Thesis abstract ‘‘Of More than Usual Interest’: A Bioarchaeological Analysis of Ancient Aboriginal Skeletal Material from Southeastern South Australia’

18th November 2013

Timothy D. Owen

PhD, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, Adelaide, December 2003

This thesis presents the conclusions of a variety of scientific and archaeological techniques used to investigate ancient Aboriginal subsistence patterns in southeastern South Australia. Many of the investigations look at a wide land area within South Australia; however, particular focus is drawn to the Aboriginal burial site located at Swanport. Investigations include ethnographic, historical archaeological, biogeographical, nutritional, osteological and bioarchaeological studies. The primary aim was to combine the results from these disciplines with the outcome of a stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis programme to decipher ancient Aboriginal dietary patterns. The isotopic and oesteological analyses focused on the Swanport human skeletal collection and permitted investigation of ancient South Australian Aboriginal lifeways in an inland riverine habitat. The study was conducted in collaboration with the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee and the South Australian Museum.

The investigation included ethnographic studies, which addressed the different land, riverine and marine food groups consumed by the Ngarrindjeri people during the 19th and 20th centuries and biogeographical analysis which addressed the geography of South Australia. A map of isotopic variability for plants and animals that may have been consumed by Aboriginal people living at Swanport was developed and nutritional analysis produced a model that could test hypothetical diets inferred from stable isotope analysis.

Radiocarbon analysis of human bone indicated that individuals were buried at Swanport between 3029 and 482 years ago. Following oesteological analysis the Swanport samples could be separated into male (n=49), female (n=56) and juvenile (n=9) groups. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope results for each of these groups exhibited a distinct signature, although a degree of overlap existed between the groups. These results were transformed into human diets, based around the food categories of marine food, terrestrial plants, terrestrial animals, riverine plants, riverine animals and riverine shellfish. Results suggest that the males, females and juveniles buried at Swanport ate different proportions of these categories, where plants constituted roughly 40% of the male diet, 50% of the female diet and 70% of the juvenile diet. In contrast to the main group of 112 Swanport residents that exhibited isotopic signatures characteristic of the local environment, 11 individuals exhibited a unique isotopic signature (with a higher proportion of marine food) that suggests a coastal diet.

The results from each of the studies were compared to decipher differences between the published ethnographic data and the new isotopic data. The results supported previous work conducted by Pate, Pardoe, Pretty and others in South Australia. The current study provides additional insight into ancient Aboriginal subsistence patterns in South Australia including an improved understanding of isotopic variability in human bone collagen.

The results confirm the validity of using stable isotope analysis as a means of increasing the knowledge base of past Aboriginal lifeways. These studies are able to benefit both the Aboriginal people and the wider community. A multi-disciplinary approach has particular relevance for studies of riverine and coastal areas, and also highlights the potential and importance of using stable isotope analysis in confirming the provenance of Aboriginal human skeletal material in South Australia.

Owen, T.D.
Thesis abstract '‘Of More than Usual Interest’: A Bioarchaeological Analysis of Ancient Aboriginal Skeletal Material from Southeastern South Australia'
Thesis Abstracts
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