We humans are social animals, for whom solitary confinement is a punishment. Perhaps that’s why we’re so fascinated by novels and stories about whole societies that become isolated. But what would really happen if people colonized, say, a remote island and were then cut off from all contact with the outside world? Would they survive? Would they remain civilized? Would they revert to jungle law and end up killing one another? Or would they perhaps just gradually die out?
There have in fact been such cases. Many populations underwent long periods of isolation on Polynesian islands, for example. Other peoples became cut off within large landmasses--such as northwest Greenland’s polar Eskimos, who thought they were the only people in the world when discovered by European explorers. And the entire continents of Australia and the Americas were colonized from Asia and then developed for thousands of years in partial isolation. That isolation contributed to the differing rates of technological development in Australia, the Americas, and Eurasia and thus to the traumatic outcome of Europeans’ recent collisions with those continents’ native peoples. ..SECONEL But the effects of cultural seclusion are perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the histories of two little societies within the Australian region: aboriginal Tasmania and Flinders Island. Indeed, Tasmania holds the record for the longest isolation known in human history. One society survived there for 10,000 years until its abrupt destruction by the modern world, while the other died out mysteriously after about 4,000 years. Many of the facts surrounding their disappearance are well known. Only now, though, are their fates--and the true meaning of isolation-- really becoming understood.
When I visited Tasmania last July, it took barely an hour, by jet, to view the universe in which thousands of years of Tasmanian and Flinders history had played itself out. My flight took off from the metropolis of Melbourne on the south coast of Australia. As we flew south, there was at first nothing to see below and ahead, except for the black waters and whitecaps of stormy Bass Strait. Within 20 minutes, though, a large mountainous island, mysterious Flinders, loomed to the east. Immediately south of Flinders were a few smaller islands, then a strait so narrow--14 miles wide--that my plane crossed it in less than two minutes. On the other side of that strait was a land stretching as far as I could see: the big island of Tasmania, over 26,000 square miles in area, virtually the same size as Ireland.
Once I had landed and began to drive around, I was struck by Tasmania’s ecological diversity, which reminded me that it really is a severed piece of the Australian continent. Much of the east is dry eucalyptus forest; the west, very wet rain forest; and the core, rugged mountains, covered at the time with winter snow. All these ecological zones, and the food resources that they offered to Stone Age hunters, can be matched in southeast Australia just 150 miles to the north across Bass Strait.
When Tasmania was discovered by Europeans in 1642, it was inhabited by roughly 5,000 aborigines who were similar in appearance to the aborigines of the Australian mainland. Their hair and skin were very dark. They had deep-set eyes overhung by brow ridges; their nose was broad and separated from their brow by a deep groove. Their mouth was wide, the lips full; their cheekbones were prominent, their build lean, and their limbs long and slender. Tasmanians differed from the mainlanders principally by having woolly rather than straight or wavy hair. Because Tasmanian-European relations took the course that I’ll explain, our information about their languages is fragmentary, but they spoke five or more languages or dialects with no obvious relationship to aboriginal Australian languages or to any other languages in the world.
Tasmania’s latitude is that of Chicago and Vladivostok. While Tasmania doesn’t get anywhere near as cold as those places, I still found it cold enough, even after growing up in Boston and spending years living in England’s seemingly refrigerated houses. What makes Tasmanian winters feel so cold are the strong winds and driving rain--especially in the southwest, which is blasted by the strong westerly winds that are common at that latitude, an area sailors call the roaring forties. Sleeping inside unheated Tasmanian houses, wearing all my sweaters while inside a down sleeping bag, I still shivered. Not a place where you’d expect people to live naked!
Yet, incredible as it sounds, the Tasmanians went virtually naked, winter and summer. Granted, they were probably better adapted metabolically to withstanding cold than are most of us: such metabolic adaptations have been demonstrated for Australian desert aboriginals and Tierra del Fuego Indians on the southernmost tip of South America, who similarly went naked in cold environments. Still, it is surprising that men and children often wore absolutely nothing, while women sometimes wore over one shoulder a single kangaroo hide that might have helped them carry infants but that couldn’t have protected them much from the cold. For some protection they smeared themselves with a mixture of animal fat, charcoal, and ocher.
The Tasmanians also carried firebrands as they walked, and lit a fire for warmth whenever they stopped even briefly. That brings up another surprise: despite the importance of fire to Tasmanians, most archeologists suspect that they had no means of kindling it. Instead, they depended on the firebrands that they carried and which they had to relight from a neighbor’s if their own fire went out. As a final surprise, tribes in the mild climate of east Tasmania lacked houses to shelter them against wind and rain; they just had windbreaks of bark and branches. In the even colder and wetter climate of west Tasmania, though, the people built warm thatched huts.
Like the mainland aborigines, the Tasmanians were nomadic hunter- gatherers who practiced no agriculture and tended no domestic animals. Both men and women visited offshore islands to kill seals and breeding seabirds. Men hunted wallabies and fought, while women gathered plants and collected shellfish along the shore, climbed trees to catch possums, and dove to get abalone and lobsters. As for me, I’d refuse to swim off Tasmania even in a wet suit. However, Tasmanian aboriginal women dove naked. Few of the men swam; perhaps only women could stand the water, because women are protected by more body fat than are men.
If you ask any anthropologist to summarize in one phrase what was most distinctive about the Tasmanians, the answer will surely be the most primitive people still alive in recent centuries. The label primitive clearly has explosive political and racial overtones, and in the nineteenth century its application led to tragic consequences. But for the moment, let’s just consider Tasmanian material culture, which earned them this label and did indeed consist of relatively few items.
Tasmanians had no tools of metal or bone. Their stone tools, such as flaked scrapers used to make a few types of wooden tools, were roughly shaped and held in the hand; those wooden tools, in turn, consisted of spears, clubs that were also thrown as projectiles, and sticks used to dig up roots or pry up shellfish. The Tasmanians wove plant fibers into baskets and ropes for tree climbing. They also made water buckets from kelp fronds, and pouches from animal skins. Their art and decoration were restricted to necklaces of shells or other materials, rock carvings or stencils, decorative scars, ocher rubbed on the hair, and charcoal rubbed on the skin.
That list, along with the already mentioned windbreaks, huts, and women’s cloaks of skin--about two dozen types of objects, in all-- constituted the Tasmanian material corpus, with one exception. They did have a single type of watercraft, which is important for understanding how the Tasmanians could have gotten from Australia to Tasmania across the 150- mile gap of Bass Strait. These boats were rafts with a gentle depression, like a flattened canoe, and were made of bundles of rushes or bark strips that floated because of their own buoyancy and trapped air bubbles. To maneuver them, men sat inside and poled or paddled, or else women swam beside the rafts and pushed. After some hours in the water, the rafts would become waterlogged and unmaneuverable and would eventually sink. Hence they were generally used only in calm seas for short voyages, of typically no more than a few miles and certainly less than ten. The most remote island known to have been regularly visited by Tasmanians lay across a six-mile- wide strait.
Some features of Tasmanian technology were shared with mainland aboriginal Australians, who also lacked agriculture, metal, pottery, and bows and arrows. However, Tasmanians lacked many things that mainlanders did have, including those Australian hallmarks, the boomerang and the dingo, or wild dog. The long list of other Australian products absent in Tasmania included the spear-thrower, a hand-held device to increase a spear’s throwing distance and propulsive force; ground or polished stone tools; mounted stone tools, such as hatchets or adzes with a handle; bone tools, such as needles and awls; fire-making equipment, such as a fire drill; and nets, traps, or hooks to catch fish, birds, or mammals. Without mounted stone tools, Tasmanians couldn’t fell a big tree, hollow out a canoe, or carve a wooden bowl. Without bone tools, they couldn’t sew warm clothes or watertight bark canoes.
This sketch of Tasmanian material culture suffices to pose a couple of mysteries that already astonished the first European visitors to Tasmania. First, how on earth could people whose rafts sank in calm seas after floating a few miles ever have reached Tasmania, separated from Australia by 150 miles of stormy seas? Second, how did their material culture come to be so simple--or primitive, if you will?
The first mystery, at least, of how the Tasmanians reached Tasmania, has been solved. During the Pleistocene ice ages, when much of the world’s water was locked up in glaciers, sea level was more than 400 feet below its present stand. As a result, shallow straits, like Bass Strait, were then dry land, connecting the landmasses that they presently separate. Thus Ice Age Tasmania was not an island but the southeast corner of Australia. Calculations of past sea-level fluctuations estimate that Bass Strait was dry land before 55,000 years ago, water from 55,000 to about 37,000 years ago, and intermittently or continuously dry again from about 37,000 to 10,000 years ago, after which glacial melting drowned the land bridge and finally restored Tasmania’s form to the island we know today.
Thus, the answer to the question of how the Tasmanians colonized Tasmania despite their inability to cross Bass Strait is simple. They were aboriginal Australians who walked to Tasmania when it was part of Australia. The oldest known human site in Tasmania has been radiocarbon dated at about 35,000 years. That date implies that people crossed from Australia to Tasmania soon after the land bridge reemerged around 37,000 years ago. The rising seas that eventually drowned Bass Strait closed the trap on them, commencing their long isolation. But the conclusion that Tasmania was joined to Australia as recently as 10,000 years ago leaves cultural anthropologists with some explaining to do. Presumably those ancestral Tasmanians started off with a cultural inventory similar to that in the rest of Australia, or at least in the ecologically similar zone of southeast Australia. How is it that 10,000 years later the Tasmanians ended up with an inventory so much smaller and more primitive?
Three possible explanations suggest themselves. One is that items missing in Tasmania entered Australia from the outside world only within the past 10,000 years and thus were unavailable to the Tasmanians, who were by then cut off by Bass Strait. A second possibility is that the missing items were invented in Australia itself within the last 10,000 years. The third possibility is that the items were part of the cultural inventory originally shared by Tasmania and Australia but that they disappeared in Tasmania.
The first of these explanations definitely applies to dingoes. From the archeological record we know that dogs appeared in Australia around 3,500 years ago. There is no way that they could have been invented by Australian aborigines. Dogs could only have been brought to Australia, through Indonesia, from the Eurasian continent, where they had been domesticated. Since dogs thus reached Australia long after the land bridge to Tasmania had been severed, of course the Tasmanians couldn’t acquire them.
Other items that appeared in Australia too late to reach Tasmania were new, smaller, and finer types of stone tools, called microliths, that became widespread around 5,000 years ago. No obvious precursor of those tools has been identified outside Australia, and they may have been invented there. Their absence in Tasmania would thus be accounted for by our second explanation. But even if they too were an import, the conclusion is the same: they remained absent from Tasmania because they (and their makers) could not cross Bass Strait.
In their broader context, these two explanations, illustrated here by dingoes and microliths, are important for our understanding of how human development proceeded, not only in Tasmania but in the rest of the world as well. Look at a map and you’ll see that north Australia is separated from New Guinea by less than 100 miles and from the islands of Indonesia by less than 200 miles. Indonesians and New Guineans have big sailing vessels capable of covering those distances in a few days or less. Indonesian fishermen have been visiting north Australia for many centuries; in that time there has also been regular trade between south New Guinea and northeast Australia along the chain of islands between them. Many inventions and possessions, besides stone tools and dogs, must have entered Australia by those two routes.
Elsewhere in the world as well, diffusion of inventions has been a major influence on human history. To name only two famous examples, domesticated plants and animals spread back and forth across the Middle East and Europe, while the wheel, probably invented around 5,000 years ago in the Middle East or Black Sea area, spread rapidly westward across Europe. All other things being equal, technology develops more slowly in isolated societies than in highly connected societies because the latter have access to many other peoples’ inventions besides their own. Tasmania, however, was cut off from all outside input 10,000 years ago, and the sole inventions available were those of the Tasmanians themselves.
It isn’t in the least surprising that Australia would develop more new inventions than Tasmania, because Australia held far more people and societies. When the Europeans arrived, the aboriginal population of Australia was at least 300,000 and perhaps as large as one million, while that of Tasmania was only about 5,000. More people tends to mean more potential inventors and hence more inventions. In addition, Australia had hundreds of tribes, Tasmania only about nine. This is significant because whether a useful new invention actually becomes adopted varies from group to group, depending on factors such as each group’s culture and receptivity to new ideas. So the chances of a new invention’s becoming adopted anywhere and being preserved were much higher in Australia than in Tasmania.
While we thus have two plausible explanations for Tasmania’s material culture being simpler than Australia’s, there is one more possible explanation--that the Tasmanians actually abandoned some practices that they shared with Australia 10,000 years ago. This idea violates cherished views of human nature, since we tend to assume that history is a long record of continual progress. Nevertheless, it is now clear that Tasmanians did abandon at least two important practices.
One was the production of bone tools. With bone, one can fashion objects virtually impossible to make out of stone or wood--such as needles. In southeast Australia at the time of European discovery, aboriginal Australians were using bone tools as awls and reamers to pierce animal hides, as pins to fasten the hides into cloaks, and as needles to sew hides into still warmer clothing or to knit fishing nets.
As recently as 7,000 years ago, Tasmanian tools included bone tools that resembled Australia’s awls, reamers, and needles. Thereafter, the variety of Tasmanian bone tools gradually decreased with time until they finally disappeared around 3,500 years ago. That seems a significant loss, because warm clothing sewn with bone needles would surely have been useful in Tasmanian winters.
The other, equally surprising loss was the practice of eating fish. European explorers were astonished to find that most Tasmanians lived on the coast and yet ate no fish. Tasmanians in turn were astonished to see Europeans eating fish and refused offers of fish with horrified disgust. Yet remains at archeological sites show that Tasmanians used to catch many fish species, which accounted for about 10 percent of their total calorie intake. Most of the species they caught are still common and easy to catch in Tasmanian waters today. In contrast, mainland aborigines from ecologically similar areas of southeast Australia continued to eat fish.
While bone tools and fishing are the most flagrant instances of abandoned cultural inheritance in Tasmania, there may be other examples as well. Australia’s oldest preserved boomerang dates from 10,000 years ago, so that quintessential Australian specialty may have been part of the tool kit that Tasmanians inherited. Hafted tools may have been present in parts of Australia before then as well.
Thus, although diffusion and invention seemed such plausible explanations for the complexity of Australia’s culture in comparison with that of Tasmania, we must seriously consider the possibility that the Tasmanians did in fact give up practices that were useful to them.
Do societies really do such maladaptive things? And if so, why? How could such decisions arise? Well, the short answer is yes, they do, and they can do so because human culture isn’t determined just by cold-blooded calculations of a whole society’s material self-interest. People are also guided by ideals, myths, and religions, which lead to practices or taboos that may not help fill people’s stomachs. One example involves Pacific Islanders who chose not to eat pigs; although the pig was their sole large domestic animal and a significant protein source, in several cases an island society decided to taboo pigs and killed them all. Or it may be that the interests of powerful groups in a society clash with the interests of the rest of the society. One famous example is Japan’s abandonment of guns for several centuries after their introduction by Westerners; the powerful, sword-wielding samurai class saw that guns would have let commoners challenge them.
Such decisions could lead to the loss of a useful cultural practice. But in a society closely connected with many other societies, such losses are more likely to be only temporary--either people see their neighbors continuing the practice and repent their folly, or people without the practice are outcompeted or conquered by people retaining it. For example, if eighteenth-century Japan had been embedded within Europe, the result of rejecting guns would have been conquest by neighboring, gun- toting countries; only Japan’s isolation let the samurai get away with their ban. Pacific Islanders who killed their pigs eventually came to their senses and bought pigs again from other islands.
In Tasmania’s isolation, though, cultural losses were irreversible. Inventions don’t just get adopted once and forever; they have to be constantly practiced and transmitted or useful techniques may be forgotten. As archeologist Rhys Jones expressed it in 1978, In the closed system of the Tasmanians, maladaptation might have a better chance of surviving simply because of the lack of better-competing neighboring communities. If fish were not caught for several generations, much of the skill, technology, and ethnoscience concerned with their capture might also be forgotten. The isolated Tasmanians, unlike a group of tribes in a similar-size portion of a continent, would have had no opportunity of relearning such skills from neighbors even if they had wanted to.
Of course, we’ll never know the details of how the taboos actually arose, so there will always remain some mystery about them. Most likely we shouldn’t picture all Tasmanians as simultaneously deciding one day to ban all their efficient bone tools and fishing practices and suddenly experiencing the full shock of loss. Instead, the taboos may have developed in stages: a particular fish species becomes considered unclean, that type of bone tool is no longer in. By the time the last fish species and bone tools fell under taboo, their loss may no longer have counted for much.
If Rhys Jones had gone no further with his theory of cultural loss, archeologists might still be debating it amicably. However, Jones went on to suggest that Tasmanians were suffering from a squeezing of intellectuality, that they might have been doomed to a slow strangulation of the mind and might have been undergoing generalized cultural regression rather than just loss of a couple of practices. Not surprisingly, this wording provoked screams of rage from some other archeologists, who referred to Jones’s view as a degenerationist one with unpleasant political implications.
It has certainly become clear that Tasmanian culture was not moving backward all across the board. Around 4,000 years ago, Tasmanians began to visit previously unoccupied islands several miles offshore, suggesting that they had finally invented their unique canoe-raft. The seals and breeding seabirds of those islands were a big addition to the larder of some Tasmanian tribes. Deep-water seafoods such as abalone and lobster became common in the Tasmanian diet, suggesting improved diving skills. Tasmania’s previously unoccupied west coast, and the interior of east Tasmania, became occupied around the same time. All these changes represented big expansions of the Tasmanian universe and diet--hardly a society in generalized decay.
Still, the indisputable losses of bone tools and fishing have to be explained. Many archeologists, upset at any suggestion of cultural regression, refuse to acknowledge those losses as disadvantages. They seek instead to explain why the losses might have done no harm and might even have been beneficial. For example, one argument notes that people in cold climates like Tasmania need a high-fat diet and that seals and young seabirds contain more fat than do fish. Perhaps the Tasmanians were better off not wasting their time on fish once they became able to hunt seals and seabirds instead. Similarly, some archeologists claim that a hand-held spear worked better than a spear-thrower in Tasmanian environments, or perhaps that Tasmanian environments were so rich that hunters didn’t need anything except a spear, club, and digging stick to make a good living.
To me, those explanations seem like straining to avoid accepting the obvious. Why did Tasmanians give up eating low-fat fish while continuing to eat low-fat shellfish? Why did they do so while aborigines in ecologically similar southeast Australia continued to thrive on fish? Why did southeast Tasmania’s aborigines, whom the Baudin Expedition in 1802 described as eating mainly just mollusks and lobsters without seals or seabirds, not continue to eat fish? A spear-thrower is just a device for throwing a spear faster and farther--that’s as true in Tasmania as anywhere else in the world.
Thus, while I agree with Jones’s critics that Tasmanian society was not in a state of general decay, I agree with Jones that it did abandon some useful practices. Those losses, combined with the impossibility of outside inventions reaching Tasmania, plus the small population base, seem to account fully for the relative simplicity of Tasmanian material culture. Australia, lying at the end of the inhabited world, was an outpost; Tasmania, an outpost of that outpost.
Besides the Tasmanians, at least one other group of people became stranded by a rising sea level in Bass Strait. Those were the inhabitants of Flinders, the mountainous island that I saw just off the coast of Tasmania as my plane was flying past. While the mystery of their fate remains unsolved, recent archeological studies by Robin Sim narrow down the possible explanations.
With an area of about 700 square miles, Flinders is the largest island of the Furneaux group, which was uninhabited at the time of European arrival. The resulting paradox was well expressed by the British navigator Matthew Flinders (after whom the island is named) when he sailed past in 1798: It was difficult to suppose, that men should have reached the more distant land [Tasmania], and not have attained the islands intermediately situated [Furneaux]; nor was it admissible that, having reached them, they had perished for want of food.
Today the mystery has become more acute with the realization that Bass Strait was formerly dry land. The modern Furneaux Islands consisted then of hills on a Bass Strait plain and were not cut off from Tasmania until about 8,500 years ago. Hence aboriginal Australian mainlanders walking out to Tasmania must have occupied Flinders en route. In fact, excavations by Robin Sim and Stephen Brown show that people were already on those hills by at least 20,000 years ago.
Flinders Island is ecologically diverse, with mountains, swamps, and lagoons. Game animals are abundant: while on Flinders, I saw wallabies and wombats daily. How indeed, as Matthew Flinders wondered, could the island’s inhabitants have perished for want of food? Yet perish they did, or at least they somehow disappeared, because the most recent radiocarbon date that Sim obtained for the debris they left is 4,700 years ago. What happened to the descendants of the people who left that debris, and why didn’t the nearby Tasmanians reoccupy Flinders Island after the original inhabitants disappeared?
The second question is easier to answer. Banks Strait (not Bass), which separates the Furneaux from northeast Tasmania, is only 14 miles wide. But we’ve already seen that Tasmanian canoe-rafts became unmaneuverable and sank after about 10 miles of travel in calm seas. Furthermore, Banks Strait is an awful place to try to navigate any boat. Tides rip through the narrow passage, winds blow at 40 knots and up, whitecaps are the usual condition, and huge standing waves prevail whenever the directions of tide and wind are opposite. Even today, modern ships are wrecked in Banks Strait every year. Faced with such conditions, the natives of northeast Tasmania not only never visited the Furneaux, they didn’t even have boats. Instead, they looked across to the nearby Furneaux islands and regarded them as Isles of the Dead, to which peoples’ spirits went after death.
Judged by Tasmanian standards, Flinders was large enough to hold about 400 people. Those people evidently survived for about 4,000 years (from about 8,500 to 4,700 years ago) after rising sea levels stranded them. One little isolated society of 5,000 people was still intact on Tasmania after 10 millennia; the even smaller society of 400 people vanished. Why?
Evidently populations of a mere few hundred people just aren’t large enough to survive indefinitely in complete isolation. Such little societies may ultimately suffer from genetic inbreeding, which we know has affected the modern populations isolated on Pitcairn Island, which was populated by mutineers from the HMS Bounty in 1790. They may be reduced beyond the point of recovery by an environmental disaster, such as a prolonged drought or storms. They may succumb to internecine warfare, as nearly happened to the Bounty mutineers. Whatever the details of the last moments of Flinders society prove to be, I am inclined to agree with Rhys Jones when he writes, It was not from a lack of food that the ancient inhabitants of Furneaux [and] King . . . ‘perished’ but from a lack of people.
Thus, while we may never know precisely what happened to the Flinders Islanders, the end of their society may have been gradual. We do, however, know precisely what happened to Tasmanian society--and its end was cataclysmic. At the very least, the story of the Tasmanians challenges us to understand what it really means when we refer to certain peoples as primitive. The primitiveness of the Tasmanians was clearly a technological one, an accident of geographic and geologic history: their technology remained primitive because of the self-evident influences of human numbers and connectedness, plus the people’s lack of access to wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication. But for the people who brought about the Tasmanians’ demise, primitiveness was of a different sort altogether.
The Tasmanians’ 10,000 years of isolation came to an end on December 2, 1642, when the Dutch skipper Abel Tasman landed on Tasmania but did not encounter any people. The second European visit was by the Frenchman Nicholas Marion du Fresne, who landed on March 4, 1772. Within a few hours his sailors had shot several Tasmanians. European occupation of Tasmania began with the arrival of seal hunters in the mid-1790s and of British convicts, soldiers, and settlers in 1803. The settlers’ first recorded use of cannon to massacre Tasmanians took place on May 3, 1804.
Most Tasmanians had the misfortune that the first Europeans whom they saw were escaped convicts--the most brutalized members of brutal British society--and sealers. Those whites treated the Tasmanians cruelly, buying or kidnapping Tasmanian women and children, often killing the woman’s husband or the child’s parents in the process. Some sealers and escaped convicts kept between two and five Tasmanian women each for sex and slave labor, sometimes keeping them tied and shooting them if they did not work well or tried to flee. Sealers were especially dependent on Tasmanian women, since the women (but not the sealers) could dive for shellfish and were good at killing seals. As one example of the kidnappings’ effects, a northeast Tasmanian tribe was reduced to 72 adult men, 3 adult women, and no children. No European was ever punished for murdering Tasmanians, and only a few Europeans were punished for mistreatment--for example, 25 lashes for merely tying Tasmanian women to logs and burning them with firebrands, or forcing a woman to wear the head of her freshly murdered husband on a string around her neck.
When British settlers poured into Tasmania in the 1820s, after the Napoleonic Wars, racial conflict intensified. Settlers regarded Tasmanians as little more than animals and treated them accordingly. Tactics for hunting down Tasmanians included riding out on horseback to shoot them, setting out steel traps to catch them, and putting out poison flour where they might find and eat it. Shepherds cut off the penis and testicles of aboriginal men, to watch the men run a few yards before dying. At a hill christened Mount Victory, settlers slaughtered 30 Tasmanians and threw their bodies over a cliff. One party of police killed 70 Tasmanians and dashed out the children’s brains.
In 1828 the governor of Tasmania declared martial law, permitting Europeans to shoot on sight any aborigine found in European-settled areas. That was followed by roving search-and-capture parties (five convicts of good character led by a field police constable) and by a bounty established in 1830 of £5 per Tasmanian adult, £2 per child. Finally a missionary, George Augustus Robinson, was hired for the price of £1,000 to round up the remaining aborigines and remove them from Tasmania. In 1830 he could find only 300 Tasmanians, out of the original estimated population of 5,000. The next-to-last group, numbering 8, was captured in 1834, but a further group, of about 6, remained at large until 1842 as the last wild Tasmanians.
Most of the Tasmanians died in the course of the roundup. However, Robinson collected approximately 135 survivors and brought them to a windy site with little fresh water at Wybalenna--on, of all places, Flinders Island, the Tasmanian Isle of the Dead. Most of them died there, sick and brokenhearted. Forty-seven came back to Tasmania in 1847; there the last one, a woman named Truganini, died in 1876.
With Truganini’s death, it appeared that white settlers had reached a final solution for their problems of race relations, by exterminating the Tasmanians and converting Tasmania to another Isle of the Dead. Actually, many children born to Tasmanian women and white sealers were still alive. Those descendants formed a community centered on the Furneaux islands, including a reserve from which Tasmanians were until recently forbidden by the government to leave. Today the number of people of Tasmanian aboriginal descent is estimated to be around 4,000, though it could be considerably higher because racial prejudices make people reluctant to be identified as Tasmanian.
The announced policy of Tasmania’s white government is that all Tasmanians should be treated equally. What this means is that disadvantaged aboriginal Tasmanians should get no special help. The government denies the existence of Tasmanians and their issues, denies any continuity between original Tasmanian culture and the descendants’ lives today, denies any connection of the descendants to their land, and hopes that they will assimilate and eventually disappear. A common view is that the descendants look white anyway and receive government grants unavailable to whites.
One more plane flight, as I was getting ready to leave Tasmania, poignantly summarized for me its history. At the end of my visit to Flinders, I chartered a single-engine propeller plane to fly back to Tasmania, in order to connect with my jet flights to the Australian mainland and on to Los Angeles. As usual, it was cold and raining, and a crosswind blasted across the grass airstrip. The plane shook as it taxied, and it continued to shake and bounce as it flew out over Banks Strait. Just ahead was Tasmania, where one little society had survived; just behind was Flinders, where another little society had died; and just below, the gale winds churned up whitecaps on that 14-mile-wide ribbon of water that had sundered two universes.
I’ve survived many scary, dangerous flights in small planes over New Guinea’s mountainous terrain. This was another such flight. While the gale buffeted my plane, I reflected that I was very lucky this time in my choice of pilot. He was the National Parks ranger on Flinders Island, a fountain of information about Flinders and Tasmania and a skilled and experienced pilot. He also happened to be an aborigine, crossing the strait that for thousands of years had trapped his people in the world’s longest isolation.