Identification. The term "Tasmanians" refers to the native inhabitants of the island of Tasmania. These inhabitants formed a number of societies and communities, all of which had disappeared as distinct cultural groups by the twentieth century. What is known of the Aboriginal culture is largely the result of archaeological research and reconstructions based on the reports of early European visitors and settlers. The name of the island and its inhabitants is taken from the Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman, who discovered the island in 1642. Despite being extinct, the Tasmanians have continued to draw scholarly and public attention, caused in part by their isolation from other cultures for thousands of years and the Stone Age technology they used when first discovered by Europeans.
Location. Tasmania is an island of some 67,000 square kilometers located about 240 kilometers southeast of mainland Australia, with the two land masses separated by the rough waters of the Bass Strait. Tasmania is a state of Australia. At one time a peninsula of Australia, Tasmania was cut off by rising waters about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. It is a mountainous island, with a variety of ecological zones, considerable rainfall, and a generally mild climate. Land mammals such as kangaroos, wallabies, and native dogs are relatively abundant as are seals, shellfish, and birds.
Demography. Estimates place the precontact population at from 2,000 to 5,000 individuals.
Linguistic Affiliation. Experts guess that from five to twelve different languages, with some grammatical, phonological, and lexical similarities between them, were spoken by Aboriginal Tasmanians. What relationship those languages had to other Papuan or Australian languages is unknown.
History and Cultural Relations
The Tasmanian peninsula of Australia has been occupied for some 23,000 years. Since the islands separated from the mainland some 7,000 or so years ago, there is little evidence of contact between mainland peoples and the Tasmanians. In fact, it is likely that the Tasmanians were largely isolated until contact with the Dutch in 1642, the French in 1772, and settlement by the English in 1803. The English regarded the Tasmanians as subhuman and hunted them down; the Tasmanians responded by both fighting back and retreating farther and farther inland. In 1835, after repeated attempts by the English to round them up, the 203 surviving Tasmanians were gathered together and resettled on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. Although treated more kindly, their numbers continued to decrease and in 1847 the 40 survivors were again resettled, this time on a reserve near Hobart. The last "full-blood" Tasmanian died there in 1876. While the native languages and culture have disappeared, there are still some few dozen individuals who claim biological links to the indigenous population.
It is not clear whether the Tasmanians were nomadic, moving to new encampments every day or two, or transhumant, moving inland in the warm months and to the sea in the colder months. There is some evidence of regional variation in settlement patterns, with groups in the west being more settled than those in the east. In either case, the location of settlements was determined largely by the availability of food. Tasmanian societies were territorial, and trespass into another group's territory usually led to warfare. Shelters for nomadic groups were windbreaks made from bark, while more settled groups lived in communities of beehive-shaped shelters located along the banks of rivers or lagoons.
Subsistence Activities. The Tasmanians were hunters and gatherers who had no agriculture and no domesticated animals but exploited nearly all animal and plant foodstuffs available to them. Kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, and seals were speared; snakes, lizards, snails, insects, eggs, scallops, and other mollusks were gathered; and root, fungus, berries, and native root crops were picked and dug. There is some evidence of communal hunting of kangaroos and birds and gathering of plant foods. For the most part, however, food acquisition was a matter for the household unit of a man, a woman, and their children. The most interesting and perplexing aspect of Tasmanian subsistence practices was the absence (during the last 4,000 years of their existence) of fishing and consumption of scaly fish. Why they gave up fish is not clear, and a variety of explanations citing religious factors, isolation from the mainland, and the difficulty of catching fish have been suggested.
Industrial Arts. The Tasmanian tool kit was limited largely to objects made from wood, stone, and shell. Wooden spears and throwing sticks were the main weapons, and flaked stone knives and scrapers were used for shellfish gathering and food preparation. Shellfish shells served as cooking vessels, along with kelp baskets and baskets and nets twined from grass, reeds, and bark.
Trade. There is no record of trade between Tasmanian societies nor between Tasmanians and peoples of Australia or other Pacific islands.
Division of Labor. Men made the wood and stone tools, hunted for large animals, and fought in wars with other island societies. Women did most everything else, including building the windbreaks and huts, gathering water, and hunting possums by scaling trees.
Land Tenure. Weapons, ornaments, and other objects could be owned individually, though there was no individual ownership of land. Evidence suggests that each community in each society controlled access to a 300- to 5,600-square-kilometer territory. Use of another community's land without permission was the primary cause of war, particularly between communities from different societies.
Kinship, Marriage and Family
Little is known about Tasmanian kinship and kinship terminology.
Marriage. Marriage was evidently community exogamous and many men captured wives from other communities. Arranged marriages are also reported. Most marriages were monogamous, although older men might have more than one wife. Divorce was allowed, and widows were considered the property of the society into which they married, suggesting the generally lower status afforded women than men.
Domestic Unit. The monogamous or polygynous family (perhaps with an additional relative) was the basic residential, production, and consumption unit. Early reports suggest large families, with later accounts noting frequent abortion and infanticide after contact with Europeans.
Socialization. Children were cared for primarily by their mothers. Both parents were indulgent and physical punishment was not used. The major childhood task for boys and girls was to master the hunting, collecting, climbing, building, and manufacturing skills they would need as adults. At puberty, boys were initiated through a ceremony involving scarification, naming, and the presentation of a fetish stone. There evidently was no comparable ceremony for girls.
As noted above, the term "Tasmanians" refers to an unknown number of groups or societies. The societies had no formal leaders nor were they landholding or war-making units. Each society was composed of a number of named communities which were further subdivided into households. Each society had from five to fifteen communities (with from thirty to eighty related members in each), which were the basic landholding and war-making units and were led by an older man renowned for his hunting ability, although he probably had little authority except during warfare. Community affiliation was expressed through shared myths, dances, songs, and hair style. Affiliation with other communities within the society was weak, even though it was expressed by a reluctance to fight against affiliated communities and a greater willingness to allow those communities access to community land. The aged were afforded some prestige, and there is some evidence of three age grades for males, with ceremonial marking of passage into a new age grade.
Social Control. In the absence of centralized leadership, social order was maintained by the community. Individual disputes were often settled by throwing-stick duels and violations of customs were punished by group ridicule. Transgressions against the community were punished by hurling spears at the stationary offender who could try to dodge them only by twisting his body out of the way.
Conflict. War between communities from different societies is reported to have been common, although this may reflect only the postcontact situation. Trespassing and stealing a woman were the major reasons for war, which consisted mostly of surprise attacks and skirmishes and rarely produced more than one death.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Tasmanian religious beliefs focused on ghosts and their influence on the affairs of the living. While they might occasionally be considered beneficial, spirits of the dead were mostly feared and thought to be the source of much harm and suffering. Consequently, burial spots were avoided and the names of the dead tabooed. They also believed in categories of spirits more powerful than ghosts, including a thunder demon, a moon spirit, and harmful spirits who occupied dark places such as caves and tree trunks. Magic and witchcraft were important and death and sickness were always attributed to the action of evil spirits or witchcraft. The bones of the dead and certain stones were believed to be imbued with protective, curative, or malevolent powers.
Ceremonies. Community dances were an important form of social, religious and artistic expression. Men danced until collapse, while women kept time with sticks and rolled-bark drums. Religious dances were open only to the men; women evidently had secret dances of their own emphasizing women's activities such as digging roots or nursing infants. The initiation ceremony for boys and the age-grade ceremonies were of considerable social importance. Ceremonies marking birth and marriage are unreported, although death was marked as discussed below.
Religious Practitioners. Part-time shamans used bleeding, sucking, baths, massage, and vegetal remedies to cure illness or treat injuries. They also relied on the supernatural, which they reached through possession trance and a rattle made from a dead man's bones.
Arts. In addition to dances, the Tasmanians decorated trees and their huts with charcoal figures of people and objects and sang of the heroic deeds of the singers and their ancestors. The most elaborate form of artistic expression was reserved for body adornment. Men colored their hair and skin with charcoal, clay, and grease and both sexes wore colored feathers and flowers in their hair. Both sexes also scarified their extremities and rubbed charcoal in to produce rows of dark scars.
Death and Afterlife. The deceased was disposed of as quickly as possible, usually by cremation and then burial of the bones and ashes, although some bones might be retained to be worn by relatives. During the night of the burial, the entire community assembled around the grave, where they sat and wailed until dawn. Widows cut and burned their bodies and cut off their hair and placed it on the grave. Each person was believed to have a soul which lived on after death as a ghost. The afterworld was though to be much like the real world, except for the absence of evil.
Jones, Rhys (1974). "Tasmanian Tribes." In Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, edited by N. B. Tindale. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Roth, Henry L. (1890). The Aborigines of Tasmania. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.