Tasmanians ‘doomed to a slow strangulation of the mind’

2nd April 2012

With this abnegation, part of the economic heritage of early Tasmanians slipped away.

Jones 1977:196 cited in Bowdler 1980:336

It has been remarked that perhaps the most controversial issue in recent Tasmanian prehistory relates to the mater of ‘devolution’ (Lourandos, 1997:274). Jones, through his excavations in northwest Tasmania, uncovered what he considered to be an unusual inconsistency. Rather than observing signs of cultural progression or at the least a period of stasis, Jones argued that he had discovered evidence of degeneration and maladaption. Discounting Sollas’s (1911:76) interpretation that Tasmanians did not eat fish “simply because they were ignorant of the art of fishing, nets and fish-hooks being unknown to them” (cited in Jones, 1978:21)[1] , alternate explanations for this seeming paradox require exploration. Jones speculated that the differences he observed were caused by the isolation of Tasmania from the mainland and that, lacking the stimulus of mainland contact, the tool kit had remained static. Hiscock (2008:129) writes that Jones’s model interpreted the changes in archaeological evidence as revealing economic decline, social disarray and stagnation, along with religious and intellectual dysfunction. For Jones, changes in toolkit and economy expressed a negative development and signified that, in the absence of outside stimulation, the Tasmanian culture was deteriorating. His ideas are best summarized by the following passage:

Consider the trauma, which the severance of the Bassian Bridge delivered to the society isolated there. Like a blow above the heart, it took a long time to take effect, but slowly but surely there was a simplification in tool kit, a diminution in the range of foods eaten, perhaps a squeezing of intellectuality …The world’s longest isolation, the world’s simplest technology. Were 4000 people enough to propel forever the cultural inheritance of Late Pleistocene Australia? Even if Able Tasman had not sailed the winds of the Roaring Forties in 1642, were they in fact doomed – doomed to a slow strangulation of the mind? (Jones, 1977:203 cited in Horton, 1979:28)

Jones’s explanation for the changes observed in the archaeological record were considered to be a suggestion that Tasmanians were already dying out, prior to the arrival of Europeans who simply hastened their death. This is an assumption that Bowdler argues is inherent of Jones’s work (Bowdler, 1980:335)

The view, which Jones (1978) proposed, stemmed from both his perception of the island’s biogeography and from his comparison of the haleocean prehistories and ethnohistories of Tasmania and southeastern Australia. Jones argued that biogeographical studies show that islands, in time, experience a reduction in the number of animal species (Bowdler, 1980:336). Tasmania, for example, was considered to have had a relatively low, or depauperated, faunal range in comparison with southeastern Australia. Considering this, Jones conjectured that it could therefore be possible that the same would apply to cultural traits leading, in time, to a cultural depauperisation of the population (Horton, 1979:28; Lourandos, 1977:275). To illustrate these ideas, Jones advanced archaeological evidence indicating that fishing ceased to be practiced in Tasmania around 3500 years BP. He contended that the decision to stop fishing was an “intellectual decision, which had the result of constricting their ecological universe” (Jones, 1978:44). Hiscock (2008:134) however, contradictorily argues that fish were never a major part of the pre-historic economy and as such should be considered as part of a wider context of events. Reconstructive comparisons show that during the same time period, as the cessation of fishing occurred, alterations to technology and its implementation had likewise transpired (Hiscock, 2008). This raised the question about whether or not the cessation of fishing reflected a broader economic reorganization. Perhaps as Horton (1979) points out fish may not have been as important a dietary item as Jones thought.

In comparing Tasmania to the mainland Jones speculated that, other than the ability to fish, many other cultural traits may have been ‘lost’ during Tasmania’s 12000 years of isolation. He hypothesized that these most likely included boomerangs, barbed spears, spear throwers, ground-edged axes, and elementary hafting techniques (Jones, 1977:196, cited in Bowdler, 1980:337; Hiscock, 2008:136). Although Jones justified his theoretical position by stating that, “demographically and culturally, Tasmania was a closed system … [and] would become the classic example of such a system, for no other system which survived until modern times, has been isolated so completely and for so long” (Jones, 1977:194 cited in Lourandos, 1977:276), bone points and spatulas made by splitting and/or grinding the limb bones of wallabies were recovered in the sites he excavated. Most archaeologists concluded that the decrease in number of bone artifacts recovered was simply an indication that fewer bone artifacts had been discarded through time and that the manufacturing of bone tools had ceased nearly 3500 years ago (Hiscock 2008:134). Of the bone tools that were recovered, Jones argued that they had been used for the manufacture of clothing and, since bone tools were no longer constructed, that it also indicated that Tasmanian foragers had stopped sewing hides into elaborate clothing [2]. Bowdler and Lourandos examined the function of these bone tools by describing the archaeological objects with which they are commonly associated pointing out that bone tools likely served a number of functions other than sewing and the production of clothing, such as for spearing, scraping and cutting. Further more, Hiscock (2008:136) claims there is no evidence to suggest that Pleistocene people in Tasmanian ever made boomerangs, spear throwers or practiced sewing, though inland foragers may have had bone tipped spears (Webb & Allen, 1990 cited in Hiscock, 2008:136). Bowdler and Lourandos also observed that within the areas excavated by Jones, bone artifacts and fish bones showed nearly identical chronological changes which, they suggested, implied that the bone artifacts recovered were used both to catch fish and in the construction of nets or traps rather than for the manufacture of clothing (Hiscock, 2008:133). Hiscock (2008:135) maintains that if this was true, then “the end of bone artifact manufacture merely reflects the termination of fishing about 3700 years ago and reveals that coastal foragers rationalized their toolkit at that time”.

In his rejection of ecological and technological explanations, Jones asserted that the end of fishing could best be explained as a cultural degeneration, a process through which all Tasmanians became increasingly ‘maladapted’. That is that they made an intellectual decision to stop eating fish (Jones, 1977:196 in Bowdler, 1980:336-7). Hiscock informs us that Jones based his proposal on three independent inferences. The first was that the changes he identified during his excavation also occurred through out the rest of Tasmania. The second was that the cessation of fishing was an arbitrary prohibitation rather than an adaptation of the people to their environment, and the third, that this prohibitation on fish was a disadvantageous act which caused “considerable hardship” and represented a persistent “maladaption” (Jones, 1977:343, cited in Bowdler, 1980; Hiscock, 2008:138) for the Tasmanian Aboriginals during the last 4 millennia, an notion that Allen (1979), in reference to dietary requirements, strongly refutes. Allen (1979:1) considers Jones’s case, regarding the deletion of fish from the diet being an ecological calamity, to be based on these same three assumptions. In Jones’s own words:

… fish, having been a significant element of Tasmanian food for at least four thousand years, was suddenly dropped from the diet throughout the island, a situation which persisted for over three thousand years until the ethnographic present. This constituted a net loss of food, and was not a case of one food being replaced by another, or of a less efficient hunting strategy being replaced by a more effective one. To proscribe for thousands of years the use of this abundant food was an economic maladaption (Jones, 1978:45)[3].

Allen (1979) argues that maladaption is not the case and that alterations to climatic conditions placed new demands on Aboriginal hunters, which could not be satisfied through the consumption of fish, and that the ‘loss’ of fish from the Tasmanians’ diet can thus be seen as an action of adaptation. The reorganization of hunting strategies, therefore, enabled greater efficiency in extraction of dietary energy from the Tasmanian environment (Horton, 1979:30, Hiscock 2008:137). Despite the possibility that fish may have been a poor source of nutrition such proposals, argues Hiscock (2008:137), rely upon ecological theories to explain the emphasis given to particular food, not the complete exclusion of a plentiful food source. Jones’s own description of the cessation of fishing revolved around the principle of an arbitrary cultural prohibitation coming into being. Hiscock (2008:137) relates that even though this prohibitation might have been enacted culturally, there may still have been significant ecological reason to initiate the change and that these cultural rules could have resulted from new economic practices, functioning to reinforce, maintain, and even amplify, the new economy. Robert Sim (1999, cited in Hiscock 2008:137) considered this and further proposed that the “foragers chose to replace fish… and [that] their cultural views… emerged from and reflected that economic shift”.

Jones’s illustrations showing Tasmanian aboriginals as culturally degenerate, maladaptive, and lacking in innovation, development and advancement, are unquestionably flawed. It is likely that Tasmanians maintained a viable population prior to the arrival of Europeans, and reports often speculate that there was a much larger indigenous population, that simply desired not to be observed. This would question early population estimates, suggesting them to be an unreliable demographic resource reflecting the nineteenth century preconceptions concerning relative population size. Jones’s own discussions on demography reflect the sources used, namely eighteenth century British records taken during a period of rapid population decline, resulting in his estimates being, at best conservative but likely significantly lower. Although much of the research presented may in fact be viable, alternatives should also be considered, especially when comparing frequency over time in relation to the preservation of archaeological material. Other than the European contention that more permanent structures and greater material wealth serves to display better adaptation, and the astonishment that the indigenous people did not eat fish, there is no evidence to support the idea that collectively Tasmanians had entered a period of maladaption, cultural degeneration or religious dysfunction.


[1] Bowdler sees this typifying Jones’s ideology. In her paper ‘Fish and Culture: a Tasmanian Polemic’, Bowdler (1980:336) writes, “’Why did Tasmanians stop eating fish?’ The answer, not to put too fine a point on it, is because they were collectively stupid. In all these papers the dropping of fish is now seen as something causing: ‘considerable hardship’ and representing a persistent ‘maladaption’ (Jones 1977:347).”
[2] Often associated with ritual and ceremony, which have also been considered to be in decline during the same period of time.
[3] Also outlined as the key argument in Allen, 1979


Allen, H., 1979, ‘Left out in the cold: why the Tasmanians stopped eating fish’, The Artefact, vol. 4, pp. 1-9.

Bowdler, S., 1980, ‘Fish and culture: a Tasmanian polemic’, Mankind, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 334-340.

Hiscock, P., 2008, ‘Archaeology of Ancient Australia’, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, ch. 7, pp. 129-144.

Horton, D. R., 1979, ‘Tasmanian Adaptation’, Mankind, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 28–34.

Jones, R., 1978, ‘Why did the Tasmanians stop eating fish’, in A Gould (ed.), Explorations in ethnoarchaeology, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, pp. 11-47.

Lourandos, H., 1977, ‘Continent of Hunter-Gatherers: New Perspectives in Australian Prehistory’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.





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