Review of ‘The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies’ edited by Bruno David, Bryce Barker and Ian J. McNiven

01st June 2008

Cosgrove book review cover AA66The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies edited by Bruno David, Bryce Barker and Ian J. McNiven, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2006, xiv+382 pp., ISBN 0-85575-499-0 (pbk).

Richard Cosgrove

Archaeology Program, School of Historical and European Studies, La Trobe University, Bundoora Vic. 3086, Australia

This book is dedicated to Harry Lourandos and edited by three of his ex-students from the University of Queensland. It is divided into five sections and each deals with an aspect of ‘social archaeology’, its emergence, development, application, achievements and theoretical underpinning. Part 5 seems out of place somewhat with a lone chapter by Barbara Bender that may have been better placed in Part 1. It is generally well-produced although there are a few typographical errors and one clanger in Lourandos’ bibliographic references; his erroneously titled 1968 paper.

Lourandos’ work had an archaeological and political impact on his students and other followers as evidenced by this volume. He generated vigorous debates about the changes recorded in the Australian late Holocene archaeological record. He is generally credited with introducing the concept of ‘intensification’ into Australian archaeology and, as argued by some throughout the book, refocused thinking on the trajectories of past change. He emphasised the need to move away from the ecological/environmental deterministic explanations that he saw as generally powerful in explanting change in the late Pleistocene but not so in the late Holocene. The book illustrates how dependent social archaeology is on the availability of good ethnography and history as frameworks for explanation in late Holocene change.

The first part of the book investigates the tension that Lourandos saw between the ecological approach and the need to bring ‘people’ into archaeological explanations to create a social archaeology. The first chapter by McNiven et al. is devoted to rehearsing the history of those changes and referencing much of the work of Lourandos and others with an interest in promoting the social explanatory agenda. There is an interview with Harry Lourandos that repeats many of the arguments made in his papers throughout his career and claims that his most ardent critics simply misunderstood his writings are peppered throughout the interview. The chapter by Sandra Bowdler is a very personal view on the achievements of Lourandos and his background, putting into a particular context the driving force behind his development of the social archaeological agenda.

Part 2 of the book deals with the influence of earlier writings on the perception of Aboriginal people, particularly the way hunter-gatherers were characterised as separate entities from agriculturalists and horticulturalists. This is the theme developed by Bruno David and Tim Denham from the static/dynamic dichotomy with clear links to Lourandos’ previous work strongly articulated in his 1985 paper, ‘Intensification and Australian prehistory’. Ironically the latter term, ‘prehistory’, identified by David and Denham as ‘prejudicial’ (p.57) was used by Lourandos throughout his 1985 paper. Bryce Barker’s chapter distinguishes the early ethnographic observations of Roth and Tindale with the archaeological results from his Whitsunday Islands work. It is a cautionary tale of the over-reliance on historical writings, where errors of fact become compounded by future writers unable or unwilling to establish the archaeological veracity of the observations.

Ian McNiven explores the exogenous and endogenous influence on Aboriginal peoples using the appearance of microlithic stone artefacts, canoes and the dingo as examples. He challenges the view that change has only come from inside, particularly through his work in the Torres Strait, and makes the point that the dingo was probably introduced from New Guinea. Recent genetic research by Hudjashov et al. (2007), however, importantly suggests quite limited physical contact during the Holocene. Material items and ideas can be quite fluid between separate populations, a point made by McNiven, and recent microlithic technology dated to 15,000–13,000 BP identified in Queensland would suggest an earlier invention/introduction not associated with the dingo. McNiven sees outrigger canoe technology as a way that coastal Aborigines increased their use of marine resources due to demands of higher populations through social imperatives, although we are not told what the specific catalysts for increasing populations were. This is a general problem with Lourandos’ late Holocene intensification stance because of the inherent circularity of the argument. Large populations generate social complexity; social complexity brings about increased demand for productivity, which leads to larger populations.

The intensity with which some of the writers defend Lourandos’ contribution to Australian archaeology is evident in the book. The ‘call to arms’ chapter by Deborah Brain attempts to shore up his legacy by advocating a more tenacious use of the undiluted ‘intensification’ concept before it slips away due to ‘a kind of creeping ambiguity’. She argues that critics have not only misrepresented Lourandos’ work but also his ideal by necessarily aligning it with so-called ‘traditionalists’, a contamination no less. She states that Lourandos made people (Australian archaeologists?) uncomfortable because he saw Holocene Aboriginal societies deviating from traditional notions of ‘hunter-gatherer cultures’ in the late Holocene. It is also true that some were uncomfortable for other reasons, particularly the lack of clearly stated archaeological correlates of social complexity that delineated the late Holocene from other periods. Indeed some argued that the changes could be explained in other ways and that the generalised continental pattern did not stand up to scrutiny when regional signatures were closely examined. The presence of rock art, body adornment, composite hafted tools, raw material movement, maritime technology, patterned land use, resource management, symbolic behaviour, increased site use, ritual burial of the dead and the conquest of marginal environments were hall marks of late Pleistocene and early Holocene regional archaeologies, not just of the late Holocene.

Part 3, Anthropological Approaches and the chapters therein more clearly demonstrate the links between the ethnography and the understanding past cultural complexity. We see through the eyes of the eight anthropologists – Luke Godwin and James Weiner; Marcia Langton; John Bradley; Amanda Kearney and John Bradley; Franca Tamisari and James Wallace – the attempt to integrate the social aspects of peoples’ lives with their material remains as well as their landscapes. Views of people’s pasts are couched in terms of the Dreaming, where stone artefacts, water bodies, symbolic landscapes delineated by cycad patches and processing stones, for example, take on different meanings to those of the archaeologists. Armed with these insights it is not surprising that a richer and more multilayered understanding of the mundane material remains and resource zones can be had. The ‘tyranny of the ethnographic record’ first expressed by Wobst always limits archaeologists delving into the deeper past because the behavioural strands of ethnographic connection become ever more tenuous and, the scale and resolution of the archaeological record becomes coarser.

In Part 4 archaeological data and its relevance to explaining the social aspects of past lives are discussed. Donald Pate’s chapter is instructive in the use of scientific analyses to untangle the threads of social connections. Using stable isotope analysis, palaeopathology, non-metrical cranial measurements and observed mortuary practices identified at Roonka Flat, Pate challenges the notion of egalitarian Aboriginal society. He makes the point that these Murray River societies were chronologically distinguished along lines of gender where males appear to be common in the early Holocene burials whereas females are increasingly interned, with grave goods differentially distributed between older males and females. These he saw as providing evidence of social stratification through time, particularly male authoritarianism.

Peter Veth also provides a model for understanding the occupation and settlement of the Western Desert using both archaeology and historical documents. He suggests a six-phase occupation pattern linked to the evidence for environmental change, associated archaeological variability and possible language diffusion into the region. He suggests that the tempo of occupation increased with the establishment of territory based on the diversity of late Holocene art in the arid zone.

Environmental change in south-western Victoria at fine scales are discussed by John Tibby, Peter Kershaw, Heather Bilth, Aline Philibert and Christopher White. Their analysis of a sediment core from Lake Surprise reveals that beginning about 3700 years ago high levels of climatic variability are seen in the core. They suggest that this instability may have been a catalyst for the social changes identified by a number of archaeologists working in the region. This runs counter to the arguments for socially-driven change within Aboriginal society in this area at this time, although separating the competing arguments of the reasons for change is difficult because there are no clear correlates to provide primacy of one over the other.

Work by Cassandra Rowe and Melissa Carter discuss the archaeology of the Torres Strait region where pre- and post-sea-level change are identified in relation to the changing settlement patterns on Badu, Mer, Dauar and Waier Islands. Both environmental data and ethnohistorical evidence is used to compliment the archaeology of the region. Changes in subsistence practices are identified that depart significantly from the pre-2000 BP occupation period and challenge earlier formulations of subsistence practise.

This book covers a lot of ground within the ‘intensification’ gambit. However, those expecting a critical analysis from authors who have taken different views on the ‘intensification’ debate will be disappointed and remains one of the limitations of the book. However, it will be of interest to students as well as to a general archaeological audience interested in the origin and development of ideas first formulated by Harry Lourandos. It can be said that he made a significant and lively contribution to an understanding of Indigenous Australian cultures. His legacy will continue to endure, within the archaeological literature and broader debates on the nature of late Holocene cultural changes.


Hudjashova, G., T. Kivisild, P.A. Underhill, P. Endicott, J.J. Sanchez, A.A. Lin, P. Shen, P. Oefner, C. Renfrew, R. Villems and P. Forster 2007 Revealing the prehistoric settlement of Australia by Y chromosome and mtDNA analysis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(21):8726-8730.

Richard Cosgrove
Review of ‘The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies’ edited by Bruno David, Bryce Barker and Ian J. McNiven
June 2008
Book Reviews
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