Past Indigenous Subsistence Practices in the Kimberley: a comparative approach.
Chief investigators: Associate Professor Richard Cosgrove, Dr Judith Field and Dr Jillian Garvey Background
This project specifically looked at past Indigenous subsistence patterns focusing on the patchy, but unique rainforests that dot the Kimberley region (McKenzie et al. 1991). The project’s aim was to compare past Kimberley Indigenous plant and animal use with the Wet Tropics Bioregion in north Queensland (Cosgrove 1996; Cosgrove et al. 2007; Ferrier and Cosgrove 2010; Field et al. 2016) where it is believed that toxic plant and arboreal tree nut exploitation was a catalyst for the permanent settlement of the Wet Tropics region (Cosgrove et al. 2007). Recent research has suggested that this only occurred within the last 2,000 years because of increasing El Niño–Southern Oscillation climatic events (ENSO) that began 5,000 years ago (Cosgrove et al.
2007; Haberle et al. 2010). The theory is that people were able to occupy the rainforest permanently by exploiting novel and important new carbohydrate sources through the processing of noxious foods, particularly endemic arboreal nuts and ground tubers. Greater utilization of noxious nuts, poisonous tubers and cycad seeds increased the availability of carbohydrate and protein in Indigenous people’s diets. Having access to these products reduced the risk and uncertainty that accompanied resource acquisition during unpredictable climatic perturbations.
Increasing use of noxious plant food led to a more predictable economy, albeit one that required considerable investment of time, energy and the development of new organic and lithic technologies to processes them. This effort was offset by the increased economic return rates that these foods were able to provide (Tuechler et al. 2012). The archaeological record in the Wet Tropics region indicates that human populations increased around this time, giving impetus to social and ceremonial activity, underpinned by a plentiful supply of newly acquired detoxified carbohydrate sources. This allowed for much larger gathering and longer periods of ceremonial activities within the Wet Tropics rainforest (Cosgrove 2006; Cosgrove et al. 2007).
The aim of the present project was to investigate whether this model is applicable to the Kimberley region. In particular, it assessed whether similar increases in activity were underway in northwest Australia at this time or whether the use of these rainforest patches begin much earlier by focusing on a range of geophytes (tubers of perennial plants used for starch storage) such as those described by Veth (2016) and elaborately illustrated in the rock art of the region. Given that this region has been occupied for more than 40,000 years (O’Connor 1995), the results are likely to provide new insights into the use and tempo of plant and animal foods over the long term.
To view feature by Erin Parke, ABC News on 29/9/16, “Dr Richard Cosgrove’s mapping of Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley” Click here