on September 8, 2011
I once wrote a parody of the Australian writing style; and this book starts off with the choppy little declarative SVO sentences we expect from Australian writers. That's almost the only criticism I have. This is a wonderful introduction to a very big topic. Hiscock (like the author of this review) is very tired of simplistic explanations for multi-millennial history which condense all periods of change into one or two events, assume that an entire continent can be treated as a single region, and attempt to identify a single "cause" for the lot. Unlike the writer of this review, Hiscock knows his stuff. He systematically demolishes each such attempt to confine millennial- and continental-scale history to choppy little declarative explanations. Instead, he stresses the complicated, contingent, and diverse adaptations to (often smooth) changes in climate, resource, population, technology, and ideology which correlate without being related causally in any strict way.
The book is topically organized, but follows a generally chronological outline. That's a fair compromise between covering the hot issues and giving a sense of continental history as a whole. There's a risk here of giving too much emphasis to the spectacular and broadest claims, if only to set up straw men. I don't know the field well enough to evaluate how well Hiscock handled the problem, but I suspect he struck the right balance. He certainly gets a difficult balance right in maintaining detachment from the Aboriginal actors, while respecting their abilities and accomplishments.
One tiny technical gripe. The book would have been improved by a little more attention to nutrition and cooking -- perhaps to non-lithic tech in general. I was 2/3ds done with the book before I realized that Australians used "hot-rock" technology for cooking (a real game-changer for non-ceramic societies), and Hiscock repeatedly states that bones are cracked to access marrow protein (outside Australia, it's almost always to get at the marrow fats, which have both technical and nutritional uses).
Overall, a really good book. Its better, perhaps, if you have a little background in archaeology and Australian prehistory. I had none of the latter, but was able to keep up easily enough by doing a little background checking. And, as good as the history is, the historiography, the approach and attitude, are even better.
on September 1, 2013
The author most certainly provided a thorough review of Australian archaeology, and many aspects were covered from the first step onto this new continent c.45000BP to the first contact with the British in the late 1700s. However, there was bias in the material.
For starters, the author had strictly mentioned that even though there was little or no societal progression (civilization, technology, etc.) in Australia throughout the few tens of thousands of years, there was an abundance of societal and cultural transformations instead. For instance, even though stone scrapers were of different sizes but overall the same shape in the Pleistocene, artworks in different contemporary areas of the continent were quite different from each other. It was very interesting to view these many different artworks and learn about all this. The author pointed out the human forms in dancing and hunting poses with different headdresses and weaponry (such as barbed spears and boomerangs) from the contemporary Pleistocene artworks in different continental areas, which were also nice to learn. The artworks from the Pleistocene therianthropes to the Holocene drawings of the Rainbow Serpent in Arnhem Land, featured in the material, were definitely interesting too. Also, the author showed that throughout Australia's long period of human habitation, there was also an abundance of human groups that were either sedentary or highly mobile, and human groups that drastically changed their food resources over time as in the case with Tasmania. The author showed Pleistocene archeological sites in detail, such as Lake Mungo (an extinct lake) and the Puritjarra Rockshelter, which revealed that dense human groups once lived there. Furthermore, the author mentioned that many societal transformations occurred during the end of the Pleistocene, where Greater Australia (Sahul) lost a lot of its land, which then became the present day Australia, Papua New Guinea and Tasmania. It was also nice to learn from the material about some of the world's oldest stone axes c.30000BP, found in Australia. And the author affirmed with clear evidence that the Australian megafauna that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene was not the result of human overkill (I know this is true for the Americas as well).
However, the author was biased. Even though the author never directly mentioned this, a lot of hints are given in the material that the author firmly believes that that once Australia was settled c.45000BP, the continent remained "hermetically sealed" from the rest of the world until the British and the Makassans (and Indonesian people who found Australia just decades before). Though I also believe that Australia was originally settled in a single migration (considering that there were not many humans at that time as well), the author did not mention that Australia was founded by a large group of people (about a thousand), who were deliberately looking for a new land to settle and dwell. The author mentioned a "large" migration only once, and did not mention details. Though it is not really necessary to mention this in the book, the author did not mention that early Australians were competent seafarers, and there is increasing evidence that these people were among the first to find the Americas (and few living descendants still live today, more particularly in South America). There was an artwork in Kimberley that very likely featured a boat that was not mentioned in the material. The author also mentioned the references of other Australian archaeologists for certain aspects, but then stated many times that they are wrong or likely wrong, and he used the word "incorrect" a lot in many chapters to describe them. The most obvious bias came about the Small Tool Tradition at c.5000BP, when the very different backed points and bipoints almost suddenly came about in different areas of the continent and became popularly used. The author in a biased manner mentioned that these different tools were the product of out-of-the-blue independent innovation, whereas there is much more evidence that they were introduced to the continent from visitors from Austronesia and upper Australasia. The contemporary Jomons and various Austronesians were already highly skilled seafarers during that period, and they much more likely found Australia, where they introduced the new points. The author also does not mention important details about the introduction of the dingo to the continent, whereas Austronesian visitors that helped ignite the Small Tool Tradition also highly likely brought this dingo to Australia. (Other biased archaeologists say that the dingo came by itself via land for that matter. There was never a land connection to Australia after the supercontinent Gondwana--where Australia was once part--fully broke up into the current southern continents). If that was not enough, when the sea level was rapidly rising at the start of the LGM and a lot of land was suddenly lost, there were struggles and conflicts among the early Australians, coping with the drastic environmental changes, along with a noticeable population drop; and there is archaeological evidence to support all this. However, the author either does not mention this or says that this is "incorrect" in the material, and stated the manner that only peaceful transformations occurred. We know warfare is bad, especially today, but in centuries and millennia in the past, it was common throughout the world.
Then, in the material, the author repeatedly mentioned that there was no societal stagnation, but many societal transformations, which became monotonous. Hearing it only once would have been enough for me to grasp this. Also, though the author did not use a lot of technical jargon in archaeology and placed enough pictures and illustrations throughout the book, I found the book as overall difficult to transverse as a reader.
With the aforementioned discussion, I would only recommend this book as a supplementary reference, but do so with the knowledge that a lot of bias is present in the material.