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.