A novel application of sclerochronology: forging new understandings of Aboriginal occupation in the South Wellesley Archipelago, Gulf of Carpentaria

Twaddle, Robin (2016) A novel application of sclerochronology: forging new understandings of Aboriginal occupation in the South Wellesley Archipelago, Gulf of Carpentaria. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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View at Publisher Website: https://doi.org/10.25903/bm5b-rp93


Changing relationships between people and their environments result in modified patterns of land-use and occupation as populations respond to fluctuating conditions across space and through time. Understanding these relationships occurring on a variety of scales is integral to achieving nuanced interpretations of fundamental Aboriginal lifeways. This is particularly salient in contexts characterised by stark seasonal shifts in climate, which have long been suggested to act as key drivers behind fundamental decision-making processes. For Aboriginal groups living along Australia's tropical north coast these seasonal changes coincide with the monsoonal cycle, with ethnographic data demonstrating that seasonality permeates associated behavioural and cultural systems. Numerous authors have attempted to explain change evident in the archaeological record using broad models based upon wide-ranging concepts such as shifts in ENSO intensity. However, these broad models map poorly onto local-scale and/or short-term patterns, masking diversity and complexity. It is therefore integral that researchers re-evaluate how behavioural patterning is characterised and interpreted.

This research explores patterns of Kaiadilt Aboriginal occupation in the South Wellesley Islands, Gulf of Carpentaria, through a targeted study of seasonality in site-use. Select methods from a sclerochronological framework, particularly stable isotopic analyses of molluscan shell carbonates, are utilised to analyse specimens (Gafrarium pectinatum, Marcia hiantina, and Polymesoda coaxans) from both modern and archaeological assemblages. Results from modern specimens are combined with contemporaneous environmental datasets to characterise relationships between ambient conditions and shell geochemistry. This allows the efficacy of target mollusc species to be tested as well as providing an interpretative framework for archaeological data. Seasonality of occupation is determined for archaeological material excavated from three sites across Bentinck Island spanning the last 1500 years to generate a high-resolution chronology of site-use.

Instrumental observations of modern environments highlight stark seasonally timed hydrological shifts, however corresponding fluctuations were not found in all target mollusc taxa. The mangrove bivalve Polymesoda coaxans and intertidal bivalve Gafrarium pectinatum were both deemed unsuitable for use within the context of this research owing to irreconcilable physiological and ecological complications. Conversely, the subtidal bivalve Marcia hiantina was found to be an unambiguous recorder of environmental conditions, as well as being the dominant archaeological species, and thus is employed as the key proxy for characterising patterns of past seasonality.

Archaeological findings demonstrate direct links between seasonal climatic patterns and the timing and periodicity of site-use, although the strength of these relationships fluctuate through time. Early occupation of the South Wellesley Islands from as early as 3500 years ago appears highly seasonal, with periods of use timed to coincide with the dry season to take advantage of conditions that assist wide-ranging foragers in undertaking periodic visitation of the island group. Subsequent to the permanent occupation of the South Wellesley Islands by the Kaiadilt in the last 800 years, patterns of repeated use are evident with groups periodically occupying sites while moving across the local landscape again dominated by dry season use. The most recent periods of occupation in the last 250 – 300 years suggest a move towards decreased mobility with longer residency times and more sedentary behaviour evidenced by both dry and wet season occupation at key sites. Changes to occupation patterns are likely linked with increases in population size and density. Moreover, the recent stabilisation of sea levels along with more frequent inclusions of fish remains within the archaeological record suggest that stone-walled fish trap complexes were increasingly utilised during late periods of occupation. The static nature of this important resource infrastructure together with the need for continuous maintenance likely further encouraged sedentary behaviours, establishing strong ties between Kaiadilt groups and specific areas as well as potentially facilitating the development of ethnographic land tenure systems.

Results demonstrate the efficacy of scleroisotopic methods in tropical Australian contexts, provided relationships between target mollusc taxa and environmental conditions are well understood. This affords the opportunity for archaeologists to approach increasingly nuanced characterisations of fundamental drivers behind Aboriginal decision-making processes that led to changing behavioural and cultural systems. Moreover, findings demonstrate the presence of highly complex patterns of occupation associated with offshore island contexts, requiring local-scale research to accurately characterise as inter-regional or continental models do not accurately reflect responses to change at high-resolutions. Results also contribute to recent discussions regarding changes in social organisation, running parallel to suggestions of a broader trend towards decreased mobility coinciding with growing populations and emerging social complexity. Most importantly, this research provides a salient argument for the construction of broader narratives from local-scale understandings to allow for the complexity and diversity inherent to Aboriginal cultures.

Item ID: 49420
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Aboriginal Australians, environmental archaeology, ethnozoology, Gafrarium pectinatum, Gulf of Carpentaria, human-environment interaction, Marcia hiantina, North Queensland, palaeoenvironmental proxy, palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, paleoclimatology, Polymesoda coaxans, sclerochronology, stable isotope analysis, trace element analysis
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Copyright Information: Copyright © 2016 Robin Twaddle.
Additional Information:

For this thesis, Robin Twaddle received the Dean's Award for Excellence 2017.

Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Chapter 2: Twaddle, Robin W., Ulm, Sean, Hinton, Jane, Wurster, Christopher M., and Bird, Michael I. (2016) Sclerochronological analysis of archaeological mollusc assemblages: methods, applications and future prospects. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 8 (2). pp. 359-379.

Date Deposited: 20 Jun 2017 03:56
FoR Codes: 21 HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 2101 Archaeology > 210101 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Archaeology @ 50%
21 HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 2101 Archaeology > 210102 Archaeological Science @ 50%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9505 Understanding Past Societies > 950503 Understanding Australias Past @ 70%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9603 Climate and Climate Change > 960311 Social Impacts of Climate Change and Variability @ 30%
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