Thesis abstract ‘ Dispute settlement and community conflict in prehistoric Australian Aboriginal populations: Skeletal evidence’

23rd January 2014

Graham Knuckey

BA(Hons), Department of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, University of New England, Armidale, October 1991

Over the last 15 years researchers studying Australian Aboriginal skeletal material have found depressed fractures to be common upon Aboriginal crania observed. Added to this are the many examples of intra-group conflicts and disputes that appear in the Australian ethnographical literature, which seem unusually common amongst Australian Aborigines when compared with traditional and semi-traditional social systems from other parts of the world. It has been assumed that the depressed fractures observed on crania are the direct physical manifestations of disputes, examples of which are described by the ethnographers. This research project was undertaken to establish through a methodical approach, how real the relationship is between the two bodies of evidence. An application for access to the South Australian Museum’s Human Biology Collection was made in late 1990 to pursue this approach, and access was granted in February 1991.

A total of 409 crania were examined for evidence of depressed fractures and through a survey of the ethnographical, anthropological, and archaeological literature available, the physical evidence was analysed to establish any possible relationship between the fractures recorded and the evidence of physical assaults as described ethnographically. The research has demonstrated that physical contacts between individuals account for a majority of the injuries present and also suggests that physical contacts were invariably the result of conflicts and disputes. Age (of the individual) and sex determinations were carried out where possible; 62% of the sample was positively sexed and 99% of the sample was successfully aged. Observations included two distinct trends apparent amongst crania that possessed depressed fractures. Amongst the sexed crania with fractures there appeared to be no bias toward either sex having more fractures present than the other, and among the aged crania there appeared a definite trend toward fractures becoming more frequent as individual age increased.

Further analysis of the results showed that the majority of fractures found upon crania in the sample were indeed the result of conflict behaviour but that this behaviour seemed most frequently to be used as a means of settling intra-communal disputes. It is suggested, on the strength of the evidence presented, that ‘violent’ behaviour was not seen as such by Aborigines, rather that it was an effective tool used in the social sphere for two important reasons; firstly to settle disputes quickly and efficiently between individuals in an environment that required everyone to work together for the survival of the group; and secondly because it allowed individuals to constantly reassure themselves personally, of their position within the social system.

Knuckey, G.
Thesis abstract ' Dispute settlement and community conflict in prehistoric Australian Aboriginal populations: Skeletal evidence'
June 1994
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Editorial
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