Tasmania: 10,000 Years of Isolation

No other surviving human society has ever been isolated for so long or so completely as were Tasmanian Aborigines over the last 10,500 years. The storm-wracked waters surging through Bass Strait ensured that thee was no contact with the mainland 250 kilometres away, and none of the new developments there, such as stone spear points, penetrated Tasmania. Nor did the dingo reach the island. dingoes were found all over mainland Australia, so they must  have reached southeast Australia after Bass Strait formed.


To archaeologists, the most interesting question is what effect 10 000 years of isolation had on the culture of these Aborigines, stranded on an island of 67 870 square kilometres - about the same size as Sri Lanka or Ireland. The Tasmanian Aboriginal population was estimated, on ethnographic evidence, to number between 3000 and 5000 at the time of European contact, but Colin Pardoe considers this a serious underestimate on biological grounds. A much higher population must have existed at least at the time of Tasmania's separation from the mainland to account for the lack of biological divergence due to genetic drift, which would be expected if a population of only about 509909 had been totally  isolated for 10 000 years. An alternative possibility Is that the population multiplied through natural increase from the time of initial colonisation about 35 000 years ago, and was quite large at the time of separation, but that it declined in more recent times to the relatively low numbers recorded at the time of European contact. The evidence From ice age sites suggests that, at the time the island was cut off, the Tasmanians' took kit was similar to that of those on the mainland. a more comprehensive picture of early Holocene Tasmanian technology and diet is provided by Warragarra Shelter in the Central Highlands and, notably, by fauna-rich rock Cape caves.


On the rugged headland of Rocky Cape, on the northwest coast, are two old sea caves cut into the face of great quartzite cliffs. Aboriginal shell middens in the caves were known since the end of the last century, but the first scientific excavation was not carried out until 1965. The worked revealed the importance of Rocky Cape, and the area was declared a National Park in 1967. Holes dug into the sites earlier by amateur collectors made the excavators' task difficult, but some undisturbed parts of the deposits were found, from which the cultural sequence could be established. The huge shell midden in the south Cave was 3.5 metres deep, representing about 4000 years of occupation, from 8000 to about 3800 years ago. by then, the cave had become so full of food refuse that the midden heap almost reached the roof.

Inside the cave, a small inner chamber had already been sealed off by 6800 BP by midden accumulation outside its mouth (plate 28). The archaeologists found these cramped living quarters just as they had been left. Piles of big abalone shells were dumped around the walls, but in the centre the floor had been swept clear for comfortable sitting around the fireplace. Here, five small ashy hearths, placed close to the rock wall for maximum hat reflection, were found. Food refuse included bones of seals, fish, a few birds and small mammals, shells of rocky coastal species, bracken fern stems, a lily tuber and split sections of the pith of the grass-tree. Faeces found in the rubbish dump were at first thought to be human, but analysis showed them to belong to Tasmanian devils, which no doubt scavenged there when the cave was unoccupied. Stone scrapers and a stone mortar, with pestle neatly placed on top, had been left behind by the last occupants for their next visit - a visit that never took place.

When the main chamber as well as the inner chamber became choked with refuse, the occupants seem to have decided that, rather than clearing it out, they would move to another cave about 300 metres to the north. This North Cave had been used intermittently since 3500 years ago, and its use continued until AD 1500. rocky Cape south and North caves together contain over 6 metres of midden, spanning 8000 years. This is the longest and most complete record of the technology and diet of coastal hunter-gatherers in Tasmania. 


Flaked stone tools, found in all levels, included scrapers, unretouched flakes and large choppers (figure 13.2). The tasks for which these tools were used have been established with a reasonable degree of certainty from analysis of their shape, microscopic traces of use-wear along their working edges, and observations recorded in historic times of Tasmanian Aborigines using stone tools. Tasmanians used stone tools overwhelmingly for cutting purposes and for manufacturing wooden tools, especially spears. sometimes shells performed the same tasks. large scrapers and choppers were utilised for general chopping and hammering, and to chop ice-holds in trees when climbing the trunks to catch possums. Holes were also chopped in the bark of the cider gum tree Eucalyptus gunnii, to tap its sweet, semi-intoxicating sap, the nearest thing to an alcoholic drink available in prehistoric Australia.

These Tasmanian stone tools were all hand-held, the concept of hafting stone tools was apparently unknown on the island, although hafting was employed in northern Australian the Pleistocene. It seems likely now (from evidence in the ice age caves of western Tasmania) that bone points were hafted onto shafts for spearing game. Blood residues on Plaistocene bone points indicate wallaby hunting, and bone-tipped spears may also have been used for spearing large fish during the early occupation of Rocky Cape. There was continuity in technological tradition in Tasmania from ice age to historic times; the same tool types and manufacturing techniques continued throughout. But within this general continuity there was also change. Two major changes were a steady decrease in the size of stone tools, and the increased use of better raw materials, such as chert, spongolite quarry as far as 100 kilometres away on the west coast. These changes are linked: the better flaking qualities of the new raw materials made it worthwhile to carry them over long distances, but this also meant that more efficient and economical use was made of the exotic stone than had been of the local veins of hard quartzite and beach pebbles of shale and argillite used in the earliest period of habitation. At first, stone tool manufacturing was done in the caves, but when the exotic raw materials began to be used, stone tools were fashioned, or at least roughed out, at the quarries and transported ready-made.

Bone tools were also at rocky Cape. Seven thousand years ago, people there were using a considerable number and variety of bone artifacts: large, round-tipped points or awls made from macropod shin bones, small, sharp, needle-like 'fine points' (without an eye), broad spatula, and an assortment of split silvers of bone fashioned to a point at one end. A remarkable change took place over the next 4000 years: bone tools dropped out of use. by 4000 years ago, roughly only one bone tool was being used for every fifteen stone ones, and by 3500 years ago they had disappeared from the Tasmanian tool kit altogether. This has been confirmed by evidence from several other sites in both the northwest and east of the island. Moreover, no bone tools were observed in use by any of the Europeans who recorded Tasmanian culture, including George Augustus Robinson, who recorded virtually every detail of the years he spent between 1830 and 1836 travelling on his mission to gather up the Aborigines still out in the bush.

It has been suggested that bon tools dropped out of the equipment of Tasmanian Aborigines because they stopped making skin cloaks. In the colder regions of the mainland in historic times, bone awls or skewers were used t pierce holes in skins for 'sewing' together possum or kangaroo skins into cloaks or rugs, which were often also fastened with a bone pin or 'toggle' on the shoulder. Yet, when Europeans arrived in Tasmania, they found no bone tools and no warm possum skin rugs, but only skimpy cloaks of wallaby skin fastened with tied pieces of skin . It might be argued that possum skin cloaks were unnecessary once the glacial cold diminished, but, if so, why were Aborigines in southeastern Australia still snugly wrapped in voluminous possum skin in the nineteenth century? Tasmania lies further south, in the roaring forties, and can be cold even in summertime. Other artefacts and technical skills may also have been lost or abandoned over the long period of isolation. Mainland Australian Pleistocene culture included boomerangs, barbed wooden spears, and the techniques of hafting handles to stone tools and barbed wooden spears, and the techniques of hafting handles to stone tools and grinding the edges of axes, but none of these items existed in the Tasmania of AD 1800.

A recent study of use-wear on bone tools has thrown valuable light on their functions. This study isolated isolated distinctive use-wear patterns on bone tools by direct experiment in order to suggest functions for archaeological examples in Australia. The analysis of bone artefacts from two Pleistocene Tasmanian sites identified their use as being for skin-working and as bone spear points to hunt furred mammals, presumably the red-necked wallaby which was the Pleistocene hunters' main prey in most sites. Pleistocene bone spear points were a real surprise since no hafted spear points, of bone or stone, have been found or recorded in Holocene Tasmania.


Even more surprising is the incontrovertible evidence that after eating fish for many thousands of years, the Tasmanians dropped fish from their diet about 3500 years ago. Early explorers were amazed that the Tasmanian did not eat scale fish and did not even seem to regard it as human food. (Some of those who have eaten leatherjackets or wrasses tend to agree!) Certainly the Tasmanians had no nets or fish-hooks, so it seemed logical to some scholars, steeped in Darwinian evolutionary theory, that these most isolated representatives of the human race should be unable to catch fish, one of the basic foods of humans. This concept was not seriously challenged until fish bones were found in the middens of rocky Cape. yet fish bones were not at the top, but at the base, of the deposit. The Tasmanians had once eaten fish but later gave up this lower half of the midden, dated to between 3800 and 8000 years ago, and only one fish bone in the younger, upper half. (The latter was s small vertebra, which could easily have been younger, upper half. (The latter was a small vertebra, which could easily have been brought inside by a seal or cormorant.) The fish remains from the Rocky Cape sites, including the inner cave, have recently been analysed in great detail by palaeo-ichthyologist (prehistoric fish remains specialist) who identified thirty-one different types of fish from rocky reefs, bays and estuaries. The data suggest that all the rocky reef species were caught by a simple baited box trap, and the others, by tidal traps made of boulders, such as the one on sisters Beach, 6 kilometres to the east.

The average weight of the prehistoric fish was calculated by Jones from bone size as half a kilogram. he estimated that they provided about 10 per cent of the total caloric intake in the diet in the fish-eating period, but such estimates are notoriously unreliable, because of differential preservation of food remains in archaeological sites. Shellfish were eaten throughout the whole occupation, the main species collected being warreners and some abalone. Other important foods were fur seals, some southern elephant seals, and small quantities of wallabies, birds (especially cormorants), bandicoots and other land mammals. It was envisaged that a group of a few families camping there for five to ten days each year. This may well have been in winter, for winter was the time of stress  in Tasmania, at least in historic times, when people fanned out in small groups along the coastline and relied heavily on the readily available shellfish.

The cessation of fish-eating was confirmed by other sites, such as Blackman's Cave on sisters Creek, another sea cliff cave 8 kilometres east of rocky Cape. The midden there, accumulated between about 6000 and 4000 years ago, contained fish and material similar to the lower part of the rocky Ape sequence, with the interesting addition of crab claws, and many more small mammalos, such as possums, rat kangaroos, bandicoots and rats. Two sites, one on the west coast and one on the east coast, are exampled of the later, non-fish phase: West Point midden and Little Swanport midden.   


Sixty kilometres west of rocky Cape is the massive midden of West Point, one of the largest and richest occupation sites ever excavated in Australia. It looks like a grass-covered hill and commands an extensive view seawards out over the reefs, bays and islets, as well as the swamps and tea-tree scrub behind the site. formed on an old sand dune resting on a pebble bank, the midden rises 6 metres above the surrounding country and measures about 90 metres long by 40 metres wide. On its surface were seven or eight circular depressions, about 4 metres wide. On its surface were seven or eight circular depression, about 4 metres across and 0.5 metres deep. It seems certain that these were the foundations of dome-shaped huts, which were in use in historic times in Tasmania (figure 13.4). These huts were constructed from a framework of pliable branches, such as tea-tree stems, thatched with bark, grass or turf, and lined inside with skins, bark or feathers.

When Robinson was travelling along the western coast in the 1830s, he saw many such huts, often grouped into villages, close to a source of fresh water and a good foraging area. West Point is such a site; it was situated next to what was evidently an elephant seal breeding ground. Now elephant seals do not breed closer to Australia than Macquarie Island, 2000 kilometres to the south, but between 1300 and 1800 years ago, young seal calves were being killed at West Point, indicating that there was probably a seal colony next to the village, which was occupied in summer when the young seals were being weaned.

Seals were the major component of the diet at West Point, together with abalone and other shellfish, birds, wallabies, small marsupials and lizards. among 20 000 bones from 75 cubic metres of deposit, there wee only three fish vertebrae, which could easily have been transported there accidentally. fish swim nowadays in the waters off West Point and are readily speared or trapped, but the prehistoric inhabitants clearly did not eat fish. however, they did eat seal, which would have provided a much richer source of energy than fish.

Rhys Jones estimated that a band of forty people could have camped thee for three or four months every year for the 500 years or more that the site was occupied. If a family occupied each of the hut sites, this would give the village a population of about forty. The way of life of these people was semi-sedentary; they probably spent about a quarter of each year in their village. Men would have clubbed young seals to death, while women would have dived for shellfish. The women were excellent swimmers and could stay under water for a long time, as observed by Robinson, the French explorer Labillardiere and others. They dived down, pried the shells off the rocks with small wooden wedges and put them into rush baskets suspended from their necks. Crayfish were also obtained by diving, sometimes in 4 metres of rough water, the fish were grabbed from under rocks and thrown up onto shore. Long, thin fronds of giant kelp were sometimes used as an underwater 'rope' to get down to such depths, for this type of 'seaweed' grows on the sea bed and sends out fronds of up to 60 metres in length. women also used to swim between 1 and 2 kilometres across open sea straits to reach offshore islands, such as the doughboys (rocky stacks about a kilometre offshore) and Trefoil, where muttonbirds nested. The muttonbird nests in burrows, making its nestlings easy prey for human predators. It is also an energy-rich food because of the high fat and oil content of the flesh.

No male activities needed much swimming skill, and some men could not swim at all. The reason for this may be that women, with their higher percentage of subcutaneous fat, were better adapted to withstanding the cold water in these latitudes. To protect themselves from the cold, both men and women used to rub their bodies with seal or muttonbird fat mixed with red ochre. In eastern Tasmania, shellfish were not so important in the diet, and a woman told Robinson that whereas the women in the west prided themselves on their ability to dive for shellfish, those from the eastern and inland regions could climb trees for possums. In mainland Australia it was men who cut toe-holds into trees to hunt possums, and it seems that in Tasmania women made an unusually large contribution to the diet. In many ways they were the force that kept Tasmanian Aboriginal society going. Women not only produced most of the food, but, when travelling, they carried spears and game, all equipment, babies and toddlers. They also mined ochre. And on one occasion, during an unexpected storm, Robinson witnessed the men sitting down whilst the women built huts over them!

The West Point people manufactured thousands of stone tools. More than 30 000 stone artefacts were found in West Point midden, most of them steep-edged scrapers, probably used for making digging sticks, spears and clubs. They closely resemble the industry of the upper part of the Rocky Cape sequence, and bone tools are similarly absent.


The first prehistoric human remains to be found in Tasmania were excavated from the midden at West Point. Several human teeth were found, including one molar with severe erosion of the roots due to periodontal disease. Then three small cremation pits were discovered, two in the middle and one at the base of the midden, dating to 1800 years ago. The pits were filled with burnt and broken human bones. It seems the bodies were cremated, then the bones systematically broken, collected together with the charcoal and deposited in little pits, which were about 45 centimetres wide and were dug some 30 centimetres down into the sand or sandy midden. In one pit were the foot bones of several wallabies and the talons of a large hawk. In another was a necklace of thirty-two shells, each pierced with a small circular hole. These were no doubt personal belongings of the dead. This is fascinating evidence that the shell necklaces worn b Tasmanians in the eighteenth century and the Tasmanians' practice of cremation go back at least 1800 years. Since cremation was practised at lake Mungo 25 000 years ago, it is likely that it also formed part of the beliefs and customs that the first Tasmanians transported across the land bridge into what was to become their island home.

The human remains at West Point are fragmentary, but show great similarities to modern mainland Australian Aborigines. In 1973, a reasonably intact burial in a sand dune near the mount Cameron West engraving site was exposed by a gale. A woman's skull was set in an upright position facing northeast, with two long bones crossed in front. In an arc on the western side were a series of carbonised remnants that appeared to be the remains of poles, set in the sand in the form of a wooden 'wigwam', like the structures observed as erected over burial pits in Maria Island, off the east coast of Tasmania, by the explorer Francois Peron. Carbon from the 'poles' and flecks associated with the skull were dated to 4260 +- 360 BP. The skull proved to be that of a woman, which shows that status burials were not reserved for males. She seemed to have been partially cremated and the bones smashed after death. her teeth showed no decay, but thee was chronic periodontal disease and molar wear. her skull, whilst displaying typically Tasmanian features, falls within the range of mainland Aborigines, supporting the concept of the kinship of Tasmanian and mainland Australians.


In historic times, most of the Tasmanian Aborigines lived in the eastern half of the island. The terrain is still rugged but mostly composed of savanna grasslands, open sclerophyll forests, lakes and moorlands, and the coastline is indented by many sheltered bays and estuaries. such a different environment from that of the northwest led to expectations that the east might have had a distinctive culture and economy, but these were dispelled by excavations on the central eastern coast.

Several midden were excavated by Harry Lourandos, and no fish bones were found in any of them, except at the very base of the Little Swanport site. This is a huge midden, the existence of which was reported as long ago as 1891. It is the largest of a series of middens lying on the shores and islands of a sheltered tidal estuary on the central eastern coast (plate 29). Two metres thick, the midden consists of oysters and mussels collected from the nearby muddy banks of the estuary. Crayfish remains were also found throughout the deposit, but there were very few bones or artefacts. The Little Swanport site was, therefore, a specialised fishing camp rather than a home base camp, but fishing activities were confined to shellfish. There were no fish bones at all in the upper part of the midden, but in the lowest zone, dated to between 4750 and 3550 years ago, were the remains of at least thirteen fish of the leatherjacket, or Aluteridae, family. These small, fast-moving fish still dart around the estuary today, but, as in western Tasmania, it seems that they were dropped from the diet about 3500 years ago.


In the far southwest of Tasmania, the Louisa Bay area has been investigated by Ron Vanderwal. There, in a series of cave and open midden sites going back about 3000 years, shellfish predominate, and fish bones and bone tools are absent, except for one bone point made from a wallaby shin bone, which was found in the lowest level of an undated layer of shells in a sand dune.

South of Lousa Bay lies the Maatsuyker Island group, across a strait that takes the full force of the frequent southerly gales and is dangerous even for modern craft. yet Aborigines in their frail, paperbark vessels braved these dangers to hunt seal on Maatsuykr. Maatsuyker is 15 kilometres from the mainland, although it is likely that the neighbouring De Witt island, which lies between the mainland and Maatsuyker, was used as a staging place. This would then involve two voyages of 10 and 7 kilometres. Middens and seals have been found on Maatsuker but none on De Witt, so a direct voyage ma have been made. Given the wind and current directions, embarkation was probably from west of Louisa Bay, making a voyage of 20 kilometres. And there are sufficient remains of prehistoric camps on Maatsuyker to show that such visits to hunt seals and nesting muttonbirds were reasonably commonplace in summer. These voyages to the Maatsuyker Island group mark the most southerly penetration by hunter-gatherers in Australia.


Tasmanian traditional material culture, by historic times, apparently included about two dozen items: wooden spears with fire-hardened tips, throwing clubs, the women's club-chisel-digging stick, wooden wedges or spatulae, baskets woven from grass or rushes, possum skin pouch bats, water buckets made from kelp, fire-sticks, kangaroo skin cloaks, shell necklaces, canoe-rafts, huts and a few stone tools. The evidence for the religious life of the Tasmanians is likewise limited, which may or may not indicate a limited religious life. compared with the richness of religious life on the mainland, it was apparently largely confined to burial ceremonies and dances depicting mythical and historical themes. but by the time Robinson made his record of Aboriginal life, the population had been decimated and large ceremonial gatherings would hardly have been possible. Tasmanian material equipment was reduced to the minimum necessary for survival, yet the Tasmanians may not have been a 'doomed' society, as some archaeologists have suggested. And their discontinuation of fishing need not have been a maladaptation, a deliberate but mistaken cultural decision to put a taboo on fishing. There may be much simpler, more plausible economic reasons why Tasmanians stopped eating fish. 

Hunters in high, cold latitudes need foods rich and fat, yielding high energy. Thus, for the Tasmanians, seals and sea birds were better than fish or shellfish. Indeed, 'Had the Tasmanians the service of a consultant nutritionist, they would probably have been advised to give up fishing and concentrate their energies on more profitable foods. There is evidence in the post 3000 BP archaeological record that this is just what they did. In middens older than about 4000 years, the shellfish remains were mainly warreners and limpets, with lesser numbers of periwinkiles, a few mussel shells and the rare piece of abalone. All these shellfish, except abalone, can be collected by walking around the rocks or wading. It was suggested that the mass consumption of subtidal shellfish (abalone) and crustacea (crayfish) probably began around 3500 to 3000 years ago, when people in Tasmania started to dive and swim. Before this, it seems that they were only wading and collecting shellfish obtainable from tidally exposed rocks, although there is evidence of fishing in the older middens. Fishing was done with traps, as shown at Rocky Cape; it did not involve more than wading.

In contrast to the 'doomed people theory', thee is a strong case for believing that the Tasmanian population was branching out in new directions during the last 3000 years. The interesting idea has been put forward that Tasmanian watercraft were only invented about 3000 to 3500 years ago, in the west of the island, where they were needed most. It has long been taken for granted that Pleistocene Tasmanians had watercraft, but there is no reason why they should have. Tasmanian watercraft are unlike any craft on the mainland. They were made from three bundles of paperbark (melaleuca) or stringbark (Eucalyptus obliqua). Each bundle was bound with a network of bark or grass string, forming a sausage-shaped craft, tied at both ends, with a slightly hollow centre and upcurving bow and stern. The central bundle provided most of the buoyancy, and the side ones acted as stabilisers. The boat was propelled by a long pole or by swimmers pushing it along; paddles were unknown. These canoe-rafts could hold six or seven people but they wee generally not taken more than 15 kilometres off the coast. The problem was that, when saturated, the bark had a density similar to water, so after a few hours the craft lost its rigidity, became waterlogged, and sank or had to be dried out on a beach before being re-used. 

There is no evidence that watercraft were used in Tasmania before about 4000 years ago, when Hunter Island was revisited after being vacated when it was first severed from the mainland. One strong point in favour of this notion is that it accounts for the absence of watercraft in northeastern Tasmania. with far fewer rivers, bays and offshore islands, there was no real need for boats there, so it is not surprising that the invention of a group living on the opposite side of the island was not adopted. further field work is needed to test this theory, but it is supported by some cultural developments in the same period.

It is possible that petroglyphs at Mount Cameron West, Sundown Point, Greens Creek and a few other sites near high water mark on the west coast are not a relic of ice age art, but were carved only about 2000 years ago. The style is ancient, and Franklin sees them as part of the Panaramitee tradition, whereas Rosenfeld believes them to be independently 'invented' in the Holocene. On the other side of the island, at the Bay of Fires, is a stone arrangement which was constructed less than 700 years ago. Robinson, during his 'friendly mission' in 1830, came across similar arrangements on the west coast.

The Bay of Fires stone arrangement is located on a ridge overlooking a pebble beach. About 56 metres long, it consists of a single line of ninety-three flat stones, in places resembling a garden path. The stones are set into an underlying midden so that their top surfaces are flush with the ground surface. A small test excavation in the midden revealed that another stone alignment lay stratified below. The sequence of events seems to have been that a linear stone arrangement was built on the surface of a sand dune. Then, about 750 years ago, people camped by the line of stones. shell material and discarded quartz tools accumulated around and over the original arrangement, and a new ceremonial structure was built. a further stone arrangement was subsequently found by archaeologist Scott Cane 115 metres to the north. It has forty-three stones and extends for 6 metres in a north-south direction. On the pebble beaches nearby are many curious birdnest-shaped pits, some with low walls around them, and stone cairns, made from many rocks piles high together. construction of these features must have taken much time and effort, but no one knows whether they are historic sealers' hides, stone 'borrow pits' or prehistoric features.


What happened on the Bass Strait islands has long fascinated archaeologists. Did populations become stranded on some of the larger islands? Why were stone tools found on flinders Island but no loving inhabitants? These questions have been investigated by Jones, Bowdler and most recently by Sim, on whose excellent work the following account is based.

Rising seas, caused by a global rise in air and seawater temperatures and the melting of ice in the polar ice caps, resulted in the flooding of the Bassian Plain, the land-bridge between Tasmania and the Australian mainland, about 10 500 years ago, when the sea reached a level of about 60 metres lower than at present and drowned the remnant land-bridge. The sea kept on rising until it reached its present level around 6500 years ago. The Bassian Plain of the earliest land-bridge period consisted of vast open grasslands, according to pollen studies. Dated archaeological sites from this land-bridge period have been found on King and Hunter Islands at the western end of Bass Strait, and at Mannalargenna Cave on Prime Seal Island and Beeton Shelter on Badger Island (10 kilometres from Flinders or Cape Barren Island) in the Furneaux region in the east.

The end of occupation at Beetong Shelter dates to a little less than 9000 years ago, when the sea would have been around 40 metres below today's level, and Badger Island was a hill on a large peninsula jutting out from northeastern Tasmania into what was gradually becoming Bass Strait. The rising sea brought shellfish closer to he rock-shelter, and the shellfish remains in the uppermost layer make Beetong shelter the oldest midden in Tasmania. Sim believes that Badger Island was abandoned before the final breach from the rest of Tasmania and the island formation stage, about 9000 years ago. (It is impossible to put precise dates on when each hill and plateau would have become an island as there are many uncertainties and estimates involved. for example, sedimentation occurs as the se rises and many metres of shelf sediments have now accumulated in the straits between the islands. Chappell's sea level curve (1993) is based on current bathymetric depths plus 10 metres of sediments, but this is an estimate and others suggest thee may have been 20 or even 30 metres of sediment.)

The limestone shelters of both Mannalargenna and Beeton were evidently abandoned at the end of the 'peninsula phase', when the sea came close; the Mannalargenna Cave deposit is dated between 7960 and 20 560 BP, and Beeton Shelter is between 8700 and more than 21 890 BP based on shell from the base of the cultural sequence. The Beeton site contained shellfish (mainly warreners and limpets), fish bones and emu eggshells, most of them burnt, which could mean that the eggs were being cooked or the shells were discarded in hot ashes. Emu eggshell was also in the Mannalargenna deposit, and it seems that emu were common when the Bass Strait region was a land-bridge. There were also remains at Beeton of wombat, eastern grey or Forester kangaroo, pademelon, snake and bandicoot.

The several hundred stone tools were mostly small (less than 3 centimetres long) and made of quartz. Some types typical of Tasmanian Pleistocene industries were thumbnail or small, rounded scrapers and steep-edged tools, probably used for woodworking or scraping skins. a very rare find, unknown elsewhere in Australia, in both Beeton and Mannalargenna was a number of tools made of a fine-grained fossil shell (a large cockle (bivalve) which is now extinct), so hard that it could be flaked like stone.

Sim concluded that, contrary to her expectations, there was 'no evidence of people living on or visiting any of the outer Furneaux Islands in the period more recent than 6,500 years ago when the sea reached its present level (causing the larger northeast Tasmanian peninsula to be flooded and the Furneaux Islands to form). However, radiocarbon dating has shown that Aboriginal shell middens were left on Flinders Island b people on the island between about 6,500 and 4,000 years ago. The absence of similar 'island phase' sites on the smaller islands offshore from flinders supports the view that the people who left the midden evidence on Flinders Island did not possess watercraft and were permanently living on the island. If they had been using watercraft, then one would expect that other sites (particularly shell middens) more recent than 6500 years old would have been found on other Furneaux Islands. It seems that on flinders Island a small population were stranded at about 8000 BP and eventually died out about 4000 years ago due to their complete isolation from other populations. The evidence on King Island, how4ever, suggest that people lived there between 10 000 and 15 000 years ago, and that it was abandoned at about 7500 BP, when it was cut off from the mainland. Middens dated between 2000 and 1000 BP, which contain spongolite artefacts from northwestern Tasmania, show that later it ma have been a refuge for castaways by way of Hunter and possibly Albatross Islands, involving open sea crossings of 60 kilometres or more.


After surviving more than 35 000 years on their remote island, Tasmanian Aborigines had their land gradually taken from them by European settlers. They fought a strong guerilla war against the invaders, and, although most fell to European bullets or to disease, a few survived. While dispossessed and decimated, they did not die out. Trucanini was not 'the last Tasmanian'. In 1994 there were some 7000 Tasmanian Aborigines.

Not only have present-day Tasmanian Aborigines been denied their identity, but prehistoric Tasmanian culture has also been consistently misjudged and undervalued, in part because it has been assessed from Robinson's journals written in the 1830s, which record only the remnants of a culture of a people decimated after three decades of fighting for survival. It has been said that Tasmanian Aborigines lacked the rich ritual life of the mainlanders and did not hold large ceremonial gatherings, but by the 1830s only about 300 Aborigines survived in all Tasmania, and they were fully occupied with a guerilla war.

Another myth that should be laid to rest is that Tasmanian Aborigines did not know how to make fire. The only evidence for this is that Robinson never observed anyone making fire because fire-sticks were always carried. An argument based on flimsy negative evidence is always suspect, and it seems unlikely that the Tasmanians could have mad some of the water crossings that they did, such as those to Hunter, King and Maatsuyker Islands, and kept fires alight on hearths in the boats during the whole voyage. And there is no lack of charcoal in middens on the islands.

These most southerly representatives of the human race have an impressive prehistory indeed.

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