Thesis abstract ‘Past Aboriginal Hunter-Gatherer Economy and Territorial Organisation in Coastal Districts of Western Australia’s Lower SouthWest’

13th November 2013

Charles E. Dortch

PhD, Centre for Archaeology, Anthropology Department, The University of Western Australia, Crawley, July 1999

Aboriginal hunter-gatherer economy and territorial organisation in Western Australia’s lower southwest is assessed through review of ethnohistoric and archaeological records, taking into account regional climatic and environmental evidence dating from late Pleistocene times to the modern era. The informally named ‘lower southwest’ study area encompasses coastal and adjacent inland districts running from King George Sound westward to Cape Leeuwin, and then northward to the Swan Region. Ethnohistoric accounts of socio-economic and territorial organisation of Nyungar-speaking groups at King George Sound and elsewhere in the lower southwest show close parallels to Stanner’s cultural ecological model of local group socioeconomic reciprocity within the arrangement of owned estates and interpenetrative foraging ranges. A territorial and socio-economic organisational model covering this study area is based on five ‘tribal’ or ‘dialect group’ territories, which are among the 13 synthesised by Tindale mainly from ethnohistoric accounts for the whole southwestern cultural bloc. In each of these five territories the proximity of archaeological sites to a similarly wide range of productive coastal and hinterland habitats is interpreted as evidence for broad-scale adaptive strategies. From this record it is proposed that under physical conditions similar to those of the present-day these five territories were sustainable living spaces for small, mobile, foraging populations. Organised as ‘middle-tier’ socioeconomic units, the populations occupying these territories were intermediate in size and structure between estate-owning local groups (i.e. affiliated families or clans) and the entire population of the southwestern cultural bloc. This territorial and socioeconomic modelling is defined by concepts of spatial, demographic and social behaviour as defined by Gamble for the European Palaeolithic. This provides the systemic framework for Aboriginal hunter-gatherer adaptation in the study area at the outset of British settlement and for an unknown, though probably lengthy period in the earlier past.

The study area archaeological record is dominated by relatively uninformative type 1 sites, essentially stone artefact scatters in heavily weathered dune soils or colluvial sediments. More informative sites, categorised type 2, are mostly cave or rock shelter floor deposits yielding artefacts, faunal1 remains and other material deriving from human economic activities. Most known type 2 sites are located in the Tamala Limestone of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Region, the longest occupied and most important being Devil’s Lair and Tunnel Cave. Also categorised type 2 are fish weirs and other sites providing direct evidence for past subsistence. The distribution of all sites of whatever age relative to exploitable habitats suggests adaptive strategies similar to those of historic hunter-gatherers. Many site locations give insight into the effects on past human populations of eustatic sea level rise and other late Quaternary environmental changes. Sites on offshore islands thus reflect large-scale occupation of now drowned landscapes on the continental shelf, as does the long-term usage of Eocene chert artefacts quarried from outcrops on the emergent shelf. Submerged sites on the floors of Broke Inlet and Lake Jasper also evince the effects of environmental change on occupation patterns. The formation regionally of 40 large estuaries, 6000–7000 bp, presumably altered fishing strategies, which must also have been adapted to marked changes in estuarine conditions ca 4000 bp. Late Holocene lake and wetland formation or expansion on the coastal plains probably also affected Aboriginal economy. Sites occupied when sea level was much lower and when other environmental conditions in other ways may have been significantly different from those of the present-day do not necessarily reflect different adaptive modes from late prehistoric and historic sites. Late Quaternary floral records in the Swan Region suggest lateral shifts in the mosaic of modern-type vegetative associations rather than alteration of regional landscapes. Abundantly present in the long cultural sequences in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Region cave sites of Devil’s Lair and Tunnel cave are vertebrate remains and charcoal samples identified as to tree species that are indicative of more open and varied forest and woodland habitats locally than those of the present day. These radiocarbon dated records imply that subsistence strategies were adapted to these habitats during the late Pleistocene. Problems in the archaeological reconstruction of hunter-gatherer adaptive systems are reviewed, as are regional palaeodemographic models, and the idea of socio-economic ‘intensification’. Coastal hunter-gatherer adaptation to changing sea levels and other changes in physical conditions here is compared with that from elsewhere in southern, temperate Australia. Discussed is regional archaeological evidence reflecting territorial and socioeconomic organisation. Local group socioeconomic reciprocity is seen as a key factor in the adaptive strategies developed in regional foraging systems.

Dortch, C.E.
Thesis abstract 'Past Aboriginal Hunter-Gatherer Economy and Territorial Organisation in Coastal Districts of Western Australia’s Lower SouthWest'
Thesis Abstracts
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