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The Pleistocene to Holocene transition is both a reality of climate history, and a notion of the prehistorian. A century of approaches to Australian archaeology guides the frameworks of the issue today.
Australia, a dry island continent in mid latitude, spans from tropical to cold temperate regions; long isolation has given it its own flora and fauna. Environmental changes in the late Quaternary have had their own and special courses in the continent and its several regions. The role of fires set by people is an important issue in the changing ‘natural’ landscape.
Western Arnhem Land is a small area (by Australian standards) on the north coast where remarkable sequences of sediment illuminate its complex landscape history. Matching the enviromental succession is an archaeological sequence with lithic sites running back into the Pleistocene. The famous richness of the region's rock-art also documents the human presence, again over a great time-depth, and gives a direct report of how ancient Arnhem Landers depicted themselves. By ‘bridging’ between these three themes, a rare and perhaps unique synthesis can be built.
The rise of cemeteries, extreme biological diversification, size decrease, increased violence, disappearance of megafauna, exploitation of different resources, evolution of rivers to an expanded system of microenvironments, changes in occupation. How are these features of Australian Aboriginal societies in the great river-systems of the southeast related? From evidence of geomorphology, skeletal biology and other aspects of the archaeological record, a sharp disjunction between two different and relatively stable states is seen: a transforming transition rather than a gradual change.
Tasmania, at the south of the land-mass, experienced the Glacial Maximum as a properly cold affair. Recent archaeological work, some in country now difficult of human access, has developed an intricate story of changing adaptations. At the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, a major reorganization of Aboriginal adaptation strategies is seen in the archaeological record, argued to follow late-Pleistocene environmental amelioration.
An element in the changing pattern of Australian archaeology has been the filling-in of great blanks on the archaeological map, once survey and excavation has begun to explore them. The dry lands of the great central and western deserts of Australia, a hard place for humans to this day, have in the last couple of decades come to find a large place in the transitional story.
The wetter tropical zones of northern Australia are linked by their monsoonal climates. Their archaeology shows its own distinctive pattern as well, and rock-art is an important source of evidence and insight. This study focusses on a part of Queensland, setting this local sequence alongside Arnhem Land (reported by the paper of Taçon & Brockwell) and in the northern pattern as a whole.
A characteristic feature of human subsistence as the last glaciation ended was the turn towards new food sources, in a ‘broad spectrum’ transformation. Australia took an unusual course, and the trajectory in its arid zone is especially striking. What were the broad spectrum diets in arid Austalia? Why did they arise so late? Did they arise late?
Stone artefacts are made central in Australian prehistory by their dominance in the material we have from the field. Their contribution to this prehistory comes in the form of an unchanging tradition that spans the transition and changes only in the mid Holocene. This makes the Australian record almost unique in the world; but it is a uniqueness that may owe more to archaeological methods than cultural conservatism.
Australia, with its wide continental shelves, is a difficult region for the study of coastal adaptations over the Transition, as so much land was drowned by the post-glacial sealevel rise. What can be discerned has a place in a larger and longer-term pattern of adaptation.
A central issue in the regional prehistory over the Transition — and therefore of this whole set of papers — is the different life-ways that came to be followed in Papua New Guinea and in Australia itself; the one became agricultural, the other hunter-gatherer. There is more to the story than that divide; this is a story of a human and created world, rather than a simple response to directing environment.
At the south and north limits of our region are mountainous areas very different from the open arid spaces of the Australian continent between. In the north, the high country of New Guinea offers a complex and well-studied environmental sequence as the arena for early and puzzling human adaptations, precursor of the extraordinary societies of the island today.
The distribution of food-plants—both potential and actually exploited — reflects the natural history of contact across the seas and through the region, often long before Pleistocene times. The later and the human contribution has to be discerned from varied lines of evidence. The inventive process of early domestication leading to cultivation in the Sahulian north (New Guinea) was not a part of plant adaptation in the south (Australia). Neither did species diffusion result in adoption of agriculture or stimulation towards domestication among the Aboriginal hunter-gatherers.
The high and low islands of Torres Strait, scattered between the tip of Queensland and the coast of Papua New Guinea, make a unique frontier in later world prehistory: between a continent of hunter-gatherers and the majority world of cultivators. Consideration of just what archaeology there is in the Torres Strait Islands, and of its date, improve on the conventional question: was the Strait a bridge or a barrier?