A literature review and synthesis report
This is a review of the archaeological research that has been undertaken in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) over the last thirty-five years. This report was prepared with financial support from the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy as part of The Assessment of Aboriginal Cultural Values (AACV) Project. The AACV project was commissioned in response to the July 2016 request by the World Heritage Committee for a ‘synthesis report of all available information on cultural sites of the property’ to be submitted to the World Heritage Centre by mid-2017.
Archaeological research has shown that Aboriginal people occupied the TWWHA for at least the past 35,000 years and were, for 20,000 years, the southernmost people on Earth. Archaeological excavations have shown that the area contains a rich suite of Australian Pleistocene (ice age) sites, with occupation deposits providing significant information on Aboriginal life in Tasmanian and mainland Australia during this period. The area can be considered a Pleistocene ‘province’ as the sites share many attributes in common.
During the Pleistocene, Tasmanian Aboriginal people lived under alpine conditions when temperatures averaged 6°C below those of today. Detailed archaeological studies of faunal assemblages have revealed the hunting and butchering practices of the inhabitants, as well as the timing of their seasonal visits. Aboriginal people predominantly hunted wallaby so this archaeological evidence offers an interesting comparative dataset and research opportunity in relation to select mainland Australian sites and the northern hemisphere sites associated with the reindeer hunters of Europe. Studies of their lithic material shows that, while most was locally obtained, Aboriginal people carried favoured stone up to 100 kilometres from the source.
As the ice age waned, the predominately alpine environment was overtaken by encroaching wet forests. These forests are likely to have driven away the prey species, with Aboriginal people potentially unable to turn back these forests with their firesticks. Based on current evidence, Aboriginal people may subsequently had to abandon large areas in the TWWHA for as long as 10,000 years. At the same time the sea had risen and created the island of Tasmania, isolating the Tasmanian Aboriginal people from mainland Australia for the longest period in human history.
Current archaeological evidence suggests that it was not until about 4,000 years ago that Aboriginal people began to reoccupy the greater TWWHA, with a focus on the coastline. Importantly, while this suggests a period of hiatus, people may have remained within many areas of the TWWHA, with evidence of occupation either undiscovered and/or lost through inundation of coastline by rising sea levels. The presence of hundreds of middens containing the food remains of shellfish, birds, land, and marine mammals is testimony to the abundant resources on the coastline, which is one of the richest heritage coastlines in Australia.
The TWWHA contains rock markings of particular significance to Aboriginal people today. These range in date from Pleistocene ochre hand stencils deep inside caves to pecked marks on rocks more recently executed with metal tools introduced by European people.
The research completed within the TWWHA has made an important contribution to our knowledge and understanding of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and is a fundamental aspect supporting its listing as a mixed cultural and natural World Heritage property. This knowledge provides an opportunity for Tasmanian Aboriginal people to engage and connect with the cultural practices of the past both now and into the future.