Thylacines in Tasmanian Aboriginal Archaeology

The Tasmanian aboriginals, the Palawa, were composed of many different tribes prior to the early 19th century genocide that destroyed their numbers. Early Europeans failed to properly study the Palawa, their culture, traditions, etc., but did at least record parts of many of their different tribal languages. Whose linguistic differences show that their tribial divisions must have arisen centuries or millennia before Europeans arrived. Moreover, different tribes appear to have had different relationships with the thylacine, from revering them to hunting and eating them. And it is the latter that is the aim of the present project. As part of my attempted exhaustive treatment of the early European thylacine literature (1642-1850), a very few sources alight upon aboriginal relationships and experiences with thylacines. Particularly the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who was Chief Protector of aboriginals for about a decade, roughly aligning with the 1840's. But they are quite dissatisfactory in determing more fully the normative attitudes of each tribe towards the species.

Thylacine remains in archaeological contexts would seem then to be a good proxy for tribes that did not revere the species. Particularly if there is evidence of consumption. While the absence of such remains is a good proxy for tribes that revered the species. However, we need to be extremely cautious because there may be other reasons that the species is present or absent in the archaeological record of a particular tribe. For example, there is an historical (1803-1930) paucity of records of living thylacines from much of the south-west of the island. Two main competing hypotheses may be raised to explain this absence. Firstly, the south-west has been said to be relatively unsuitable for the species to hunt as it tends to favour open plains which are notably absent. The second hypothesis is that the aboriginals from the south-west drove the species to local extinction, presumably as food. Therefore, the presence or absence of the species from the archaeological and palaeontological record of the south-west can help to adjudicate on this question.

However, there are other possible reasons that thylacine remains may be present or absent in an archaeological context. A tribe that reveres the species may nevertheless consume them during a famine. Or engage in ritual/ceremony with the bones. While tribes that do not find eating thylacines to be taboo may not consume them if other species are abundant or the local thylacine population had suffered a decline or local extinction. Therefore, it is probable that the exact relationships that each tribe had with the species are sadly irretrievable. However, we may just find overarching patterns in the presence/absence of thylacines from Tasmanian archaeological contexts and so it seems to me to be worth a shot. Who knows what we might discover.


Central Tasmania

Allen, Jim, Cosgrove, Richard and Brown, Steve. (1988). New archaeological data from the Southern Forests Region, Tasmania: A preliminary statement. Australian Archaeology 27: 75-88. [thylacine absent; Tasmanian emu absent]

Cosgrove, Richard, Allen, Jim and Marshall Brendan. (1990). Palaeo-ecology and Pleistocene human occupation in south central Tasmania. Antiquity 64(242): 59-78. [thylacine absent; Tasmanian emu present (Nunamira Cave, Site ORS 7)]


Northern Central Tasmania

McWilliams, R., Allen, J., Cosgrove, R. and Holdaway, S. (1999). Archaeological database. Report of the Southern Forests Archaeological Project, VOL. 3. CD-ROM (ISBN 1864465034). Bundoora: Archaeological Publications, Department of Archaeology, La Trobe University. [thylacine present (Warragarra rockshelter); Tasmanian emu presence unknown]


North-West Tasmania

Fletcher, J. A. (1925). A cave of the Aborigines. The Tasmanian Naturalist 1(4): 11-12. [thylacine absent; Tasmanian emu absent]


Western Tasmania

Stern, Nicola and Marshall, Brendan. (1993). Excavations at Mackintosh 90/1 in western Tasmania: a discussion of stratigraphy, chronology and site formation. Archaeology in Oceania 28(1): 8-17. [thylacine absent; Tasmanian emu absent]


South-Western Tasmania

Cosgrove, Richard. (1999). Forty-Two Degrees South: The Archaeology of Late Pleistocene Tasmania. Journal of World Prehistory 13(4): 357-402. [thylacine absent; Tasmanian emu present]

Cosgrove, R. and Allen, J. (2001). Prey Choice and Hunting Strategies in the Late Pleistocene: Evidence from Southwest Tasmania, pp. 397-429. In: Anderson, A., Lilley, I., and O’Connor, S., eds., Histories of Old Ages: Essays in Honour of Rhys Jones: Pandanus Books, Canberra, Australia. [thylacine present; Tasmanian emu present]

Garvey, Jillian M. (2006). Preliminary zooarchaeological interpretations from Kutikina Cave, south-west Tasmania. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006(1): 57-62. [thylacine absent; Tasmanian emu present]

Garvey, Jillian M. (2007). The wallaby hunters of ice age Tasmania. Australasian Science 28: 30,32-33. [thylacine absent; Tasmanian emu present]


Southern Tasmania

Jones, R., Cosgrove, R., Allen, J., Cane, S., Kiernan, K., Webb, S., Loy, T., West, D. and Stadler, E. (1988). An archaeological reconnaissance of karst caves within the Southern Forests region of Tasmania, September 1987. Aust. Archaeol. 26: 1-23. [thylacine absent; Tasmanian emu absent]



The Tasmanian emu is present in all papers in which the thylacine is present, but not vice versa (the possible exception is (McWilliams, 1999) in which the thylacine is present, but I have no access so I don't know if the Tasmanian emu is present as well). The Tasmanian emu seems to be restricted at present to sites in the south-west and central Tasmania. In contrast, the thylacine is very rare in archaeological sites, mirroring the situation on the mainland. Little can currently be gleaned from this unless or until further remains are uncovered that extends the geo-temporal record of the species in archaeological sites.


Appendix: Vegetation changes due to Aboriginals

Cane, Scott and Stockton, Jim. (1977). The discovery of Tasmania and man's effect on the environment. The Tasmanian Naturalist 51: 1-8.

Ellis, R. C. (1984). Aboriginal influences on vegetation in the northern highlands. The Tasmanian Naturalist 76: 7-8.