North of the Cape and south of the Fly: the archaeology of settlement and subsistence on the Murray Islands, eastern Torres Strait

Carter, Melissa Jane (2004) North of the Cape and south of the Fly: the archaeology of settlement and subsistence on the Murray Islands, eastern Torres Strait. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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This dissertation describes analyses and contextualises the results of archaeological investigations carried out between 1998 and 2000 on Mer and Dauar in Torres Strait. Along with Waier these small volcanic islands are commonly known as the Murray Islands, and form the most eastern group of the formation of islands scattered between northeastern Australia and southern Papua New Guinea. Unlike the research into human occupation and subsistence in Australia and New Guinea, the archaeology of the Torres Strait Islands is by contrast a relatively recent academic pursuit. Over the last 30 years various researchers have postulated the timing of first human occupation of Torres Strait, the development of maritime and horticultural subsistence systems and the emergence of ethnohistorically documented trade networks. A lack of archaeological data, however, has prevented informed consideration of these issues. This dissertation presents the results of the first systematic archaeological excavations undertaken in the Eastern Torres Strait, and includes the first detailed radiocarbon chronological sequence for the Murray Islands and for the Torres Strait more generally. The excavations on Dauar revealed extensive archaeological deposits of marine subsistence remains, and previously unrecorded material culture of Torres Strait; most notably, several sherds of earthenware pottery. These artefacts have provided new opportunities for investigating the traditional trade and exchange networks between the Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea that existed at the time of European contact. The Murray Islands data illustrates the existence of a maritime subsistence base from the time of first human occupation now securely dated to almost 3000 years BP. Although plant macrofossils where absent during the excavations, evidence for horticultural subsistence on Dauar was identified through the extraction and identification of plant phytoliths and starch grains from excavated sediment samples. In combination with the radiocarbon site chronologies and changes to sediment deposition rates and assemblage densities, it is concluded that these results indicate the onset of widespread clearance and horticultural activities on the island from at least 2000 years BP, providing the earliest date for the emergence of horticulture so far established in Torres Strait. Dated to between 2000 and 700 years BP, the excavated pottery from Dauar suggests the possibility of sustained linkages between the peoples of the Eastern Torres Strait and New Guinea. Ethnohistoric records suggest southward trade into the Eastern Torres Strait was dominated by southwestern coastal Papuan communities, and particularly by groups of the Fly Estuary. Surprisingly, mineralogical analysis of selected pottery sherds from the Murray Islands revealed the presence of sand tempers sourced to the metamorphic and volcanic lithology of the Eastern New Guinea Highlands. More accurately, these results are concluded to portray linkages between the Torres Strait and the adjacent southern Papuan lowlands through which more discrete movements and transactions with interior areas occurred along key riverways that connected the hinterland to the coast. The timing of human occupation of Torres Strait, the development of subsistence systems and the relationships that islanders had with the peoples of northern Australia and the western Pacific have only started to be explored archaeologically. It is concluded from the combined ethnohistorical and field archaeological evidence that settlement and subsistence in Torres Strait is a product of late-Holocene human expansions and cultural intensification previously documented for the adjacent mainlands and the broader western Pacific region. This research confirms that the archaeology of Torres Strait must be interpreted within the broader cultural, chronological and geographical context in which it is centrally located.

Item ID: 1054
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Mer, Dauar, Waier, Murray Islands, Archaeological excavations, Radiocarbon chronological sequence, Marine subsistence remains, Earthenware pottery, Traditional trade and exchange networks between the Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea, Horticultural subsistence
Copyright Information: Copyright © 2004 Melissa Jane Carter.
Date Deposited: 13 Oct 2006
FoR Codes: 45 INDIGENOUS STUDIES > 4501 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, language and history > 450101 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander archaeology @ 100%
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