Dr. Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. Born in Wales and educated at Cardiff, he arrived in Australia to do his doctorate in Tasmanian archaeology.
His research began in the north-west of the island, particularly around Rocky Cape. Using radiocarbon dating techniques on various cave middens, Jones reported that Rocky Cape had been continuously occupied by Aboriginal Tasmanians for 8000 years or more.
This was the least contentious of Jones’ claims. He also entered into a long-running question about the Tasmanians: could they make fire? Much of this question was based on observations (or, perhaps, a single observation) made in the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who travelled with Aboriginal populations in the 1820s and 1830s. Fire, Jones suggested, was carried “in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks”, but if they went out, the Tasmanians had no way of relighting it.
The archaeologist also suggested that some 3000-4000 years before now, the Rocky Cape middens revealed that Aboriginal consumption of scale-fish completely stopped. He concluded that the Tasmanians had forgotten how to catch fish. Bone awls were also no longer being produced.
Rhys Jones concluded that with the relatively small population stranded and separated from Australian Aboriginals following the post-Ice Age flooding that created Bass Strait, the Tasmanians had been struggling to adapt. He described it as a “slow strangulation of the mind”.
Later archaeologists tend to disagree. They refer to other references, by both French and English observers, of pre-colonial Tasmanians using fire-making implements. These Tasmanians would have struck chert (a flint-like stone), sending its spark into dry bark, moss or grass, these archaeologists say. This stone – myrer, Robinson writes that the Bruny Islanders called it – was possibly considered special, and fire-making may have been the responsibility of leaders within a band or kinship group.
In fact, there may have been a variety of techniques for fire-making: in the early 1900s Quaker observer Ernest Westlake recorded conversations detailing the use of grass-trees, banksias, stringy-bark, tea-tree and fungi, in a variety of methods, for Aboriginal fire-making.
The change of diet to exclude fish is still mysterious, but recent research tends to suggest that a cooling of the climate occurred at a similar time. In fact, evidence from 3000-4000 BP presents a series of dramatic adaptations across Tasmanian populations. Settlements changed, artistic practices developed, and Tasmanians began to manage the land through seasonal burnings and honed their hunting techniques accordingly.
“These developments, and their concurrence with similar developments in south-east Australia, contradict the strangulation view,” writes Shayne Breen.
Tang Dim Mer is one of the names the original Tasmanians had for Rocky Cape; the more prosaic name comes from Matthew Flinders, who spied it from the strait as he circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798. At that time, there were Aboriginals living amongst the banksias and wildflowers, beneath the jagged cliffs, facing out on that notorious stretch of water.
We are still trying to work out what we lost when Europeans destroyed their lifestyles.
And although Rhys Maengwyn Jones may be most remembered for its controversies (he died in 2001), much of his work helped to support Aboriginal populations, especially in evidencing for their antiquity. Jones himself hoped to introduce to a wider audience the brutality with which Aboriginal populations around Australia were treated. In Tasmania, he said he saw a history of genocide.
George Robinson's tours with Aboriginal Tasmanians were hugely significant in Tasmanian history.
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