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The polemics of making fire in Tasmania: the historical evidence revisited


Taylor, R, The polemics of making fire in Tasmania: the historical evidence revisited, Aboriginal History, 32 pp. 1-26. ISSN 0314-8769 (2008) [Refereed Article]

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When Jones asserted in 1971 that the Tasmanian Aborigines had dropped scale fish from their diet, he did so with corroborated archaeological evidence: he found a nonpresence of scale-fish refuse in middens past 4000 BP. When, in 1977, he asserted that they had also lost the ability to make fire, he did so without any such evidence. Apart from the possible traces of fire left on stones that may have been used as striking flints, as suggested by Gisela Völger, there is no archaeological evidence that could reasonably exist to determine the notion positively or negatively. The evidence concerning whether the Tasmanian Aborigines could make fire is drawn entirely from a small number of historical sources, all of which are ambiguous. If this is the case, how did the idea gain wide acceptance and why has it survived for so long? The short answer lies in the persuasiveness and popularity of Jones’ work. In his widely-read 1977 paper he controversially concluded that the Aboriginal people had chosen, imprudently, to drop scale fish from their diet. Jones went on to propose that the Tasmanians had also lost a range of arts and tools such as hafted axes and boomerangs because, being a small population isolated for millennia, they had eventually degenerated to a culture so simple that Jones wondered if they had been ‘doomed to a slow strangulation of the mind’. These words became famous with repeated reference, but it was their resonance with the hugely successful film The Last Tasmanian, in which Jones appeared as narrator, that made them (and him) so well-known and so controversial.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Article
Keywords:Tasmania, history, Aboriginal, archaeology, anthropology
Research Division:Indigenous Studies
Research Group:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, language and history
Research Field:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history
Objective Division:Culture and Society
Objective Group:Understanding past societies
Objective Field:Understanding Australia's past
UTAS Author:Taylor, R (Dr Rebe Taylor)
ID Code:126352
Year Published:2008
Deposited By:College Office - CALE
Deposited On:2018-06-06
Last Modified:2018-08-10

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