Aboriginals in Excellent Health Prior to Contact

10 May 2013

The South Australian Museum is conducting exciting research into Aboriginal archaeological and burial sites on the State's Yorke Peninsula, which will tell us more about the diet and culture of people from up to 2000 years ago.

South Australian Museum Archaeologist Dr Keryn Walshe is researching archaeology and human remains from the Narungga community, which were originally handed in to the Museum by local residents, farmers and holidaymakers up to a century ago.

"We thought it would be a really good opportunity to return to the collections in the Museum - the skeletal material from the burials and the archaeology. Some of the archaeology material is 8000 years old and that made it so much more interesting because we could really begin to understand how people were living 8000 years ago on Yorke Peninsula."

"We've also had 15 burials dated. The oldest is over 2000 years old and the most recent around 250 years old. These include both adult males and females and two children," said Dr Walshe.

The process of understanding how people lived thousands of years ago involves carbon-dating tiny bone fragments.

"Fortunately, you don't need much for carbon dating. You're not actually destroying anything of great importance by using fragments that have broken away. You can also use the same piece of bone fragment to extract isotopes, and that helps you to understand diet. That's the really critical thing to get in order to understand what people were targeting and how they were living."

While Dr Walshe expected to conclude that Aboriginal people in the region survived on a mainly maritime diet – that is, predominantly seafood – she found that many consumed a high quantity of terrestrial foods as well.

"That has raised many interesting questions about people's interactions with the broader land mass of South Australia – that they were actually moving further afield than we thought," said Dr Walshe.

Aboriginal communities are particularly interested in the health of their people prior to European contact. The researchers' findings have been able to provide a better picture of nutrition.

"By looking at the burials we can see that people were very, very healthy," said Dr Walshe. "There was no indication of malnutrition or of disease. There were so few children buried meaning that infant mortality was very low. The females who died were usually around 18-25 years old, which suggests death during childbirth. The older range is around 50-60, which pre-contact, is an excellent lifespan for a hunter-gatherer."

The researchers hope to continue their work over at least five years to provide a larger and more detailed picture of the health and life ways of Aboriginal people prior to contact on Yorke Peninsula.

The 'bioarchaeology' project to investigate Aboriginal archaeological sites and to date remains is funded by a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and is supported by Rex Minerals.