Archaeologists and the knowledge frontier
In 1930 the anthropologist AR Radcliffe-Brown published the first thoughtfully researched estimate of the Indigenous population in 1788 - 300,000. However, in 1987, archaeologists JP White and DJ Mulvaney explained why this is now thought to be an underestimate.
Archaeological research has recently shown that in Tasmania and western Victoria the land was used more intensively than Radcliffe-Brown had been able to calculate from explorers' and officials' records. This knowledge has raised the estimated sustainable population density for southern parts of Australia to levels similar to the northern tropical coast - a region Radcliffe-Brown thought to be atypical of the continent in its high population density.
Plants have been shown by archaeological research to have been a more significant source of food than once thought, and more is now known of Aboriginal fishing technologies. Both these items of knowledge make it reasonable to revise upwards the estimated food-bearing capacities of lands and seas in all parts of Australia.
Unfortunately, these high population densities also facilitated the spread of the diseases which came with the colonists. Research by economic historian Noel Butlin points towards a larger and more rapid loss of life through introduced diseases (especially smallpox) than Radcliffe-Brown would have been aware of. Settlers' records do not accurately reflect the wave of infectious illness, resulting in death, which would have preceded the wave of colonial settlement. We will never know the actual size of the Indigenous population in 1788. Butlin's models of catastrophic population decline are informed speculations.
White and Mulvaney warn that more archaeological research is required to re-evaluate accepted estimates of population densities in the tropics. For the moment - considering archaeology in south-eastern Australia and taking the impact of disease into account - their estimate is that there were 750,000 Aboriginal people on the continent and in Tasmania in 1788.
Keywords: anthropology, archaeology, cultural preservation, Tasmania, Victoria, 1788
'How many people?', in Mulvaney DJ and White JP (eds) 1987, 'Australians to 1788', Fairfax Syme Weldon, pp 114-117.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor