The Aboriginal Material Culture of the Wellesley Islands and Adjacent Mainland Coast, Gulf of Carpentaria: Social and Environmental Factors Affecting Variations in Style


  • Anne Best Aboriginal Environments Research Centre, The University of Queensland



Similarities and differences in aspects of the culture of the Aboriginal people of the Wellesley Islands, has been noted by European writers. This remote island group is situated in the southern region of the Gulf of Carpentaria, northwest Queensland. Observed differences appear to demonstrate dissimilarities in certain cultural manifestations between the North Wellesley Islands (Mornington and Forsyth) and the South Wellesley Islands (Bentinck and Sweers). These include language, social organisation, land-use, ritual and ceremonial practices and manufactured objects of material culture. However, other cultural practices, namely an economy based on marine resources, are shared throughout the region. The data used here focus on items of portable material culture used by the people of the Wellesley Islands and the adjacent mainland coast at a time before intensified social disruptions to Aboriginal people in the area was brought about by increased European presence and by the establishment of missions in the region in the first quarter of the twentieth century. All items are from museum collections and were collected no later than 1916. Using a relational database, the morphological variations present in the objects are quantified and analysed. The study area is divided into three regional zones; the North Wellesley Islands, the South Wellesley Islands and the Adjacent Mainland Coast. In the region, four different languages are spoken and the data are also analysed by language group. The aim of the study is to determine whether quantifiable regional variation can be demonstrated. This article intentionally focuses narrowly on portable objects of material culture. For references to wider cultural aspects of the study area, see Roth (1897, 1901, 1903), Tindale (1977), Trigger (1987), Robins et al. (1998), Evans (2005), Memmott (2010), whose work has previously explored similarity and difference in the culture of the region as well as theoretical discussions of the reasons for these differences.