Moving past the ‘Neolithic problem’: The development and interaction of subsistence systems across northern Sahul

Florin, S. Anna and Carah, Xavier (2017) Moving past the ‘Neolithic problem’: The development and interaction of subsistence systems across northern Sahul. Quaternary International, . doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2016.12.033

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Author Florin, S. Anna
Carah, Xavier
Title Moving past the ‘Neolithic problem’: The development and interaction of subsistence systems across northern Sahul
Journal name Quaternary International   Check publisher's open access policy
ISSN 1040-6182
1873-4553
Publication date 2017-01-01
Year available 2017
Sub-type Critical review of research, literature review, critical commentary
DOI 10.1016/j.quaint.2016.12.033
Open Access Status File (Author Post-print)
Total pages 17
Place of publication Oxford United Kingdom
Publisher Pergamon Press
Collection year 2018
Language eng
Abstract The ‘Neolithic problem’ refers to forager/farmer interaction in northern Australia, where despite a shared environmental inheritance with their New Guinea neighbours, Indigenous Australians seemingly rejected both the domesticates and the practices of the Melanesian horticultural economy (White, 1971). This ethnographic example is often used to suggest that hunter-gatherers elsewhere may have chosen not to adopt agriculture. However, the premise of the ‘Neolithic problem’ has been criticised for its overreliance on the ethnographic record and on an anachronistic notion of cultural evolution, which exaggerates the dichotomy between New Guinean agriculturalists and Australian hunter-gatherers. In this paper we review the historical and theoretical treatment of the ‘Neolithic problem’ and the archaeological evidence for subsistence practices in northern Sahul spanning the past 50e60,000 years. Using niche construction theory (Rowley-Conwy and Layton, 2011) to re-examine the archaeological and ethnohistoric record, it is possible to observe the development and expansion of a variety of subsistence systems. Contrary to the premise of the ‘Neolithic problem’, the past 50e60,000 years of occupation in Sahul has seen the development of a varied array of food-producing subsistence practices in both New Guinea and Australia. However, the archaeological evidence for the expansion of horticultural practices and cultivars outside of highland New Guinea suggests a spatially and temporally narrow window for the adoption of agriculture by Indigenous populations in Cape York. Instead, the interaction between different subsistence systems in northern Sahul may have centred on the New Guinea lowlands and the Bismarck Archipelago, where, in the late Holocene, local communities interacted with other Melanesian and Austronesian populations. Whilst further archaeological investigation is required, it is clear that the image of culturally-static Indigenous Australian populations often implied in the consideration of forager/farmer interactions belongs to another era of archaeological thought.
Keyword Australia
New Guinea
Niche construction theory
Archaeobotany
Hunter-gatherer
Food production
Q-Index Code C1
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status UQ

Document type: Journal Article
Sub-type: Critical review of research, literature review, critical commentary
Collections: HERDC Pre-Audit
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Created: Thu, 13 Apr 2017, 11:25:29 EST by S. Anna Florin on behalf of School of Social Science