Beyond bridge and barrier: Reconceptualising Torres Strait as a co-constructed border zone in ethnographic object distributions between Queensland and New Guinea

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DOI:

https://doi.org/10.25120/qar.25.2022.3885

Abstract

For over 200 years, Western scholarship has presented Torres Strait variously as a bridge and barrier to cultural influences between mainland New Guinea and Australia. An alternative approach is to see Torres Strait as neither a bridge (permeable boundary) nor a barrier (impervious boundary) but as a socially and culturally co-constructed border zone. Central to this new approach is conceptualisation of the Coral Sea Cultural Interaction Sphere (CSCIS) that centres on a series of ethnographically-known, canoe-based, long-distance maritime exchange networks that linked communities and information on objects over a distance of 2000 km along the south coast of Papua New Guinea and the northeast coast of Australia. The CSCIS emphasises Indigenous agency and the shared/selective uptake of objects and ideas by potential recipient communities across Torres Strait and their New Guinea neighbours to the north and mainland Australian neighbours to the south. Object distribution maps created using data derived from anthropological texts and museum online catalogues reveal continuities and discontinuities in the distribution of selected objects across the study area. These maps illustrate three forms of object uptake: (1) shared uptake of double-outrigger canoes and bamboo smoking pipes between New Guinea, Torres Strait and Australia; (2) selective uptake of dog-tooth necklaces and cone shell armbands between New Guinea and Torres Strait and not Australia; and (3) selective uptake of nautilus bead headbands and shell-handled spearthrowers between Australia and Torres Strait and not New Guinea. Archaeological evidence for temporal changes in the geographical spread of pottery indicates that the CSCIS was historically dynamic, with numerous reconfigurations over the past 3000 years. Enhanced understanding of the CSCIS requires the addition of contemporary Indigenous perspectives.

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Published

2022-06-03

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Articles