Between the Desert and the Gulf: Evolutionary Anthropology and Aboriginal Prehistory in the Riversleigh/Lawnhill Region, Northern Australia

01st June 2009

Michael Slack

PhD, Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney, March 2007

This thesis applies an evolutionary approach to the regional prehistory of the Riversleigh/Lawn Hill region of northern Australia. The research examines (i) the timing of colonisation of Australia and (ii) the nature of subsequent arid zone settlement and adaptation. Both of these research concerns are addressed through development of a regional settlement and subsistence model that is based within an overall framework of evolutionary theory and specifically from various models used by Human Behavioral Ecology (HBE). Using this approach this research presents new regional archaeological data and develops (i) a new model of north Australian Pleistocene settlement relating to Lake/Gulf of Carpentaria and (ii) an evaluation of competing models of Aboriginal subsistence during different climatic phases, with a specific focus on the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM).

The model of settlement and subsistence for the study region sets out expected responses of hunter-gatherers to large scale climatic changes over the last 40,000 years. These expectations are evaluated by quantifying changes in the nature of flaked stone technology, and in the frequency and range of faunal remains in archaeological sites.

I argue that climate change forced modifications to hunter-gatherer behaviours that are evident in the archaeological record. Significant behavioural changes occurred during the LGM, and included refuge occupation along the Gregory River, specialisation in resources of low rank and conservatism in lithic reduction strategies. During improved climatic conditions, residential mobility increased, and subsistence expanded in range to include more high-ranked resources, and lithic reduction altered to include new forms. Similar more subtle changes to settlement and subsistence are also evident during the early and mid-Holocene periods.

Results support a ‘short’ 40,000–45,000 year chronology of Aboriginal colonisation of Australia and a biogeographic model of LGM settlement that included refuge occupation of the Gregory River corridor, but probably not Lawn Hill. The biogeographic model used stresses the importance of the HBE approach, and an emphasis on developing detailed local and regional archaeological chronologies.

The results of this research show that although further refined data concerning the palaeoenvironmental record is needed, the functional approach of Human Behavioural Ecology is a valuable methodology for examinations of the archaeological record, providing theoretical rigor to local scale studies that can contribute to regional and more general models of human behaviour.

Michael Slack
Between the Desert and the Gulf: Evolutionary Anthropology and Aboriginal Prehistory in the Riversleigh/Lawnhill Region, Northern Australia
June 2009
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Thesis Abstracts
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