A Community Bioarchaeology Project in the Flinders Group, Queensland, Australia

Abstract

Bioarchaeological research in Australia has lagged behind that in other regions due to understandable concerns arising from the disregard of Indigenous Australians rights over their ancestors’ remains. To improve this situation, bioarchaeologists working in Australia need to employ more community-oriented approaches to research. This paper reports a project in which we employed such an approach. The project focused on burials in the Flinders Group, Queensland. Traditional Owners played a key role in the excavations and helped devise analyses that would deliver both scientific contributions and socially relevant outcomes. The fieldwork and laboratory analyses yielded a number of interesting results. Most significantly, they revealed that the pattern of mortuary practices recorded by ethnographers in the region in the early 20th century—complex burial of powerful people and simple interment of less important individuals—has a time depth of several hundred years or more. More generally, the project shows that there can be fruitful collaboration between archaeologists and Indigenous communities in relation to the excavation and scientific analysis of Aboriginal ancestral remains.

Resumen

La investigación bioarqueológica en Australia se ha quedado a la zaga de la de otras regiones debido a preocupaciones comprensibles que surgen del desprecio a los derechos de los indígenas australianos sobre los restos de sus antepasados. Para mejorar esta situación, los bioarqueólogos que trabajan en Australia deben emplear enfoques de investigación más orientados a la comunidad. Este documento informa sobre un proyecto en el que empleamos este enfoque. El proyecto se centró en los entierros en Flinders Group, Queensland. Los propietarios tradicionales jugaron un papel clave en las excavaciones y ayudaron a diseñar análisis que entregarían contribuciones científicas y resultados socialmente relevantes. El trabajo de campo y los análisis de laboratorio arrojaron una serie de resultados interesantes. Más significativamente, revelaron que el patrón de prácticas mortuorias registradas por etnógrafos en la región a principios del siglo XX —entierro complejo de personas poderosas y simple entierro de individuos menos importantes— tiene una profundidad temporal de varios cientos de años o más. En términos más generales, el proyecto muestra que puede haber una fructífera colaboración entre arqueólogos y comunidades indígenas en relación con la excavación y el análisis científico de restos ancestrales aborígenes.

Résumé

La recherche bioarchéologique en Australie a pris du retard par rapport aux autres régions en raison d’inquiétudes compréhensibles ayant découlé du peu d’égards accordées aux droits des indigènes australiens sur les restes de leurs ancêtres. Les bioarchéologues qui travaillent en Australie ont besoin pour améliorer cette situation d’adopter des approches de recherche qui soient plus centrées sur la communauté. Cet article présente un projet pour lequel nous avons recouru à une telle approche. Le projet s’est consacré aux tombes se trouvant dans le Flinders Group, Queensland. Les propriétaires traditionnels ont joué un rôle essentiel dans les fouilles et ils ont apporté une aide pour la conception d’analyses ayant resulté en des contributions scientifiques mais ayant aussi eu des conséquences socialement pertinentes. Le travail de terrain et les analyses en laboratoire ont produit plusieurs résultats intéressants. Ils ont révélé plus particulièrement que le modèle des pratiques mortuaires consigné par les ethnographes dans la région au début du 20ème siècle, à savoir enterrement complexe des personnes de pouvoir et simple enterrement pour les individus moins importants, a une profondeur temporelle de plusieurs centaines d’années sinon plus. De manière plus générale, le projet démontre qu’il peut exister une collaboration fructueuse entre les archéologues et les communautés indigènes pour ce qui relève des fouilles et de l’analyse scientifique des restes ancestraux aborigènes.

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Acknowledgements

SA, DW, SW, MC and MCW are grateful to CF and the other members of the Cape Melville, Flinders and Howick Islands Aboriginal Corporation for the invitation to work with them. Thanks are also due to Peter Sutton, the Queensland Police, and Queensland’s Marine Parks and Department of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Partnerships. Thank you to David McGahan, Doug Williams, Duncan Wright, Cemre Ustunkaya and Brook Hendrey for assistance with fieldwork and analyses. Our work was primarily funded through an ARC Linkage grant (LP140100387). Additional support was provided by the Canada Research Chairs Program (228117 and 231256), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (203808 and 36801), and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund (862-804231 and 962-805808).

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Correspondence to Shaun Adams.

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Adams, S., Collard, M., Williams, D. et al. A Community Bioarchaeology Project in the Flinders Group, Queensland, Australia. Arch 16, 436–459 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11759-020-09411-w

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Key words

  • Community archaeology
  • Bioarchaeology
  • Indigenous archaeology
  • Mortuary archaeology
  • Aboriginal Australians
  • Burial