Why did the Tasmanians Stop Eating Fish?

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 reï¬ected creative adaptation to climatic and ecological changes, or by evidence that, in isolation, Tasmanians developed and reï¬ned 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 signiï¬es 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 conï¬icted.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)


More like this

From memory, the Tasmanians also "lost" sewing and fire-making (I'm not certain they had fire making), and had a cultural rule that fire must always be shared if asked, even if you then proceded to fight the people you just shared it with.

Do Davidson & Roberts "On Being Alone" discuss sewing and fire ?

That's an interesting article and it contains a lot that surprises me. I'm a non-indigenous Tasmanian so I have a bit of insight from my knowledge of indigenous artefacts. The idea that Tasmanian Aborigines did not fish is surprising and, to my mind, suspect. Certainly coastal fishing is more dangerous than picking shellfish off the rocks, and many of the waters off Tasmania are dangerous - most particularly Bass Strait - the body of water that separates Tasmania from mainland Australia - which is hard to navigate even with modern boats and equipment. However, there really hasn't been that much archaeological investigation of Tasmanian Aborigines in the pre-settlement period, and what has been found doesn't necessarily rule out fish eating. The majority of evidence relies on middens and shells survive well in middens - smaller fish bones wouldn't necessarily do so. Also, this doesn't take into account the issue of river fishing which is much less dangerous and can be done with baskets and nets as it is elsewhere in Australia.

Early European settlers describe Tasmania as teeming with wildlife particularly wallabies and muttonbirds (which are very easy to catch). It's entirely possible that the Tasmanian Aborigines didn't fish much because it simply wasn't cost efficient in terms of energy expense when there were easier foods to find.

Tasmanian Aborigines certainly had sewing technology - they made necklaces from shells, using sinew or reeds to thread them. Whether the same technology was used to sew animal hides is another matter. As with mainland Aborigines the evidence may be sparse - it's only recently that the presence of sewn and decorated Possum Skin cloaks from Victoria has been acknowledged in academic literature.

By Quatrefoil (not verified) on 08 Aug 2010 #permalink

I see our future here. As more and more people lose interest in science and math, either because it's hard, or because there are easier ways to make a living, or it conflicts with their beliefs, we could start to atrophy. First to go will be space travel, something that too many people already regard as useless. Then we'll stop innovating in other areas. We'll decide our computers and software are already good enough. Most likely advanced technology will rise in price, causing many people to decide they can do without it. I doubt we'd regress much beyond 1900, to a level where a reasonably adept individual could fix most things with hand tools, but I think we could easily lose all of our high technology.

Good summary Greg - I guess Iain is basing his chapter (which I haven't seen) on my paper âTasmanian Adaptationâ Mankind 12:28-34, 1979, which first made the point of Tasmanian culture being both rich and adaptive. This later appeared, somewhat updated, in a chapter of my book "The pure state of nature" Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2000. It is online here http://davidhortonsblog.com/history/ in Chapter 5 Eating fish is wrong, about a third of the way through that "page" on the blog.

(Waves at Quatrefoil)

One notes that over here in NZ, sometime around the 15th century, the Maori lost/discarded the usually ubiquitous polynesian voyaging canoe technology, and almost discarded sailing craft entirely in favour of paddled single hull war canoes. Conspiracy theorists like to claim this is because all the coastal tribes were wiped out by a megatsunami, but there is probably a more prosaic reason to do with having a big set of islands with rich resources and little need to maintain a time-intensive blue water sailing tradition.

Hooray, an article about Tasmania :D I'm a born and bred Tasmanian (non indigenous).

The fish thing is very surprising. I'm fairly sure that indigenous Tasmanians ate abalone and other shellfish that they would have had to dive for, as well as shellfish that they collected from the shore.

Of course Tasmania had relatively low population density, as you would expect from hunter/gatherer tribes, and in most places still has rich resources of available food, so I could accept that they didn't need to eat fish, and that fish is more effort than shellfish.

Of course they also ate shearwaters (mutton birds), which taste like fish. This is also another source of food that required little effort - just pulling them out of burrows.

Hey! You're the first thing I see on ScienceBlogs today! :)

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 08 Aug 2010 #permalink

"...perhaps living as the people of XXX live today..."


By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 08 Aug 2010 #permalink

They talked about Tasmania on Crooked Timber recently. I found the linked Heinrich paper very interesting.

By Harald Korneliussen (not verified) on 08 Aug 2010 #permalink

Thanks Greg a nice piece that I have not taken all in yet. I really like the comparison with the George's Banks and Doggerland in the North Sea would be another one where we know that archaeological evidence has been dredged up.
Rhys Jones did some interesting stats on distances and crossings. I am constantly surprised that no one has done much archaeology on the Tiwi Islands in northern Australia, as these look as if they would have been beyond the distance of easy crossing for most of the Holocene. This should have implications for testing many of the statements about Tasmania.
@David, of course I have read your papers, but the point of this paper did not really need to address them--an oversight I know. For what it is worth I think you dealt with the controversy about fishing better than most. Our paper did not do a lot about fishing but was really trying to address the other question of whether there was any plausibility of the claim that Robinson reported that the Tasmanians knew of a dry land crossing to Australia. I really do not think that is likely and we canvassed the reasons why in the paper.
It is also the case that we did not give as much time to Henrich's ideas about population size and innovation as we should have done if this were anything other than an essay in a book of *historical* essays. This paper followed another (which you can also find on my academia.edu site together with this one, which argued that the Tasmanians provide positive, but limiting, evidence about the nature of modern human behaviour. Davidson I. 2007. Tasmanian Aborigines and the origins of language. In: Mulvaney J, and Tyndale-Biscoe H, editors. Rediscovering Recherche Bay. Canberra: Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. p 69-85.

Interesting that the previous post called the theory that the Maori encountered a megatsunami a "consipiracy theory". Odd, what sort of conspiracy could create a tsunami? But seriously, the fact the fishing was not unknown but taboo would lead me to believe that the taboo was the response to some sort of tragedy. In a small community losing 10 fishing boats in a storm could easily be enough of a trauma for the village elders to declare fishing "taboo". Particularly if it wasn't strictly necessary to survival.

Interesting idea, that in the face of easier-to-access resources a culture would drop a technology that we outsiders would think is vital. I remember coming across once a reference to the idea that the Greenland Norse gave up fishing, based on a near absence of fish bones in middens... its already well established that they never adopted the technologies of their Inuit neighbors (though whether this is due to a cultural resistance or to lack of friendly interactions with the Inuit is hard to say) but I've always found it strange that they would abandon fish, given that fish are a major component of the traditional norse diet. I would be tempted to think that the lack of evidence for consuming fish among the greenland norse has more to do with the evidence of fishing being overlooked or missing, as its hard to imagine greenland having so many resources that fish were not seen as necessary. If its true that they did give up fish, then it would make a very interesting puzzle as to how and why it occured.

@David: In a small community losing 10 fishing boats in a storm could easily be enough of a trauma for the village elders to declare fishing "taboo". Particularly if it wasn't strictly necessary to survival.
Perhaps this is similar to our modern "this must never happen again" reaction every time there is a tragedy, which in our time does seem to mean we draw back from any activity percieved to be risky, while continuing with other more dangerous ones which don't kill groups of people.

The prevalence of other foods has been pointed out, but weren't there any periods where population pressure or enviromental change would have led to food shortages requiring the use of fishing again?

I was thinking maybe it was because they ran out of white wine, but if they still ate shellfish that answer seems less probable.

By Virgil Samms (not verified) on 09 Aug 2010 #permalink

Davidp: Also from memory, I believe it is said that the Tasmanians "lost" fire making. Since no ethnography has been done of pre-contact Tasmanians of the type that would demonstrate this, I'm suspect, though certainly it is possible. However, if you judged if a culture had fire making entirely on archaeology, many cultures did not have it, because there are lots of ways to start fires without using preservable pieces that could be uniquely identified as such.

Sewing, I don't know about. Perhaps Davidson will chime in on that one.

Very interesting post.

By Ewan/Rokkaku (not verified) on 09 Aug 2010 #permalink


Thanks for the comments from an actual person from Tasmania!

It is quite possible that more archaeology has been done than you realize, because a fair amount has been done. There are a number of coastal sites, which are middens, that do indeed preserve (as middens around the world generally seem to do) evidence of fishing. The evidence of fishing exists prior to about 4K, then drops out, and there does not seem to be a preservation bias related explanation for that in the middens themselves.

In my post I suggest that I'm suspicious of this as well, as are you, suggesting that more work be done. Fishing may well become something done in a complementary way to shellfish collecting, site-wise, time-wise or group-wise, which would cause fish remains to be deposited somewhere else . Middens tend to enhance the preservation of fish remains, so if the fish remains were deposited elsewhere they may not be found today.

However, I emphasize that the archaeologists working on this seem fairly convinced about it.

The danger issues I bring up do not rule out fishing at all. Lots of people do dangerous things. I simply offer it as an explanation for dropping fishing for sensible reasons rather than your culture getting all lonely and stupid.

River fishing would be a whole 'nuther story, as you point out.

Zane: There are tsunami conspiracies? Well, I guess there would have to be. By the way, pottery was dropped along the way as Polynesia was peopled. Which, now that I tink about it, was around the time the Tasmanians seem to have dropped pelagic and maritime fishing.


Jeremy: Yes, the Tasmanians devinately collected shellfish. I should mention by the way, that sea-side shellfish collecting is not without its hazards. Indeed, the northern Australians who did this, nicely documented in a clasic ethnographic/ethnoarchaeological study by Meehan, used dogs as early warning systems for sharks when collecting certain resources in knee-deep water.

On shearwaters: Funny how fish are good when they taste like fish, but the idea of something that is not a fish tasting like fish puts me off a little....

Charles S: Yes, Tuvalu would work, but I picked the Maldives. Harold, thanks for the link.

Very nicely written, Greg, and I think it will be worth reading again. I am only a mere geologist, so I don't know much about anthropology, but the more I read, the more it seems to me that population density is the key to technological progress. You look at technologies of around 200,000 years ago, and they progress, they regress, and ask "What is going on here?" "What is changing?" I am thinking that civilization was not inevitable, there was just a tipping point of population density, and humans took the ball and ran with it.

Somewhere, somehow, the humans got dense enough, and it was all downhill from there.

By CherryBomb (not verified) on 09 Aug 2010 #permalink

Maybe land use changes coincided with dietary shifts and population growth. The Tasmanian aboriginals used fires to open up dense coast lowland forest, altering the landscape flora and fauna and enabling aboriginal bands to alter their dietary habits and hunting range.

Evidence is found at the same time, that aboriginals employed fire management that altered hunting and food gathering patterns, implement and hunting tools were refined. Fire management would have been evidence of retention of fire-technology that evolved long before the Australian-Tasmanian land bridge was submerged. Australia became drier about 5,000 years ago and that may have also altered vegetation and fauna within various band's food gathering ranges.

Women continued to gather marine mollusks and the men hunted marine mammals, so their diet retained important coastal marine inputs. I seriously doubt fish-eating stopped completely and agree with comments posted above that fish may have become become a minor or seasonal dietary component that wasn't well preserved because it may was consumed in small temporary fishing camps.

Maintenance of perpetual fires (including live coal carriage) is a very old technological advancement employed by many ancient cultures. To stop using these methods, and revert to need to start fires from scratch would have been technological de-evolution, wouldn't it?

Cherrybomb: "Somewhere, somehow, the humans got dense enough, and it was all downhill from there." Dense in more ways than one!

Passerby: Good point on the fire un-starting technology.

It should also be mentioned that the interior of Tasmania underwent significant changes, from more open parkland to dense forest. There is a corresponding shift in settlement pattern with that change.

I don't want to say when that happened because it is important and I don't have the latest research in front of me on this.

I don't think you mentioned the possibility that there could have been an event that wiped out the fishing Tasmanians, and thus ended fishing on Tasmania. Such a loss could have been from catastrophe (tidal wave/hurricane), or accident, or violence.

The savvy flint-knapper, of course, would be an early adopter of metal. Not so far-fetched, since such people would presumably have the highest levels of knowledge about stone in the first place, including where the stone with the shiny bits in it can be found. And ready access to spark-making material would suggest knowledge about how to start fires.

Or maybe not - these just-so stories can fly a bit too high sometimes.

calvin: It has been suggested in the past that the reason could be something like a red tide infestation that caused everyone to stop eating fish because it made them sick.

As much as I enjoy your fly-by posts, what a pleasure it is when you post your own stuff .

Losing the ability to make fire in Tasmania would be a big limitation - it's bloody freezing down there! - cold climate must leave its mark on technologies too.

Agreed with Passerby that fire maintenance can be considered a step up from fire starting. Damp conditions can mean starting a fire from scratch can take over an hour even *with* the knowlege and decent tools. But with a collection of still-hot embers, you can dry the tinder.

The Norse of Greenland-- could they have ended up doing something with fish remains other than putting them in the middens? Fish are supposed to be very good fertilizer. Small fish can be eaten with the bones. Pigs and chickens aren't fussy about what they eat. Could ground up fish parts have been used to supplement feed?
If this is the community I'm thinking of, things got rather desparate and it seems more likely they would have wasted no resources rather than failed to try to use them.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 10 Aug 2010 #permalink

I am really amazed to hear that Tasmanians has stopped eating fish. I think they can't afford to buy fish.

There's another factor in technological loss: population. In order to build decent boats, you need professional boatmakers; indeed, you'll likely need a number of these to work together to construct a boat of reasonable size. To accomplish this, your economic unit must be large enough to generate a labor surplus to support such professionals -- and there will surely be specializations having greater priority. Moreover, many hunter-gatherer groups are operating on the margins of existence: they need 95% of their labor devoted to acquiring food, which leaves precious little in the way of labor surplus. Thus, there is a minimum population required to support boat construction. If the Tasmanians were broken into small social units incapable of or unwilling to engage in substantial trade, then it is quite reasonable to believe that they could not support boat making.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 10 Aug 2010 #permalink

Chris, the population size limit is the core of the isolation argument made by Diamond and others in relation to Tasmania. But, it is not really the case that foragers live at the edge. They actually have piles of free time, more than agriculturalists do.

Oops, I forgot that -- thanks. However, I think that the lack of surplus labor remains an issue. Even when only 50% of the work hours available are required, you still end up needing substantial surplus labor to support more complicated technologies. The question then becomes, why do hunter-gatherers fail to use their free time working at improving their technologies? I suspect that there are some good answers to this, but regardless of their reasons, I think we can say that, by devoting so much time to non-technology activities, they still don't have much surplus labor to devote to, say, boat-building.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 10 Aug 2010 #permalink

The question then becomes, why do hunter-gatherers fail to use their free time working at improving their technologies? I suspect that there are some good answers to this, but regardless of their reasons, I think we can say that, by devoting so much time to non-technology activities, they still don't have much surplus labor to devote to, say, boat-building.

Well, the question presupposes that there is a goal that everyone shares. (Your heteronormativeoccidentoindustrial view!!!!11!!)

Also, hunter gatherers have built stupendous boats and developed amazing technologies. The Maritime Archaic (related to Georges Bank, speculatively, see above) were sea-going people that may have had technologies second to none. The Inuit and other arctic groups have boats and harpoon technologies that are sufficient to hunt large whales. The Kwakiutl had impressive seagoing boats.

Those are all hunter-gatherer groups, but other groups with a small amount of horticulture were just as impressive in their boat building and seafaring, and their horticulture may have been a small part of their time expenditures compared to foraging and fishing. (Remember, fish are wild foods, not domestic, so Pacific island fisherpeople are essentially hunter-gatherers.)

If the hunter-gatherer boat builders you cite were part of a larger economy (that is, they traded to such a degree that they were able to engage in some specialization to enjoy the benefits of economies of scale), then my hypothesis regarding population size is still viable (just viable, not in any way demonstrated). However, if there's a single hunter-gatherer culture with small, non-interacting groups, then I think we've blown that hypothesis out of the water.

The Inuit provide a tricky case. They developed some very impressive technology, but all of that technology is still single-user buildable: you don't need a narrow specialist to devote most of their time to mastering the technology. The Hawaiian Islanders also built a lot of fairly big technology, but again, they formed a somewhat integrated culture extending over the entire archipelago. What we really need are truly isolated cultures that operated without much trade and kept the group size small. The highlands New Guinea folk are agriculturalists, but their technology was pretty small.

I'm not trying to push this hypothesis hard -- you're the expert here. But I'd like to see how well it can stand up to the heavy guns.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 10 Aug 2010 #permalink

Chris, it is not really fair to base a model on the fact that foragers don't have free time, then when they do, change the model so they don't use their free time, then when they do, change the model so they only use their free time because of some kind of interconnection with other groups.

Regarding the latter, no. The foragers of the Northwest Coast were the dominant culture for their whole region and they did not have some kind of connections with other groups that were pulling strings or providing added impetus or energy, etc. The hypothesis really does not stand up very well.

Are you sure the Inuit do not specialize? I'm afraid that lack of specialization in foragers is one of those assumptions (like, they have no free time, or their language is simple, or they mainly communicate regarding resources they depend on while sitting around the camp fire, etc.) that has fallen aside as research progresses. We see specialization in all forager cultures. There is probably a lot more of it in several non-forager cultures, but it simply isn't the case that foragers don't do that.

Also, you have set this up so that no one can win in a way you may not suspect. One way in which specialization occurs among many 'traditional' groups (foragers and middle range horticulturalists) is at the group level ... all of the bows used over a very large area are made in one village and one village only. All the arrows in another. All the dogs are trained in another. All the narcotic drugs are made in another. And, then, trade happens. But you've suggested that if trading is happening, that that culture does not count (perhaps you did not mean that).

Many forager groups or minimally horticultural groups specialized in this way. The Nipmuck of southern New England, foragers (who, by the way, launched one of the most successful wars against the Europeans of the century) specialized in soapstone, and traded both guiding services and soapstone for Naragansett (specialist made) pottery. They probably had other trading parters as well, but the ethnography is obscured by European induced migration, war, and pestilence. The shift from all women making all pottery to some men making all pottery among the Arikira is a classic study by Deetz. John Cross has looked at specialization in New England prehistory in flint knapping. There is a fair amount of evidence of specialist flintknappers in several cultures. Then, there are the shamans. Among the Efe, a specialist huts elephants ... no one else.

Technological advancements are driven by need. Food was relatively abundant along the Tasmanian coasts and grasslands. Fire management to open space in heavily forested areas assisted in food access, expanded diet, and reduced reliance on the sea.

Holocene sea-level fluctuation would have been an critical factor for coastal community food-gathering success and continuity. Population pressure in coastal settlements was also a factor, along with an intensification of 4-seasons climate with precipitation and vegetation changes at about this time.

Volcanic island-arcs and polar environments are terrestrial resource constrained and are marine resource-technology dominated, for indigenous peoples.

Only the northern Australian aboriginals were maritime specialized culture that relied on boats. As they migrated inland and fanned out over the vast Australian continent, they developed highly-specialized tools, hunting techniques, and land management practices. Maritime technology would be left behind where impractical, but retained where riverine, estuarine or marine food sources were essential to support semi-isolated communities.

A pre-Holocene land-bridge facilitated migration into Tasmania of a largely terrestrially-adapted people with adequate technology to survive who probably never were completely reliant on marine food sources.

I also question the logic of the loss of sewing technology and by supposition, abandonment of clothing - not in a temperate climate.

Greg, you seem rather touchy about this, so I'm going to go back to basics and explain the fundamental concept I am exploring. I believe that the size of an economic unit determines the level of technological specialization available to that unit. Note that I am not considering a tribe, clan, or family unit as my basis; my point about trade is that it expands the size of the "effective workforce" when thought of as an economic unit. Thus, the cases of specialization that you describe demonstrate that the various peoples participating in this trade were able to take advantage of the specialization; they were therefore operating at a more highly developed technological level than they could have achieved acting alone.

The best way to shoot down this hypothesis is to find a case of an economically small population (trade limited to a small population) that nevertheless retained technologies that we see only in larger groups. Of course, there's no calibration standard here: how many people should you need to operate any given technology? Nevertheless, the hypothesis, I believe, is worthy of some consideration, if only because a cursory overview of various cultures through history seems to show a rough correlation between population growth and technological progress.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 10 Aug 2010 #permalink

Greg, you seem rather touchy about this,

Yup ... just doin' my job as one of the only representatives of forager researchers on the blogotubes.

I believe that the size of an economic unit determines the level of technological specialization available to that unit. Note that I am not considering a tribe, clan, or family unit as my basis; my point about trade is that it expands the size of the "effective workforce" when thought of as an economic unit.

I totaly get what you are saying, and you may be right. However, you have used foragers as a datapoint with the usual bad data about foragers that most people have as misconceptions. There may well be something to your model. It is what people have been suggesting for some time.

Have you read Diamond's science paper on Tasmania?

Thus, the cases of specialization that you describe demonstrate that the various peoples participating in this trade were able to take advantage of the specialization; they were therefore operating at a more highly developed technological level than they could have achieved acting alone.

Recast the question: What factors explain the variation we see across groups in the degree of specialization?

I'm afraid you may be adding "trade" (a loaded term, by the way, and you probably mean interaction here, which can include trade).

The best way to shoot down this hypothesis is to find a case of an economically small population (trade limited to a small population) that nevertheless retained technologies that we see only in larger groups.

My tautology buzzer just went off. I know what you mean, but this is a bit difficult, if we start out observing differences, then define the differences, then look to see that the differences are there, then ... they'll be there.

the hypothesis, I believe, is worthy of some consideration, if only because a cursory overview of various cultures through history seems to show a rough correlation between population growth and technological progress.

It does merit investigation. One thing that needs to be done as part of that is phrasing the obverse. Do you expect groups that are effectively large, interactive and trading across a large area with lots of people, to get the specialization and technological 'development'?

The Hopewell Interaction Sphere (traded items from the coast of Washington, to the southern Mississippi to Vermont) they had big centers and sufficient management power to build mounds ... big mounds. They had fairly complex chiefdoms. But, the main agricutlural tool was a stick and the main hunting tool was a stone tipped stick you threw.

Mississippian, a thousand years later, roughly the same region (but the centers in different places). Similar results, but the mounds looked different (I oversimplify).

Inuit: Small groups, no large scale interaction, independantly invented very sophisticated technology but no monumental architecture. the technology probably came from need, but the Dorset lived in the same area for a thousand years earlier without the technologies the Inuit/Thule had (but the INuit and Thule did expand to new areas ... the technology may have allowed that).

It's complex. It is hard to see how one would define variables and collect the data.

My concern is not that it is a bad idea, but rather, that it uses (in this early stage) dicey, sometimes antiquated assumptions, is based on looking for what is already observed, and ultimately, therefore, will produce what we already have, a fairly Eurocentric industrio-normative scaled teleological view of prehistory.

Perhaps this idea can be paired down to specific technological domains, a specific habitat/climate zone, a specific continent (because there can be "phylogenetic effects" and looked at across a demogrpahic transition that occurs PRIOR TO a technological transition (to see if it causes technological change).

I would suggest micronesia/polynesia.

Traditionally, the Navajo didn't eat fish, altho most do now. They knew fish were edible and witnessed other peoples roundabout catching and eating fish. The taboo against eating fish was cultural & religious. In Navajo legend there was a time when men and women lived on opposite sides of the River of Separation (the Rio Grande). Occasionally lovers would leap into the river and attempt to swim to the other side in order to be reunited with their beloved. When they began to drown Water Monster would take pity and turn the people into fish. The reason the Navajo didn't eat fish is because they believed that they might be eating a relative. The point being that there doesn't have to be a rational reason for a cultural taboo.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 10 Aug 2010 #permalink

>I believe that the size of an economic unit determines the level of technological specialization available to that unit.

Technological specialization, beyond gender-assigned responsibilities for child rearing and simple gathering and hunting, suggests a major socialization change to hierarchal, sedentary (fixed place) habitation.

That is the next step - and major - development stage beyond hunter-gather paleoculture. It requires food diversity to be provided by local acquisition without seasonal depletion.

An intermediate case. Coastal indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest were/are semi-sedentary, loosely hierarchal society subsisting on a varied and rich food supply, primarily marine. In the case of the Haida, they are renown for their boating and fishing skills. They are an example of a marine-specialized, island-dwelling paleoculture; they were able to adapt to coastal flooding from rapidly rising sea level 8-10,000 years ago because of their proficiency in using boats to move along the coast on the ocean, from one location to the next.

About 5,000 years ago, the Haida culture and economy shifted as their population grew, to include specialty wood-working for making art, weapons and war canoes. This occurred after they migrated to estuarine locations rich in shellfish, that afforded sufficient food supply that they were able to build permanent shelters in villages, developed food storage and woodworking skills and became role-specialized and war-like to defend their villages and raid others, an activity they found to be profitable.

NASA science brief on sea-level change, 5-6,000 yrs ago:

Technological specialization, in the crafting of new tools, methods and processes necessary to survive on a limited type food resource suggests a situation of people are fixed to their locale, at least seasonally, by resource limitations within their homeland range. If resource limitations or competition is severe, they may advance to domestication of either plants or animals, or both, to supplement food quantity and variety (produce, gather and store) to address resource depletion by fixed place habitation.

That was not the case in Tasmania, with it's varied ecotypes and plentiful and varied food and materials resources. The Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania were never so numerous that they overpopulated the island and stripped the resources, forcing specialization, technological innovation and aggression.

It might be argued that need drives behavioral plasticity, adaptation, innovation and competition that can progress to either commensal relations (tolerance, exchange and trading) or parasitic aggression (war, theft and defensive strategy) with nearby non-related peoples - that they are linked to stages of technological evolution as acquired, permanent and taught behaviors.

Isolation may have hindered technological advancement through cultural exchange with the mainland, but I think natural abundance of resources played a role in tolerance and passivity, with a slow rate of technological innovation. As long as there was abundance and lack of competition that might lead, for instance, to warfare and weapons making or niche food type specialization, they didn't need to progress further than they did.

They didn't devolve: they simply didn't evolve in the ways they might have, under resource limitations.

In most cases, cultural prohibitions to certain foods have been found to have a practical basis.

Prairie dogs, snakes, turkeys, and fish were said to be taboo to the Apache, Navaho, and Pueblo tribes; they were believed to be unclean. Prairie dogs fed snakes and revered raptors; snakes kept rodent populations in check. Turkeys may have provided feathers and were too lean to provide much meat; however, the prohibition might be related to species range and domestication of turkeys by paleoindian agriculturalists.

Fish species were not exactly in prime abundance in the desert rivers of the Southwest. The region has thirty percent of the landmass of the US, but only 18 percent of the total freshwater species. Probable driver for species diversity constraint are river temperature and the episodic (~300-400 years) severe multi-decadal droughts of Southwestern US.

Iain Davids mentions a taboo on fish-eating in Tasmania; there is probably a practical reason for this taboo

Passerby: Technological specialization, beyond gender-assigned responsibilities for child rearing and simple gathering and hunting, suggests a major socialization change to hierarchal, sedentary (fixed place) habitation.

That is the next step - and major - development stage beyond hunter-gather paleoculture.

Please see comments above regarding specialization in foragers. Also see this: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2010/05/primitive_cultures_are_simple…

Regarding taboos: All cultures have taboos, but no culture has food they can't or won't eat. (That's today's riddle: How can it be?)

Tasmania was 'extensively glaciated' during the last Ice Age. De-glaciation finished until about 16,000 years ago. If the sea levels rose precipitously, starting about 15-14 KY, exactly when did humans cross the land bridge into Tasmania?

Exposure dating and glacial reconstruction at Mt. Field, Tasmania, Australia, identifies MIS 3 and MIS 2 glacial advances and climatic variability. J Quaternary Sci 21(4):363-376.

Reasonably good read:
Southern Hemisphere Climatic Similarities.

There were people in Tasmania before and during the "extensive glaciation" period.

I have a couple of points to make vis-a-vis technology and culture, and I apologise if they take up a lot of room - there's always a lot to say on a topic like this.

I'm a soc anth grad student at Oxford, and my particular focus in my reading for PhD prep has been Austronesia. Mostly western Austronesia, but also Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. Somebody above made the point that sea voyaging was basically abandoned by the Maori once they got to Aotearoa, and Greg also mentioned the loss of pottery use by Polynesians. A third example I'd like to throw into the ring is the use of the bow and arrow in Tonga and Hawai'i (and possibly the rest of Polynesia), where it was used in hunting (rat-hunting with a bow and flightless arrows was the Tongan royal sport) but not in warfare, and sport hunting at that.

So there are three examples of technologies in Polynesia, and they each have different reasons.

For the first - Maori ocean-going - the reasons are to do with geography, I think. New Zealand is big. It is the biggest landmass inhabited by Polynesians prior to European arrival in the Pacific, with the second biggest being Hawai'i. This means that land was abundant, and could be fought over. One of the main reasons for the Polynesian expansion, as P.V Kirch mentions in several of his works, was the desire for the youngest son to find land and wealth. Youngest sons in eastern Austronesian areas were not given an inheritance by their father, but were expected to find it or go poor. The rewards of sea-faring were balanced by the rewards of finding new lands.

On top of this, sea-faring wasn't always about discovery. In order for Polynesian societies to avoid generational endogamy, wives had to come from other kingdoms or other islands. Samoa and Tonga were intimately connected along these lines, and the distances between them are not small. This encouraged sea voyages over long distances, and so the skills were retained, just as they were in the Polynesian outliers, which are hundreds of miles from anywhere else.

New Zealand could support many populations big enough to provide wives for each other and to negate the importance of voyaging for youngest sons. A youngest son could engage in war with another Maori group, and attain wealth that way. A similar thing happened in Hawai'i. By the time of European contact, Hawai'i and the Society Islands were no longer in contact. Hawai'i's land mass was big enough to provide opportunities for war, wealth, and wives between the islands themselves.

Only the Polynesian outliers have retained their voyaging skills into the present day (and some Micronesian islands, too).

The pottery issue is the most easily solved of the three. There is little or no clay in Polynesia east of Samoa, and there are plenty of organic alternatives. Coconuts, basalt, leaf baskets. So the Lapita pottery work that marks out the culture in the archaeological record is found to diminish in importance the further east it goes from the Bismarck archipelago, eventually becoming Polynesian plainware in Samoa - very simple, functional ware - before disappearing.


As for the issue of bows and arrows in Polynesia, the reason that I pose it alongside these others is that its lack of use doesn't appear to make much sense. It simply appears that bows were considered hunting weapons and slings were the weapons of war, and the categories seldom mixed. It's unclear whether there was a specific taboo on bow-use in Hawai'i, but there appears to have been one in Tonga. So the question is, why?, and the answer is, we don't know. Technology is simply stuff that humans use, and it follows the dictates of their cultures and their brains. If there had been trained ethnographers at the time, maybe we'd know the answer to the question of why Tongans used bows only for hunting, and why Tasmanians never fished.

I'd also like to point out that Tasmania is not the only place where the sea was shunned. Bali, which is only 80km across and entirely surrounded by the sea, also had a population that, prior to the tourist explosion, viewed the sea as the source of bad spirits. Fishing was seldom undertaken, except by foreigners (Javanese, Europeans, Sulawesians), who might then sell the fish to the Balinese. A very odd situation.

So I'm basically pointing out that people abandon or use technologies for a variety of different reasons, not all of them entirely pragmatic. That's hardly surprising, but it appears that more people need to become anthro majors, based on this thread! (Seriously, it needs a better brand or something...)

Passerby said:

The Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania were never so numerous that they overpopulated the island and stripped the resources, forcing specialization, technological innovation and aggression.

And nor were the people of the north-west coast of North America, whom you used as an example above this. Salmon were extremely plentiful in the area, and the abundance meant that human populations could grow. They certainly didn't overreached and overpopulate the area. Their existing methods could provide for their larger populations. And it certainly wasn't scarcity that created the potlatch, north-western aggression, and innovation.

Simple naive-functionalist explanations like that don't really hold up.

(Remember, fish are wild foods, not domestic, so Pacific island fisherpeople are essentially hunter-gatherers.)

Most of the food on Pacific islands came/comes from tended plots. Gathering and foraging were (and are) extremely low on the agenda. Taking the example of Hawai'i, breadfuit, coconut, pandanus, cordyline, sweet potato, yam, paper mulberry, arrow root, tumeric, mountain apple, bamboo, Indian mulberry, banana, forty varieties of sugar cane, candlenut, kava, shampoo ginger, taro, and bottle gourd were all intensively grown on the islands before European contact. There was really no need to gather anything, and this selection is fairly typical. Even tiny islands like the Polynesian outliers of Anuta, Tikopia, and Taumako in the Solomon islands cover their land in crops. So "hunter-gatherer" isn't really the best phrase - "fisherman-horticulturalist" might be better.

"The rewards of sea-faring" in #48 should read "the risks of sea-faring".

I have been a scallop captain for many years and have dredged all parts of Georges Banks.
I have picked up artifacts which I believe to be from indigenous people. The artifacts that were recovered vary, I believe from a couple of time periods. Some of which evidences that whatever caused these people to disappear may have been sudden and cataclysmic.
One particular piece seems to be a Wholly Mammoth tooth which is more a coal feature assuming? that it was being cooked or had been cooked prior to the event.
The area where it was found was near the ridge of the middle of the Bank to the East. In the same area the dredge recovered what looks like stone tools made from prehistoric animal bones which are now petrified, A rib of some sort with markins as it would have been strapped to a stick for a spear, An egg casing used to scrape hide or ladel. An Eye tooth from some thing, that was used to pound or grind.
On the upper Eastern part of the Bank. there is an area where. Megladon Shark teeth are dredged up with vertabrae and didcs of a mix of prehistoric animals, as is a tidal swirl of dead animals were fed upon by the Sharks, hence the mix of teeeth among the fossilized bones.
Hope some of this helps in your research.

By Capt Alan H Cass (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

Captain Cass ... a lot of members of the Cass family in the past have captained boats in that region, if I recall correctly.

If you'd like to show your artifacts to someone who may be interested in looking at them contact me and I'll probably be able to find someone in your area.

this is not a true thing Tasmanians did not stop eating fish, this story is fake people are just saying this so dont beleave it, it is just a myth i would stop saying things that are not true and teaching kids that go onto this site and read these things that are not true and beleaving in it.
so stop!