The first evidence of human habitation on Tasmania dates from around 23,000-25,000 years ago, when the Bass Strait was actually a land bridge and allowed for easy passage between the mainland and Tasmania. Then, between 8,000-12,000 years ago, with the warming of the Earth, the Strait flooded, leaving the small population stranded for the longest period of human isolation ever.
These aboriginal Tasmanians were hunter-gatherers who ate marsupials such as wombats and kangaroos, seafood such as crayfish and crab, and plant foods such sea kelp, roots, berries, and fungi. Their political organization was akin to many other food collecting societies in that homestead groups of between two and eleven were joined together through both kinship and geography into acephalous bands of 40 or 50 people. Bands were the primary landholding units, not landowning as there was no private property recognized, while tribes were the largest political units. Contemporary aboriginal organizations say that nine tribes existed prior to European contact. While some publications speak of 35 coastal and 22 inland “tribes,” this is most likely a misuse of the word for what anthropologists generally call bands.
Despite their relatively simple technology, Tasmanian aborigines did not live in a “state of nature.” They transformed their habitat through the use of controlled burns to clear the land for easier travel, flush out animals, and encourage the growth of new plant life. They also created tools, nets, and baskets and other containers from bone, wood, stone, woven grasses, sinew, seaweed, and bark. Small boats were also constructed out of bark and grasses, to travel to offshore islands in the summer months for hunting seal and muttonbirds and gathering other seasonal foods.
Tasmania’s cold, wet climate necessitated both shelter and some protection for the naked body. There were two basic designs for shelter: bark, lean-to windbreaks and dome-shaped huts thatched with grass or bark and lined with feathers or fur. This latter form dominated in Tasmania’s cold western area and were lived in year-round, while the temporary windbreaks sufficed in the warmer areas of the east. Despite Tasmania’s weather, most people actually wore very little clothing. Women did don cloaks made of kangaroo skins, as did men at the coldest times, but children and many adults protected themselves largely by rubbing a mixture of fat, ochre, and charcoal onto their skin. In addition to this adornment, adults also practiced cicatrice, or ritual scarification, and wore necklaces of fur, shell, or other materials.
Tasmanian aborigines’ religion had many features in common with those on the mainland. They believed in spirits, had totemic animals and plants, and observed their associated taboos. They also cremated their dead, avoided speaking of them afterward, and had a strong belief in the afterlife. The only existing examples of Tasmanian visual art are geometric petroglyphs of circles, lines, and dots seen today on the west coast, which may tell creation myths and other dreamtime stories. Unfortunately, few language features—other than several songs, place names, and a few word lists—were recorded from the five related dialects that were spoken on Tasmania prior to European settlement.
The first person of European descent to land on Tasmania was Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who arrived in 1642 but did not see any of the island’s inhabitants. This event didn’t recur for another 130 years; in 1772 Nicholas Marion du Fresne, a French explorer, met a large number of aborigines at what is now called Marion Bay. Later, many more European explorers, including Cook, d’Entrecasteaux, and Baudin, all made brief landings on the island and enjoyed relatively friendly relations with the natives. Unfortunately, this changed in 1803 when European settlers arrived on Tasmania, bringing with them superior weapons, new diseases, and ideas about both private ownership of land and the evolution of human societies that had devastating effects on the indigenous population. For example, in November, 1828, Europeans were given permission to kill any indigenous person on sight when martial law was declared on the island. In the end, this devastation was so great that by the 1830 census, only 350 aborigines were recorded and by the late 19th century, most Europeans believed that the last Tasmanian aborigine, Truganini, died in May, 1876.
Fortunately, the mythology of Truganini as the last Tasmanian was just that, mythology, for in the 2001 census, 15,773 Tasmanians identified themselves as being indigenous, far more than the estimated 1,500-7,000 who lived on the island before European settlement. This transformation has been fueled on three fronts. First, the recognition of aboriginality by those of European descent has been delinked from strict racial definitions to include the descendants of those aborigines who were transported to the Furneaux Islands in the 1830s, many of whom married or at least had children with the small European sealing community that had taken up residence on some of the larger islands. Many of these people moved back to Tasmania between the 1940s and 1970s, for economic reasons. Second, political developments among aborigines themselves have encouraged more people to recognize their own indigenous origins. Third, some aboriginal people from the mainland and Bass Strait and Torres Strait islands have moved to Tasmania in the past decades.
The priority for many people who consider themselves today to be aboriginal Tasmanian is cultural recovery. Toward this end, aboriginal child care centers were established in both Hobart and Launceston in the 1980s. Numerous aboriginal community events also take place each year in cities, towns, and at aboriginal sites all over Tasmania. The other priority has been the physical recovery of ancestral remains from museums all over the world, toward which the state of Tasmania has been helpful in passing a law requiring all such samples be returned. As a result, in February, 2002, the British College of Surgeons returned samples of Truganini’s skin and hair, along with the bones of other indigenous Tasmanians that they had held since the 1870s. Numerous other scientific institutions both in and outside of Australia have done likewise since the 1970s.
- Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and ATSIC. (1992). Aboriginal people of Tasmania. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
- Cove, J. J. (1995). What the bones say: Tasmanian aborigines, science, and domination. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.
- Plomley, B. (1993). The Tasmanian aborigines. Launceston, Australia: The Plomley Foundation.