The Aboriginal Bark Mortuary Practice of the Central Queensland Highlands

01st June 2002

Penny McCardle

BA(Hons), Department of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, School of Human and Environmental Studies, University of New England, October 2001

Previous researchers studying the Australian Aboriginal bark burial mortuary practice unique to the central Queensland highlands maintain that these specific burial  rites  were reserved for young men who died an un-natural death and children only. Furthermore, it has been assumed that this practice was a recent phenomenon  derived from European influences.

However, archaeological and anthropological researchers have  based  their  assumptions on  limited  ethnographical sources, most of which derive from the southwestern areas of the central Queensland highlands during the post-contact period. In addition, the archaeological literature also relies on methods of age and sex identification that are unclear. The assumptions that age and sex were social distinctions at death in Aboriginal populations throughout the central Queensland highlands have never been adequately tested. In addition to this, the issues of antiquity and its obvious implications for management strategies, issues of cultural continuity, and cultural transition for the mortuary practice, have never been adequately explored.

This thesis is concerned with age and sex as possible social distinctions at death in the central Queensland bark burial mortuary practice. Through employing proven ageing and sexing techniques on a sample of human remains from previously opened bark coffins, this thesis identifies who was included within this unique and elaborate mortuary practice.

It is demonstrated that the bark burial mortuary practice was not reserved exclusively for young men and children; all age groups and both sexes were included. Furthermore, although the inclusion of people in the mortuary practice was not based on age or gender, other basic social divisions within the mortuary practice exist. It was found that some individuals were deliberately isolated and placed for final internment alone, while others were placed together in multiple burials. It is argued that the inclusion of individuals in single and multiple burials was based on basic social/cultural divisions.

In addition to this, this thesis also examines the age of bark coffins and the associated mortuary practice. Previous archaeological investigations throughout the  region  suggest that the mortuary practice may extend back to 4000 BP. A relative dating technique, that examined differences in cut marks made on bark between stone, trade and steel axes was developed. The results show clear differences in cut  marks made on bark at both a macro level (naked eye and magnifying glass) and a micro level (SEM). The method was applied to a sample of bark coffins to determine if they were pre- or post­ contact in age. In addition, in conjunction with  the  Bowen Basin Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Project’s dating program, samples of the bark from crypt floors were also AMS dated as part of the Bowen Basin Aboriginal  Cultural Heritage Project.

The AMS dates obtained from crypts support the relative dating evidence. The method  of determining a relative age (pre- or post -contact) of cultural materials made of bark of through cut marks made on the bark is found to be a reliable method that is easily applied in the field with no disturbance to cultural materials. It can be concluded that the bark burial mortuary practice has a long and continuous history that extends back at least 850 BP, possibly 4000 BP, and although modified by European influences, this mortuary tradition is still being practised today.

Penny McCardle
The Aboriginal Bark Mortuary Practice of the Central Queensland Highlands
June 2002
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Thesis Abstracts
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