Prehistoric settlement patterns and artefact manufacture at Lawn Hill, Northwest Queensland

Hiscock, Peter (1989). Prehistoric settlement patterns and artefact manufacture at Lawn Hill, Northwest Queensland PhD Thesis, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland.

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Author Hiscock, Peter
Thesis Title Prehistoric settlement patterns and artefact manufacture at Lawn Hill, Northwest Queensland
School, Centre or Institute School of Social Science
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1989
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Total pages 727 (2v)
Language eng
Subjects 210104 Archaeology of Australia (excl. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander)
430200 Archaeology and Prehistory
Formatted abstract
Archaeological research at Lawn Hill Station, northwest Queensland, was undertaken to investigate prehistoric stone artefact manufacture and settlement patterns. Of particular interest were the ways in which technology and settlement responded to changes in environmental conditions.

Settlement strategies are inferred from a study of sixty-two sites and many thousands of artefacts found outside sites. Most archaeological material culture is found in close proximity to permanent water and outcrops of flakeable stone. It is concluded that this pattern resulted partly from more intensive occupation of those parts of the landscape, and partly from a greater rate of artefact discard. Other environmental features had more subtle effects on activity location. One pattern which emerged from the study was that site size is inversely related to distance from stone quarries, suggesting that site size and numbers of occupants are poorly correlated.

Distance from quarries is found to be a major determinant of assemblage composition. Many technological attributes indicate that as stone was carried away from the quarry it was increasingly rationed to maximize stone use before a return to the quarry was necessary. Rationing was achieved by an increase in use-life and the application of knapping procedures which prolonged reduction. Cores, flakes and retouched flakes were all subjected to this economizing behaviour. Increased rationing would have been accompanied by changes in the rate and context of artefact discard, a conclusion which fits well with inferences about the distribution of material culture throughout the landscape.

Since much of the inter-assemblage variation at Lawn Hill can be explained by the economics of stone procurement and manufacture, it is concluded that technology was largely unresponsive to other aspects of subsistence or settlement. This conclusion implies that seasonal patterns of movement or foraging are unlikely to be reconstructed from the stone artefacts at Lawn Hill. Furthermore, this conclusion implies that technology is not embedded in subsistence practices and lends support to an argument that curation of artefacts is primarily a response to shortages of stone material, not a response to time stress or to particular strategies of food procurement.

Conjoin analysis provides the basis for reconstructions of prehistoric stoneworking. Collections of artefacts from quarries and from knapping locations elsewhere are examined and great detail is obtained about reduction processes. Stoneworking of chert and greywacke was different, reflecting the distinctive mechanical characteristics of each raw material. Consequently, there are distinct correlations between raw material types and knapping debris, including implement types. Tulas and backed blades were only made of chert, and unifacial and bifacial points of greywacke. Even within one raw material type, variations in the physical characteristics, such as grain size or nodule shape, caused knapping behaviour and the size and shape of debris to vary. This finding indicates that it is difficult to employ functional and stylistic explanations of these archaeological stone artefacts. The mechanical differences increased the necessity of rationing, since not all stone produced the same artefacts.

Two cave sites, first occupied in the Pleistocene, were excavated in the south of the study area. Similar sequences of behaviour are inferred from both sites. Prior to 18,000 years BP, the inhabitants exploited not only the gorges and adjacent plateau, but also the greywacke outcrops on the plains to the north. At this time retouched flakes were rarely discarded. Between 18,000 and 13,500 years BP, co-incident with the aridity of the glacial maximum, there was a contraction of the territory exploited by people based in the gorges. This is indicated by an absence of materials from the northern plains and a decreased use of stone and faunal resources available on the surrounding plateau. Simultaneous increases in stone artefact discard, bone and shell discard, trampling and fire use in this period indicate that to compensate for the decreased use of some parts of the landscape, the sites in the gorges were used more intensively. Technological changes occurred because the restricted territory involved a different system of stone procurement. After 13,500 years BP, gorges were used less intensively, and materials from the plateau and northern plains were brought into the caves once again. Artefact sizes were smaller during this period, but despite the appearance of points, tulas and backed blades in the middle Holocene levels few changes in stoneworking technology could be identified.

On the basis of these trends it is hypothesised that arid and semi-arid areas of inland northern Australia had probably been occupied at least 30-40,000 years ago; but were largely abandoned during the glacial maximum. It is also suggested that this response to climatic change was facilitated by low population densities and relatively undeveloped inter-group relationships. A review of data from other regions of arid Australia indicates that abandonment at the glacial maximum was a widespread phenomenon. Chronological changes in technology occurred, although they are not unidirectional, but these are minor compared to the spatial variations which resulted from rationing. Consequently, it is concluded that the accurate description and explanation of chronological changes in material culture can only be based on an understanding of spatial variation in stoneworking.
Keyword Land settlement patterns, Prehistoric -- Queensland -- Lawn Hill Region
Tools, Prehistoric -- Queensland -- Lawn Hill Region
Stone implements -- Queensland -- Lawn Hill Region
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Document type: Thesis
Collections: Queensland Past Online (QPO)
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