Keith Windschuttle
Van Diemen's Land

When first contacted in the eighteenth century, the Tasmanians were the most primitive human society ever discovered. One measure of this was the simplicity of their technology. The men hunted with one-piece wooden spears, wooden clubs and stones. The women used wooden digging sticks to uproot vegetables and wooden chisels to prise shellfish from rocks. They lived off kangaroos, wallabies and possums in the inland, and shellfish, birds and seals on the coast. For shelter, they sometimes stacked branches and bark to make temporary windbreaks and domed huts, but they usually slept in the open. They rarely stayed in one place more than a day or two. Settlers who came across their abandoned campsites found them strewn with the rotting remains of the animals they had eaten, and their faeces deposited close to the fires where they slept. Their most sophisticated possessions were grass ropes to climb trees and woven grass bags. Their entire catalogue of manufactured goods comprised about two dozen articles. They went about completely naked, even in the snow-covered highlands. The women slung kangaroo skins over their shoulders not for clothing but to carry their babies. For warmth, they smeared themselves with animal fat and huddled around fires at night. Until they acquired British containers, they could not boil water. The colonists were astonished to observe they could not make fire, a skill that even Neanderthal Man had mastered. They carried firebrands and coals with them on their nomadic journeys. If the fires of one family were doused by rain or flood, they had to go in search of others to ask for a light.

From excavations of some long-used campsites and caves, the archaeologist and prehistorian Rhys Jones, has concluded that several thousand years earlier, their technology had actually been more complex. They once used bone tools, barbed spears and weaving needles made of fish bone. They also had wooden boomerangs, hafted stone tools, edge-ground stone axes and tools fashioned from volcanic glass. However, these had all long been abandoned by the time Europeans arrived. Only the tribes of the west and south coasts had canoes, which they made from buoyant bark strips of the swamp tea-tree tied together with grass rope, and propelled by sticks, not blades. In the east, the Aborigines crossed rivers and off-shore channels on bundles of logs, which they swam alongside. Fish were originally an important part of their diet but the archaeological record shows they gave up eating fish, and the manufacture of fish hooks and fish spears, about 4000 years ago. Mainland Aborigines, for whom fish was a dietary staple, were amazed to find the Tasmanians refused to eat fish, even though they were abundant in the sea and the inland rivers and lakes, especially in winter when other food was limited. Instead of technological progress, the Tasmanians had experienced a technological regression. Isolated from the mainland when the waters rose 10,000 years ago, and lacking any outside source of competition or innovation, the Tasmanians suffered the consequences. Jones writes:
Like a blow above the heart, it took a long time to take effect, but slowly but surely there was a simplification in the tool kit, a diminution in the range of foods eaten, perhaps a squeezing of intellectuality.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.