made of various materials, including Darwin glass. They have been found in small numbers in all the excavated sequences of southwest Tasmania, except in the most southeasterly site, ORS 7. Most thumbnail scrapers occur after the glacial maximum, perhaps because of easier access to the Darwin crater in the treeless conditions. The glass was transported 75 kilometres to Nunamira and 100 kilometres to bone Cave, as the crow flies, so actual routes traversed might have doubled these distances. Like thumbnail scrapers, Darwin glass was absent from ORS 7. The latter is only about 10 kilometres further from the Darwin crater than bone Cave, and much the same route would probably have been used, the line of least resistance, being across the deeply dissected country followed by the modern Lyell Highway. The absence of Darwin glass from ORS 7 is therefore probably a significant cultural difference rather than simply being as a result of its location, particularly in conjunction with the other differences between it and the western sites. Not only does it lack thumbnail scrapers, but there is a distinctly lower density of artefactual remains and significant distinctions in technology, raw materials, faunal quantities and processing strategies.

The excavator of ORS 7, Cosgrove, concluded that, 'In short, site ORS 7 reflects a distinctly different archaeological signature from the south western Pleistocene sites and supports the idea that the eastern border of the southwestern geographic zone also marked a human behavioural boundary in the late Pleistocene. 


Bone points have been found in small numbers in several mainland sites, such as Cloggs Cave and Devil's Lair, as well as in Cave Bay Cave and in most of the caves of the southwest. It has been suggested that these ice age bone points were used as awls or reamers for making fur cloaks. In historic times in the cold parts of southwestern Australia, similar bone points were observed in used by Aborigines for piercing holes to sew skins together with sinew thread. A recent study by Cathy Webb of bone tools from Pleistocene caves in the southwest (Warreen and bone Cafe) indicates their functions in skin-processing, and as cloak toggles, marrow extractors and possibly spear points. These ice age hunters doubtless used the skins of wallabies and other animals they killed as clothing, and Webb identified use-wear caused by scraping the inner surface of skins and piercing dry skins. More surprising was the evident use of bone points (Webb's 'fine points' category with acute-angled tips) to spear furred mammals, implying that they were bone spear points hafted to a shaft. The case rests on the type of tip damage and use-wear, including possible hafting marks on the bases of two fine points, and the recovery of both tips and shafts, 'consistent with damaged spears being repaired at these sites and with tips being returned to them inside game carcasses'. If this interpretation is correct, and Webb has made a strong case, this is the only type of hafted tool known in Pleistocene or Holocene Tasmania.


The major animal exploited by the Pleistocene hunters in southwest Tasmania was the red-necked wallaby, which usually accounts for over 90 per cent of identifiable pieces of bone. (the following account is based on Cosgrove, Allena nd Marshall's research into palaeo-ecology, published in the journal Antiquity in 1990.) In spite of significant changes in the quantity of bone in some deposits, there seem to be few changes over time in the relative importance of the red-necked wallaby. This concentrated and repeat4ed exploitation of one animal species is a remarkable feature of all the Pleistocene caves excavated in the southwest. After the red-necked wallaby, the wombat is the next most abundant human prey, followed by a few medium-sized animals, such as the native cat and the platypus. 

In most of the caves, the majority of vertebrate faunal bones in all but the very earliest and latest periods of occupation seem to be 'cultural', that is, the result of human subsistence activity, from which prey of other creatures, such as owls or marsupial carnivores, can readily be distinguished. At Warreen bone from owl pellets is common in the lowest layer but decreases as human habitation increases. At other sites, such as Bone, Macintosh and Nunamira, accumulations of 'natural' bone become common in the upper layers as human occupation becomes less intensive and eventually ceases.

A striking aspect of the faunal remains is the quantity of smashed bones. The marrow-bearing long bones of the limbs of red-necked wallabies have been systematically and consistently broken. They were cracked open at both ends to extract the marrow, whilst the foot bones (metatarsals) were split longitudinally. Impact marks on the margins and crests of long bones such as tibias are associated with this process, and on some there are cut marks adjacent of muscle attachments, indicating the long bones were de-fleshed during processing. The first processing of these animals evidently took place away from the cafes, for not all body parts are equally represented in the deposits. Bone marrow contains essential fatty acids, which are needed for the metabolism of protein. Wallaby meat is lean, with limited fat deposits in the kidneys, marrow, back and tail, but the males put on condition towards the end of winter, in readiness for the mating season, and even during the period of winter stress, wallaby populations living in higher rainfall areas on more fertile land stay in relatively good physical condition.

There were probably several reasons for this tight targeting of red-necked wallabies. First, although adult wallabies average only 15 kilograms in weight, they are much easier to catch than larger species, such as the grey kangaroo or the emu, because of their relatively slow pace, large groups and sedentary habits. Their average home range is only 15 to 20 hectares and they remain focused on a particular area for two to three years, shifting their centre of activity less than 30 metres, in contrast to the much larger mainland grey and red kangaroos, which have a range of about 10 square kilometrea and change their entire of activity by about 1 kilometre. Secondly, there were available all year round, probably in relative abundance on grassland patches. Living red-necked wallabies have a wide altitudinal range and graze primarily in grassy woodlands. They are no longer common in the southwest, occurring only in very low numbers on open shrubland and sedgeland, but are still numerous in the Florentine and Shannon valleys, where the fertile soils support some grasslands and herbfields, on which they feed. Grasses and herbs need fertile soils and reliable drainage, and tend to grow during cold phases in a mosaic of patches of alluvial river flats o on limestone areas, which often contain caves or rock-shelters. There was therefore a happy juxtaposition for hunters of habitable caves and wallaby feeding grounds.

Red-necked wallabies would have acted as a reliable, sedentary food source of particular value at the most stressful time of the year, from late winter to early spring. In this sense, they represent a glacial mid-latitude food staple, equivalent to the plant foods of other regions. At that time of year, Pleistocene highland hunters may have had to exist largely on red-necked wallaby and the occasional emu egg. Possumsk, which were a staple in the Australian Alps in the Holocene, are strikingly absent from all but the youngest occupation layers in the Pleistocene caves of southwest Tasmania. This means that the environment lacked large trees, and palynological studies by Macphail, Colhoun and others have confirmed a marked increase in grass and herb pollen between 22 000 and 18 000 BP. Trees and shrubs gradually became more important after 14 000 BP, and temperate rainforest finally came to dominate the southwest after 14 000 BP, and temperate rainforest finally came to dominate the southwest after 11 000 BP, when the climate had become warm and moist. Even if Aborigines tried to keep the area open by burning, firesticks would have been ineffective in the face of such a major, climatically induced vegetation change.


The reasons for the wallaby hunters abandoning the cafes of the south west are still a matter of debate. Allen and Jones see the change as a 'climate-driven' response to the changing environment, and draw attention to the early abandonment of Kutikina Cave (some 14 000 years ago), by far the lowest of these cave sites at only 40 metres above sea level, and therefore the first to be affected by the encroaching rainforest. Ian Thomas has put forward a counter-argument that 'it is just as likely that more humid conditions at that time simply made cave dwelling an uncomfortable option. However, anyone who has walked in southwest Tasmania or rafted down the Franklin river, will know both that rainforest renders the region almost impenetrable on foot and that for those who do penetrate the wet and horizontal shrub, caves provide a welcome haven to shelter from the frequent rain and to sleep on relatively dry, soft ground.

Caves such as Parmerpar Meethaner in the north of the island continued in use from the Pleistocene to Holocene, as did Beeton Shelter and Mannalargenna Cave in the Furneaux Group of islands. Other sites, such as Warragarra Shelter in the northwest, were first occupied in post-glacial times. Warragarra also lies within rainforest and both archaeological and ethnographic evidence shows that the southwest was at least occasionally visited during the Holocene, especially the less rugged, more accessible and open areas like the King River valley, but occupation was only slight. The dramatic change in the southwest was the complete abandonment of the previous intensive occupation of limestone caves by the wallaby hunters. A reliable food supply is the most important factor in human location; when this was no longer available, the hunters moved elsewhere. In the Holocene the southwestern highlands became a region of little food and dense, often impassable rainforest. Small wonder that the focus of Aboriginal occupation moved to food-rich regions elsewhere. 


Tasmania is further south than any other place in the southern hemisphere inhabited during the ice age. Not only were there glaciers on its mountains, but icebergs would have come floating past the coast from the great Antarctic ice sheet only 1000 kilometres to the south. Into this freezing toe on the foot of the world moved the Aborigines across the broad land bridge which was exposed by the drop in sea level, perhaps impelled into empty space by an urge to explore. The land bridge is now thought to have become available from early in the last glacial period perhaps some 60 000 years ago until it was finally inundated in about 10 500 BP. The earliest occupation found so far (at Warreen Cave) goes back slightly beyond 35 000 BP, and at least four sites have occupation going back 30 000 years or more (Nunamira, PRS 7, Palewardia Walana Lanala and Bone Cave). There is a repeated pattern of low use of caves at the start of occupation and changes in the archaeological record, particularly over the period of glacial maximum. Interesting common features throughout the Pleistocene occupation are the repeated exploitation of one particular species, the red-necked wallaby, and the constant extraction of marrow from its bone.

Some general patterns are beginning to emerge, although fieldwork is continuing and much of the detailed analysis still remains to be done. Excavations limited to small test pits have already revealed a picture that necessitates a complete revision of earlier theories about the nature of Pleistocene society in Australia. Pleistocene Aboriginal populations in Australia had previously been characterised, on the basis of the meagre remains at the few known sites, as low in numbers and highly nomadic. Bowdler in particular has argued that the economy of the first Australians was based on an aquatic environment of coasts, river and lakes, and that they were unable to explicit the highlands of the mainland and Tasmania until after about 14 000 BP, because these were marginal environments, 'cold, rugged, inaccessible and relatively poor in resources'. 

Human presence in the upland periglacial regions of south central Tasmania from 35 000a BP has shown that Bowdler has seriously underestimated the abilities of Pleistocene Tasmanians, who developed a successful way of life in an alpine environment and a specialised and complex economic, social and cultural system. At the glacial maximum at about 18 000 BP, annual average temperatures were about 6 d4egrees Celsius lower than today, glaciers extended down to only 800 metres above sea level and the treeline was depressed by at least 230 metres. Allen has equated the glacial Tasmanian climate with alpine areas above 1750 metres in the Victorian Alps today, such as Mount Hotham at 1862 metres, although probably with much shorter summers. This was not a struggle for survival in harsh highlands but a deliberate choosing of a food-rich environment. Deep limestone caves provided shelter from wind chill and icy cold, aiding the effective exploitation of a particular sedentary and readily available prey. Conditions before and during the height of the last glaciation were periglacial or sub-Antarctic, but the dearth of trees made the river valleys far easier to traverse than when they became choked with rainforest at the end of the Pleistocene, in spite of their steep slopes and rugged topography.

The presence of emu eggshell in some of the cave deposits indicated habitation during late winter to early spring, and it is possible that the hunters used the caves primarily to ward off the winter cold. In other words, caves may have been winter base camps rather than summer hunting camps as Jones originally speculated, envisaging hunting forays from what is now Victoria. It is also possible but unlikely that the caves were used all the year round, and that the hunters were almost as sedentary as their main prey. The huge quantities of camping debris in some sites might support this suggestion, although they may equally well reflect intensive but seasonal use over a long period. For a healthy diet, their high-protein intake of wallaby meat would have needed to be balanced by other food, particularly carbohydrate from plants. It is very likely, but as yet unproven, that the tubers of the daisy yam (Microseris scapigera), which exists in present-day Tasmania, were used here as in the Australian Alps, as a summer vegetable food. 

The hunters' prey was a small range of terrestrial faunal species, which still survive in modern Tasmania. No extinct species of megafauna have been found in the caves, but few conclusions can be drawn from its absence, since kills of very large animals are far more likely to be consumed away from the base camp. Only one definite kill site has yet been found in the whole of Australia, and that is an open site. Thus, absence of megafauna from cave sites does not necessarily mean either that the megafauna were already extinct or that they were not exploited by human hunters. The economy of these ice age hunters in southwestern Tasmania is more highly structured than anywhere else in Australia. Cosgrove, Allen and Marshall see it as bearing little resemblance to either the Holocene economies of Tasmania or other Pleistocene economies on the mainland. In their model, 'humans moved between discrete grassland patches to hunt "ecologically tethered" animal resources. The implications of this strategy are far-reaching, suggesting for example that culling practices were employed 30,000 years ago which allowed wallaby populations to maintain themselves under the ecological constraints of changing environments and human predation for nearly 20 mellennia. Such ideas challenge notions of Pleistocene (forages') behaviour.

the Pleistocene sites of southwest Tasmania show a higher degree of archaeological richness, complexity and variability than any other known Australian Pleistocene sites. The presence of apparently hafted bone points for spearing animals and of thumbnail scrapers distinguishes these from all other Australian Pleistocene industries. Transportation of Darwin glass more than 100 kilometres from its source implies either long-distance resource exploitation, or exchange or trading networks. At the same time, differences between the western and eastern suites of Pleistocene sites in southern Tasmania indicate local adjustments to differing local environments and resources. There are also changes in technology and economy over time; for instance, neither Darwin glass nor thumbnail scrapers are found in the lowest layers of any of the deposits, and there is possibly an increase in mobility and a change in land-use patterns during the after the glacial maximum.

Cosgrove has argued that 'the new Tasmanian date challenge the linear evolutionary view of "simple" to "complex" social structures'. The intensities of site use and comparative densities of material suggesting increased usage of sites are higher by several orders of magnitude than many of the Holocene sites used by Lourandos and others to support the concept of 'intensification' and the mid-Holocene transformation from simple to complex Aboriginal society. The high number of Tasmanian Pleistocene sites in marginal climatic zones and their specialised economy, technology and culture, including pigmented art suggestive of religious activity deep within caves, demonstrate the existence of complex societies with their own distinctive archaeological signatures long before the changes of the mid-Holocene.

Allen and Cosgrove emphasise both the wide variability found within Pleistocene Tasmanian assemblages and the cultural differences between the assemblages of the two different environmental zones in southern Tasmania: the fold-structured topography now vegetated by temperate rainforest in the west and the fault-structured geology dominated by dry sclerophyll forest to he east. These environmental contrasts are mirrored in different archaeological signatures, and do not conform to the earlier widespread concept of a pan-Australian Pleistocene culture and technology, which was relatively uniform, simple and unchanging. The subsistence system revealed by the good faunal assemblages and environmental records of southwest Tasmania are considered to be 'different in character from those modelled on a European Pleistocene prototype'.

In contrast, Jones sees a relatively low level of variability in Pleistocene human behaviour Australia-wide. He believes that the closest parallels for the Tasmanian ice age caves are the remains left in the caves of southern Europe by hunters of the same epoch. In spite of criticisms of such comparison, in 1992 he wrote unrepentingly: 'At 14,000 years ago, the way of life of these palaeo-Tasmanians, in terms of subsistence, technology and social scale, must have been similar to those of their contemporaries in western Europe'. Whilst some archaeologists emphasis similarities and others differences between past societies, all agree that there are no ethnographic parallels for Tasmanian Pleistocene culture, even in Holocene Tasmania. It is s system that has been extinct for over 10 000 years. The greatest density of sites in southwest Tasmania occurred at the height of the last glacial period, and this rich Pleistocene culture is a unique human exploitation of the glacier-edge conditions of a southern ice age.

When the glaciers disappeared and their hunting grounds wee replaced by rainforest, these remarkable haunters of southeast Tasmania left their caves only to find that the melting ice caps had drowned their link to the mainland. Their society, which had thrived in the highlands for 20 000 years, was now to face 10 000 years of complete isolation from the rest of the world, after their peninsular home became an island, separated from the mainland by the 250-kilometre wide, storm-racked Bass Strait. The culture, art, religion and specialised economic strategies developed by these hunters living within sight of glaciers at the height of the last glaciation are eloquent testimony to the indomitable spirit of these early humans. The ice age sites of Tasmania are of immeasurable significance both to all humankind, as part of the world's heritage, and to the several thousand people of Aboriginal descent in Tasmania.


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