Vanished Wars of Australia: the Archeological Invisibility of Aboriginal Collective Conflicts

Abstract

In the debate concerning the existence of collective armed conflict before the advent of agriculture and the emergence of wealth differentiation, Australia—a continent entirely occupied by economic egalitarian foragers until the end of the eighteenth century—provides key insights. We explore the ethnographic data, striving to build a comprehensive database of the collective fights which were recorded. This survey brings a total of 165 events, among which 32 display a comparatively high level of lethality, with ten killed or more, a proportion far from negligible. An examination of each testimony leads to the conclusion that they are, as a whole, likely reliable. We then briefly discuss the nature of these collective conflicts, which purposes are marked by the lack of wealth in Aboriginal societies: the two main proximate causes, by far, are rights over women and retaliation for real or supposed aggressions—notably, conflicts over territories and resources are almost absent. It is also argued that at least some of these conflicts should be qualified as “wars”. Finally, we show why those conflicts leave so few archeological remains, by dealing with art, bones, and material means of conflicts, with a special attention to the “hunting versus war” weapon question. We conclude that if in such technical and social circumstances, these events are fairly difficult to record ethnologically, they are almost (if not totally) invisible archeologically.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The map is located at http://cdarmangeat.ghes.univ-paris-diderot.fr/australia/wars-map.html. The most lethal elements, which will be commented in detail in the following pages, appear in black. Each marker can be clicked to display its bibliographical references in a popup.

  2. 2.

    These observations are available in an online interactive map, including the bibliographical references for each marker, which can be seen at URL: http://cdarmangeat.ghes.univ-paris-diderot.fr/australia/anthropophagy-map.html.

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Acknowledgments

Supportive comments and critical suggestions were offered by Bruno Boulestin, Maurice Fhima, and Jean-Marc Pétillon; shortcomings remain my own.

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Darmangeat, C. Vanished Wars of Australia: the Archeological Invisibility of Aboriginal Collective Conflicts. J Archaeol Method Theory 26, 1556–1590 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-019-09418-w

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Keywords

  • Australian aborigines
  • Violence
  • Warfare
  • Feud
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Art
  • Weapons