Review of ‘The Naïve Lands: Prehistory and Environmental Change in Australia and the South-west Pacific’ edited by John Dodson

11th February 2014

‘The Naïve Lands: Prehistory and Environmental Change in Australia and the South-west Pacific’ edited by John Dodson, 1992, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, x + 258 pp. ISBN 0-5828-6831-9 (pbk)

Review by Sandra Bowdler

This useful book (knowingly) invites comparison with the 1971 collection of Mulvaney and Golson, which in many ways heralded the arrival of modern archaeology in Australia. The Naive Lands is not such an obvious groundbreaker, which is hardly to be expected in any case, and in some ways it is not as successful. This might be because it is more ambitious, which is no bad thing. The earlier volume presented a series of papers by archaeologists and scholars from other disciplines such as geomorphology and zoology; this new offering attempts a closer integration by a series of papers prepared by archaeologists in collaboration with colleagues from these and other disciplines. It gets off to a shaky start, but quickly picks up momentum.

The first sentence on page 1 (White and Flannery) reads, ‘about 50,000 years ago people first left the confines of the continents of Africa and Asia/Europe in which they had evolved for millions of years’. This might be intended to be provocative, or it might be a deliberate Simplification, but it is misleading to people unaware that there is another version, hotly contested. One is thus left confused as to the intended audience. There are other apparent over-simplifications, such as the discussion of the Tasmanian rainforest. The Thorn chapter which follows also leads to uncertainty as to the purpose of the volume.

Fortunately, this unease is dispelled by the following chapters, which consist of up-to-date summaries of a wealth of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data. In an enjoyable chapter, P. Swadling and G. Hope discuss environmental change since human settlement in the island of New Guinea; it is good to have this data gathered up in this way. P. Hiscock and P. Kershaw, on the tropical north of Australia also achieve a reasonably successful integration of their respective stories.

A. Ross with T. Donnelly and R. Wasson tackle, with rather less success, Australia’s arid zone. This includes an over-abundance of palaeoenvironmental data from just about everywhere, which does not achieve a good marriage with the archaeological record. The archaeological data is presented in less than critical vein, with what one had hoped were forgotten distractions like Greenough and Mammoth Cave and an extended chronology for Devil’s Lair.

R. Fullagar with L. Head and the editor discuss the forested parts of temperate Australia, in what is certainly the weakest archaeological contribution. There is too much statistical matter in the text which should have been relegated to an appendix. The data treated in this way should have been discussed non-statistically as well; for instance, there are more open sites recorded in the southwest because research has concentrated on areas where there are few caves or rockshelters. According to the authors, ‘At this scale, it does not seem possible to separate the effects of preservation of evidence, preferred working environments of prehistorians, or major trends in the occupation of people,[?)’; why not, one might well ask? And here is Mammoth Cave again! Not only that, but the ooyurka, and the morella as well; I have not come across them for years, and for good reason. It is not clear what they are doing here, either. Why will ‘future work on the archaeology of stone tool exchange’ be crucial ‘to the question of intensification’? Has Jones really ‘been able to date very precisely the introduction of points in tropical north Australia’?

The Pacific entries by C. Gosden and N. Enright (island Melanesia,) and A. Anderson and M. McGlone (New Zealand) get the book back on track, with clear accounts from all concerned. One might quibble with the inclusion of Pleistocene, and thus pre-human, data for New Zealand, but it is of comparative interest and not overly belaboured.

There is thus an uneven quality in the offerings, and no clear conclusions nor consensus with respect to human-environment relationships emerge, and nor

perhaps could they, nor should they. What we do have is a most useful compendium of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental information for both researchers and teachers.


Mulvaney, DJ. and J. Golson (eds) 1971 Aboriginal Man and Environment in Australia. Canberra: The Australian National University Press.

Bowdler, S.
Review of 'The Naïve Lands: Prehistory and Environmental Change in Australia and the South-west Pacific’ edited by John Dodson
December 1993
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