Culture contact and indigenous economies on the Cobourg Peninsula, Northwestern Arnhem Land

  • Scott Roy Alexander Mitchell

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis is concerned with the process of and consequences of culture contact on the Cobourg Peninsula, northwestern Arnhem Land. Aboriginals from the Cobourg Peninsula came into regular and intensive contact with several groups of foreigners from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Macassan trepang fishermen from southern Sulawesi made annual voyages to the area. Britain attempted to establish two settlements, Fort Wellington and Victoria on the Cobourg Peninsula in the first half of the nineteenth century. From the end of the nineteenth century the Cobourg Peninsula was host to an assortment of timber getters, pastoralists, buffalo shooters and trepang fishermen of a variety of nationalities.

    Both archaeological and historical data are used in this thesis to address questions about two main issues. The first issue concerns the types of economic and social relationships which developed between Aboriginals and foreigners, and the chronological trends that can be identified in these relationships. The second, and most important issue concerns the degree to which culture contact impacted on Aboriginal hunter-gatherer economies on the Cobourg Peninsula.

    Ethnohistoric and ethnographic data are employed to develop models regarding the potential impact of culture contact on indigenous subsistence patterns, regional exchange networks and settlement patterns. In order to test these models, a series of midden sites from the Cobourg Peninsula have been recorded and excavated. Contrasts which can be identified between pre-contact and post-contact middens include changes in the relative frequency of turtle and dugong remains and the size and composition of stone artefact assemblages. Major differences in the size and structure of pre-contact and post-contact midden deposits are also apparent.

    These contrasts confirm that foreign contact was responsible for three major changes within the indigenous economy on the Cobourg Peninsula. Firstly, there was a dramatic increase in the intensity with which large marine animals were exploited. This change was facilitated by the widespread adoption of foreign maritime technology such as the dugout canoe and iron harpoons. Secondly, regional indigenous exchange networks in northwestern Arnhem Land, as reflected by the movement of material goods such as stone artefacts, accelerated after the onset of Macassan contact. Finally, a shift took place in the nature of Aboriginal settlement patterns on the coastline, with larger group sizes and decreased residential mobility during the post-contact period.
    Date of AwardMar 1994
    Original languageEnglish

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