Review of ‘Transitions: Pleistocene to Holocene in Australia and Papua New Guinea’ edited by Jim Allen and J.F. O’Connell

08th January 2014

Bowdler Book Review Cover 1997‘Transitions: Pleistocene to Holocene in Australia and Papua New Guinea’ edited by Jim Allen and J.F. O’Connell, 1995, Oxford: Antiquity Publications at Oxford University Press, ix + 862 pp. ISBN 0-003598-X (pbk).

Review by Sandra Bowdler

A special issue of Antiquity devoted to papers about Australian and Papua New Guinean prehistory would appear on the face of it to be a good thing. It hardly needs saying however that such a collection should, in the international context, cast a fresh light on the region and present a stimulating view of recent activity. One senses that Allen and O’Connell’s aims diverged from those of most of the contributors, with the result that the collection straddles a rather uncomfortable gap. The enterprise has a rather uneasy unfinished feeling about it, or perhaps the topics chosen to address the theme have not been fully developed in a hypothetical sense. Transitions: Pleistocene to Holocene in Australia and Papua New Guinea has the air of a fishing expedition, for which someone chose the wrong bait.

According to the editors, ‘the interval between the Last Glacial Maximum, roughly 18,000 radiocarbon years ago, and the mid- Holocene ‘climatic optimum’, at 5-7000 BP, has long been identified as a time of major change in human affairs. … these terminal Pleistocene’ transitions’ represented a fundamental shift in the pattern of human experience and, as such, have been an important focus of archaeological inquiry.’ (p.vii)

They suggest that Australia appears to differ from the rest of the world in that, while similar changes occur, they do not occur at this environmentally critical time: ‘Oddly, however, their timing is off, different from that seen in other parts of the world’ (p-viii). Allen and O’Connell canvass explanations for these changes as follows: ‘[They] have generally appealed to one or a combination of three factors: climatic change, population growth, and social ‘forces’. Of these, climatic change has been most favoured as single catalyst.’ (p.vii)

In this context, the editors aim to offer ‘… a comprehensive, to some extent deliberately provocative review of the field.’ (p.ix).

To achieve this aim, it would seem to me that certain parameters would need to be held in common by the contributors, with respect to subject matter and topics addressed. Most of the papers, however, either lack relevant evidence in their chosen areas, fail to relate the available evidence to the issues in question, or simply address completely different questions with respect to data or explanation or both. This is not to say that the majority of the papers are flawed in themselves; rather, it appears that there has been a lack of agreement as to the purpose of the exercise. T o some extent one may detect a problem that often emerges in exercises of this type, the tendency for authors to use it as an excuse for mounting their usual hobby – horses and galloping off in familiar but divergent directions.

Kershaw addresses the question of environmental change from a geographer’s point of view, an exercise usually thought of as de rigeur in a collection like this, and as usual escaping the appearance of redundancy by appearing early on; just about every piece of information of relevance in it is brought up by subsequent authors. I suppose it is useful to have it all put together for us. But do we really need 40 tiny maps of Victoria illustrating changes in pollen counts?

Pardoe (‘Riverine, biological and cultural evolution in south- eastern Australia’) is one of the few authors who really addresses the issues, as delineated by the editors. He considers environmental change across the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, describes archaeological evidence from the Murray-Darling area, considers the nature of changes in that record, and addresses the possible causes. He concludes that there was a ‘convulsive change of state broadly associated with environmental change, but mediated by demographic and evolutionary forces as well as by social and territorial organisation.’ (p.711)

Some authors follow a similar trajectory to Pardoe’s, but fail to find much real evidence of change, or suggest any clear interpretations when they do. Porch and Allen (Tasmania) suggest that ‘human history in Tasmania during the transition was one of adjustment rather than significant re- direction’ (p.730).

Veth (northwest Australia) suggests that the period under discussion is one of significant change, but concludes rather less than rousingly that ‘the Pleistocene-Holocene transition can reasonably be expected to have been a significant period of demographic and cultural transformation’.

Morwood and Hobbs address various ‘Themes in the pre- history of tropical Australia’, some of which touch on the relevant issues, but evidently also fail to reach any concise conclusions. Holdaway (‘Stone artefacts and the transition’) can conclude only that ‘the dominant theme in stone artefact studies during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition continues to be lack of change’ (p.793).

Gosden (‘Arboriculture and agriculture in coastal Papua New Guinea’) finds that ‘a Pleistocene/Holocene boundary at 10,000BP means nothing in this region: it represents neither an observable environmental shift nor change in patterns of life’ (p.816), although Hope and Golson (‘Late Quaternary change in the mountains of New Guinea’) suggest hesitantly that ‘the argument for ecological and climatic control of the transition in the Highlands is strengthened by the apparent coincidence of increasing land- scape change there, as climate altered at the end of the Pleistocene’ (p.829).

In the way that is now apparently sanctioned in the world of rock art archaeology, Tacon and Brockwell (‘Arnhem Land prehistory in landscape, stone and paint’) construct a detailed chronological edifice which, apart from the dating of silica crusts, seems to be based on arbitrary assumptions and circular arguments about climatic change. No wonder the authors think that rock art sites provide more information than archaeological deposits, which, they admit, do not provide a great deal of evidence for the issues in question.

Edwards and O’Connell (‘Broad spectrum diets in arid Australia’) appear to be alone in addressing explicitly the global significance of aspects of change in Australia. They argue that while ‘human diets in most parts of the world changed dramatically’ after the Last Glacial Maximum to a new diversity of foods, termed the ‘broad spectrum revolution’, Australia presents a challenge in that the changes are later than elsewhere. While this has the makings of a fascinating discussion, it is unfortunately undermined by their failure to define what they mean by ‘broad spectrum’. I would have understood this to refer to the ‘new diversity’ mentioned above, in which a wider range of foods were exploited than had previously been the case. However, they appear to refer simply to a small number of new resources evident (mostly indirectly) in the archaeological record, referred to as ‘definitive broad spectrum resources’. How are these identified? It is generally agreed that some foods were incorporated in the Aboriginal diet for the first time during the Holocene. The authors have not, however (nor has anyone else, as far as I know), shown that an overall wider range of resources came to be exploited at any given time in the Australian archaeological record.

This collection addresses some interesting topics, but fails to provide any unifying conclusions to the problems initially posed. Nor, on the other hand, does it contribute much in the way of debatable new argument. Most of the data and many of the views expressed have been aired elsewhere, but it is no doubt useful for Antiquity’s wider audience to have this collated for them here.

Bowdler, S.
Review of ‘Transitions: Pleistocene to Holocene in Australia and Papua New Guinea’ edited by Jim Allen and J.F. O’Connell
June 1997
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