Review of ‘Quinkan prehistory: The archaeology of Aboriginal art in S.E. Cape York Peninsula, Australia’ edited by M.J. Morwood and D.R. Hobbs

09th January 2014

‘Quinkan prehistory: The archaeology of Aboriginal art in S.E. Cape York Peninsula, Australia’ edited by M.J. Morwood and D.R. Hobbs, 1995, TEMPUS 3. Anthropology Museum, University of Queensland, vi + 208 pp. ISBN 909611-43-2

Review by Bruno David

Quinkan Prehistory is a detailed report of Morwood’s research in southeast Cape York Peninsula. The aims of the study were to undertake systematic research into systems of land use (including rock art) in and around Laura, north Queensland. The 15 chapters and 4 appendices include chapters on the physical environment, both present and past (Chapters 1 and 2), ethnography and history (Chapters 3 and 4), rock art (Chapters 5 and 13), and eight excavated site reports (Sandy Creek 1 and 2, Magnificent Gallery, Giant Horse, Yam Camp, Red Horse, Red Bluff and Mushroom Rock) (Chapters 6-12). Chapter 14 summarises chronological trends in stone artefact technology for the region, while Chapter 15 concludes with a brief discussion of the results obtained.

Quinkan Prehistory is a welcome addition to a too slowly accumulating list of regional publications on Australian prehistory. It contains much raw data in table form, discussions of excavations, rock art and lithic assemblages, and concludes with pertinent observations on southeast Cape York prehistory. The chapters are written clearly by a number of authors, many of whom analysed one or more aspect of the broader project for their Honours theses. The general conclusions reached by Marwood et al. are that sociocultural changes can be clearly seen in the archaeology of Quinkan country around the terminal Pleistocene, followed by even more pronounced changes during the mid- to late Holocene.

This volume probably contains more site reports than any previous publication in Australian prehistory. The methodology followed in collecting this data is well presented, although an important omission which I would have liked to have seen included are information on sieve mesh sizes and individual spit thicknesses.

While welcoming this volume, it again raises issues for debate over interpretation. In particular, Morwood et al. interpret the archaeological changes they observed as sociocultural responses to changing environments. They justifiably investigate the archaeological record for evidence of past social and cultural strategies, but in doing so such strategies are repeatedly considered only in relation to ‘the resource base’ – e.g. grindstones and intensive plant processing are explicitly noted to indicate ‘economic stress’ (p. 123). Why? On page 161, it is stated that ‘from the terminal Pleistocene, the improvement in climate was conducive to population growth and more intensive use of specific tracts with associated base camps’, a proposition that may be correct, but for which I have not found any evidence in this monograph. In general, I have thus found Morwood et al’s conclusion that major sociocultural changes took place during the mid- to late Holocene convincing and that similar but perhaps less pronounced changes took place during the terminal Pleistocene a potentially important finding (although I would like to see more evidence for this before being sold on the idea). However, I do not find their interpretative arguments convincing – that the observed sociocultural changes were due to so-called adaptive responses to changing environments (see David and Chant in press). What we need to ask is how specific social conditions articulate with environmental conditions – why those particular sociocultural choices were made and not others. We can only ask such questions by considering political, social and other factors in conjunction with other ‘environmental’ circumstances. These must always be historically situated. It is not enough to just consider ‘economic bases’.

All in all, Morwood and Hobbs are to be congratulated for producing this informative and data-rich monograph so promptly after completion of their fieldwork. The presentation is first class, a feature we have now come to expect of the TEMPUS series in general. One may quibble about a few too many editorial mistakes (I counted 164 editorial errors), but this does not detract from the intellectual worth of the volume, its content nor its generally excellent presentation. Quinkan Prehistory remains one of the few Australian regional archaeological studies to have been systematically published in a unified format. I can only hope that other researchers use it as a model by which to publish their own archaeological results, many of which were completed years (and even decades) ago, but which still fail to be seen in print.


David, B. and Chant, D. 1995 Rock Art and Regionalisation in North Queensland Prehistory. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 37(2).

David, B.
Review of 'Quinkan prehistory: The archaeology of Aboriginal art in S.E. Cape York Peninsula, Australia’ edited by M.J. Morwood and D.R. Hobbs
December 1995
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