Printer Friendly

Late Holocene human remains from northwest Queensland, Australia: archaeology and palaeopathology.


A human burial of late Holocene age was recently excavated from inland northwest Queensland and studied prior to reburial by the Indigenous community. Bones from the lower thoracic region to the feet were recovered. The person had been interred in a crouched position, resting on their lower legs (shins) and wrapped in paperbark. Similar burial techniques have been described in the region's ethnographic literature, and this site represents the first known archaeological example.

Ascertaining a firm date for the burial is problematic owing to the nature of the radiocarbon calibration curve in recent centuries. A detailed analysis of the bones indicated the individual to be an adult female, most likely of middle age. There are some significant pathological lesions present that are indicative of treponematosis. The geographic and cultural context of the burial leads us to suggest the most likely diagnosis is treponarid.

Keywords: Australian Aborigine, treponematosis, northwest Queensland, skeletal remains, burial practice


A rare opportunity to conduct a detailed study of the remains of an 'Old Person' followed the report in 2002 of human bones eroding along a creek-line on a pastoral station in inland northwest Queensland. Members of the Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation (WVAC) examined the site and requested that the remains be excavated and relocated elsewhere in the vicinity to prevent their further erosion and destruction. As part of this process it was agreed that the remains could be temporarily relocated off-site by researchers and studied in order to provide the community with information about the Old Person concerned. In August 2004 the remains of a partial human skeleton were excavated and removed to James Cook University, Townsville. Community members rebuffed the remains during April 2005. This report presents the detailed assessment of the skeletal remains particularly focusing on the burial practice and the evidence for disease and its significance in its archaeological context.

The study area

The study site is located in northwest Queensland, Australia, approximately 100 km south of the small township of Richmond, in a biogeographic region known as the Mitchell Grass Downs (MGD) (Figure 1). The MGD is an extensive area of semi-arid Mitchell grass tussock grasslands covering low relief, cracking clay plains (Wilson 1999). The region experiences a short wet season between December and March with up to 450 mm rainfall per year, and extended periods of drought are common. High temperatures occur all year round, coupled with extreme evaporation (typically more than 2000 mm per year). Hydrologically the area is dominated by small, ephemeral streams, creeks and drainage lines, which feed into the larger, though often intermittent, river systems. These environmental conditions place constraints on human movement through the MGD, making it largely impassable following heavy rainfall. At other times of the year Aboriginal population density was generally low, with extensive trade networks operating in order to ensure people's resource requirements were met (Roth 1897; Wright 1988).


The skeletal material

Initially assessment during 2002 revealed human skeletal material visibly eroding from a slightly elevated ridge approximately 100 m south of an ephemeral drainage line (Figure 2A). Subsequent excavation in 2004 uncovered much of the lower half of the skeleton of a single individual (Figure 2B). There were additional areas of bone fragments concentrated along the erosion gully north and north-northwest of the burial (Figure 3) up to approximately 5 m away. While it is possible these scattered fragmentary remains could be derived from other burial(s), we believe they belong to the same individual, as there is no duplication of bones or teeth. They have probably been displaced from the main burial as a result of sedimentary erosion and water movement. They were too fragmentary to provide much information.


Burial practice

The burial position indicated by the in situ bones is of particular interest. The anatomical position indicated the individual had been buried with the body intact, rather than as a secondary, defleshed burial. The position of the bones gave the appearance of a person crouched and resting on their anterior tibiae (shins) (Figure 4). The hip joints were fully flexed so that the anterior (front) femora (thighs) were in contact with the anterior trunk (represented by the lumbar vertebrae and a few rib fragments). It was also apparent that the knee joints, had they survived, would also have been in a fully flexed position as indicated by the tibiae and fibulae underlying the femora and the feet underlying the pelvis. The feet were crossed under the pelvis so that the right foot was underlying the left foot, both to the left side of the pelvis. Figure 4 is a sketch, although the position of the upper body is conjectural.


The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Heritage Database and Register shows only a very small number of burials known in the broad northwest Queensland region. A secondary, inhumation of an adult (probably female) individual has been recorded near Julia Creek to the north, and a secondary interment of some bones from an adult individual within a small, surficial stone cairn is known from within 50 km of the current study site (Bird 2000).

Ethnographic or ethnohistorical sources referring to burial practices are scarce and the few available need to be regarded with caution, as they were typically compiled more than 30 years after the initial incursions of Europeans. As elsewhere in Queensland, the frontier was extremely violent and disruptive of traditional Aboriginal practices (cf. Reynolds and May 1995). Writing of burial practices in the Gulf Country and Flinders River during the late nineteenth century, Palmer (1884:297-298) noted that while cremation was sometimes practiced, interment in the ground or a hollow tree was more usual: "When buried whole, some are laid in the grave full length, wrapped round with ti-tree bark and twine very tightly, the grave being dug about 2 feet deep". Writing around the same time with specific reference to the burial practices of the Oonamurra [sic] people of the Flinders River area, Macgillivray (Curr 1886:342) described burial practices whereby
   the knees and neck of the corpse are tied together, and it
   is thus brought somewhat into the shape of a ball. It is
   then enveloped in grass, covered tightly with a net, and so
   interred in a hole about five feet deep.

Roth (1897:165) described the traditional burial practices of the Cloncurry area to the west of the study site in a similar manner to Macgillivray, noting that "the corpse is buried usually in a crouching position with head down". Discussions with Traditional Owners in the broader region have also indicated that burial in a foetal position was common, and that typically only people of high status, usually men, were buried in an upright position with the head uppermost so they could look over country (John Richter, pers. comm.). Another common practice in the area was for male individuals to be interred in an upright position within hollowed out termite mounds (Allan Kynuna, pers. obs.).

No grave goods were found with the burial with the exception of a covering of paperbark. However, it is possible that artefacts may have been lost during erosion. The use of paperbark as a shroud is significant for a number of reasons. As noted above, both Roth (1897) and Palmer (1884) described the use of ti-tree or Melaleuca bark as a wrapping as being typical of Aboriginal burial practices in the region. Hence, this site provides empirical support for an ethnographically described burial tradition. A sample of the paperbark was subjected to AMS radiocarbon dating; this removed the necessity of undertaking destructive dating on any specific bone--a process the WVAC members preferred not to use. The sample returned an uncalibrated date of 189 [+ or -] 34 BP (Wk15560), with a calibrated age range at 1 sigma of 1660-1690, 1720-1820 and 1920-1950AD. Unfortunately, owing to the nature of the calibration curve a more securely bracketed date could not be determined (Fiona Petchey, pers. comm.). However, the most recent range of the age estimate can be eliminated as no evidence for European contact (e.g. glass, ceramics or metal) was observed in the area (see below) and, as a result of killings and removal under the Aboriginal Protection Act 1897, traditional burial practices did not persist so recently. The paperbark wrapping is also significant because there is, at present, no source of this material near the site, and hence it must have been brought in from some distance away. Traditional Owners opine that the most likely source was Woolgar River some ca 200 km to the north (see Figure 1). Paperbark from this location was collected by community members and used to wrap the bones during the 2005 reburial.

The time of year during which the death and burial took place can be estimated on environmental and ethnographic grounds to have occurred during the early dry season, possibly February-March. People traditionally moved seasonally; wet months were spent in the various ranges to avoid the extensive flooding of the low lying plains, and, as water levels receded, people spread out into the MGD. The MGD is all but impassable during the wet, and at the height of the dry the clay-rich ground of the Downs has the consistency of set concrete that today can only be penetrated using heavy machinery. Therefore, it seems reasonable to infer that interment must have taken place after floodwaters had receded but while there was still sufficient moisture in the ground to allow a grave to be dug.

The wider archaeological context

Very few archaeological sites are known in the MGD (Border and Rowland 1990), a feature that is undoubtedly a reflection of the limited number of cultural heritage surveys or systematic archaeological researches. Sites recorded are dominated by low density, open artefact scatters (mostly locally available silcrete and chert), with a small number of painting and engraving sites, burials, stone circles, stone arrangements, scarred trees, fish traps, grinding grooves, hearths, quarries and shell middens. Overall, site locations display a close relationship to major drainage systems, and it has been hypothesized that in the past Aboriginal people maintained a semi-sedentary existence in large base camps along the major waterholes through summer and winter, with the period of greater mobility occurring during winter (Border and Rowland 1990). Economic activities were probably carried out throughout the whole MGD, although travel routes were almost certainly concentrated along creek and river systems (Border 1992).

Almost no information is available about the antiquity of human occupation in the MGD, although highland areas surrounding it have evidence dating back to the late Pleistocene (Morwood 1990, 1992; Davidson et al. 1993; Wallis 2003). Few radiocarbon dates are available for the plains, with the exception of a series of open hearths around Richmond, which are all dated to within the last 1000 years (Wallis, 2003; Wallis et al., 2004).

The Wanamara MGD 1 burial was located in the immediate vicinity of a dense surface stone artefact scatter, numerous heat retainer hearths and some thin freshwater mussel shell (Velusunio sp.) middens (Figure 3). More than 40 hearths were noted within an approximately 500 m radius of the burial, with an additional ca 20 fireplaces within 5 km. Six of the hearths were dated using radiocarbon dating (on either mussel shell or charcoal preserved within them), producing age determinations between ca 400 and 1800 years ago. Two thin shell middens were observed along the same erosion gully as the burial, and a third shell lens was located immediately beneath the ground surface approximately 20 m south of the burial. Both middens were radiocarbon dated to between 400 and 650 years ago. The presence of fragmented mussel shell scattered over most of the general area of artefacts suggests there are probably further midden deposits in the vicinity not yet exposed. Stone artefact density is extremely high in some areas (up to 100 artefacts per square metre) and there are very high quantities of heavily reduced, retouched pieces amongst the assemblage. The surface sample collections are currently being analysed by Australian National University PhD candidate Sophie Collins and these results, along with those of the other features, will be published elsewhere. Overall, the archaeological evidence suggests the area associated with the burial was a preferred camping location for at least 1800 years. It was situated close to a watercourse (that may have provided a more permanent source of water in the past than it does today, given the currently reduced levels of subsurface water in the underlying Great Artesian Basin), and provided a source of stone for both artefact manufacture and hearth construction. The site was also a slightly raised area more suitable for camping than the surrounding lower ground that would be subject to longer inundation during wet season. Probably the most unusual feature of the complex is the close proximity of the burial to the other archaeological features, a circumstance not commonly known in the region. Although it has not been possible to exhaustively date all of the features in the vicinity, it appears that the burial represents the most recent phase of use of the site and is somewhat younger than any of the other dated features.

Contemporary Aboriginal views and site significance

Contemporary Aboriginal community members regard the burial and wider site complex as a highly significant, special place. The fact that the Old Person was interred in an obviously 'traditional' manner adds to its contemporary significance. The site of visibly eroding bones was disturbing for people to view, and hence the request was made for the Old Person to be excavated and reburied, so the deceased individual could regain both peace and dignity. While Aboriginal people were present during the excavation and subsequent reburial, at no stage did they directly handle any bones, believing that for them to do so was not appropriate and could have caused some sort of illness. Community members hold the strong view that Old People are 'safer' when buried in the country, as opposed to being removed to a museum or other institution. In this case temporary relocation to JCU was willingly allowed in order to satisfy community members' desires to learn more about the specifics of the deceased individual.

The analysis of the skeletal material

Sex and age-at-death estimation

Assessment of pelvic morphology confidently assigned this individual as female based on accepted standards (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994) including employment of the Phenice (1969) technique as some parts of the pubic bone were preserved.

The estimation of age-at-death was difficult to determine with a high degree of accuracy as the pubic symphyseal surfaces were not well preserved and could not be graded. Based on other aging methods, including changes of the pelvic auricular surface (phase 4-5, 35-44 years, following Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994), and sacral vertebral body fusion (fully fused, at least 25 years, following McKern and Stewart 1957 cited in Scheur and Black 2000), this individual was not a young adult. There were no signs of severe joint degeneration in the few joints observeable, save for a small osteophytic lesion (bony outgrowth) on the body of 5th lumbar vertebra, however muscle attachment sites were quite marked. Overall this evidence most likely places this individual within a 'middle aged' adult category, that is, not a young adult in her 20s, nor a very old person. It was not possible to be more accurate than this given the preservation of the material.


There are numerous factors, both cultural and biological, that have lead to the conclusion that this burial is Aboriginal. The cultural factors (paperbark wrapping and burial style) are detailed above and provide the strongest evidence. Skeletally, morphological characteristics of the crania and mandible would commonly be used to confirm an Aboriginal attribution, but this was not possible here. Instead, infracranial metrics (Davivongs 1963a, 1963b) and nonmetrics (Donlon 2000) can be used.

Table 1 provides the measurements recorded for this individual. The measurements were compared to average measurements from Brown (2004) and Davivongs (1963a, 1963b). These data collections consist of postcranial metrics from adult female Australian Aboriginal skeletons predominantly from South Australia. The woman under study has measurements very close to the average for most parameters and within the range for nearly all measurements recorded. The exception was in the length and breadth of the right calcaneus which were slightly larger than the largest recorded.

In terms of nonmetric traits, medial squatting facets on the distal tibia were observed, stronger on the right side than the left, a pattern that fits with previous analyses of Australian Aboriginal females (Donlon 2000). These facets are more commonly seen in Australian Aboriginal people compared with other populations, although they are occasionally see in some Asian groups (Donlon 2000). It is improbable that these facets would be seen in a European skeleton as they arise from the long term effects of assuming a squatting position, a position more common in Aborigines than Europeans in the past (Rao 1966).

While this metric and nonmetric evidence could not be used solely to confirm an Australian Aboriginal individual, the evidence is consistent with the cultural evidence for an Aboriginal burial.

Health and Disease

No enamel hypoplastic defects or carious lesions were observed in any of the fragmented teeth. Tooth wear was minimal for the posterior teeth (molars) (grade 1-3 following Smith 1984 cited in Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994) and moderate for the anterior (canine) (grade 5 following Scott 1979 cited in Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). There is little evidence available with which to discuss dental health. The absence of carious lesions in the few teeth present is import ant as it infers a low cariogenic, and in particular a low refined carbohydrate, diet, possibly pre-European, or the absence of appropriate bacteria that cause the cavities. Limited studies have shown the proportion of carious lesions in Australian Aborigines was very low prior to contact with European settlers and their introduction of a more refined carbohydrate diet (Smith et al. 1988; Brown 2004).

The 5th metatarsal in the left foot had a well-healed fracture in the midshaft. This type of fracture is commonly the result of a direct force to the side of the foot such as from kicking an object with the lateral side of the foot or dropping a weight directly on the foot.

Both tibiae had marked anterior diaphyseal (shaft) bowing with rounded anterior crests (Figure 5). The bowing was confirmed to be 'true bowing' as opposed to 'pseudo-bowing' by the presence of a curved interosseous line (Ortner 2003). The fight fibula was also bowed anteriorly but not to the same degree of severity as the tibiae. The right fibula diaphysis was flattened in the mediolateral direction. Only a small piece of the distal left fibula was present.


The thickness of the tibial cortex (outer compact bone) appeared thin along the medio-lateral aspect of the diaphysis (visible in post-mortem breaks and radiographic images). In contrast the cortex was moderately thickened and dense in the anterior and posterior aspects, particularly in the distal half of the shaft (Figure 6).


In addition to bowing of the tibiae and fight fibula there were other bony lesions along the diaphyses of these bones. Most lesions on the fight tibia were limited to the region just medial of the anterior margin. The lesions were slightly raised areas of remodelled cortical bone (Figure 7A). One such lesion had a small depression (7 x 2 mm) within this but it did not go deep into the cortex or through to the medullary (marrow) cavity. This cavitation had a smooth floor and walls with some pitting and a sharp margin on the medial aspect (Figure 7B). This healed cavitation lesion in the cortical bone resembled a healed gumma, a diagnostic feature of treponematosis (Hackett 1978; Ortner 2003). There was a general increase in porosity (fine pitting) over much of the region around the cluster of lesions proximally and particularly further distally where the anterior crest flattens (Figure 8). The anterior aspect of the left tibia had post-mortem erosion that limited the observation of the periosteal surface (outer surface of the cortex).


The right fibula also had signs of healed lesions and changes to the diaphyseal nutrient foramina (opening through cortex for blood vessels). This fibula had two distinct nutrient foramina along the medial aspect of the diaphysis, one proximally and one distally. Typically, the fibular diaphysis has only one nutrient foramen on the medial or posterior aspect of the middle third of the diaphysis, although two or three nutrient foramina in other parts of the diaphysis have been reported (Lee et al. 2000). However, the nutrient foramen for the distal fibular diaphysis is atypical in that it appears enlarged (3 x 2 mm) compared with other anatomical specimens, indicating an increased vascularity (Figure 9). The nutrient foramen for the proximal diaphysis was smaller but had an associated build up of new bone proximally including a marked ridge (Figure 10). This would also indicate an increase in vascularity in this region. A prominent lesion was just posterior to this nutrient foramen, on the medial aspect of the diaphysis, and can be described as an area of remodelled periostitis (Figure 10). This lesion in the right fibula was at a similar level to those in the right tibia. There was also a similar increase in general porosity on the fibular diaphysis, as with the tibia, particularly on the lateral and posterior aspects of the distal half of the diaphysis.


Differential diagnosis and discussion

It is possible that the lesions and bowing have arisen separately and represent two conditions existing concurrently. A differential diagnosis for tibial bowing alone, would include congenital tibial kyphosis, rickets or osteomalacia, Paget's disease and treponematosis (Aufderheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998). Lesions of the right fibula indicated an increased vascularity was present, implying healing of an inflammatory process. Changes of the right tibia resembled a healed gummatous lesion, typical of a treponemal infection. Diffuse porosity was also evident on both the right tibia and fibula. Given the nature of these lesions it makes sense to consider the tibial bowing in conjunction as a diagnosis of treponematosis fits well with both.

Treponematosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the genus Treponema (Chulay 2000). There are four syndromes associated with treponematosis: yaws, treponarid (also known as bejel, endemic syphilis, irkintja), venereal syphilis and pinta (Ortner 2003). The last shows pathological changes in the skin only. The remaining three conditions affect most body tissues in a series of clinical stages marked by inflammatory changes initially only at the site of entry of the infection but followed by more severe destructive inflammatory changes throughout the body, including in bone (Chulay 2000; Tramont 2000). It is worth noting that treponematosis can be overcome and this may provide the individual with some immunity to all other forms of treponematosis (Chulay 2000). Venereal syphilis is the only form that can be transmitted sexually or congenitally, the others are transmitted by fomites and nonvenereal contact (Aufderheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998).

Tibial bowing, also known as Boomerang leg, has been previously noted in many Australian Aboriginal groups including those from desert and tropical areas (e.g. Hackett 1936; Webb 1995) and has been seen in association, although not exclusively, with treponematosis from these groups. Hackett (1936) reports that bowing is commonly seen with 'scars' characteristic of treponematosis in his study of living subjects early in the 20th century. However, bowing of the tibiae should not be considered pathognomic of treponemal infection (Hackett 1978; Ortner 2003). Tibial bowing in indigenous Australian populations can exist in individuals with no overt signs of treponematosis (Webb 1995). However, as Webb (1995) suggests, individuals with tibial bowing but no bone lesions, may have been suffering from an earlier subclinical stage of treponematosis, or perhaps have only exhibited the skin lesions of earlier stages that would not preserve in skeletal remains. This is evident in Hackett's (1978) statement that the proportion of living individuals who test serologically positive for treponematosis is considerably more than the proportion that develop bone lesions. It is an accepted limitation in skeletal analyses that many diseases do not actually ever affect bone or, if they do, it is often only in the later stages of the more chronic diseases such as with tertiary treponematosis.

Ortner (2003) states that true tibial bowing is most frequently associated with subadult treponematosis. True bowing forms during childhood, before the epiphyses fuse (Buckley and Tayles 2003). The female proximal tibial epiphysis fuses between the ages of 13-17 years and the distal tibia between 14-16 years (Scheur and Black 2000). This implies that the disease establishes itself at some stage during childhood. This is common in two forms of treponematosis, namely yaws and treponarid, and rare in syphilis (Hackett 1963). However, bowing development in venereal syphilis cannot be entirely ruled out as the age at which sexual activity began or the presence of congenital syphilis after contraction in utero are unknown in this case.

Pathognomic of treponematosis in skeletal remains are gummatous lesions (Aufderheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998; Heathcote et al. 1998). These arise as an inflammatory response to infection with Treponema sp. (Roberts and Manchester 1995). The lesions in bone involve both necrotizing and proliferative changes (Aufderheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998). The gummatous lesion evident in this case study is a periosteal gumma. These lesions are described as "localized, surface depressions representing the foci of necrotic bone. These are usually sharply defined, and encircled by an elevated rim of reactive, sclerotic bone ..." (Aufderheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998:160). It is evident this description is readily applicable to the gumma in Figure 7B.

The question that naturally follows a diagnosis of treponematosis is to which type does it belong: yaws, treponarid, or venereal syphilis? While these can be clinically differentiated, the skeletal manifestations of the treponematoses are, unfortunately, all very similar. Numerous researchers (e.g. Webb 1995; Waldron 2001) caution against differentiating between the different treponemal conditions based on bone lesions alone and we do not attempt this, particularly given the incompleteness of the remains. A recent attempt to distinguish between the forms of treponematosis skeletally (Rothschild and Rothschild 1995) is based on population frequencies of lesion types and is not applicable here. In any case, this methodology has been rigorously challenged (Heathcote et al. 1998).

Allocation of the lesions to one of the three variants of treponematosis that affect bone (yaws, treponarid or venereal syphilis) may be possible by considering evidence of the cultural and physical environment at the time the individual was alive (Waldron 2001). Yaws and treponarid have reasonably distinct geographical distributions: yaws in the humid tropics and treponarid in more arid areas to the north and south of the yaws regions (Froment 1994 cited in Roberts and Manchester 1995:152).

Venereal syphilis has some distinct differences to the non-venereal forms, most obviously in the mode of transmission (Tramont 2000), however this is not distinguishable in skeletal remains. Syphilis has no geographical restrictions (Ortner 2003) but is a more acute, severe form of treponematosis transmitted sexually or congenitally. It has been suggested that syphilis did not exist in many prehistoric populations given their small and nomadic nature (Cockburn 1963 cited in Aufderheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998). This lifestyle mode would have been typical of the indigenous Australians in northwest Queensland prior to European contact and during the initial colonisation period.

Traditionally syphilis is believed to have been introduced into indigenous Australian communities by Europeans (Hackett 1978). Both Webb (1995) and Hackett (1978) believe that yaws and treponarid, the lower grade but still potentially debilitating infections of treponematosis (Buckley and Tayles 2003), were the only treponematoses present in Australia prior to European contact. Webb (1995) mentions this with respect to central and northern Australia in particular. Hackett (1978) is adamant that syphilis was not present in Australia prior to European arrival and states that if bones are dated to pre-European contact "it can, thus, be accepted that any treponemal changes in Aboriginal bones are due to yaws, if they come from the north, or to treponarid, if they come from the center or south" (Hackett 1978:388).

The date of the burial in question is therefore crucial in this attempt to differentiate which of the treponemes could have affected this woman. AMS dating and archaeological evidence, as detailed above, places this burial within a wide possible range, from 1660 to 1890. The first Europeans to explore the MGD country were Burke and Wills, whose ill-fated expedition of 1860-61 saw them pass by to the immediate west of the study site. During late 1861 and early 1862 several expeditions were mounted in the search for Burke and Wills and these parties variously traveled across northwestern Queensland (McKinlay 1861-1862; Landsborough 1862; Walker 1862; Laurie 1866). The first permanent European settlers in the MGD arrived after 1864, when the Burke District was officially opened for settlement by the Queensland Government (Bolton 1972). However, the droughts of the latter half of that decade saw many of the early pastoral runs abandoned. They were successfully reestablished in the 1870s and 1880s when the discovery of gold in north Queensland brought with it a demand and market for pastoral products. The known history of European settlement, the radiocarbon dating of the paper-bark associated with the burial, the traditional manner of the burial itself and the absence of any evidence of contact (in the form of European material culture in the site vicinity) lead us cautiously to the conclusion that this woman lived and died before the arrival of Europeans in the region.

Many ethnographic accounts suggest Aboriginal health in pre-European times was good (summaries in Kamien 1980; Campbell 2002; Webb 1995). There is, however, continued speculation as to what diseases were endemic; trachoma, yaws, treponarid, malaria and leprosy are all believed to have been present (Kamien 1980). The origin of these diseases remains under contention although there is strong evidence that the latter two were introduced by the Macassan fishermen over the last 400 years and then at the turn of the last century by Chinese and Pacific Islanders (Cook 1927 cited in Kamien 1980 and Moodie 1973).

Kamien (1980) summarises the major effects from contact, both European and other, that led to the estimated dramatic decline in Australian Aboriginal numbers from 300,000 in 1788 to 67,000 in 1933. Infectious diseases and massacre were two of the most significant factors. The most well-known epidemic was that of smallpox in 1789 (Moodie 1973) which highlighted the fact that colonists' diseases can readily move ahead of actual physical advancement into new areas (Kamien 1980). Current research suggests that Australian Aboriginal people were not so isolated from one another as initially thought and contact between tribes on well-established trade routes and large gatherings for ceremonies provided a mode of transmission for these new diseases (Moodie 1973; Kamien 1980; Webb 1995). Other infectious diseases that were a significant detriment to post-contact Aboriginal health included measles, tuberculosis, influenza, chickenpox and syphilis (Kamien 1980; Campbell 2002).

The picture of contact with indigenous Australian groups is complicated by reports of regular visits to the northern Australian coast by the Macassans, from the Indonesian archipelago (Sulawesi) (Macknight 1986). These visits predate European contact with the northern inland region of Australia, since they are thought to have begun around the beginning of the eighteenth century. Written accounts of expeditions to Australia date to the mid-eighteenth century (Macknight 1986). The Macassans are believed to have had sexual relations with Aboriginal women and are blamed for spreading venereal diseases (Loos 1982 cited in Kunitz 1994:84). This raises the possibility that the Macassans infected the northern indigenous Australian communities with syphilis that was then transmitted down-the-line to more inland populations, as is proposed for the introduction of smallpox from more southern populations (Macknight 1986; Campbell 2002). Webb (1995) more or less dismisses the issue of the introduction of syphilis via Indonesian contacts prior to European contact in northern Australia. Hackett (pers. comm. cited in Webb 1995:146) states "that syphilis is not usually present in a population in which yaws is endemic, such as Indonesia". A person suffering from yaws and treponarid during childhood may gain some degree of cross-immunity to syphilis in adulthood (Hackett 1978). However, there is evidence that significant parts of Asia had been exposed to syphilis by their earlier contact with Europeans. For example, India was infected by the Portuguese around 1498, China and Japan were exposed shortly after and the Spaniards are believed to have brought syphilis to the Marianas Islands around 1668 where previously only yaws was known (Stewart and Spoehr 1952; Rodriguez-Martin 2000). Inspections of Malay vessels arriving on the north-west coast of Australia in 1875 reported sickness on one vessel that was diagnosed as syphilis in one individual (Campbell 2002). However, this is quite late in the time line.

Hackett (1936, 1978) seems confident that only yaws and treponarid were present in Australia prior to European contact and that it was the Europeans who brought syphilis to Australia. Hackett (1963) and Webb (1995) do mention Asia as a source of yaws in northern Australia at some stage in prehistory, which, they propose, may have been the precursor for treponarid further south in central Australia. Hackett (1936:2) states that "references to syphilis and venereal disease among the aborigines in the writings of medical and lay men from the earliest times indicates that probably all these are misdiagnoses for yaws". Campbell (2002) also recognizes the confusing state of the historical records that often provide little specificity of the diseases observed:
   Moreover, whites who recorded these diseases among
   Aboriginals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
   knew nothing about related indigenous diseases, such as
   yaws and non-venereal endemic syphilis, which they may
   have mistaken for venereal syphilis. (Campbell

The wide date range of the burial in question includes pre-European contact but not significant post-European contact for the area, and also includes both pre- and post-Macassan contact. As discussed above we suggest this woman was interred prior to significant European contact. Syphilis transmitted by the Macassans is only a slight possibility. Syphilis traveling ahead of the physical advancement of European settlement is a further possibility. However, given (1) the endemicity of yaws and treponarid in the central and northern regions and (2) the crossimmunity gained by having suffered from the non-venereal treponemal diseases, syphilis might not spread so readily as smallpox (Webb 1995). Moodie (1973:168) states that "venereal syphilis ... has a better chance of spreading throughout the Aboriginal population now than in the past" given the reduction in endemic treponemal disease over the last 100 years through the intervention of modern medicine.

If it is accepted that it was unlikely for this woman, given her place in history, to have suffered from venereal syphilis, then we can, as discussed above, look to the physical environment for clues to a diagnosis:
   The treponemal diseases are closely related and their
   expression seems to be dictated by environmental
   conditions ... yaws is a disease of the wet tropics and
   endemic syphilis [treponarid] of dry, arid regions.
   (Waldron 2001:103).

The MGD in the region of Richmond is a semi-arid environment today and, although surface water availability has been recently substantially reduced by the arrival of Europeans, the immediately pre-European climate is not likely to have been substantially different (see Wallis 2003). Therefore, our diagnosis would lean more towards treponarid.


Detailed archaeological investigations conducted within the Mitchell Grass Downs of northwest Queensland are few in number, and specific studies of human remains from the region are almost non-existent. The establishment of a positive, collaborative working relationship between researchers and local Aboriginal community members, coupled with support from the local non-Indigenous community is increasingly providing opportunities to address the paucity of research. In this case, the demonstration of the practice of wrapping the Old Person in paperbark brought in from a considerable distance, the unusual burial position, and the fact that such rites were bestowed upon a female member of the community who had suffered some form of disease and illness during her life were equally of interest to the archaeologists and the Aboriginal community. While only the partial remains of a single individual were available for study, it is clear than even small datasets have the potential to yield important information relating to the long-term history and genesis of disease on the Australian continent, as well as to address other questions of broader archaeological interest.

Evidence for a significant infectious disease was observed in this woman, most likely one of the treponemal diseases. The bone lesions do not confidently permit a more specific diagnosis, however combined with evidence for the temporal and geographic location of this burial, they are most suggestive of treponarid. In order for this diagnosis to be more certain, skeletal material definitively dated prior to European contact would be required. Unfortunately, this particular material does not confidently provide this evidence, but goes some way in emphasizing the usefulness of scientifically excavated material firmly set in context.


KD and LW wish to offer many thanks to the Wanamara and Jirandali community, particularly Darren Kynuna, Allan Kynuna, John Keyes, Helen Smith and Mick Smith for not only their permission to conduct this study but also their interest in seeing such work carried out and their contributions to fieldwork and this paper. Our appreciation goes to Matt and Lyn Kersh for their hospitality during fieldwork and to Ms Kate Valentine for her assistance in the field and laboratory. Thanks also go to Dr Hallie Buckley for her assistance in the diagnosis of the infectious disease, to Denise Donlon, Alan Thorne and Peter White who provided helpful commentary on an earlier draft of this paper, and to the anonymous reviewer; as always, any errors remain the responsibility of the authors. Andrew Border, John Richter and Fiona Petchey discussed aspects relating to Indigenous burials in northwest Queensland and radio-carbon dating peculiarities, respectively. This work was generously supported by funding from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.


Aufderheide, A.C. and C. Rodriguez-Martin. 1998. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Human Paleopatholgy. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Bird, M. 2000. Progress Report #13 to Ergon Energy: Cultural heritage reconnaissance mid-western SWER powerline refurbishment project, Maxwelton South SliCER area, Richmond District. May-July 2000. Unpublished report to Ergon Energy, Townville and Wanamara Traditional Owners.

Bolton, G.C. 1972. A Thousand Miles Away: A history of North Queensland to 1920. Australian National University Press: Canberra.

Border, A. 1992. An Archaeological Study in the Central Downs Sub-Region of the Mitchell Grass Downs Biogeographic Zone, Queensland. Unpublished report prepared for the Department of Environment and Heritage, Queensland and the Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra.

Border, A. and M.J. Rowland. 1990. The Mitchell Grass Downs Biogeographical Zone (Queensland): A Heritage Resource Assessment. Unpublished report to the Heritage Branch, Department of Environment and Heritage, Brisbane and the Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra.

Brown, P. 2004. Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology.

Buckley, H.R. and N. Tayles. 2003. The functional consequence of tertiary yaws lesions in the prehistoric Pacific Islands. Journal of Archaeological Science 30:1301-1314.

Buikstra, J.E. and D.H. Ubelaker, (eds). 1994. Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains. Arkansas Archaeological Survey Research Series No. 44. Arkansas Archaeological Survey: Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Campbell, J. 2002. Invisible Invaders: smallpox and other diseases in Aboriginal Australia 1780-1880. Melbourne University Press: Melbourne.

Chulay, J.D. 2000. Treponema species (Yaws, Pinta, Bejel). In G.L. Mandell, J.E. Bennett and R. Dolin (eds.): Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. Churchill Livingstone: Philadelphia, pp. 2490-2494.

Curr, E.M. 1886. The Australian Race: Its origins, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia, and the routes by which it spread itself over that continent. Government Printer: Melbourne.

Davidson, I., S.A. Sutton, and S.J. Gale. 1993. The human occupation of Cuckadoo 1 Rockshelter, northwest Central Queensand. In Sahul in Review: Pleistocene Archaeology in Australia, New Guinea and Island Melanesia. M.A. Smith, M. Spriggs and B. Fankhauser, (eds). Occasional Papers in Prehistory No 24, Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University: Canberra, pp. 164-72.

Davivongs, V. 1963a. The pelvic girdle of the Australian Aborigine; Sex differences and Sex determination. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 21: 443-456.

Davivongs, V. 1963b. The femur of the Australian Aborigine. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 21: 457-467.

Donlon, D. 2000. The value of infracranial nonmetric variation in studies of modern Homo sapiens: An Australian focus. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 113(3): 349-368.

Hackett, C.J. 1936. Boomerang leg and yaws in Australian Aborigines. Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Monograph 1: London.

Hackett, C.J. 1963. On the Origin of the Human Treponematoses (Pinta, Yaws, Endemic Syphilis and Venereal Syphilis). Bulletin World Health Organisation 29:7-41.

Hackett, C.J. 1978. Treponematoses (yaws and treponarid) in exhumed Australian Aboriginal bones. South Australian Museum Records 17(27):387-405.

Heathcote, G.M., A.L.W. Stodder, H.R. Buckley, D.B. Hanson, M.T. Douglas, J.H. Underwood, T.F. Taisipic, and P.D. Vincent. 1998. On treponemal disease in the Western Pacific: Corrections and critique. Current Anthropology 39(3):359-368.

Kamien, M. 1980. The Aboriginal Australian Experience. In N.F. Stanley and R.A. Joske (eds.): Changing Disease Patterns and Human Behaviour. Academic Press: London, pp. 253-270.

Kunitz, S.J. 1994. Disease and Social Diversity: The European Impact on the Health of Non-Europeans. Oxford University Press: New York.

Landsborough, W. 1862. Journal of Landsborough's Expedition from Carpentaria, in Search of Burke and Wills. F.F. Bailliere: Melbourne.

Laurie, J.S. (ed.) 1866. Landsborough's Exploration of Australia from Carpentaria to Melbourne, with Especial Reference to the Settlement of Available Country. Thomas Murby: London.

Lee, J-H., S. Ehara, Y. Tamakawa, and M. Horiguchi. 2000. Nutrient canal of the fibula. Skeletal Radiology 29(1): 22-26.

Macknight, C.C. 1986. Macassans and the Aboriginal past. Archaeology in Oceania 21:69-75.

McKinlay, J. 1861-1862. Journal of Explorations in the Interior of Australia (Burke Relief Expedition). Bailliere [Facsimile Edition, 1962]: Melbourne.

Moodie, P.M. 1973. Aboriginal Health. Australian National University Press: Canberra.

Morwood, M.J. 1990. The prehistory of Aboriginal landuse on the Upper Flinders River, North Queensland Highlands. Queensland Archaeological Research 7:3-56.

Morwood, M.J. 1992. Changing art in a changing landscape: A case study from the Upper Flinders Region of the North Queensland Highland. In State of the Art: Regional Rock Art Studies in Australia and Melanesia. J. McDonald and I.P. Haskovec, (eds.). Australian Rock Art Research Association: Melbourne. Occasional AURA Publication No. 6. Archaeological Publications: Melbourne, pp. 60-70.

Ortner, D.J. 2003. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Academic Press: San Diego.

Palmer, E. 1884. Notes on some Australian tribes. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 13:276-347.

Phenice, T.W. 1969. A newly developed visual method of sexing the os pubis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 30:297-302.

Rao, P.D.R. 1966. Squatting facets on the talus and tibia in Australian Aborigines. Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 1:51-56.

Reynolds, H. and D. May. 1995. Queensland. In Contested Ground: Australian Aborigines under the British Crown. A. McGrath, (ed.). Allen and Unwin: Sydney, pp. 168-208.

Roberts, C. and K. Manchester. 1995. The Archaeology of Disease. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, New York.

Rodriguez-Martin, C. 2000. Historical background of the human treponematoses. Chungara 32(2): 193-198.

Roth, W.E. 1897. Ethnological Studies among the North-WestCentral Queensland Aborigines. Government Printer: Brisbane.

Rothschild, B.M. and C. Rothschild. 1995. Treponemal disease revisited: Skeletal discriminators for yaws, bejel, and venereal syphilis. Clinical Infectious Diseases 20: 1402-1408.

Scheur, L. and S. Black. 2000. Developmental Juvenile Osteology. Academic Press: San Diego.

Smith, P., M. Prokopec and G. Pretty. 1988. Dentition of a prehistoric population from Roonka Flat, South Australia. Archaeology in Oceania 23:31-36.

Stewart, T.D. and A. Spoehr. 1952. Evidence on the paleopathology of yaws. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 26(6):538-553.

Tramont, E.C. 2000. Treponema pallidum (Syphilis). In G.L. Mandell, J.E. Bennett and R. Dolin (eds.): Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. Churchill Livingstone: Philadelphia, pp. 2474-2490.

Waldron, T. 2001. Shadows in the Soil. Human Bones and Archaeology. Tempus: Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Walker, F. 1862. Diary of Expedition. Unpublished manuscript held in National Library of Australia: Canberra.

Wallis, L. 2003. Archaeological investigations in Wanamara Country, northwest Queensland, Aug-Oct 2002. Unpublished report prepared for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra and Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation.

Wallis, L.A., H. Smith and D. Smith. 2004. Investigations of Aboriginal hearth sites along the Flinders River, inland northwest Queensland. The Artefact 27:59-76.

Webb, S. 1995. Palaeopathology of Aboriginal Australians. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Wilson, B.A. 1999. Mitchell Grass Downs. In The Conservation Status of Queensland Bioregional Ecosystem. P. Sattler and R. Williams, (ed.). Environmental Protection Agency, Queensland Government: Brisbane, pp. 4/5-4/29.

Wright, B. 1988. Between Two Rivers: The Aborigines of the Leichhardt-Gilbert region of north west Queensland. Archaeology Branch, Department of Community Services: Brisbane.

KD: Veterinary and Biomedical Science, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811; LW: Archaeology, Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001; DK, AK: Wanamara Traditional Owner, c/- D&G Lawyers, PO Box 1830, Aitkenvale QLD 4814; HS: Jirandahli Traditional Owner, c/- 11 Harris Street, Richmond QLD 4822.
Table 1: Postcranial measurements (min) from this study compared
with the average (and range) from Brown (2004) and Davivong's (1963a;
1963b) databases for adult female Australian Aborigines.

Measurement                                                  Wanamara

Sacrum Anterior length                                         98.3

Maximum transverse diameter of base                            50.9

                                                 Wanamara     Brown

Os innominate height

Ischium length

Femur head

Tibia distal epiphysis                             39.9        39.0
Tibia nutrient foramen--max diameter               33.7        27.5
                      --medio-lateral diameter     19.3        19.0
Talus length                                       49.8
Calcaneus max length                               78.8        67.5
Calcaneus middle breadth                           33.6        21.7

Measurement                                                   Brown

Sacrum Anterior length                                         89.4
Maximum transverse diameter of base                            44.1

                                                 Wanamara     Brown

Os innominate height                               180.9      181.7
Ischium length                                     65.5        74.2
Femur head                                         38.3        38.2
Tibia distal epiphysis                             38.7        39.0
Tibia nutrient foramen--max diameter

                      --medio-lateral diameter

Talus length
Calcaneus max length

Calcaneus middle breadth                           34.9

Measurement                                      Davivong

Sacrum Anterior length                             88.12
Maximum transverse diameter of base                44.10


Os innominate height                              181.96
Ischium length                                     74.72
Femur head                                         3,816
Tibia distal epiphysis

Tibia nutrient foramen--max diameter

                      --medio-lateral diameter

Talus length
Calcaneus max length

Calcaneus middle breadth
COPYRIGHT 2006 Blackwell Publishing Limited, a company of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Domett, K.M.; Wallis, L.A.; Kynuna, D.; Kynuna, A.; Smith, H.
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Geographic Code:8AUQU
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Previous Article:The maritime transport of prehistoric megaliths in Micronesia.
Next Article:Excavations at a Chinese fish curing site near Port Albert, Victoria.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters