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First footprints: the epic story of the First Australians.

First footprints: the epic story of the First Australians

Scott Cane 2013

Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 316pp, ISBN 9781743314937 (pbk)

The story of the movement of Aboriginal peoples into what is now Australia some 70,000 years ago and their survival over tens of thousands of years is, as Scott Cane says in this book, truly epic. The story of these achievements is not new, but the way it is told in First footprints is. Scott Cane's new book demonstrates, through a survey of archaeological evidence, the extraordinary diversity, adaptability and innovative skills of Australia's Indigenous peoples as they moved into and settled throughout this continent. Their superb skills enabled these people to adapt their technologies, cultural expressions, traditions and lifestyles over time in the context of immense climatic and environmental changes. I discussed some aspects of these innovative skills of Aboriginal people in my 2007 book Writing heritage: the depiction of Indigenous heritage in European-Australian writings. Innovations in material culture included modifying stone and wooden tools in form, size and function, introducing new designs or entirely new objects, or even ceasing use of some items if circumstances no longer required them. Then, of course, there was the incorporation of introduced European materials into their toolkit--wire, steel and glass, for example. There were innovations in subsistence strategies, foods and living conditions. Cane brings out all these and much more in the way of innovative and adaptive strategies that Indigenous people employed over time and place, across the entire range of their cultural and societal systems.

Cane's book is one of the latest surveys of Australian Aboriginal archaeology. As such, it is situated within a fine tradition of such works, including Lourandos's (1997) Continent of hunter-gatherers, Flood's (2000) Archaeology of the Dreamtime, Mulvaney and Kamminga's (1999) Prehistory of Australia and Hiscock's (2008) Archaeology of ancient Australia. Most of these books examine, mostly in conventional ways, some of the central issues that form the core material in First footprints, covering themes such as the initial colonisation of the continent, changing environments and climate, the role of fire, extinction of megafauna, and the Tasmanian Aborigines.

But First footprints takes a very different approach to all these works. This is what sets it apart in the large field of this type of work and makes it particularly accessible to a wider readership. Cane threads together archaeological and ethnographic data with information about rock art and engraving sites and his extensive personal field experience. The book's format further enhances its appeal, with superb images in both colour and black and white used throughout the work. The text itself includes a device that further adds to its accessibility for a wider readership. Each part begins with a brief scenario, narrated in a dramatic and filmic way, of an imagined story of Aboriginal people travelling into the Australian continent and establishing themselves here.

First footprints tells its story alluringly from the beginnings, when people first moved out of Africa and made their way to what is now Australia, through thematically and chronologically structured discussions entitled 'Near extinction' (74,00 0 to 60,000 years ago), 'Supernomads' (60,000 to 30,000 years ago), 'The great drought' (30,000 to 18,000 years ago) and 'The great flood' (from 18,000 years ago). There are some familiar topics here, such as the demise of Australia's megafauna, the oldest evidence of human burials at Mungo in the Willandra Lakes region of New South Wales, and the story of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, who rather mysteriously ceased including fish in their changing and adapting diet some 3500 years ago. Indigenous peoples' use of fire to manage their landscapes and environments is also covered.

Part I of First footprints examines the movement of people into what is now the Australian continent around 74,000 years ago. In this sense, these were perhaps the first 'boat people' to arrive. This concept has been the subject of previous studies, such as Australian palaeopathologist Steve Webb's (2006) detailed book The first boat people, though in a more conventional scientific style to that in Cane's book. A significant factor in these early movements southwards, Cane argues, was a massive eruption of Mount Toba volcano. Other possible factors were over-population, resource pressures and societal changes. Cane claims this was 'the largest volcanic eruption in the last 2.5 million years' (p.11), and its impact on the micro-climates of the south-east Asian region was immense. Whatever the final impetus was for the initial arrivals into Australia, Cane harnesses a wealth of scholarship to paint a compelling picture of the region during those ancient times, including its demographic movements and dispersals, and its climatic and environmental changes. He discusses the various ways in which these early arrivals might have travelled to Australia, and options for their dispersal and settlement around the continent.

Themes in Part 2 include the abundance of natural resources during these early Pleistocene times, the presence of giant ancient animals, and representations of these in art and myth. There is much speculation here about the ancient environments and ecologies faced by the first settlers, and an imagining of these ancient colonisers in a pristine and, at that time, 'empty' land. References to some Arnhem Land sites and other sites are employed to demonstrate the antiquity of the early colonisers. Desert living is discussed, as is the system of Aboriginal knowledge known as Tjukurrpa, which is a map and guide for peoples living and moving through deserts. Also covered in this part are the Willandra Lakes (Mungo) sites and the settlement of sub-Antarctic Tasmania. All these case studies show the adaptations of the early Indigenous Australians to the variety of diverse and extreme environments and climatic regimes.

Part 3 discusses the challenges of life in rock shelters in Kakadu and other places in Arnhem Land. Here, Cane mentions Nawarla Gabarmang in western Arnhem Land as the site for 'the earliest known picture ever drawn in Australia' (p. 107). There are many references throughout the book to the 'earliest' or the 'oldest'. This is a common theme in archaeology, and in First footprints might be seen as a device intended to heighten the appeal of this book. First footprints devotes a lot of its discussion to the development and variation in Indigenous artistic styles and movements, and the ways these reflected the huge climatic and environmental changes over time. Cane's emphasis throughout on the connections between artistic, ritual and cultural expressions, material culture, subsistence strategies, and environmental and climatic change is one of the book's key strengths. The fluctuations in climate changes across the whole continent are mirrored by the variability in the intensity of human occupation, as revealed by the archaeological record. An example offered by Cane is the apparently sparse settlement on the Nullarbor Plain about 40,000 years ago, illustrated by the paucity of material culture. Cane tells this story in terms of the rate of artefact production; people visited the site 'so occasionally that they left behind only three artefacts every 1000 years' (p.126). This part of the book also discusses the enduring question of the relationship between humans and the megafauna, and Cane emphasises the complexity of this, referring to the multiple ways that these early humans used megafuanal bones, including for cutting and engraving. He cites climate change as a likely key factor in the eventual demise of the Pleistocene megafauna.

The final part deals with early Indigenous peoples' responses to rising Holocene seas. Their inventiveness produced new technologies and subsistence strategies to adapt to the newly inundated environments. Peoples' survival during these ages of extremes was not only achieved by flexible and responsive subsistence strategies, but also by remarkable ways of societal co-operation. The power of archaeology to convey changes in lifestyles and cultural traditions is evident here. We see, for example, changes in some Arnhem Land art styles, which, in Cane's interpretation, suggest increasing tension and stress, including conflict and combat as people responded to rising Holocene sea levels. Here, too, is discussion of the intensification of settlement such as the fish-traps and dwellings at Lake Condah in Victoria, and increased populations in the Murray-Darling Basin--again, all responses to transformations in climate and environments.

Archaeology used as evidence for social, cultural and political changes such as human migrations, demographic patterns, cultural systems and Dreaming places is not a new concept (see, for example, Bruno David's (2002) Landscapes, rock-art and the Dreaming). Cane's First footprints engages this role of archaeology to excellent effect in seeking to understand the deep connections between places, landscapes, artistic representations, and social and cultural systems. Cane has also brought his extensive personal experience and insights into this book, including his own work with, and knowledge of, desert Aboriginal peoples, and this enhances the discussion. There has been some excellent recent work on the archaeology of Aboriginal desert regions, such as the edited collection by Veth, Smith and Hiscock (2005), Desert peoples, as well as Smith's (2013) The archaeology of Australia's deserts. First footprints is a significant addition to these.

Also enhancing this fine book is Cane's use of ethnographic examples and the influence of 'living archaeology', which was articulated many years ago, for example, in the work of Gould (1980). Cane's weaving together of the archaeology, ethnography, and cultural and spiritual life of Australia's Indigenous peoples contributes

to a well-rounded portrait of ancient societies throughout the thousands of years these people have been here.

This very accessible and engaging book is an excellent companion to the recent television program, also called First footprints (broadcast on ABC TV in July 2013 and released on DVD in August that year). But, more importantly, it stands alone as a significant addition to scholarship on the archaeology and history of the peopling of Indigenous Australia.


David, Bruno 2002 Landscapes, rock-art and the Dreaming: an archaeology of preunderstanding, Leicester University Press, London and New York.

Davis, Michael 2007 Writing heritage: the depiction of Indigenous heritage in European-Australian writings, Australian Scholarly Publishing and National Museum of Australia Press, Melbourne and Canberra.

Flood, Josephine 2000 Archaeology of the Dreamtime: the story of prehistoric Australia and its people, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

Gould, RA 1980 Living archaeology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hiscock, Peter 2008 Archaeology of ancient Australia, Routledge, London and New York.

Lourandos, Harry 1997 Continent of hunter-gatherers, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mulvaney, John and Johan Kamminga 1999 Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.

Smith, Mike 2013 The archaeology of Australia's deserts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Veth, Peter, Mike Smith and Peter Hiscock (eds) 2005 Desert peoples: archaeological perspectives, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA.

Webb, Steve 2006 The first boat people, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Reviewed by Michael Davis, The University of Sydney <>
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Author:Davis, Michael
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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