Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
Who Were the Tasmanian Aborigines?
In 1777, members of Captain Cook’s third expedition stumbled upon a peculiar mystery. They attempted to make contact with the indigenous people of Tasmania by offering them the fish they had caught that day. Instead of accepting this offer, the Tasmanian Aborigines were mortified to discover that the fishes were to be eaten. The mutual meeting of the two cultures got off to a bad start and never improved.
For years afterward, it was believed that the Tasmanian Aborigines had always shunned a fish diet. However, in the 20th century, archaeological digs at the site of ancient settlements debunked this belief. It turned out that fish had been on their menu at one point in their history.
Despite this finding, however, more questions were asked. And when they began to be answered, the simple story of a group of people changing their diet took on a more complex story that included isolation, geological changes, and a loss of vital abilities of a once-thriving civilization.
An Ancient Civilization Isolated
Cook’s expedition was possibly the first time the Tasmanian Aborigines came into contact with anyone outside their island home. For 10,000 years these people (also known as Palawa) had lived in isolation from other Aboriginal tribes on mainland Australia. Neither group had boating technologies. And at the time, they didn't need it; Tasmania was connected to Australia by a landmass called the Bassian Plain.
At the end of the last Ice Age, the ocean water levels rose and flooded this plain, creating what is now known as Bass Strait. This body of water cut off access to mainland Australia.
Several tribes survived on the island after this event. However, warfare and the sustainability of resources on the island at the time reduced their numbers to 5000.
The Tasmanian Aborigines were mostly nomads and lived off the land and water. Many of them were skilled in making hooks and tools, as well as wooden shelters. Also, they enjoyed a fish diet. This fish diet, however, would only last up until circa 1400 BCE. The date was based on the dating of artifacts and fish bones found at the excavation sites.
Isolation Takes Its Toll
There are several speculations to explain this sudden rejection of fish. One theory was that the red algae in the area may have contaminated the fish and poisoned those who ate them. Another speculation was that the lack of boating technology prevented them from going out into deeper waters to fish. Also, the abundance and easier access of food on land deemed fishing to be useless.
Evidence does indicate that Tasmanian Aborigines had technological skills that deteriorated over the years. UCLA professor and author Jared Diamond has written that cultures thrive when they are in contact with other cultures. Each one will borrow technologies, skills or philosophies from each other and further advance their societies.
Tasmanian Aborigines didn't have other cultures, except those on the small island, to intermingle with. Their skills may have stagnated because of this.
One theory suggests that small societies will not take part in high risk activities for fear of losing a member of their tribe. In a small social order, every person plays a crucial part. Larger societies can get away with risk because a person in that system can be replaced.
Small Group Don’t Take Chances
Another problem was the small number of skilled people on the island. Within each tribe of twenty or thirty, there would've been one or two people skilled in something such as sewing, cooking or making tools. If one of these people is lost, that tribe loses a vital resource and will not have anybody to replace that person, unless the information is passed down from one generation to the other.
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The small number also led to avoidance as a survival skill. One theory suggests that small societies will not take part in high-risk activities for fear of losing a member of their tribe. In a small social order, every person plays a crucial part. Larger societies can get away with risk because a person in that system can be replaced.
Fishing Skills Vanish
Fishing was a high-risk activity. Often they may have had to compete with larger predators such as sharks. Also, there was the danger of rough waters (waves) and storms. On top of that, there was no guarantee that the fish caught would be viable to eat. Red tide was another factor that made eating fish very dangerous.
The aversion from eating fish was not the only skill to vanish. The ability to make hooks would vanish. Other vital skills such as creating fire, sewing clothing and building shelter soon vanished from this society. By the time the Europeans arrived, the Tasmanian Aborigines were dubbed the simplest people on Earth. They lacked most of the skills and technologies that their Australian counterparts had.
The colonists didn’t see past their perceived primitive sate. They saw “lowly savages” that were not fit to be on their own land
A Tragic End for the Tasmanian Aborigines
The most definite answer to this mystery could have been answered by the Aborigines on the island. These people would meet a sinister demise. Within one century after the arrival of the first Europeans, The Tasmanian Aborigines were all but wiped out, slaughtered by English settlers. By the dawn of the 20th century, all "full-blooded" Tasmanian Aborigines had died off.
The colonists didn’t see past their perceived primitive state. They saw "owly savages" that were not fit to be on their own land. And, much of this, indirectly, can be attributed to their declining way of life…and their loss of the important skill of fishing.
Sources and Further Reading
- Tasmanian Aboriginal people | History & Facts | Britannica
- Exploration: James Cook | Our Tasmania
- Manne, Robert. (2004). Whitewash. Black Inc.
Whitewash collects Australia's leading writers on Aboriginal history to re-examine the points in Keith Windschuttle's book. The result is an authoritative account of the history and politics of the colonial frontier and a demolition of revisionism.
- Aboriginal Tasmanians | Wikipedia
- The Life and Times of One of Tasmania's Last Aborigines, Truganini | The Examiner
The very mention of the name Truganini has in death become more divisive than she ever was in life.
- Ryan, Lyndall. (2012). Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803. Allen & Unwin.
Lyndall Ryan tells the story of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, from before the arrival of the first whites to current political agendas.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Dean Traylor
Jack Hearts on June 18, 2018:
Most likely ate puffer fish which poisoned them and thus stopped eating fish as food was still plentiful. Major collapse of population occured before English settlement? Smallpox?
whonunuwho from United States on August 14, 2015:
This was interesting my friend. Makes you wonder what significant event or happening to have caused their change in life.Nice work. whonu
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 14, 2015:
Wow! Dean, this was very interesting and informative. I have read quite a bit about Tasmanian aborigines but never knew they had stopped eating fish and lost those other skills due to isolation etc. Voted up.
Kevin Goodwin on August 14, 2015:
Very interesting to learn that people surrounded by water turned away from fish.