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Transegalitarian hunter-gatherers of Southwest Victoria, Australia

posted on 30.01.2017, 22:54 by Richards, Thomas Henry
The ongoing international debate regarding complexity in Southwest Victorian Aboriginal societies concerns unresolved issues surrounding the validity of the 19th century ethnographic record and the nature of archaeological evidence for complexity in the pre-contact period. This thesis critically re-examines SW Victorian Aboriginal societies with the aid of substantial new empirical data and by exploring the ethnographic and archaeological records through the theoretical lens of Hayden’s concept of transegalitarian socio-cultural complexity. It is contended that evidence for transegalitarian complexity is indisputably present in the ethnographic period and appears as early as the onset of the middle Holocene in the archaeological record of SW Victoria. Data from shell middens, including numerous radiocarbon age determinations, in the Cape Duquesne study area and other nearby localities are used to develop a 12,000 year long coastal archaeological sequence. Much of this period was characterised by small-scale, short-term shellfishing camps associated with the collection of individual, mobile, large shellfish. At c. 4000 cal BP there was a dramatic change with the appearance of permanent, focal coastal settlements resulting from highly organised, tightly scheduled, seasonal occupation by larger groups that stayed on the coast for longer periods. These groups utilised a broader range of shellfish species than previously while focusing on the mass collection and processing of one small, sessile species, Paphies angusta. These characteristics became more pronounced after c. 1500 cal BP. The direct historical approach is employed at the Lake Condah Outlet study area to investigate the archaeological manifestation of an ethnohistorically chronicled Aboriginal eel fishery. The late 19th century map and text, produced on the basis of first-hand observations plus information from traditional owners, provides invaluable information on the operation of a series of weirs, channels and traps as a water control and eel management system. Detailed archaeological mapping and recording of the still extant 19th century cultural features forms the basis for modelling the functioning of this system at varying lake levels, documenting the culture-based fishery form of eel aquaculture at the Lake Condah Outlet. This is the economic basis for transegalitarian features throughout SW Victoria in the ethnographic period and well into the pre-contact period. Three SW Victorian Aboriginal mortuary trees, from Moyston, Gorrinn and Cathcart, investigated using archaeological, ethnohistorical and physical anthropological data, are employed to evaluate the regional ethnographic model relating complexity in the staging of mortuary treatment to an individual’s status during their lifetime. Differential mortuary treatment of individuals of higher status is shown to be another transegalitarian feature of the ethnographic and archaeological records of SW Victoria. Criticism directed towards the Aboriginal ethnography of SW Victoria produced by James and Isabella Dawson is identified as originating in the late 19th century racist-motivated social evolutionary views of E.M. Curr, a poor recorder of Aboriginal culture. It is concluded that the Dawsons’ ethnography is an exemplary account of the Aboriginal societies of SW Victoria at the point of European contact, and the evidence therein regarding transegalitarian aspects of these societies is accurate. Transegalitarian traits in the ethnographic record of SW Victoria are identified and an assessment of the level of transegalitarian complexity discussed for several key variables, including population density, sedentism, land and resource ownership, production of economic surplus, leadership and government, marriage, polygyny and moieties, and meetings. It is concluded that the societies studied are moderately complex with the exceptionally strong leadership, verging on the highly complex, that is characteristic of societies with resource controlling corporate groups. Archaeological, ethnohistoric and anthropological evidence for transegalitarian complexity in SW Victorian Aboriginal societies are reviewed together in the concluding chapter. The initial appearances of transegalitarian features in the archaeological record are considered in a chronological sequence going back to c. 6600 cal BP, the earliest dated features of the Lake Condah Outlet aquacultural system. Significant settlement reorganisation related to increased land and resource ownership and sedentism is apparent in the establishment of large, focal coastal seasonal camps by c. 4000 cal BP. Later transegalitarian features such as the increasing rate of site establishment and use identified by Lourandos and Williams starting at c. 3000 cal BP, and the subsequent appearance and proliferation of constructed earth mound house platforms, now appear to be manifestations of later, well-developed stages of complexity in SW Victoria. The timing of the appearance and elaboration of transegalitarian features is considered in relation to palaeoenvironmental changes in SW Victoria and it is found that there is no correlation, either positive or negative. Instead, a case is made for social factors involving self-aggrandising individuals, manipulation of aquacultural food surpluses, competition for prestige through the hosting of great meetings, and the expansion of polygyny among higher-status men, as drivers of the appearance and elaboration of transegalitarian features in SW Victoria.


Principal supervisor

Ian J. McNiven

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Geography and Environmental Science


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts