What do Americans think of Tasmania?

Cultural regression: the island of oblivion

In 1772, Europeans met the indigenous people of the island of Tasmania for the first time. You will meet people whose community has had no contact with the mainland for 360 generations. And who hardly use tools, sometimes live in huts without a roof and just smear their naked bodies with grease to protect themselves from the cold. The astonishing thing: The Tasmanians did not live that primitively in the past - they have lost many cultural skills

When the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman was the first European to drop anchor at the island that was later named after him in 1642, the island appeared to be inhabited. But Tasman is in a hurry, he sails on to New Zealand without exploring the island, and so it takes another 130 years before Europeans see 1772 people living on Tasmania. That year the French navigator Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne and his crew went ashore. And when he sees the locals, he is probably amazed. In appearance, the Tasmanians are similar to the Aborigines who live in Australia, about 240 kilometers away. Their lips are full, their noses broad; but their skin is darker, their skulls higher, and their woolly hair lies so curled on their heads that a seafarer initially suspects that the islanders adorned themselves with wigs made of seaweed. But while most of the Aboriginal people wear clothes, the Tasmanians walk around naked - only some women have skins tied around their shoulders, in which they carry their children, for example. And while the Aborigines hunt animals with throwing sticks and kill fish with multi-pointed spears, the Tasmanians have hardly any tools or weapons. Your few belongings appear extremely simple. Their spears are long branches that they sharpen with stone scrapers. They kill seals or kangaroos with wooden clubs. They can start a fire, but they don't have any cooking vessels. And some of the huts on this island, whose climate is similar to that of Brittany, do not even have roofs. Many of them are more like a vestibule, woven from twigs and pieces of bark.

Never before have Europeans seen people who live so simply. And what makes the whole thing particularly strange: Archaeological finds will later show that the Tasmanians were once technically much more advanced, that they had more sophisticated equipment. Around 8,000 years before the arrival of the French, for example, they made tools out of bones and probably fished with nets. At the time, Tasmania had only been an island for about 2000 years. It had formed part of the Australian mainland during the last ice age, but then the global climate warmed, the ice masses at the poles and the continental glaciers melted, the sea level rose. Little by little the ocean flooded the connection to the mainland, so that Tasmania became an island whose inhabitants had no contact with other peoples for almost 360 generations. No other group of people that survived into modern times has been so isolated for so long.

As researchers now know, the Tasmanians not only missed technical innovations from other parts of the world during the long phase of isolation, they even lost existing knowledge and gave up skills that they had long since acquired. The Tasmanians, monstrous as it seems, were regressing. How did that happen? How is it possible for a society to lose achievements once it has acquired? After all, one would think that technical development always only knows one direction: forward. Stone tools were the forerunners of metal tools, houses replaced caves. Loads were first pulled, then rolled, and finally moved with a motor. Progress is the normal, even inevitable, course of things - this is what we commonly assume. However, a look at history reveals that knowledge acquired over generations can be lost. Sometimes that just happens when a culture disappears and with it the technical know-how. An example of this is the Indus civilization, which existed in present-day Pakistan more than 4,000 years ago. Nobody has deciphered the characters of this culture to this day, but excavated ruins show that some of their relatives lived in large cities with wide streets and precisely laid out residential buildings. They apparently managed without a king or a military, but traded heavily: merchants traveled as far as Central Asia and Iran, goods from the Indus Valley reached the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia. In the urban centers, people lived in houses that already had their own bathing chambers and were connected to a city-wide sewage system.

This civilization flourished for around 700 years. Then she disappeared for reasons previously unknown. With it, writing, urban architecture and sewage technology were also forgotten in this region. It is obvious that technical achievements are lost when cultures cease to exist. However, they can also be lost while a society continues to exist. And that is exactly what happened in Tasmania.

After the island separated from mainland Australia 10,000 years ago, perhaps 4,000 people lived on the island. They mainly settled along the coast, presumably in groups of 20 to 30 individuals. Tasmania is a little smaller than Ireland, but mountains, some of which rise steeply from the sea, made the interior of the country extremely difficult to access. Dense forests expanded widely after the end of the Ice Age. In addition, it kept raining heavily on the wind-blown island. In some respects, however, Tasmania also had pleasant living conditions. So the waters were rich in fish; so there was enough protein-rich food. And bones that archaeologists have found in the remains of former camp sites clearly show that the Tasmanians consumed fish extensively in the first millennia after their homeland was sealed off. But those islanders whom Europeans met in the 18th century did not eat fish. Rather, they ate marine snails and crabs, which the women dived for in the sea. When the locals saw the sailors frying fish, they stared at them in amazement. And when the strangers offered them a sample, they refused in horror. Had the Tasmanians developed a taboo against eating fin animals over the millennia? Or did the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčeating fish struck them as absurd because they had simply forgotten how to catch them?

Archaeological finds show that about 3500 years before the arrival of the Europeans, the islanders stopped making long, pointed structures from bones - a technique they had mastered for millennia. It is conceivable that they had previously used these instruments as needles to tie nets for fishing and therefore were no longer able to hunt the marine animals without the tools. Perhaps that was when they forgot how to make clothes. Because such needles were also indispensable for tailoring capes made of animal fur. This could explain why the Tasmanians, at the time of their discovery by the Europeans, did not - like the Aborigines in the south-east of mainland Australia - wrap themselves in robes made of animal skins. Instead, they smeared their bodies with a mixture of seal or bird fat and ocher as the only protection against the biting wind. While all types of bone tools were forgotten on the island, the Aborigines on the other bank of the separating strait developed a number of new techniques, making spear throwers, throwing sticks, shanked tools such as scrapers or axes with a handy handle and spearheads with barbed hooks. The exact reasons for the Tasmanians' loss of know-how are in the dark, so that ultimately one can only speculate how it came about. But other examples show how a culture can lose technical knowledge, especially when it lives in isolation.

Anthropologists have identified a corresponding development in an Inuit people in northwest Greenland who were visited by US explorers in the mid-19th century.

In order to hold their own in the cold, this tribe probably once knew a number of useful techniques, as had been observed in other inhabitants of the Arctic. They probably paddled across the water in fur-covered kayaks, hunted reindeer with bows and arrows and built igloos with long tunnels in front of the entrance to protect the interior of the snow houses from frost. But when the Americans joined them, they found none of it. Researchers suspect that an epidemic of disease struck the tribe in the 1820s, in the course of which most of the locals died - especially the older, more experienced members of the group. Without their expert knowledge, however, the survivors were unable to build boats. They could no longer replace defective arches with new ones, and their igloos cooled down comparatively quickly because they now apparently lacked the knowledge of how to construct long tunnels. For about 40 years the community lived without kayaks, without bow weapons and therefore without the opportunity to hunt reindeer. It was only when the tribe made contact with another Inuit tribe in 1862 who had retained the helpful techniques that they were able to regain the knowledge they had lost. Although there are no signs of a drastic population collapse in Tasmania, all these observations suggest a general conclusion: Technical know-how is most likely to be preserved or further developed where many people live in different groups and can exchange ideas with one another. On the one hand, individuals then have a larger pool of techniques available to them to choose which of these skills they want to acquire themselves. On the other hand, it increases the likelihood that a technology will not only be imitated but also further developed. And if enough individuals and cultures take part in the technology transfer, this is a kind of insurance: once acquired knowledge can be replaced if it is lost locally, for whatever reason.

However, only a few thousand people lived in Tasmania - which, in the opinion of some experts, is a kind of limit value at which further development and regression are divided. If it had been even less, according to this theory, the inhabitants of the isolated island would probably have simply died out. If 10,000 people had lived there, they might have fertilized each other with ideas to drive technical progress on their own. But apparently the islanders did not even manage to retain their existing know-how. And unlike other cultures, the Tasmanians had no way of retrieving lost knowledge from another people. They did have boats, but the canoe-like structures tied together from strips of bark often had to be pushed by a swimmer so that they could move at all. In addition, the pieces of bark soaked up with water, so that the canoes sank after a few hours' drive. Therefore, the Tasmanians and their companions could only reach a few smaller islands that were a maximum of ten kilometers away from the coast. The at least 200 kilometers wide water belt that separated Tasmania from the Australian mainland after the end of the last ice age, on the other hand, was an insurmountable barrier. The islanders had no way of making contact with the rest of the world - not even with the Aborigines on the Australian continent, who themselves belonged to the most isolated communities in a global comparison. Nonetheless, Tasmanian society was able to hold its own. Archaeological finds suggest that the population increased in the millennia before the arrival of the Europeans and that the Tasmanians even set out to live in new areas such as the previously uninhabited west coast. Some scientists, who consider the connection between the size of a population and its technical level, claimed by other researchers to be unconvincing, therefore advocate a completely different theory: It was not because their numbers were too small that the Tasmanians did not develop new techniques, and sometimes even old ones not preserved - but because it was quite simply not necessary. The island's natural resources were enough for them to survive without complex tools. Clothing was no longer important to them after the climate warmed up with the end of the Ice Age. And they were even able to do without fish as a source of food without suffering from a deficiency: By consuming seal meat and seafood, they not only consumed sufficient protein, but also fat and carbohydrates, which are hardly contained in fish.

In any case, the Tasmanians' undoing was not their own technical backwardness, but rather the progress in the rest of the world. The Europeans who arrived on the island at the end of the 18th century turned out to be invaders who did not show any respect to the indigenous people. The overseas settlers - initially seal hunters and whalers, then mostly convicted criminals from Great Britain - robbed local women and kept them like slaves who forced them to work and have sex. Some Europeans cut off the genitals of Tasmanian men and watched them die. Others shot at the locals with cannons. They set steel traps to trap people or spread poisoned flour. In addition, the British settlers converted the traditional hunting grounds of the Tasmanians into pastureland, robbing the indigenous people of their livelihoods. They also brought in germs to which the local population was defenseless. In the 1830s - the number of Tasmanians had shrunk from 5000 when the Europeans arrived to a few hundred - almost all of the remaining natives were finally resettled on an island in the strait. But also here the dying continued, only a few dozen made it back to the main island in 1847. Probably the last person of purely Tasmanian descent died on May 8, 1876.

The seemingly primitive technical equipment of the natives served the newcomers as a pretext to slaughter the Tasmanians like animals or at least to treat them as second-class people. And until the very recent past, some scientists even saw the simple way of life of the island people as a sign of degeneration, a "aberration" in the history of civilization. But not the people of Tasmania were primitive - but their tools. And the islanders were doomed not because of the long phase of seclusion - but because of the end of their isolation.

Back to main page