Georges Bank is a very large shallow area in the North Atlantic, roughly the size of a New England state, that serves as a fishing ground and whaling area (these days for watching the whales, not harpooning them) for ports in New England, New York and Eastern Canada. Eighteen thousand years ago, sea levels were globally at a very low point (with vast quantities of the Earth’s water busy being ice), and at that time George’s Bank would have been a highland region on the very edge of the North American continent, extending via a lower ridge to eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and separated by a low plain (covered in part by glaciers) to the rest of New England.1
As sea levels began rising around twelve thousand years ago, George’s bank became a narrower peninsula and eventually an island visible from the mainland. We know that people lived on this island because artifacts of early Native American groups have been dredged up here, along with the teeth of Pleistocene elephants and other items.
Eventually, the island would have been too far from the shore to see, although one might expect people living on the island or the mainland would have known about the other lands, and probably about the people on them, as there is good evidence that maritime activity was fairly intensive in this region. Indeed, it may well have been the existence of George’s Bank that fueled the maritime activity that was apparently much more intensive between five and seven thousand years ago in this region.
But eventually, it is quite possible that as post-glacial sea levels rose, and the island that was to become George’s Bank became smaller, that it became unconnected in all the ways one might expect, including the movement of semi aquatic land mammals (humans included in their own way), human memories, and so on.
What happened at the end, when the island finally went under, assuming that humans were still living there? Did these humans have a viable long distance maritime culture, allowing them to get on boats and, with some risk but also a reasonable chance of success, move to Cape Cod or Maine or what was to someday become Boston? Did they have boats only adequate for local transport, but still attempt, with much greater risk and much lower chance of success, to go somewhere? And if so, if they were not any longer a maritime people, did they even know which way to go? Did they just become inundated by the sea, perhaps living as the people of The Maldives live today, on a very low island in the middle of the sea, no one ever stepping on land more than a few feet above sea level, but then become wiped out by some singular event, like a tidal wave or a very bad hurricane?2 Or, perhaps, were these people wiped out before they ever had the dubious opportunity to experience the final inundation of their lands? With what must have been a shrinking population under conditions of shrinking resources, it is quite possible that warfare, pestilence, and other nasty things could have depopulated “George’s Island” centuries before the watery Apocalypse.
And, just as interestingly, what happened before the final inundation? Not just before, but over the centuries before, as the specific result of being cut off from the mother mainland culture? Did the George’s Bankers become a culture distinct from that on the mainland? Did this culture either posses features not seen elsewhere, or lack them because they never arrived to this remote place? Or, did the George’s Bankers lose certain traits that the mainlanders kept because … well, because of some reason or another?
Nobody knows. But we to know the following: The story of George’s Bank is a story that probably played out in dozens of locations around the world where segments of large land masses (mainly continents) were at first cut off via land, then via eyesight, then perhaps via regular maritime travel, and somewhere along the way, via the complete cessation of medium and long distance cultural interaction of the kind in which most other people on the planet were engaged. In some of those cases, total inundation happened, but in others, not. And thus, there are two classes of islands occupied by humans: Those we have discovered and moved to, and those that were not originally islands and became so while we were there.
The most famous example of the first is probably the numerous Pacific Islands running from Melanesia to Polynesia. The most famous example of the second is probably Tasmania.
And that brings us to a paper called “On Being Alone: The Isolation of the Tasmanians” by Iain Davidson and David Andrew Roberts, published in Turning Points in Australian History.
Tasmania was part of Australia, and thus the people who lived in what is now “Tasmania” were indistinct from their neighbors in any substantial geographic sense, for a very long time, and then became an increasingly separate island prior to 10,000 years ago. The point that Tasmania vis-a-vis Australia became out of sight of one another, and out of regular maritime contact, is disputed and unclear, but for many thousands of years it was, and at the time of initial European contact, Tasmanians were culturally (and maybe physically?) enough different from their neighboring Australians that observers, in their naive 19th century way, were moved to actually suggest that they could have settled the island from Africa or some other non-Australian place. (Which, I hasten to note, is absurd.) In particular, the material culture of the Tasmanians was noticeably simple, especially when it came to boats. They used boats infrequently, only to cross the numerous rivers that divided up their various territories or homelands. The boats were expedience and temporary, the kinds of boats that would start sinking on launch and thus designed for very short term use. Other aspects of Tasmanian technology were seen as simple as well.
As archaeologists explored Tasmania more closely, it was discovered that the ethohistorically made observations that Tasmanians don’t fish (but they do collect coastal shellfish) was verified and dated to a fairly early time period. Apparently, at some point in Tasmanian history, fishing became taboo even though other maritime resources were used. This seems to have occurred about 4,000 years ago, well after the physical and, likely, cultural and economic isolation of Tasmania from the mainland.
The chapter by Davidson and Roberts explores the idea of cultural regression and degeneration in the context of Tasmania. The idea as it has formed over the last several decades is that Tasmania experienced an insufficiency of cultural maintainability, because it consisted of a limited population size on an isolated island, and thus occasionally lost things, like the ability to, or notion of, fish exploitation. And, there are political aspects of the argument worthy of exploration.
The notion of cultural regression and degeneration … has in recent years acquired a regrettable political dimension in a more public debate. This has underpinned an historical revisionism which seeks to exonerate European colonists for their role in the destruction of Tasmanian society by claiming that Tasmanians were already doomed to extinction. Such arguments can be countered by highlighting how in Tasmania, as on the mainland, there were major economic and socio-political changes in Aboriginal society that reﬂected creative adaptation to climatic and ecological changes, or by evidence that, in isolation, Tasmanians developed and reﬁned important traits and symbolic expressions of culture such as rock art. The same evidence which was construed by some as marking inferiority and regression can be taken to show that the Tasmanians were cognitively no different from other humans. The Tasmanians were hunter-gatherers and their behaviour can be seen as typical of one part of the diversity of behaviours among such peoples around the world. Ultimately, 14 000 years of isolation constitutes a remarkable story of human survival and adaptability. The cataclysmic decimation of that ancient society within half a century of European arrival signiﬁes not only a monumental local tragedy but a universal experience wherever hunter-gatherers came into contact with agriculturalists and where their different approaches to land and resource ownership conﬂicted.52 The severing of ties with the mainland was a turning point in the history of Tasmanians. The end of that isolation 14 000 years later was another, with more immediate and dramatic consequences.
I find this discussion very interesting in relation to the Efe (Pygmies) of the Ituri Forest, Congo. The Efe are not isolated at all. They have neighbors in all directions, and over the last several hundred years, have probably contracted their range as some of these neighbors have taken land from them, and in other cases, became integrated economically and culturally with others who have moved into the rain forest in which they live. There are technologies presented to the Efe on a regular basis, as well as various cultural ‘traits’ from which they can pick and chose. And they do. The analogous and possibly homologous Pygmies of the western part of Central Africa took on Portuguese crossbows. The Efe has probably borrowed (and perhaps supplied) fishing techniques, and to some extent farming (though the only plant they will grow is cannabis, and that only rarely). The rites of passage for young men and women is an amalgam of those of different cultures, or so it appears. This applies as well to rites of death and birth (the on the ground situation is very complicated) and the language of every Pygmy group is shared with non-Pygmy neighbors.
Yet, the Efe are technologically incapable of starting a fire, as are their agricultural village neighbors. Sure, they can use a Bic Disposable Lighter or a Moto Brand Match jsut as a Westerner can do, but all those fancy tradition technologies such as rubbing sticks together, the bow drill, the sparking rock and brimstone, etc. are not known. In the purely traditional context (i.e., after the anthropologist has gone home) the fires are not started. They are borrowed. Virtually every fire you will encounter in the forest camps of the Ituri’s Pygmies is a fire that has been burning for thousands of years, since the last time the cultural ancestors of these people had the ability to start a flame with some sort of spark. Or, perhaps the fires date to an event when the fire was captured from some wild fire or another.
If indeed the Efe “lost” fire starting (which, as I just implied, may or may not be the case) then it is an excellent example of a loss of a technology in a culture that is not island bound or isolated. And it is one that gets the reader’s attention because it is so extreme and strange and even exotic in nature. But it is very easy to overlook that many other technologies have been lost in the absence of isolation as well. No living culture, isolated or not, engages in any form of flint knapping. The moment an alternative is available, the old chipped stone technology goes out the window. Almost no culture today uses sharp projectiles for hunting. A few do, but the moment firearms are available, that technology takes over.
One could argue that fishing by the Tasmanians is different. Fishing would have been a good thing to do no matter what, and these other cases (flint knapping, spearing wild pigs, etc.) are instances where a clearly superior technology came along to replace a primitive technology. But that argument is not as strong as it might look at first.
To begin with, the differential advancement linked to forgetting about technologies does not apply to making fire, and it can’t really apply to many of the groups who have given up non-firarms based hunting but would still benefit from using the “old ways” when ammo is scarce or the old methods simply work better than the new methods. Even more importantly, the differential advancement idea ignores the fact that NOT fishing can be a clear advantage over fishing. For Tasmanian fishing, we are probably talking about going out into the sea (modest distances, likely) to line fish or net littoral species. Under certain conditions, this sort of activity is actually very dangerous. In the most extreme cases, fishing is considered to be the most dangerous of professions. A coastal fishing technology that minimized danger would be only moderately useful, and thus, would risk being dropped. A coastal fishing technology that maximized (or at least, increased) returns would be notably risky, and thus, could be dropped on those grounds as well. The major fishing cultures of island peoples tend to be those launched from islands with little else in the way of resourses. Tasmania is a big island, and for much of it’s prehistory was more open in the interior and probably provided sufficient terrestrial resources and low-risk coastal resources to make fishing, a risky business, marginal.
In other words, one could say one or both of the following: 1) Dropping a technology that may have been useful is not clearly demonstrated as a phenomenon mainly found among isolate populations; and 2) dropping a technology may be a really good idea under some circumstances.
In my view, there is some validity to the idea that isolation and small population size can increase the chance of a technology disappearing permanently. It could be that for the Tasmanians, fishing would have become a poor choice for food gathering at some point, dropped, and forgotten. The, later, as ecological, social, or economic conditions change (and they always do) fishing becomes a good idea again. On a mainland, this may result in the re-adoption of fishing form neighbored groups, but on the island, this can’t happen.
Thus, by this argument, a culture can become more technologically primitive because it lacks neighbors to act as the occasional tutor, or source for revival.
But again, there are some problems with this simplified version of the argument. For one thing, it may be the case that an “island culture” would have to be VERY small and VERY isolated to not reinvent the wheel when the wheel was needed. At this point, we (archaeologists) have no firm idea based on objective analysis of unbiased evidence of whether or not basic technologies are usually diffused across space or reinvented in different regions. But, if we assume that humans are pretty inventive, and most inventions come form common and widespread contextual sources, then it is reasonable to guess that a culture using coastal resources (shellfish) already would likely reinvent fishing if needed. Indeed, I’m not convinced that this did not happen now and then, at low level, in Tasmania, but under the archaeological radar screen. (So, if I had my way, I’d see to the funding of research searching for post-4K fishing in Tasmania, just in case.)
A second problem with this characterization of the Tasmanians is the assumption that a technology is maintained BECAUSE it is “good” and thus, losing it is bad. There is another explanation. There are interests involved in any elaborated technology. Even though flint knapping was dropped like a hot (and sharp) rock by cultures around the world that suddenly had metal tools, the flint knapper, who may well have been the culturally central and powerful “blacksmith” of his or her day, may have been against that idea. Apparently, though, flint knappers did not have a strong lobby! Or, a technology may become so linked to other aspects of culture to warrant maintenance despite it becoming obviated by other approaches. A technology may become part of the system of external power relations or alliance formation and maintenance for a group of people. Thus, during times when the technology is suboptimal, it is maintained.
Between marketing by interested parties and linkage to auxiliary functions, behavioral constructs including specific technologies can be maintained over long periods of time when “common sense” dictates they disappear. This is evident in the Western world in many areas. In fact, most of what we do is in some way linked to a suboptimal method, whereby that which is suboptimal is maintained by some interested party or another, or just by inertia.
Perhaps the Tasmanians were lucky. A culture limited in population and geography below a certain size may be “able” to optimize in areas otherwise not possible because of diverse competing and compelling self interest. It may not be the case that the Tasmanians were unable to revive fishing by borrowing from a neighbor’s cultural toolkit. Rather, it may be the case that Tasmanians were free from having to accommodate the demands of the local fishing lobby, as it were, or to appear to be satisfying some regional, if novel, cultural expectation.
So, to answer the question, “Why did the Tasmanians stop eating fish?” … Because they wanted to. Perhaps.
1I simply. When the glaciers were at their maximum extent, their weight forced the crust of the earth downward, so at some point in this history, George’s Bank would have been separated from much of New England by an arm of the sea, which would have become quickly smaller as the ice melted and the initial (and rather quick) phases of glacial rebound occurred. The point is, George’s Bank would have been part of the mainland long the North American eastern seaboard, then later, an island.
2One could speculate that moderate tidal waves would have been more common in those days than today. The playoff between glacial rebound and oceanic inundation may have made for occasional modest earthquakes right around George’s Bank, and there would be fairly regular large scale ice wasting of the type we worry about today but that rarely happens.
Davidson, Iain, & Roberts, David Andrew (2009). On Being Alone: The Isolation of the Tasmanians Book: Turning Points in Australian Prehistory chapter in Crotty, Martin and David Andrew Roberts, eds. 2009. “Turning Points in Australian History.” University of New South Wales Press, Sydney NSW, Australia.
(The book is here: Turning Points in Australian History)