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Cut to the Bone: Heritage, Climate Change, Coasts, and Oceans

I recently visited Northern Queensland to attend the International Council of ArchaeoZoology (ICAZ) in tropical Cairns or Gimuy. We were welcomed by the Gimuy-walubarra yidi traditional custodians who graciously introduced us to country and blessed our conference.


Did you know that there is an international organization dedicated to zooarchaeology? That is the study of animal remains in the human past? You would be forgiven if this is the first you have heard of them! The 14th conference held in Cairns was primarily focused on "Oceans and Coasts – Past, Present and Future", with a particularly focus on sub-themes of:

  • Dynamic Landscapes, Dynamic Cultures

  • People and Animals in the Social World

  • Science and Zooarchaeology

  • Coastal and Maritime Connections


A reef heron (Egretta sacra) on the mudflats in Cairns amongst the mangroves. This area is protected and you can only view the mudflats from the Esplanade in order to allow migrating shorebirds to feed here and avoid disturbing this important ecosystem.


You may wonder how zooarch can contribute to these pressing issues that we are currently facing and in some parts of the world at the forefront of urgent matters. Well, the recent conference was about just this very topic. My own research was part of the Human Ecodynamics in Central East Polynesia Session organized by my own supervisor Professor Melinda Allen and Associate Professor Jennifer Kahn. This session was filled with papers by my amazing colleagues and friends who are working very hard on showcasing the importance of faunal remains in Polynesian societies and their current importance and implications for cultural heritage identity in the wake of global climate change and conservation as well as people's ongoing connections to the past and continuity.


Human Ecodynamics (HED)? Woah That might be a unique term... But essentially, HED is a longstanding part of archaeological thought with deep roots in systems theory, and cultural ecology and looks at the reciprocal feedback relationships between humans and other organisms that co-construct environments. This notion underpins the importance of how human direct and indirect impacts largely influence the resilience and stability of species and the wider ecosystem.


One of my favourite pioneering and inspiring Zooarchaeology figureheads Professor Emerita Dianne Gifford-Gonzales in her amazing keynote at ICAZ captured relevance of this concept and our field in the best way. She emphasized how archaeology has a useful role in the value of pressing issues and that there is an element of storytelling through the archaeological record where we can see from the faunal remains amongst other material cultures, how past people faced environmental and socio-political crises in the past- We have faced large scale events such as the Younger Dryas and Holocene Warming, as well as the Last Glacial Maximum. Archaeology provides the chance to embrace the very real diversity in knowledge and ways of engaging with the past and the record provides one line of evidence to highlight resilience, co-operation, and our failures to provide new perspectives.


Something I took from the four days of conferencing was the energy levels of fellow like-minded scholars who are all passionate about human-animal interrelationships. We all have a deep connection to understanding the past and that humans are part of the system and not removed from it. We share our environment with many other organisms and rather than using them as a way to represent us why not look at the interconnected nature of our relationship with these beings to ask more critical questions to manage and protect our current and future landscapes. Current knowledge is also integral to long-term cultural knowledge at multiple scales.


We also reconsider terms like "Rewilding" and what this means. We often get so caught up with terms like restoration and rewilding we need to slow down and reconsider the implications of these terms. You might be aware that achieving some kind of "pristine" or nature "as it was" before humans state is next to impossible and rather it is more about returning biocultural values to the landscape and seeing these environments as dynamic with multiple agents of change. We should rather look to a range of data and cultural knowledge and open discussions to propose a number of solutions rather than a dichotomous decision-making process. This is not a new debate but one that requires constant revisiting and re-evaluation- these are ongoing relationships that need long-term investment than short one-off events to manage a landscape.


Some of my fantastic CIRAP colleagues presented some very thought-provoking work. Dr Vahine Rura and colleagues challenge our analyses of pacific fishbone identification to include more refined and accurate species identifications with consideration of fish ontogeny to understand long-term fishing practices and interactions considering that many of these taxa are now restricted or protected. Some taxa like parrot fish (Scaridae sp.) and snappers (Lutjanidae sp.) as well as wrasses (Labridae) are still fished today and an essential food source so understanding these long-term fishing trends are important for fisheries histories and cultural management.


Dr Gabrielle Traversat presented her meticulous recently completed Doctoral work on the importance of archaeomalacology or the study of shells in archaeological contexts. Her amazing research delves into the exploitation, consumption and use of marine shells by ancient Polynesian communities. She has spent time in the Marquesas interviewing 'Enata (Marquesan people) on their observations and knowledge of shell use including their consideration of her results She also considered the fracturing processes through an experimental approach. Check out the abstract of her recently published work here!


Doctoral Candidate Iona Claringbold challenges us to reconsider archaeological "ritual" contexts of faunal remains and their life-histories in East Polynesia. This research is imperative to understanding cultural, economic, and ecological transformation in East Polynesian societies. I appreciate Iona's work in challenging our long-standing established terminology and thinking more critically about the formational processes that transform the archaeological record with consideration ethnographic evidence and broader understanding of processes that affect the preservation of animal bones. Keep up with Iona's research here!


Dr Reno Nims presented work in collaboration with myself and Professor Melinda Allen on evidence of mass-capture fisheries in the Marquesas looking at evaluating archaeological fish assemblages and what they might tell us about capture methods and fisheries histories of the 'Enata through time. Mass capture of small fishes by a range of nets and traps was a widespread and economically essential practice across East Polynesia based on ethnographic accounts. There is distinct geographic variation and many of these fishes are endemic to the Marquesas making them an important focus for ongoing fisheries management and cultural context. Watch this space for more work and check out Reno's research here!



CIRAP (International Centre for Polynesian Archaeological Research) Post-ICAZ Human Ecodynamics in Polynesia debrief! (Right to Left) Guillaume Molle, Vahine Rura, Gabrielle Traversat, Iona Claringbold, me!, Melinda Allen, Reno Nims.


Professor Virginia Butler summed up our HED session with a beautiful discussion around the essential nature of embracing human agency and that history matters. Humans are part of nature and multi-proxy ways of knowing are the way forward to address complex questions. This conference and the papers in our session were about establishing relevance and thinking about more being more and that we can encompass a broad range of ideas with good chronological data and explain patterns we see in the archaeological record and truly explore the human/cultural dimensions of the socio-ecological systems we operate in.


The fantastic Professor Virgina Butler summarising our Human Ecodynamics in East Polynesia session.


Trip to the Great Barrier Reef!


The internationally renowned Great Barrier Reef has a cultural history of 60,000 years in association with the Indigenous populations in Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. The ancient cultures that are firmly embedded in the region both shape and have been shaped by the dynamic processes in this region. The reef is a palimpsest representing layers of growth over older reef platforms spanning 8000 years. It is a World Heritage Site and I was lucky enough to finally visit, which has been a dream of mine since I was a kid! I learned a lot about Dreamtime knowledge of the region in regards to the reef and the important cultural connections to the reef wildlife. Did you know there is also an 70+-year-old turtle named Big Brian who is huge and hangs out in the reef but is quite shy! I did not see him but I saw some fabulous corals and a vast range of fish in colour combos I had not imagined.



Great Barrier Reef beauty! Spot the fish! Those are Red Snapper from the Lutjanus family!



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