Truth-Telling in the Wake of European Contact: Historical Investigation of Aboriginal Skeletal Remains from Normanton

Abstract

This study heeds the call for a ‘truth-telling’ of injustices carried out on Aboriginal communities during the colonial acquisition of Australia as stated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart 2017. Here, we discuss the lives of eight Indigenous people buried in Normanton in north-west Queensland (QLD) who died and had their remains collected in the late 1890s as scientific specimens. The remains were later repatriated to the community before being further exposed by erosion in 2015. With the consent and participation of local traditional owners—the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people—this assessment utilised bioarchaeological, historical and anthropological methodologies to gain a better understanding of Indigenous life and health on the Australian colonial frontier. Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people were engaged throughout the investigation, and statements throughout this piece made by them illustrate how bioarchaeology can inform on past injustices in Australia’s history, bringing them into the public consciousness and aiding the transition to reconciliation through ‘truth-telling’.

Résumé

La présente étude répond au cri d’appel à la vérité lancé en vertu de l’Énoncé du cœur d’Uluru de 2017 relativement aux injustices commises auprès des communautés autochtones durant l’acquisition coloniale de l’Australie. Nous y discutons de la vie de huit Autochtones enterrés à Normanton au nord-ouest du Queensland (QLD) et dont les restes furent recueillis à la fin des années 1890 comme spécimens scientifiques. Ces restes furent plus tard rapatriés dans la communauté avant d’être à nouveau exposés par l’érosion en 2015. Avec le consentement et la participation de leurs dépositaires traditionnels locaux, les peuples Gkuthaarn et Kukatj, la présente évaluation a eu recours à des méthodes bioarchéologiques, historiques et anthropologiques pour faire la lumière sur la vie et la santé des Autochtones de la zone frontière coloniale australienne. Les peuples Gkuthaarn et Kukatj ont participé à l’investigation et leurs commentaires, ici rapportés, illustrent bien la façon dont la bioarchéologie peut transformer les injustices passées de l’histoire australienne, sensibilisant le public et ouvrant la voie à la réconciliation en faisant état de la vérité.

Resumen

Este estudio retoma el llamado a dar “testimonio de la verdad” sobre las injusticias cometidas contra las comunidades aborígenes durante la adquisición colonial de Australia, como se plantea en la Declaración de Uluru desde el Corazón de 2017. Abordamos aquí las vidas de ocho personas indígenas enterradas en Normanton en el noroeste de Queensland (QLD) que murieron y cuyos restos fueron recogidos en los años 1890 como especímenes científicos. Se devolvieron los restos a la comunidad más tarde antes de quedar más expuestos por erosión en 2015. Con el consentimiento y participación de los propietarios tradicionales —los pueblos gkuthaarn y kukatj— se utilizaron metodologías bioarqueológicas, históricas y antropológicas en la evaluación para lograr un mejor entendimiento de la vida y la salud de los pueblos autóctonos de la frontera colonial australiana. Los pueblos gkuthaarn y kukatj participaron durante toda la investigación y sus declaraciones incluidas en este artículo ilustran la manera en que la bioarqueología puede proporcionar información sobre las injusticias del pasado en la historia de Australia, creando conciencia al respecto entre el público y contribuyendo a la reconciliación por medio de los ‘testimonios de la verdad”.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to extend our thanks to the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people of the south-eastern Gulf Country for inviting us to carry out this study. Thank you to the Normanton Rangers for assisting with fieldwork and allowing us to use their facilities throughout the investigation. A special thank you to Phillip George, Richie Bee and Francine George for their contributions to the research. Thank you to David McGahan for assisting with excavation and documentation of the remains. Assistance was also provided by Steve Nichols and the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Partnership (DATSIP). This research was funded through ARC linkage LP140100387.

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Appendix 1: Overview of Skeletal Remains

Appendix 1: Overview of Skeletal Remains

Individual 1

Roth’s notes indicate that this individual died in hospital. The third molars had not erupted indicating that he or she had died before reaching adulthood. The estimate based on eruption patterns indicates that this person was 15 ± 3 years of age at the time of death. The first and second maxillary molars exhibited dental caries. In the second molar, there was evidence of dental hypoplasia, suggesting that the individual underwent a period of chronic nutritional stress around the age of 3 years old.

Individual 2 (E15228)

All cranial sutures were open indicating that these remains were those of an adolescent. The maxillary teeth were all lost post-mortem. In the heavily weathered mandible, most teeth were also lost post-mortem, with the exception of three molars that demonstrated significant occlusal wear patterns, indicating it is likely that this individual subsisted on a traditional diet for much of their life. One of the molars exhibited evidence of interproximal caries, which also suggests that they subsisted on European foods. In the left parietal, there was significant trauma that had beveled edges. The poor condition of the bone and heavy weathering on one edge rendered it unclear whether this trauma was a result of surgical intervention (eg. trephination) or inflicted post-mortem. The lack of any bone remodelling on the un-eroded bone surface indicates that the trauma occurred close to the time of death and supports the suggestion that it may represent trephination.

figurea

1. Individual two exhibiting cranial trauma (possible trephination)

Individual 3 (E15813)

The dental eruption patterns indicated this individual was an adolescent, ~ 12 ± 2.5 years although occlusal wear was significant (Brothwell 1981: 72). A number of dental caries in the teeth in both the maxilla and mandible were identified, suggesting that a European diet was adopted for a considerable period of time. Dental hypoplasia indicated that the person had experienced nutritional stress and diseases like smallpox and syphilis are common diseases that can leave this type of physical trait in forming teeth and bone. The third molars had erupted, indicating that this individual was a teenager.

Individual 4

These remains were heavily damaged, and it was too difficult to clean the matrix around the teeth in the time available without further damaging the skeletal remains. The dentition—unerupted third molars—and suture (coronal and sagittal) development indicate this individual was also an adolescent.

Individual 5

This individual was only represented by fragmented portions of the crania, and these were in very poor condition. Based on rates or cranial suture closure, these remains are interpreted as those of an adult.

Individual 6

These very fragmented remains were those of a child. On the basis of dental/root morphology and development, the individual was considered to be between 7 and 11 years of age. Dental caries was observed indicating the individual subsisted on a largely European diet.

figureb

2. Individual six with interproximal dental caries in molar

Individual 7

The surviving cranial fragments were heavily weathered, and very few teeth remained in the maxillae. The base of the cranium was lost and the mandible was absent. The third molars showed no sign of gingival eruption; however, the present dentitions were all permanent, indicating that the individual was a teenager.

Individual 8

The skeletal remains were heavily affected by erosion, with the right half of the skull absent. There is bone loss that does appear to be reminiscent of caries sicca, which is a destructive lesion associated with tertiary syphilis. The third molar was erupted, and this individual is regarded as the only adult amongst the group.

figurec

3. Individual eight with possible caries sicca

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Adams, S., Martin, R., Phillips, S. et al. Truth-Telling in the Wake of European Contact: Historical Investigation of Aboriginal Skeletal Remains from Normanton. Arch 14, 412–442 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11759-018-9354-x

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Key Words

  • Indigenous archaeology
  • Contact history
  • Bioarchaeology