Evidence of external contact between the Pacific Basin and the east coast of Australia during the Holocene: A review





The prospect that First Nations Australians were in contact with cultures beyond Australia prior to European arrival has fascinated theorists for over a century. Early views tended to see Aboriginal culture as too primitive to have independently developed ‘higher level’ cultural traits. Once this view was abandoned, further enquiry into external contact largely ceased. However, it has been gradually recognised that transformations occurred within Australia not only independently but also through external elements arriving from the north (Macassans and Papuans). This paper offers perhaps the first comprehensive overview of a less studied potential conduit: the eastern seaboard of Australia. Given the vast scale of the eastern seaboard (and its geographic position directly opposite the seafaring cultures of the Pacific Basin it is surprising that the notion of contact between these two realms has received such limited attention. The east coast is a potentially very large target for contact. Queensland and New South Wales mainland and island coastlines comprise in excess of 15,000 km. The Pacific Basin is similarly a huge potential source for contact, covering over one-third of the world’s surface, and containing over 20,000 islands. Our paper first considers the contrast between studies of the eastern and western edges of the Pacific Basin, and then the means (and evidence) by which ‘contact’ is normally discerned. We next consider the potential for contact based on ocean currents and similar factors. The bulk of the paper assesses specific source regions and purported evidence of contact from these regions: Papua New Guinea, Island Melanesia, Polynesia and two islands between these areas (Norfolk and Lord Howe). Our study concludes that evidence for Pacific-Australian contact ought to be relatively abundant, given the size of the source area (the Pacific Basin) and the target area (the eastern seaboard). Instead, contact must have been very limited and sporadic, as most evidence has been either inconclusive or requires further substantiation. Equally, the impact of these cultures on the development of Australian First Nations seems to have been negligible. On the other hand, this review accumulated enough evidence to suggest there was considerable potential for such contacts. We conclude that archaeological frameworks should be developed to investigate purported and possible Pacific-Eastern seaboard contacts.