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It is now widely accepted that modern humans dispersed from Africa some time after 100 ka, arriving in Australia before 40 ka via a route known as the southern arc. Along this route modern humans would have encountered new and diverse environments but their dispersal into and settlement of new areas was rapid. Language and other symbolic behaviours would have contributed to the flexibility of social and economic strategies required for such rapid dispersal and colonisation. However, there is generally little material evidence in the southern arc for the existence of this symbolic behaviour, except in Australia. We believe that previous assessments of the quantities of such evidence in Australia have underestimated its abundance. The crucial point is that colonisation of the southern arc is itself evidence for the existence of complex information exchange systems, planning depth and symbolic conceptualisation.
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Symbolic behaviour and the peopling of the southern arc route to Australia
Jane Balme
, Iain Davidson
, Jo McDonald
, Nicola Stern
, Peter Veth
University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia
University of New England, Australia
Australian National University, Australia
La Trobe University, Australia
article info
Article history:
Available online 18 October 2008
It is now widely accepted that modern humans dispersed from Africa some time after 100 ka, arriving in
Australia before 40 ka via a route known as the southern arc. Along this route modern humans would
have encountered new and diverse environments but their dispersal into and settlement of new areas
was rapid. Language and other symbolic behaviours would have contributed to the flexibility of social
and economic strategies required for such rapid dispersal and colonisation. However, there is generally
little material evidence in the southern arc for the existence of this symbolic behaviour, except in Australia.
We believe that previous assessments of the quantities of such evidence in Australia have underestimated
its abundance. The crucial point is that colonisation of the southern arc is itself evidence for the existence
of complex information exchange systems, planning depth and symbolic conceptualisation.
Ó2008 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
This paper investigates the dispersal of modern humans along
the southern arc and how flexible their social and economic
strategies may have been in terms of the speed of dispersal, the
range of habitats colonised and the use made of material symbols. It
begins with a brief overview of the chronology of expansion
through the southern arc and the range of habitats encountered
along the possible routes of dispersal. It then moves to a discussion
of the evidence for inter-group interactions and identity markers
(movement of goods imbued with high social value, ornaments, art,
ritual burial, use of arbitrary conventions in the making of artefacts)
and evaluates existing explanations for the apparent dearth of
conventional markers of symbolic behaviour.
2. Expansion across the arc
Fossil and genetic evidence (Stringer, 2002; White et al., 2003;
Forster, 2004; McDougall et al., 2005; Manica et al., 2007) indicates
that modern Homo sapiens originated in Africa between 195 and
130 thousand years ago. Recent mtDNA studies suggest that several
genetic lineages emerged in Africa after 150 thousand years ago. Of
these, only the L2 and L3 genetic lineages expanded to lay the
foundation for successful migration out of Africa between 85 and
55 thousand years ago (Oppenheimer, 2004; Forster and Matsu-
mura, 2005; Macaulay et al., 2005).
Exactly when the dispersal began has not yet been resolved and
there are no fossils from the Arabian Peninsula or DNA data bearing
on dispersal in this region. However, there is new, tantalising
evidence from the site of Jwalapuram in India suggesting that the
dispersal may have begun earlier rather than later in the time
bracket determined by the mtDNA studies. This evidence consists
of stone artefact assemblages that resemble Middle Stone Age
assemblages in Africa (Petraglia et al., 2007). These assemblages
occur both above and below ash layers deposited from the eruption
of the Sumatran volcano, Toba, and the assemblages lying beneath
include an ochre fragment. On these bases, Petraglia et al. (2007)
tentatively suggest a date of about 74 ka for modern humans in
South Asia. Dates of this order (65 ka and 60 ka, respectively) are
also suggested by mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA work
with Andamanese (Thangaraj et al., 2005) and mitochondrial DNA
studies of Malaysian Orang Asli (Macaulay et al., 2005). It must be
remembered, however, that coalescence dates only provide
maximum ages for the timing of dispersals because of the possi-
bility that dispersing populations already contained divergent DNA
sequences. Archaeological evidence, on the other hand, provides
minimum dates but it is inevitably patchy. The oldest modern
human fossil remains in South Asia are from two sites in Sri Lanka –
Fa Hien Cave dated to 31 ka and Batadomba-lene dated to 28.5 ka
(Deraniyagala, 1992 cited in James and Petraglia, 2005).
In Southeast Asia there is a firm date of about 46 ka from Niah
Cave in Sarawak (Barker et al., 2007). In Australia there is some
*Corresponding author. Tel.: þ61 8 64883825; fax: þ61 8 64881023.
E-mail address: (J. Balme).
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Quaternary International 202 (2009) 59–68
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controversy about the oldest dates of between 50 ka and 60 ka
based on TL, OSL and/or ESR age determinations (see, for example,
Roberts et al., 1994). Those who reject these early dates point to the
problems associated with luminescence techniques and the
apparent lack of clear association between the materials dated and
the archaeological occupation (see, for example, Allen and O’Con-
nell, 2003 and Gillespie, 2002). Relying exclusively on radiocarbon
technology and a strict approach to archaeological association,
dates of between 40 and 47 ka have been obtained for mainland
Australia and island Melanesia (Fig. 1) (see Allen and O’Connell,
2003 and O’Connor, 2006).
All of this evidence suggests that the process of colonisation
along the southern arc took 30,000 years at most and about 10,000
years at least. There were numerous points along the southern arc
where divergent routes could have been followed (Field and Lahr,
2005)(Fig. 2). The first of these points of divergence are the two
possible routes out of Africa (marked as ‘A’ on Fig. 2). At this point
colonisers could have proceeded via a ‘northern route’ across the
Sinai Peninsula and thence to the rest of the world or a ‘southern
route’ across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (involving a water crossing),
along the coast of the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia and Australia
(Macaulay et al., 2005). The second critical point of divergence was
reached at Sunda, because at this point dispersing population could
have taken a path either to Sulawesi or southwards through the
lesser Sundas (marked as B on Fig. 2). Morwood (Morwood and van
Oosterzee, 2007, pp. 167–182) has suggested recently that the
pattern of currents in island Southeast Asia would have made
a third route possible, one which initially went north to Palawan
before turning back south. The existence of this route is supported
by the distribution of much earlier mid-Pleistocene fossil species.
Fig. 1. Archaeological sites in Australia and Wallacea with radiocarbon age determinations of 40,000 years B.P. or more. (Sources of information on the position of the 75
bathymetric contour: Duncan, 1982, pp. 140–141; Geoscience Australia, 2003; Kilgour and Hatch, 2002; Lampert, 1981, p. 4; Voris, 2000).
J. Balme et al. / Quaternary International 202 (2009) 59–6860
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Another critical point was reached at the Bird’s Head of New
Guinea: from there people could have moved along either the north
or south edge of New Guinea (marked C on Fig. 2).
Although there is no DNA or archaeological evidence from the
horn of Africa, both the DNA and archaeological evidence from
elsewhere suggest that the colonisers of the southern arc took the
southern route out of Africa (e.g. Oppenheimer, 2004).
Evidence bearing on the movement of modern humans through
the Sunda Shelf is sparse, but it has generally been assumed that
a southerly route, through the Lesser Sundas was the most likely. If
the southern route to Sahul was taken the first island target of any
size east of the Sunda Shelf would have been Flores. Debate about
whether Flores was passed through, or by, is complicated by the
discovery of several fossils of Homo floresiensis on Flores, with
a known time range from 90 to 11 ka (Morwood et al., 2004, 2005).
H. floresiensis is a very small descendent of an earlier species,
currently undetermined, probably that which made the tools at
Mata Menge (Brumm et al., 2006) and is part of a specialised and
depauperate island fauna (Morwood et al., 2005). At present, no
archaeological evidence for the presence of modern humans on the
island before 10 ka has been identified (Brumm and Moore, 2005;
Veth, in press). Furthermore, it has been argued (Davidson, 2007a)
that the selection pressures that produced a hominin with small
stature and small brain size suggest that H.floresiensis is unlikely to
have had a larger-bodied and larger brained competitor. In conse-
quence one of the northern routes seems more likely.
Further consideration of a southerly route through the Sunda
Shelf has been encouraged by the suggestion that there was
a north-south ‘savannah corridor’ running through this region
during the Last Glacial Epoch (Bird et al., 2005). This savannah
corridor existed whenever sea level fell 40 m or more below its
present level, opening up a narrow landbridge between Peninsular
Malaysia and Sumatra and along the north coast of Java that sup-
ported open vegetation communities. This belt of savannah would
have provided a route to Niah and then a southern route to Aus-
tralia through the lesser Sundas (Bird et al., 2005). However, even if
modern humans had strategies for coping with the conditions
encountered in a wide variety of habitats, there is no reason why
the southerly route should have been preferred over other options.
The northern margin of the reconstructed savannah corridor would
have led these modern humans straight to the shortest crossing
point to Sulawesi, and the route that took them to Niah would have
led them through the savannah to Palawan and Morwood’s
preferred, far northern route.
Genetic research, based on mtDNA, indicates a time lag of 10
thousand years between first occupation of Papua New Guinea and
subsequent movement eastwards into Island Melanesia (Fried-
laender et al., 2005a,b). An alternative scenario involves a single
founding population that split prior to entry into Sahul, with some
groups colonising the northern edge of the continent, and others
moving simultaneously into more southerly regions. Genetic data
do not identify the immediate point of geographic origin for the
earliest migrants into Sahul.
More detailed reconstruction of how and when populations of
modern humans moved through the Sunda Shelf and into Sahul
cannot be gleaned from current knowledge of the fossil and
archaeological records. This is a consequence of the fact that limited
archaeological research has been undertaken in many parts of the
Sunda Shelf and the implications of acquiring new data from these
regions is illustrated by the situation in East Timor. There a new
generation of archaeological research was initiated in 2000 and
within six years the earliest dates for occupation had been
extended from 13 ka to 42 ka in calibrated years (O’Connor, 2006,
2007). However, the distribution of sites in the region with basal
dates older than 40 ka (Fig. 2) indicates that people moved rapidly,
even using the limited range of sites accepted by O’Connell and
Allen (2004). In addition, by 30 ka years ago people occupied most
habitats across Sunda and Sahul (Fig. 3)
3. The environment
Although savannah seems to have been the easiest habitat for
the colonising populations, the evidence form Niah and elsewhere
suggests that they were able to use the margins of such environ-
ments successfully. This is demonstrated in Fig. 4 which combines
Hope et al.’s (2004) vegetation reconstructions for the cooler
conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum based on pollen records.
Bird et al.’s (2005) suggested savannah corridor and the positions of
archaeological sites dated to 50–40 ka. From these overlays it is
evident that 40 thousand years ago people in this region were in
most habitats except grassland and temperate forest. An initial date
does not necessarily mean continuous occupation of a region as
Fig. 2. The southern arc route, showing critical points of divergence (after Field and Lahr, 2005).
J. Balme et al. / Quaternary International 202 (2009) 59–68 61
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indicated, for example, by the apparent abandonment of many sites
in lowland arid areas during the last Glacial Maximum (see, for
example, Hiscock, 2008, pp. 45–62; O’Connor and Veth, 2006).
Nevertheless the speed of dispersal and diversity of environ-
ments in which people settled as they dispersed through the
southern arc, particularly the uncertain resources of the deserts (cf.
Smith and Hesse, 2005; Veth et al., 2005), indicates an extraordi-
nary flexibility that we argue is indicative of group planning and of
information feedback. Evidence for some of this has been recovered
recently from Niah Cave in Borneo and includes indications that
before 46,000 years ago the inhabitants of this cave occupied
a diverse landscape in which they practised a complex foraging
behaviour that included forest burning, time consuming detoxifi-
cation of plant foods and probably animal trapping (Barker et al.,
4. Inter-group relations
Discussing inter-group relations of the earliest people on the
Australian continent is difficult when there are so few sites. One
line of evidence is the migration patterns indicated by mtDNA and
Y-chromosome lineages.The latest evidence from genetics suggests
that the Australian and New Guinea populations were relatively
isolated after their arrival in the continent of Sahul (Hudjashov
et al., 2007). However, this claim for isolation is not supported by
archaeological evidence: for example, by 9 ka people had travelled
from Sahul to Timor, taking with them cuscus, one of the marsu-
pials native only to Sahul (Heinsohn, 2001; O’Connor et al., 2005);
by 4000 years ago, the dingo reached Australia (Gollan, 1984;
McNiven and Hitchcock, 2004). Neither of these animals could have
crossed the sea passages that always separated Sahul from island
Fig. 3. Archaeological sites in Australia and Wallacea with radiocarbon age determinations indicating that they were occupied between 40,000 and 30,00 0 years ago (Bathymetric
sources are the same as for Fig. 1).
J. Balme et al. / Quaternary International 202 (2009) 59–6862
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Southeast Asia, unless they had been carried in watercraft built and
guided by people. The archaeological evidence demonstrates
a movement of people that appears to be invisible to the genetic
record and establishes that the isolation was not as great as infer-
ences from the mtDNA data imply. Of course, it is also possible that
the genetic lineages on both sides of the water might have been
similar throughout the period.
Nevertheless, the small groups who initially made landfall in
Sahul were responsible, apparently without significant later
introductions of genetically different people, for the emergence of
more than a thousand languages in Australia and Papua New
Guinea (Yallop,1982; Blake, 1988), consistent with genetic diversity
within Australia possibly dating back 40 thousand years (van Holst
Pellekaan et al., 2006). We might ask how that diversity was ach-
ieved. Was it economic, reflecting different specialisations in
a foraging economy? Or, more likely, was it social (cf. Keen, 2004)
reflecting responses to high population density in some regions,
and in areas of low population density and dispersal, the need to
maintain identity and extended social networks?
Oppenheimer (2004, pp. 89–128) argues that genetic changes
are not sufficient to explain the behavioural differences associated
with the success of the first people who left Africa and colonised
Asia, Australia and the rest of the world. Nor, he argues, is the
material record studied by archaeologists a straightforward
indication of the behaviours that permitted such extraordinary
expansion of the new species into territories some of which were
Fig. 4. Australia and Wallacea showing the vegetation as interpreted by Hope et al. (2004), the suggested savannah corridor (Bird et al., 2005) and the locations of archaeological
sites with radiocarbon age determinations of 40,000 years or more.
J. Balme et al. / Quaternary International 202 (2009) 59–68 63
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occupied already by rather similar hominin species. Paradoxically,
genetic change does not cause behavioural change and the material
evidence of behaviour does not indicate the nature of behaviour. So,
what was distinctive about the colonisers of the southern that
might be identifiable from the archaeological record?
One way of tackling this question is to think about the cognitive
ability of the colonising hominins. This approach derives from work
by Barnard et al. (2007). First, the cognitive abilities demonstrated
by early modern humans were not just different fromthose of great
apes, but represented several steps of change away from them.
Second, cognitive change is not simply a result of neural change and
may not be linked directly to genetic change. It is more likely to
result from the complex interactions involved in learned behaviour,
including (1) learning itself, (2) social interactions, particularly in
the context of its ontogenetic development, and (3) cognitive
feedback through a fully modern, reflective cognition.
Despite the acceptance that there is something cultural about
the ordinary behaviour of chimpanzees (Whiten et al., 1999, 2001;
McGrew, 2004), it is difficult to argue that those animals attach
meaning to the implicit roles in their everyday lives in the way that
people do. Barnard’s (1999) model includes a propositional cogni-
tive subsystem that is identified through the attachment of
meaning to those implicit roles and the consequent expansion of
the possibilities of mental representation (Davidson and Noble,
1989). The key component of almost all of the traits said to indicate
modern human behaviour (Klein, 2000; McBrearty and Brooks,
2000; d’Errico, 2003; Henshilwood and Marean, 2003; Mellars,
2005) is that they exhibit information flow, planning depth and
conceptualisation that follow from the use of language (Noble and
Davidson, 1991). Consequently colonisation by people with modern
cognitive ability allowed (1) efficiency due to information feedback
as groups moved into new environments but maintained contact
with ancestor populations and (2) group planning of the strategies
of movement in ways unavailable either to earlier hominins or to
other genera.
To what extent can these abilities be recognised in the archae-
ological record? Such behaviours can be identified from the pres-
ence of archaeological evidence for inter-group interactions, such
as long distance material transportation (Fe
´blot-Augustins, 1993;
Ambrose, 1998; Marwick, 2003) and identity markers in the form of
symbolic behaviour such as art, ornaments or ‘style’ (as indicated
by functionally redundant or otherwise unexplained variation in
material culture assemblages) and ritual burials.
5. Evidence for inter-group interactions and identity markers
Apart from the fragment of ochre from Jwalapuram (Petraglia
et al., 2007) the earliest unambiguous evidence for symbolic
behaviour in South Asia is the ostrich egg shell beads dated to 28,
500 years (James and Petraglia, 2005); the earliest explicitly
symbolic artefacts are found on the Indian subcontinent between
about 30,000 and 20,000 years ago.
In Wallacea and Australia the earliest evidence for symbolism
overlaps with the time of the arrival of people in Australia and
includes painted rock fragments dated to 42 ka from Carpenter’s
Gap in the Kimberley (O’Connor and Fankhauser, 2001) and lumps
of haematite with ground facets from Malakunanja 2 and Nauwa-
labila 1 in Arnhem Land. These are dated by OSL to 53 ka and 53–
59 ka, respectively (Roberts et al., 1994) but the early dates have
been disputed because of the difficulties of associating the
archaeological remains and the luminescence samples (Allen and
O’Connell, 2003) and the sites may date more closely to 40 ka. In
New South Wales, 2500 km south of the Arnhem land sites, there is
evidence for ritual burial practices at Lake Mungo, about 40,000
years ago, in the form of cremation and fragmentation of one body
and the use of sprinkled ochre on the extended burial of another
(Bowler et al., 1970, 2003; Bowler and Thorne, 1976; Olley et al.,
By about 30,000 years ago there is evidence of the movement of
materials over long distances including ochres that are sourced
from distant quarries found in 32,000 year old levels at Puritjarra in
Central Australia (Smith et al., 1998) and the movement of sca-
phopod shells over distances of 500 km from their source to Riwi in
the Kimberley dated to about 30 ka (Balme, 2000; Balme and
Morse, 2006).
Art was almost certainly part of the cultural repertoire of the
first Australians – if only because of the presence of ochre in sites
occupied before 30,000 years ago. The development of a figurative
component – archaic faces – within this art tradition may date to
the earliest period of a widespread, engraved, graphic tradition
(McDonald, 2005). All recorded examples are heavily weathered,
highly patinated and many are significantly geologically altered
(Edwards, 1968; Dix, 1977; McCarthy, 1977; Walsh, 1988) in all
conditions of dip, strike, orientation and petrology. These motifs are
distributed across the arid zone between the Dampier Archipelago
and Mount Isa. A small proportion of figurative motifs occur
amongst a larger repertoire of non-figurative motifs and track
motifs and there is some suggestion of early regionalisation
amongst Australia’s earliest art (and see Franklin, 2004).
Pigment art is considered to have a lower probability of survival
than engraved art. Nonetheless, Bradshaw Figures in the Kimberley
have been dated by OSL to 17 ka (Roberts et al., 1997) and the
pigment on buried rock fragments at Carpenter’s Gap has been
dated to 42 ka (O’Connor and Fankhauser, 2001). Changing
inventories of species also demonstrate major environmental
change from the Pleistocene to the early Holocene in the paintings
of Kakadu (Chaloupka, 1993) and the petroglyphs of the Dampier
Archipelago (Lorblanchet, 1992; McDonald and Veth, 2007;
Mulvaney, K. pers.comm. 2008). Dates for pigment found in oxalate
crusts in NE Queensland reach 24.6 ka in Laura and 28 ka in
Chillagoe (Watchman, 2001). Calibration of these dates gives
figures of 29 ka for Laura and 32.6 ka for Chillagoe. Although there
is no way to establish whether this dated pigment was part of
a painted motif, these results suggest we should not be surprised to
date art elsewhere in Australia older than 30 ka. These well
documented sequences across the northwest (in Kakadu, the
Kimberley and the Dampier Archipelago) show divergent regional
art traditions in the Pleistocene which suggest that there was
symbolic differentiation of populations early in the process of
colonisation. Early Australians were already differentiating them-
selves by the symbolic structuring of their relationships with the
environment and each other.
There is also evidence for widespread use of composite and
complex tools such as edge-ground and waisted stone axes
(Schrire, 1982; Groube et al., 1986) and shell adzes (Szabo
´et al.,
2007). There are flakes from stone axes dated to before 35,000 BP or
earlier from northern Australia (Morwood and Trezise, 1989;
O’Connor, 1999). If it is accepted that these artefacts indicate con-
ceptualisation of artefact form, it is clear that the modern colonisers
of the southern arc created material expressions of symbolic
behaviour and that the spatial and temporal distribution of
symbolic markers coincides with the first evidence for modern
people in that part of the southern arc.
6. Discussion
It has been suggested recently by Brumm and Moore (2005),
O’Connell and Allen (2007) and Franklin and Hapgood (2007) that
the evidence for symbolic artefacts associated with the colonisation
of Australia is slight compared to the record for the colonisation of
Europe by anatomically modern humans. Brumm and Moore (20 05,
Table 2, p. 162) illustrated their argument by summarising the
J. Balme et al. / Quaternary International 202 (2009) 59–6864
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numbers of sites, and the number of these sites that contain
evidence for art, ornaments and style in lithics (ground edged axes
being the only identified style), for five Pleistocene time tranches.
Table 1 draws on these data and includes an extra column
expressing the number of sites containing material evidence for
symbols as a percentage of the total number of sites in each time
period. There are two points to be made from this evidence. The
first is that these numbers may be underestimates. Although the
total number of sites containing symbolic evidence increases
through time, the percentage of these sites in each time tranche
decreases, thus the figures for the earliest period of colonisation are
not as low as it may seem. In addition, our earlier discussion
identified eight sites in Australia that are older than 40 ka, four of
which preserve evidence for symbolic behaviour. If we are correct
in our argument about the early production of regionally distinctive
art, then many rock art sites should be added to the list. The
numbers are also likely to be underestimated because of the like-
lihood that, as in ethnographic times, much of the ornamentation
used by Australian Aboriginal people was made from perishable
material such as hair and plant. Thus it may well be that the major
difference between the expression of symbolic behaviour associ-
ated with the colonisation of Australia and Europe is the relative
lack of particular styles in stone artefacts in Australia rather than
a lack of use of symbolic markers per se. We still have very few sites
representing this early period and such sampling issues may
become clearer as more evidence is uncovered.
The second point to be made is that symbolic conceptualisations
connected with planning depth and information flow may be
inferred for the southern arc from less tangible evidence. This
includes pre-LGM evidence for long distance sea voyaging outside
of Africa; such evidence comes from the settlement of Sulawesi
(Glover,1981; Bulbeck et al., 2004), the islands of Maluku, Gebe and
Sahul (for a summary of sites, dates and stone industries, see Moore
and Brumm, 2007) and movements east into Island Melanesia (for
a summary of sites, dates and stone industries see O’Connor, 2006a;
Moore and Brumm, 2007). On early voyages into island Melanesia,
people carried obsidian and live animals in their watercraft (Allen
and Gosden, 1991; Torrence et al., 2004).
Thus it can be said that the colonisation of the arc, provides clear
evidence of symbolic conceptualisations but little evidence of
symbolic markers before the colonisers arrived in Australia. Why
might that be so? The presence and abundance of symbolic markers
might depend on the presence of situations in which such
communications are necessary. Davidson and Noble (1992)
explained the early appearance of personal markers as part of
a system for identification of people with shared conventions in
a situation in which communication involved the use of arbitrary
but conventional signs, that is to say, language. Although this may
be an ultimate explanation for some symbol-use, more proximal
explanations are linked to arguments about increases in population
density because, for example, there was a greater chance of
meeting unfamiliar people for which that information might be
useful (Kuhn et al., 2001; Stiner, 2002). Some combination of the
two is undoubtedly necessary, given that no other primate engages
in symbolic behaviour whatever their population density. The fact
that there is a higher proportion of sites containing evidence for
symbolic markers (as defined by Brumm and Moore, 2005) early in
Australia’s colonisation rather than later, might suggest that there is
not a straightforward link between use of markers and the numbers
of markers and population density. On the other hand, the evidence
for divergent regional traditions of art in the Pleistocene suggests
symbolic differentiation of populations may have occurred rela-
tively early in the process of colonisation and establishment. The
difficulty of dating such traditions means that the symbolism
embedded in that art has not been studied in detail and is only now
being incorporated into broader discussion of their import for
initial colonisation. Symbolic markers have meaning only to those
who use them so members of other groups may recognise the
existence of those marks but not necessarily the information
embedded in them.
The crucial point to be made, however, is the theoretical posi-
tion that the rapid colonisation of the southern arc indicates that it
was colonised by people engaged in complex information exchange
systems, who displayed planning depth and conceptualisation and
these attributes were all bound up with the development of
7. Conclusion
What are the consequences for arguments about the colonisa-
tion of the southern arc following the crossing of the Bab-el-
Mandeb Strait by a small number of people? First, the presence of
evidence interpreted as indicating fully modern behaviour –
propositional meaning, information flow, planning depth, and
conceptualisation (Noble and Davidson, 1991)dindicates that
a capacity already existed to reflect on the consequences of actions.
This can be manifested in many different ways: creative technical
skill; association of meaning with complex action patterns; flexi-
bility in the options for interaction; rapid adjustment to new
resources. In practice these may be manifest in the archaeological
record through increased artefact variation and regional patterning
(Vanhaeren and d’Errico, 2006), appearance of socially constructed
roles (Conroy, 1993; Balme and Bowdler, 2006; Adovasio et al.,
2007; Kuhn and Steiner, 2006), and variation in the way such
patterning is manifest in different regions (O’Connor and Veth,
2005; Davidson, 2006). It is through more sensitive analyses of
these styles that archaeologists seeking to understand the coloni-
sation of the southern arc and Australia might link the colonisation
process with the symbolic conceptualisations of the pioneers.
Most importantly, and apparently at variance with the
patterning in earlier times, there is no requirement that the
emergence of propositional thought and symbolic construction of
the world should produce a particular pattern in the archaeological
record. It would have created patterning, but that patterning should
not be the same from one population to another. The flexibility that
derived from fully modern cognition and the use of arbitrariness
and convention in symbolic communication explains the apparent
paucity of evidence for symbol-use following the Howieson’s Poort
stage in southern Africa (Soriano et al., 2007) and in the early
archaeological records of Australia (Brumm and Moore, 2005) and
North America (Speth, 2004, 2006), despite earlier indications in
both regions, and an abundance of evidence in later prehistory
(Davidson, 2007b).
The archaeological record of the southern arc shows that the
people who occupied Wallacea and Sahul were infinitely adaptable,
in a manner implied by the fully reflexive cognition described by
Noble and Davidson (1996) or Barnard et al. (2007). They do not
appear to have been constrained by the selective pressures of island
biogeography and depauperatefaunas that confronted H. floresiensis
(Veth, in press). The anatomically modern humans of Wallacea and
Sahul shared fragmentary but observable archaeological traits,
which imply modern cognition and associated behaviour. These
Table 1
Number and percentage of sites preserving evidence for the use of symbolic arte-
facts, based on data presented by Brumm and Moore (2005, Table 2).
Time period Total number of sites Number of sites with
Percent with symbols
>40 ka 4 ?1 25
40–31 ka 18 3 17
30–21 ka 31 4 13
20–11 ka 96 8 8
J. Balme et al. / Quaternary International 202 (2009) 59–68 65
Author's personal copy
social, cognitive and planning capabilities were in evidence before
40,000 years ago in the southern arc of dispersal. Perhaps their low
or patchy occurrence is partially a product of low population
densities, high residential mobility patterns and rapid colonisation
associated with the high permeability that existed between
congruent habitats along the colonisation routes. The northern
hemisphere expansion of anatomically modern humans, in contrast,
occurred within relatively dissected and punctuated landscapes in
which separate populations have an advantage in signalling their
kinship with adjacent populations through shared conventions.
The crucial test for propositional meaning, information flow,
planning depth, and conceptualisation, as expressed in material
symbolic behaviours that archaeologists can retrieve, cannot be the
quantity of the enduring material markers, but whether they exist
or not. The tropical to savannah to desert trajectories of the colo-
nisers of the southern arc have no analogy with the geographically
punctuated and glacially affected landscapes of the northern
hemisphere. That the two canvasses hold different records may be
predicted because modern humans were able to apply their
symbolic way of thinking to different environments of colonisation.
We would like to thank Rudy Frank from the Archaeology
Program at La Trobe University for preparing the figures.
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... It is widely agreed that Sahul was settled by 'behaviourally modern' people sometime before 50,000 years ago (Balme, 2013;Balme et al., 2009;Bradshaw et al., 2019Bradshaw et al., , 2021Clarkson et al., 2015Clarkson et al., , 2017Hiscock, 2013Hiscock, , 2015Miller et al., 2016aMiller et al., , 2016bO'Connell et al., 2018;Smith, 2013;Veth et al., 2017c). Sahul sits at the end of the Southern Dispersal Route and its settlement required maritime (specifically, watercraft and cordage) technology to make a water crossing of up-to 120 km indicating that, not only was the settlement of Sahul a coastal one, but that the settling population also possessed a coastal and maritime adaptation (Balme, 2013;Balme et al., 2009;Bird et al., 2018Bird et al., , 2019Birdsell, 1977;Bowdler, 1977;Chappell, 2000;Hiscock, 2013;Jones, 1979;Kealy et al., 2016Kealy et al., , 2017Kuijjer et al., 2022;Allen, 2012, 2015;O'Connell et al., 2010;O'Connor and Chappell, 2003;O'Connor and Veth, 2000;Szab o and Amesbury, 2011). ...
... It is widely agreed that Sahul was settled by 'behaviourally modern' people sometime before 50,000 years ago (Balme, 2013;Balme et al., 2009;Bradshaw et al., 2019Bradshaw et al., , 2021Clarkson et al., 2015Clarkson et al., , 2017Hiscock, 2013Hiscock, , 2015Miller et al., 2016aMiller et al., , 2016bO'Connell et al., 2018;Smith, 2013;Veth et al., 2017c). Sahul sits at the end of the Southern Dispersal Route and its settlement required maritime (specifically, watercraft and cordage) technology to make a water crossing of up-to 120 km indicating that, not only was the settlement of Sahul a coastal one, but that the settling population also possessed a coastal and maritime adaptation (Balme, 2013;Balme et al., 2009;Bird et al., 2018Bird et al., , 2019Birdsell, 1977;Bowdler, 1977;Chappell, 2000;Hiscock, 2013;Jones, 1979;Kealy et al., 2016Kealy et al., , 2017Kuijjer et al., 2022;Allen, 2012, 2015;O'Connell et al., 2010;O'Connor and Chappell, 2003;O'Connor and Veth, 2000;Szab o and Amesbury, 2011). The evidence from Sahul and its nearby Pleistocene islands is, outside of Africa, among the earliest coastal archaeological evidence associated with Homo sapiens and provides some of the only conclusive evidence for coastal and maritime adaptations on the Southern Dispersal Route (Barker, 2013;O'Connor et al., 2011;Leavesley and Allen, 1998;Veth et al., 2017c). ...
There are few archaeological sites that contain records for Pleistocene coastal occupation in Australia, as is the case globally. Two major viewpoints seek to explain why so few sites exist. The first is that the Pleistocene coast was a relatively marginal environment where fluctuating sea levels actively inhibited coastal resource productivity until the mid-to-late Holocene. The second position suggests that the Pleistocene coast (and its resources) was variably productive, potentially hosting extensive populations, but that the archaeological evidence for this occupation has been submerged by sea level rise. To help reconcile these perspectives in Australia, this paper provides a review, discussion, and assessment of the evidence for Australian Pleistocene coastal productivity and occupation. In doing so, we find no reason to categorically assume that coastal landscapes were ever unproductive or unoccupied. We demonstrate that the majority of Pleistocene coastal archaeology will be drowned where dense marine faunal assemblages should only be expected close to palaeo-shorelines. Mixed terrestrial and marine assemblages are likely to occur at sites located >2 km from Pleistocene shorelines. Ultimately, the discussions and arguments put forward in this paper provide a basic framework, and a different set of environmental expectations, within which to assess the results of independent coastal research.
... Les enjeux sous-jacents à la bonne maîtrise de la chronologie de l'art rupestre en Afrique australe participent d'une meilleure compréhension des processus historiques sur le continent africain, mais relèvent aussi d'un travail plus fondamental sur l'importance et la signification des registres symboliques dans l'organisation des sociétés de chasseurs-cueilleurs. Les personnes qui connaissent l'Afrique australe savent la richesse de cette région du monde en sites d'art rupestre et la qualité des représentations figurées. Sur d'autres continents, comme en Europe, en Asie du sud-est et probablement en Australie, les premiers témoignages d'art rupestre remontent à plus de 35 000 ans (Balme et al., 2009 ;White et al., 2012 ;Aubert et al., 2014). On restera donc surpris d'apprendre que les âges attestés pour l'art rupestre d'Afrique australe ne dépassent pas aujourd'hui les 5 millénaires d'ancienneté (Bonneau et al., 2017), faute à l'absence de résidus carbones qui permettraient de dater directement les peintures en question. ...
... Discontinuities are unquestionably present within many arid zone and coastal Pilbara sites, evidently corresponding to part or all of the LGM (Morse, 1993;Przywolnik, 2005;Smith, 2013;Veth et al., 2016;Veth et al., 2017;Williams et al., 2013;Williams et al., 2015). Other sites, on the contrary, (including Karnatukul) record evidence for occupation during the LGM (Balme et al., 2009;Dortch et al., 2019;Marwick, 2002;McDonald et al., 2018a;McDonald et al., 2018b;Morse et al., 2014;Reynen et al., 2018;Slack et al., 2009;Veitch et al., 2005). ...
Despite environmental factors being at the forefront of socio-ecological models in Australian archaeology, detailed local environmental and vegetation datasets are uncommon. Such data is important in assessing, for instance, if and how shifting climatic conditions influenced and conditioned hunter-gatherer movements and choices. Archaeological re-excavation of Karnatukul (Serpents Glen) in Katjarra (the Carnarvon Ranges) provided an opportunity to undertake anthracological (archaeological wood macro-charcoal) analysis. This data offers an insight into the earliest uses of firewood and collection strategies in the Australian Western Desert. This study aimed at testing global anthracological methodologies to examine the problems and potentials offered by this important sub-discipline which is currently developing in Australian archaeology. This study makes an important contribution to international anthracological studies, given these are rarely applied to arid contexts, especially with an occupation record spanning almost 50 ka. The study demonstrates the presence and persistence of Acacia (sens. str.) woodlands from the Pleistocene, through the Last Glacial Maximum, and into the Holocene with the case made that this productive plant makes an essential contribution to the habitability of this arid landscape.
... The earliest modern human colonists of Asia and Sahul are supposed to have possessed a capacity for symbolic behavior (Balme et al. 2009;Davidson and Noble 1992). However, supporting material evidence for this expectation, such as adornments, figurative arts, and ritual practices (e.g., beads, rock art, and complex or decorative burials) are only sporadically known from the Late Pleistocene contexts of South Asia and Sahul (Brumm and Moore 2005;Clarkson et al. 2009;David et al. 2013;Habgood and Franklin 2008;James and Petraglia 2005;Perera et al. 2011). ...
... Rock art, sensu lato, has been argued to be part of the colonising repertoire of the First Australians. 49 Indeed, the ~50-41 ka dates for rock art in adjacent Borneo and Sulawesi provide empirical support for this. 50,51,52 This position is consistent with widespread evidence for early symbolic behaviour in other First Australians' material cultures such as ochre and its distribution, the production and trade of shell beads, complex tools such as the edge-ground axe, and funerary rites, including cremation. ...
The Kimberley region hosts a large body of figurative and non-figurative rock art, which we argue has changed through time as people have utilised it to interact with social and environmental changes. While the dating of this art is still nascent, preliminary evidence shows that some of the Kimberley’s earliest rock art dates to the terminal Pleistocene. This early art includes cupules as well as naturalistic animal, human, and plant figures. We focus on the continuity of these figurative motif types across styles, as matched to the occupation of archaeological sites and landscapes through time. We present a revised framework for relating style phases to changing social organisation, landscapes, and environments. This framework relies on new dates for rock art and archaeological data sets, as well as improved palaeoclimatic and sea level data. The relationship is explained by deploying a combination of Information Exchange and Group Boundary Formation Theory. This approach allows us plausibly to link changes in art, human occupation, and palaeo-environmental records at longer millennia-increment time scales.
... Knowledge of the occupational history of Northern Australia is changing rapidly, with new dates for the first human occupation being produced almost every year. It is now held that people were inhabiting the Kimberley by at least 50,000 years ago (Balme et al. 2009;O'Connell and Allen 2015;Roberts et al. 1990;Tobler et al. 2017 Green et al. 2017). For the purposes of this paper, we rely on the relative stylistic sequences proposed by Grahame Walsh (1994;, Welch (1993) and Veth and co-authors (2017) that examine superimposition sequences, and a recent paper on absolute dating on the IIA and Gwion periods (Finch et al. 2020(Finch et al. , 2021. ...
Even though the study of animal depictions in early art is one of the most researched topics in rock art, interpretations have often been anthropocentric. Rather than seeing how human and animal populations co-exist and become with, rock art explanations of animals often linger around economic appreciations that prioritize their value for human beings. This view has been extensively influenced by a Cartesian philosophy that has at its core an idea of human exceptionalism and domination over other species. Here, we are concerned with deconstructing the ontological footing of humans and animals in the early rock art from the Kimberley, Australia, from a relational and performative point of view. Methods used in rock art to identify figurative motifs are deeply entangled with Western conceptualizations of what it means to be human/animal, marginalising Indigenous ontologies. Our main objective is to advance an epistemological approach that will allow us to identify and understand the modes of representation used by artists in the study area. We do so through the application of an iconographic analysis that incorporates performative relationships between motifs. By considering performance, we are able to engage with non-essentialists ways of being and focus instead on Indigenous ontologies.
... Australia, landing on the exposed Sahul shelf (routes 2B, Figure 5). The presence of Homo floresiensis on the island of Flores may have deterred modern humans from passing through that island to reach Sahul (Balme et al., 2009). ...
This article re-envisages the human settlement of Australia’s deserts. It makes a case for their early occupation at the continental scale (a) by c. 60 ka; (b) during an early wet phase; (c) with rapid expansion of people; (d) relying on water features; and (e) showing changes through time in response to changing regional conditions. It is now well established that Australia’s deserts are as diverse as they are extensive and that ‘behavioural dynamism’ provides a better explanatory framework for arid zone social organization than ‘cultural conservatism’. Conceptual building blocks to explain desert settlement have included the process of human biogeography, the role of cryptic refugia in providing wide-scale foraging networks, and shifts in mobility in response to the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and other climatic events. The models which have emphasized different characteristics and scales of change in desert societies include peoples’ responses to ‘glacial refugia’, ‘desert transformations’, ‘water distribution’, and ‘cryptic refugia’. The article synthesizes new archaeological results and climate data from key sites across Australia’s deserts. The authors propose a new model for the settlement of Australia’s arid zone based on new climatic and archaeological data and finer-grained ecological and social approaches.
Kimberley rock art comprises style provinces which cover extraordinary geographies which appear to have changed through time. Indeed some of these connect the current Kimberley cultural bloc to the Victoria River District and even western Arnhem Land which today lie in the adjacent Northern Territory. How are why are such style systems shared over such large areas and through millennia across northern Australia? When does regionalism emerge and is it inevitably tied to increasing territoriality and less open information exchange networks? Is the reproduction of art styles circumscribed by social geographies at such vast scales or more by the regenerative power of markings at specific loci which have a recursive valency? In this paper we re-examine the issue of recursivity in rock art production. This will be explored with reference to the vast and well documented superimpositions, overprinting and pigment removal which occurs across most phases of art production from the terminal Pleistocene through to the Contact era. Why do some locales have evidence for at least 6 phases of art production while others witness a single panel representing as little as a single composition? Are some of the art styles more likely to occur in palimpsest assemblages while others appear as single motifs? While these ambitious questions cannot be exhaustively answered in this review piece, I will start to flesh out a series of patterns and testable archaeological propositions which a current ARC funded research project Kimberley Visions will aim to address.
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Discovery of a well-stratified fish hook from a cave sequence on East Timor shows a fishing technology developed at least 5000 years before the Austronesian expansion through Island South East Asia and into the Pacific. The fish hook is fashioned from shell and has been radiocarbon dated to 9741 ± 60 b.p.
Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives provides an issues-oriented overview of hunter-gatherer societies in desert landscapes that combines archaeological and anthropological perspectives and includes a wide range of regional and thematic case studies. • Brings together, for the first time, studies from deserts as diverse as the sand dunes of Australia, the U.S. Great Basin, the coastal and high altitude deserts of South America, and the core deserts of Africa • Examines the key concepts vital to understanding human adaptation to marginal landscapes and the behavioral and belief systems that underpin them • Explores the relationship among desert hunter-gatherers, herders, and pastoralists.
This book is an introduction to the archaeology of Australia from prehistoric times to the eighteenth century AD. It is the only up-to-date textbook on the subject and is designed for undergraduate courses, based on the author's considerable experience of teaching at the Australian National University. Lucidly written, it shows the diversity and colourfulness of the history of humanity in the southern continent. The Archaeology of Ancient Australia demonstrates with an array of illustrations and clear descriptions of key archaeological evidence from Australia a thorough evaluation of Australian prehistory. Readers are shown how this human past can be reconstructed from archaeological evidence, supplemented by information from genetics, environmental sciences, anthropology, and history. The result is a challenging view about how varied human life in the ancient past has been.
Describes a small excavation made in 1975. Because of its great age (between 19 000 and 31 000 yr), the material from this excavation is described in detail, but a detailed comparative analysis of the flaked stone tools is not yet possible because of the lack of other sites of this age so far recognised in Indonesia. There is also a report on sediments, on shellfish, and on radiocarbon dating of shells. -from Author