Review of ‘Archaeology of Ancient Australia’ by Peter Hiscock

01st June 2008

Fagan book review cover AA66Archaeology of Ancient Australia by Peter Hiscock, Routledge, London, 2008, xviii+338pp, ISBN 978-0-415-33811-0 (pbk).

Brian Fagan

Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara CA 93106, USA

The tyranny of the ethnographic record has dogged Australian archaeology for generations. This is hardly surprising, given the often exiguous archaeological signature, a long preoccupation with chronology, culture history, and the Dreamtime, and the readily availability of numerous, albeit often fractured, historical accounts dating to the past two centuries. Other assumptions have bedeviled research as well, notably a persistent notion that ancient Aboriginal societies were conservative and changed little over thousands of years. However, the past quarter century has seen a dramatic flowering of multidisciplinary research, notably into climatic and environmental change, in which archaeology has played an important part. Australian researchers have both benefited from, and contributed importantly to, a new generation of hunter-gatherer studies that have transformed many of our perceptions of such societies, ancient and modern. Fortunately, the days of preoccupation, nay obsession, with the San of Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert as a model hunter-gatherer society are now history. Peter Hiscock’s introduction to a now very complex subject reflects the dramatically changed face of Australian archaeology.

Some people still denigrate the writing of what Hiscock calls ‘popular texts’, but they are, in fact, among the hardest books of all to write. The author has to navigate between different viewpoints, write in an easily intelligible, jargon-free style, and make hard decisions about what to include and what to omit. Hiscock has faced these problems head-on, in a book that is aimed, he says, at the next generation of researchers. He has written a synthesis that focuses on key questions and examines them by using carefully selected examples, or case studies as he calls them, of which LakeMungo is one instance. His concern is to balance science and the humanities, teetering on the fine knife edge between oceans of technological detail and the need both to entertain and to explain the ambiguities of the archaeological record. The result is a fascinating, state-of-the-art journey through Australia’s past, which is certainly not aimed at freshmen or the general public, but at students and readers with a serious interest in the subject, and probably some previous knowledge of the subject.

Chapter 1 peers through what the author calls ‘the veil’ of Antipodean history. Here we face the tyranny of the ethnographic record, of analogy, which has coloured interpretations of ancient Aboriginal society. Hiscock guides us through diverse interpretations of LakeMungo, using as a starting point a well-known Giovanni Caselli painting, which shows the people using artefacts that did not exist in their day. He discusses the effects of smallpox on Aboriginal society, and advocates a ‘methodological uniformitarianism’ that assumes that regularities in how the world operated structured the processes of human behavior. These regularities also allow us to identify ancient physical environments. This approach allows one to escape undue reliance on analogy and ethnography.

The remainder of the book focuses on key questions, starting with five chapters on the issue of first settlement, which receives welcome, critical treatment. Chapter 2 surveys some of the major approaches – the environmental, demographic, genetic, and cultural dimensions of the problem. Interestingly, this is the first synthesis I have read which treats of the potential impact of the epochal Mt Toba explosion between 75,000 and 71,000 years ago. We are treated, also, to a probing analysis of dating methods, which effectively debunks luminescence chronologies and places first settlement to somewhere before about 45,000 years ago (there is an appendix on Radiocarbon Dating). Chapter 3 builds on this assessment by examining the evidence for early settlement across Australia. Did Aboriginal groups first settle the coast or both coast and interior? Inland settlement in fact unfolded very early on indeed. Hiscock makes a strong case for the importance of climatic shifts, and especially droughts during the Last Glacial Maximum. Herein lies one of the central arguments of the book – ancient societies throughout Australia changed constantly in response to environmental and other factors and bore little resemblance to historical groups.

From early settlement, the author moves on to other fundamental questions. Here, as in the Americas, megafaunal extinctions (Chapter 4) occurred after the Ice Age, triggered in this case by climatic shifts not human intervention. Two chapters discuss the first Australians themselves, and life in Pleistocene Australia. A multidisciplinary perspective stresses not successive migrations from outside but the diversity of ancient human populations. These evolved in different directions as a result of dynamic adjustments by a founder population to varied social and material environments over long periods of time. The hunter-gatherers who colonised Australia were accustomed to diverse and harsh landscapes. They adapted to them with elaborate technologies and material expressions of ritual and symbolic practices. Such societies were not simplified versions of later cultures, but an intricate tapestry of constantly changing local and regional groups, where social institutions were as important as material culture in shaping human existence.

Hiscock devotes Chapter 7 to Tasmania and its isolation, long the subject of theorising about the effects of rising sea-levels about 14,000 years ago. Again, he argues that the complex interplay of economy, environment, social institutions and technology, produced ever-changing societies. The Tasmanians moved inland and adapted to drier, more variable climates some 4000 to 5000 years ago, at about the time when El Niño events became more commonplace in distant Peru.

From first settlement and isolation, Hiscock moves on to technology, not with a dreary catalogue of artefacts and culture history, but with an adaptive perspective. Were there major changes some five millennia ago that resulted from a new package of ideological, social, technological, and economic behaviors? Chapter 8 argues that technological changes resulted from shifting adaptations in different areas that stemmed from highly varied responses to the abundance of food resources that tried to minimise risk. In other words, what happened in general terms in Tasmania also occurred on the mainland.

Hiscock then devotes three chapters to coastal, inland, and arid economies respectively. Again, he eschews linear culture history and looks at the constant economic, technological, and subsistence changes over the millennia. On the coast, he stresses both the essential continuity of basic food getting practices and the major changes in emphasis that kicked in over long periods of time. Arid environments saw ever-shifting cycles of hunter-gatherer mobility and of culture as groups adjusted to periods of drought and higher rainfall. This approach is invaluable for beginning students, for it turns the archaeological record from a mind-numbing recital of artefacts into a story of dynamic, ingenious change and opportunism that was the mark of Aboriginal societies from the beginning. The same adaptive approach informs Chapter 12, which discusses population growth and mobility. Hiscock argues convincingly that there was never a unidirectional growth trend, but a constant fluctuation that reflected the harsh realities of local environments.

Chapter 13 extends these arguments into the social realm, and covers issues of interaction through time. Here, the emphasis is on the close entanglement of environment, economy, ideology and social life, well illustrated by the example of Rainbow Serpent images and other paintings. The physical and social realms engaged with one another in complex ways over long periods of time.

Finally, Hiscock confronts that he calls ‘the ethnographic challenge’, studying societies of the past millennium by using carefully selected examples. He discusses remembered landscapes like Ngarrabullgan on Cape York in the far north, unraveling a mosaic of archaeology, oral tradition, and remembered history. There are issues of contact, between northern groups and Macassan trepang collectors, which began in about 1720, and the effects of such interactions on local societies. He argues that the diversity and rapidity of culture change over the past thousand years supports a portrait of ancient Australian societies as part of a changing, varied cultural system. Archaeology reveals a dynamic, vibrant past when ancient Aboriginal people constantly reorganised not only their economies, but their social lives and worldviews as well. This dynamic reality of constant change and opportunistic adaptation is a cause for celebration and the death knell of earlier theories that thought of the Australian past as conservative and unchanging.

Ancient Australia is one of those books that many of us will return to again and again, not only for its insights into local archaeology, but as a fine example of how new generations of archaeologists are transforming our discipline into a truly multidisciplinary enterprise. Hiscock has written a nice primer on the perils of ethnographic analogy and brought a formidable critical intelligence to bear on such issues as first settlement. I would not necessarily describe this clearly written book as an easy read and it is certainly not a popular book and the entertainment quotient is fairly low. Instead, and more importantly, this is a serious and definitive synthesis of Australian archaeology, with an excellent and up-to-date bibliography that will appeal to a broad readership of archaeologists, both local and international, and to generations of serious students. I suspect that ‘read Hiscock’ will become a regular part of the litany of many university curricula. And so it should. Hiscock has written a potential classic, which is perceptive, provocative, and right on the cutting edge. And, at this stage in research, that’s as important as any number of entertaining books, especially for anyone interested in world prehistory.

Brian Fagan
Review of ‘Archaeology of Ancient Australia’ by Peter Hiscock
June 2008
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