Australia’s ancient maritime trade rewrites history

Archaeologist Sean Ulm is Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage. He says the distinctive Lapita pottery is an archaeological calling card of their migration across Oceania.

It was believed that the Lapita migration from its starting point in the northern hemisphere never moved east through the Bismark Archipelago to the northern coast of New Guinea and then radiated to across the Pacific.

“You can literally hold a piece of pottery when we’re digging on Lizard Island and pull it out three feet underground, a piece the size of your thumbnail, and you say, everything changes after that,” explains the Professor McNiven.Credit:Sean Ulm

Experts had found no evidence that these sailors sailed west along the southern coast of New Guinea, until 2008, when a team of archaeologists began digging at a site in Caution. Bay about 30 kilometers west of Port Moresby, prior to the planned development of a gasworks.

Professor Ulm says he and a team of archaeologists “almost immediately” found 2,800-year-old radiocarbon Lapita pottery.

“The team first published this work in 2011 and it was greeted in the academic community with widespread criticism that it couldn’t be Lapita because the Lapita didn’t go west. along the southern coast of New Guinea, they only went east (into the Pacific),” Ulm explains.

“But, you know, here we are 10 years later and none of those critics disagree with us now. So it was a huge paradigm shift in how people thought about colonizing the huge part of the planet and opened the door to suggest, if these people were in southern New Guinea 3000 years ago, where else could they be? maritime.

Archaeologist anthropologist Ian McNiven also works with the Australian Center of Excellence for Biodiversity and Heritage. He says archaeologists also began finding pottery in the Torres Strait about 20 years ago, but there was “no historical, ethnographic, or oral history of pottery production by the Strait Islanders. Torres”.

An illustration of an ancient outrigger canoe.

An illustration of an ancient outrigger canoe. Credit:Monash University

They started working with the communities on excavations and found pottery for the first time. It was buried one meter underground, relatively deep in archaeological terms. The potsherds were discovered on Lizard Island by Ulm and McNiven in 2017.

“Everyone was saying ‘hey, this is very different’. I say bloody oath, this is different! It was unexpected,” McNiven says.

He says it appears pottery was traded in the Torres Strait from New Guinea 3,000 years ago, and some was produced locally. Finding a connection between the Lapita and the Torres Strait, once they were known to have moved west through New Guinea, wasn’t entirely unexpected, he says. But what happened next on Lizard Island was a thunderclap.

“Literally, a very small piece [of pottery] how it changes the way we view the history of our continent and…indigenous peoples with the outside world.

Professor McNiven

“What was unexpected was to find similar pottery, of similar age on Lizard Island. It’s 600 kilometers along the coast of Queensland and it makes you say, hang on, this changes seriously the deal,” says Professor McNiven.

It was a seminal moment.

“You can literally hold a piece of pottery when we’re digging on Lizard Island and pull it out three feet underground, a piece the size of your thumbnail, and you say, everything changes after that,” McNiven says. . “A tiny bit like this changes the way we view the history of our continent and its interactions in the past, Indigenous peoples with the outside world.

“Now we know that the Aboriginal peoples of North Queensland have these ancient connections that go back across the Torres Strait and into New Guinea and the pottery tells us that this is the calling card of people interacting over thousands miles.”

An illustration of an ancient ship used by Indigenous Australians.

An illustration of an ancient ship used by Indigenous Australians.Credit:Monash University

McNiven, based at Monash University, says the evidence suggests it was not just the wares, but the knowledge of pottery making that was passed down to the people of Queensland.

“This pottery from Lizard Island appears to have been made locally,” he says. “All the pottery minerals are basically what you get around Lizard Island and that part of Cape York.”

Professor Ulm, from James Cook University, explained that the pottery shards are compelling evidence that overturns the idea of ​​Australia’s former isolation.

“There have long been arguments that after people colonized Australia they somehow lost this watercraft navigation technology, but we just don’t know because watercraft made from materials organisms do not survive in the archaeological record,” he says.

“So these pottery finds, for example the ones we have on Lizard Island or in Torres Strait, show us that people travel. Even though we don’t have a boat, it’s proof indirect that people made these trips and we can trace how this knowledge or the objects themselves move.

Artist's impression of an old outrigger canoe.

Artist’s impression of an old outrigger canoe.Credit:Monash University

Historical evidence of trade between Coral Sea communities is abundant. These recent finds together with artifacts collected by 18th and 19th century European travelers show an intricate trade network across the region where place-specific goods – including bamboo smoking pipes, canoes, spears and necklaces, as well as linguistic and cultural practices – were passed on. back and forth over a long network. This gave rise to the concept of the Coral Sea Cultural Interaction Sphere.

Piecing together what was traded and by whom showed it involved hundreds of clans and dozens of language groups.

Groundbreaking pottery archeology and evidence of ancient trade networks are showcased in a new exhibit, developed in partnership with the Walmbaar Aboriginal Corporation and the Hope Vale Congress Aboriginal Corporation. Connections across the Coral Sea is at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville. He will move to Brisbane in June.

Professor Ulm says evidence of two-way trade, from New Guinea to Australia and back, has overturned false stereotypes that had prevailed in historical assumptions about indigenous peoples.

“There was a prevailing view throughout the 19th and early 20th century that all traded goods came from southern New Guinea, but nothing went north,” says Professor Ulm.

“It was fueling a racist construct that indigenous cultures are kind of simplistic and New Guinean and Melanesian cultures are kind of advanced where of course the objects would only come south.

“But even in the 19th century, early 20th century, when writers started writing this, it wasn’t supported by evidence at the time.

“We know the Gulf of Carpentaria was linked to Adelaide and Broome was linked to Alice Springs. But if you know what you’re doing, you can cover much greater distances by boat than on foot, taking all your goods with you.

Professor McNiven says Western science and Australia are ‘catching up with what Indigenous communities have known for a very long time’.


“Australia was seen as the only continent on the planet that didn’t have a pottery tradition, and that kind of played into all sorts of colonial representations of indigenous people as being primitive or backward,” he says.

He says that while there were historical records of Australia’s international trade links prior to European settlement, this was not systematically researched until the 1970s.

“Matthew Flinders was sailing around Australia in 1802 and comes to Arnhem Land and sees a whole fleet of Makassan ships and says ‘Excuse me, what’s going on here?’, I thought the British were the ones making the outside connections. But groups like the Yolngu indigenous community were going, going, going. We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years mate.

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