Thesis abstract ‘Stone Axe Trade and Exchange on an Inland Sea: An Archaeological and Petrological Analysis of Stone Axe Exchange Networks in the Lake Eyre Basin’

13th November 2013

Kevin Tibbett

BSocSc (Hons), School of Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology, James Cook University, Townsville, October 2000

The primary aim of this thesis is to examine archaeological and petrological evidence to address the question of whether the post contact exchange of edge ground axes from the Cloncurry and Mt Isa districts south to Lake Eyre actually occurred before European contact. The thesis provides empirical evidence on axe morphology and reduction from which risk-minimisation and trade and exchange theories are developed.

The impact of European settlement on ‘traditional’ Aboriginal behaviour is sometimes acknowledged by the ethnographer, but seldom assessed comprehensively. Based on the ethnographic record different researchers have proposed quite distinct exchange networks for the stone axes. The aim of this thesis is to focus on previous demarcations of stone axe exchange routes in the Lake Eyre Basin and to compare these against the archaeological and petrological evidence. This methodology provides a test for those ethnographic and historical records which have been the usual (and essentially untested) foundation for mapping stone axe trade routes in the Lake Eyre Basin.

The metrical analysis of the stone axes is plotted onto AUSLIG 1:250,000 map grids and the changing morphology of the stone axes clearly illustrates the direction of exchange. The variables analysed were length, width, thickness (all maximum measurements), weight, edge angle, hammer dressing, rejuvenation and petrology. With increasing distance from the source stone axes lengths decreased and the level of curation increased. The latter is particularly noticeable in the form of hammer dressing which decreases the edge angles.

Based on comparative metrical and geological analysis the stone axes from the northwest of New South Wales seem incompatible with those from the Lake Eyre basin. It is suggested that the exchange routes for stone axes from western New South Wales might be a post-contact transformation in Aboriginal behaviour. The proposed exchange route from the Mt Isa region seems to be a combination of McBryde’s (1997) cultural landscape south to Glenormiston and McCarthy’s (1939) Red Ochre Route from Glenormiston to Kopperamanna. In the northern regions of the Lake Eyre basin this route differs markedly from previous archaeological, historical and ethnographic demarcations.


In the concluding stages of the thesis different exchange theories and behavioural models are examined to assess which best accommodate the archaeological and petrological record of edge-ground stone axes in the Lake Eyre Basin as documented in this study. It is suggested that trade and reciprocity were operating simultaneously as risk minimisation strategies in the harsh environment of the region.


McBryde, I. 1997 The cultural landscapes of Aboriginal long distance exchange systems: Can they be confined within our heritage registers? Historic Environment 13 (3&4).

McCarthy, F.D. 1939 Trade in Aboriginal Australia and trade relationships with Torres Strait, New Guinea and Malaya. Oceania 9:405–438; 10:80–104; 10:171–195.

Tibbett, K.
Thesis abstract 'Stone Axe Trade and Exchange on an Inland Sea: An Archaeological and Petrological Analysis of Stone Axe Exchange Networks in the Lake Eyre Basin'
Thesis Abstracts
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