Dab1-Sq-A-XU34_resizedBy Jacqueline Matthews

Based on recent article from Australian Archaeology 76, Further radiocarbon dates from Dabangay, a mid- to late Holocene settlement site in western Torres Strait by Duncan Wright and Geraldine Jacobsen.

New research significantly shows that people were living in Torres Strait and hunting large marine fauna soon after the islands formed (through rising seas) 8000–7000 years ago. This research is also important due to the rarity of finding sites in this region that pre-date 4000 years ago, despite a much greater age for settlement of nearby Papua New Guinea and mainland Australia (at least 45,000 years ago). This existing discrepancy between island and mainland antiquity may seem odd, but it makes more sense when considered in the context of the significant fluctuations in sea-level through the course of human occupation. Changes in sea-level caused large areas of land, including the land bridge that previously connected Australia to Papua New Guinea, to disappear under the water potentially taking with it archaeological evidence for human occupation (for more information on sea-level rises visit SahulTime).

Map of the Torres Strait Islands, showing the location of Mabuyag and Badu Islands. Image courtesy of Duncan Wright.

Map of the Torres Strait Islands, showing the location of Mabuyag and Badu Islands. Image courtesy of Duncan Wright.

In a recent article in Australian Archaeology, Duncan Wright and Geraldine Jacobsen report new results from the island of Mabuyag in the western Torres Strait (a group of islands that stretch between Papua New Guinea and mainland Australia). Their excavations of Dabangay in 2006 and 2011 and subsequent radiocarbon dates from charcoal and bone provide evidence of human occupation from 7239–6033 cal. BP (about 7300 years ago). Burnt dugong and marine turtle bone dated to 6480–6256 cal. BP from Dabangay represents the earliest direct evidence for exploitation of these animals in the Torres Strait. Wright and Jacobsen argue that bones and associated large, stone artefacts show that people were adapting to new island environments.

The Dabangay site from the air. Photograph by Ian McNiven

The Dabangay site from the air. Photograph by Ian McNiven

This discovery is significant when considering other early sites in the area. For example stone artefacts excavated at Badu 15 (on nearby Badu Island) have been dated after 8000 years ago (David et al. 2004). David et al. (2004) suggest people left Torres Strait after the land bridge was flooded, with Badu visited very occasionally by voyagers from mainland Australia.  Interestingly, the archaeological evidence from Dabangay indicates that not all Torres Strait Islands were abandoned after flooding of the land bridge (e.g. David et al. 2004).

Excavation of Dabangay. Photographs courtesy of Duncan Wright.

Excavation of Dabangay. Photographs courtesy of Duncan Wright.

Wright and Jacobsen argue for dynamic settlement patterns on this island over time. Their results suggest people occupied Dabangay for around 4000 years, abandoning the site around 3500 years ago and then resettling within the past 1800 years. Wright and Jacobsen suggest a major reogranisation in human settlement after 3300 years ago, at which point people are likely to have moved to newly formed beaches on the east side of the island. During this period people started eating new things and manufacturing different types of stone artefacts (see forthcoming article in the journal of Queensland Archaeology Research for details). This supports previous archaeological research, which indicates a major demographic expansion in the western Torres Strait after 4000 years ago. Previous research has shown that this reorganisation coincides with the stabilisation of beaches on islands (Barham 2000) and changes in vegetation linked to increases in human firing (Rowe 2006).

This research broadens our understanding of complex patterns of human settlement on Australian and Pacific islands. Research in the Torres Strait is continuing so we can expect to learn more about this dynamic region over the coming years.

Excavation of Dabangay. Photograph courtesy of Duncan Wright.

Excavation of Dabangay. Photograph courtesy of Duncan Wright.

References:

Barham, A.J. 2000 Late Holocene maritime societies in the Torres Strait Islands, northern Australia – cultural arrival or cultural emergence? In S. O’Connor and P. Veth (eds), East of Wallace’s Line: Studies of Past and Present Maritime Cultures of the Indo-Pacific Region, pp.223–314. Modern Quaternary Research in Southeast Asia 16. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.

David, B., I.J. McNiven, R. Mitchell, M. Orr, S. Haberle, L. Brady and J. Crouch 2004 Badu 15 and the Papuan-Austronesian settlement of Torres Strait. Archaeology in Oceania 39:65–78.

Rowe, C. 2006 Landscapes in western Torres Strait history. In B. David, B. Barker and I.J. McNiven (eds), The Social Archaeology of Indigenous Societies, pp.270–286. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press and The Australian National University.

For more information:

Crouch, J., I.J. McNiven, B. David, C. Rowe and M. Weisler 2007 Berberass: Marine resource specialisation and environmental change in Torres Strait during the past 4000 years. Archaeology in Oceania 42(2):49–64.

SBS Podcast interview with Duncan Wright on the findings from Dabangay, available here.

Wright, D. 2011 Mid-Holocene maritime economy in the western Torres Strait. Archaeology in Oceania 46:23–27.