Thesis abstract ‘The Archaeology and Socioeconomy of the Gunditjmara: A Landscape Analysis from Southwest Victoria, Australia’

19th November 2013

Heather C. Builth

PhD, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, Adelaide, 2002

An  archaeological  study  of  Indigenous  precontact settlement was undertaken on the Mt Eccles lava flow in Southwest Victoria. The aim was to investigate the hypothesis that Gunditjmara socioeconomy was based on large-scale environmental management, incorporating aquaculture, food preservation and storage. Conclusions of previous archaeological excavation and survey on the landform were contradictory in their interpretations regarding Gunditjmara occupation. The shortfin eel (Anguilla australis) was economically the most important freshwater fish in the region, in the indigenous past as well as today. Ethnohistorical and local indigenous oral histories indicate that this resource was exploited as a major part of the regional precontact economy. However, no archaeological research has been undertaken on the extent of eel exploitation by Gunditjmara.

In order to investigate the nature of Gunditjmara resource exploitation, an understanding of environmental relationships was considered essential. In this study a landscape analysis was used to determine the associations between the archaeology on the lava flow and its environmental context. In pursuance of this aim an innovative and appropriate archaeological methodology was designed. In consequence, stone features were identified as dams, weirs, dwellings and storage caches. Their relationships were investigated using GIS. On the basis of the data generated by the landscape-scale studies individual sites were selected for a more detailed investigation. It is hypothesised that culturally modified trees served as domestic hearths and smoking facilities for eels. Biomolecular analysis was used to search for eel lipids in soil samples from the trees to determine whether these could be associated with food processing.

The archaeological study produced a model of Gunditjmara settlement on the Mount Eccles lava flow. The multifarious approach proved crucial for determining aspects of a past economy not previously identified but highly significant to the settlement model. The findings include the first archaeozoological evidence for an indigenous exploitation of the shortfin eel in Victoria. The results challenge accepted Australian approaches to investigating precontact archaeology, with its focus on depth and age in preference to past socioeconomies. They strongly support a methodology designed to determine ecological and archaeological relationships to accurately interpret the evidence.

This study demonstrated how economic change alters the nature and value of resources and allows for different social behaviour to develop. It has been recognised outside of Australia that the procurement and storage of a seasonally abundant resource may lead to the emergence of social organisation and inequality. Ethnographic documentation, as outlined in this study, supports the existence of a social hierarchy among the southwest language groups of Victoria. However, there is no archaeological evidence to date of any large-scale resource procurement and storage that could lead to controlled resource management in these precontact Australian Aboriginal societies.

A global ethnographic and archaeological comparison was undertaken of the technology used in the trapping of Anguilla spp., or other migrating fish, and its socioeconomic implications. The results revealed parallels in the methods used and their social ramifications, both of which showed strong analogy with Gunditjmara data.

Builth, H.C.
Thesis abstract 'The Archaeology and Socioeconomy of the Gunditjmara: A Landscape Analysis from Southwest Victoria, Australia'
Thesis Abstracts
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