Archaeology: Skeletons hold the key: Discovery of a huge Aboriginal cemetery in Australia could alter demographics, writes David Keys

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AN EXTRAORDINARY archaeological discovery in southern Australia could force a reassessment of the scale of the catastrophe suffered by the Australian Aborigines in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Until recently, historians believed that the Aboriginal population fell from around 300,000 to 70,000 during the years following the initial 18th-century European colonisation. In the mid-1980s, the estimate for the original pre-European Aboriginal population was revised upwards to 750,000.

However, archaeologists have discovered a huge prehistoric Aboriginal cemetery, containing at least 10,000 skeletons. This find is beginning to focus attention on new demographic research suggesting that the pre-European population of Australia was much higher, probably between one and two million.

If this is correct, then the Aboriginal population would have had to plummet from around one and a half million to 70,000 in the space of barely two lifetimes. The new estimates suggest that over a million Aborigines must have died from European-introduced diseases, or been killed through genocide and punitive expeditions.

It has long been known that some Aborigines died from deliberately introduced smallpox epidemics, and that around 20,000 were shot in random killings, massacres and military actions between 1800 and 1930. The new estimates of pre-European settlement population imply that the holocaust which unfolded through disease and genocide was on a vastly greater scale than has hitherto been suspected.

The newly discovered Aboriginal cemetery was in use for 6,000 years from 4000BC to around 1850AD. However, the majority of the graves date from the past 2,000-3,000 years.

Archaeological excavations on the site - which stretches for two miles on high ground overlooking Lake Victoria in New South Wales - have so far located hundreds of graves. At least 10,000 to 20,000 Aborigines were buried there. No Aboriginal site of this size has ever been found before. Indeed, it is one of the largest prehistoric graveyards in the world.

Demographic estimates suggest that the community which sustained the cemetery, and which inhabited a 30-mile stretch of the Murray river, must have ultimately consisted of several hundred people - perhaps even as many as 500.

That, however, is far too many people to survive in a simple hunter-gatherer economy in the small area they inhabited, and would suggest that - at least in the late pre-European period - some Aborigines probably had a far more technologically sophisticated lifestyle than has generally been believed.

From a food-gathering point of view, they may have been engaged in managing and modifying their environment, rather than simply hunting and gathering within it. Such a scenario would be in line with recent demographic work suggesting that the pre-European Aboriginal population of Australia reached one to two million.

Computer modelling work based on gene-flow evidence gathered from the descendants of the Aborigines of Tasmania shows that the pre-European population of the island was probably 40,000-60,000 - 10 times greater than historians had previously thought.

Similar modelling of gene flows (data indicating the biological relationship between different groups and tribes) is planned for mainland Australia - and the one to two million estimate is based largely on a partial extrapolation of the Tasmanian findings.

One of the archaeologists who carried out the Tasmanian research, the co-director of the Victoria cemetery excavation, Dr Colin Pardoe, believes that for too many years there was 'an uncritical acceptance of low Aboriginal population estimates made many years ago, based on little or no data.

'Historical and archaeological research has in the past,' he says, 'completely failed to come up with adequate statistics on the size of Australia's pre-European Aboriginal population.

'We would like to get our history right, to assess what really happened, and to finally learn how many Aborigines perished as a result of the European colonisation of Australia,' says Dr Pardoe, curator of Physical Anthropology at the South Australian Museum.

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