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Turtle Magic, and other mysteries


THURSDAY 24 MAY 2007 - 3.oopm

Dr Susan McIntyre-Tamwoy


 There is evidence in Cape York Peninsula for a network of ceremonial sites was associated with the use and management of dugong and turtle that were in use at the time of initial European contact.  It is not known how long this system was established and it is clear that key elements of the system were dismantled or abandoned due to the impact of European invasion quite early on in the contact period.

It is well known that, Aboriginal people along the East Coast of Cape York had active social and trade engagements with Torres Strait Islanders involving large parties of Torres Strait Islanders visiting the mainland in outrigger canoes. Several key ‘trade’ sites coincide with the location of ceremonial sites however the connection between the ceremonial sites and the trade sites is not explicitly noted in these early observations. Past research by archaeologists has focused on the ‘economic trade’ dimension of these interactions.  This project explores the ‘cultural trade’ dimension.

Associated with these gatherings was the exploitation of marine resources for food and ceremonies. What are perhaps less clear, are the cultural systems that shaped and controlled the use of marine resources? Through my research I hope to tease out the evidence for what I believe was a complex cosmo-political system that was in place for some, as yet unspecified, period up to the time of initial white settlement in Cape York. Through this system Aboriginal people not only drew their neighbors from the Torres Strait Islands to them for trade and exchange but had established system that managed important marine resources such as turtle and dugong.

Intriguing questions arise such as:

  • How long had this system been in place?
  • What evidence remains of its efficacy as resource management system? Was it ‘sustainable’?
  • Were the turtle increase ceremonies carried out to ensure turtle and dugong populations, because they were the feast food that provisioned these gatherings which focused on trade and exchange? or
  • Was the primary purpose of the gatherings to carry out turtle and dugong increase and other ceremonies controlled by Aboriginal people, with trade and exchange the secondary opportunistic goal?

This project is still in its infancy, with the first excavations proposed for next month. It forms part of a larger suite of research projects being carried out collaboratively with Drs Greer and Henry.


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