Theories and Australian prehistory: The last three decades

23rd May 2014

Bernard M.J. Huchet


Several scholars have stressed that archaeologists in Australia have generally been adverse to discuss epistemological, theoretical and methodological issues  (e.g. Golson l986:6; Hiscock 1983:51–52; Mulvaney  1971:242; Murray and White 1981:258; Thomas 1982:4) and that there is a pressing need for further studies in these areas (Thomas 1982:4). This paper attempts to fill some of the gaps in the knowledge of such issues by documenting the changes in the types of theories used within the last thirty years. These issues are part of a broader study which aims to examine modelling approaches used in Australian prehistoric archaeology (Huchet 1990a). A detailed examination of theory was presented ten years ago by Thomas (198l), who discussed the use of theory in the prehistory of Tasmania only. Apart from what he calls ‘vulgar materialism’, Thomas did not document theoretical frameworks used. This paper therefore expands on these issues by adopting a greater geographical perspective which includes Tasmania, the Australian mainland, Torres Strait and New Guinea, and documenting the whole range of theories relied upon by Australian prehistorians to explain archaeological data. Changes in emphasis put on the use of particular theories through time are documented, although no consideration is given here to explain why a particular theory has assumed little or much importance, and why changes occurred through time. In the types of theories relied upon. It is shown that cultural materialism, with a deterministic emphasis, has been, and still is, the dominant theoretical framework adopted by Australian prehistorians, although some significant changes have recently occurred, reflected by an expansion in the range of theories used, and a gradual increase in the importance assumed  by cultural  ecology and historical materialism.

*Note that an abstract was not included with this paper, and so the introductory paragraph has been included here instead of the abstract.

Huchet, B.M.J.
Theories and Australian prehistory: The last three decades
December 1991
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