When the first European explorers set foot in Tasmania, the large island-State off the south-east coast of mainland Australia, the local Tasmanian Aboriginal people seemed to have only a few ultra-basic ‘Stone Age’ type implements.
The way anthropologists commonly tell the story (as reflected in a major Discover magazine article1) they appeared to know nothing about simple devices which just about all other tribes had—such as friction tools to light fires, bone needles to sew clothes, and the like.
Despite the cold climate of this massive island, they would go around naked apart from being smeared with animal fat.
Having no way of starting a fire, they had to carry burning firebrands with them (from previous campfires or lightning strikes). Their shelters were mostly crude windbreaks of bark and branches, and their stone axes (unlike those of mainland Aborigines) had no handles.
Nor did they seem to have any of the spear-throwers, boomerangs, or fish-catching technology common on the mainland. Even though many lived on the coast, the idea of eating fish seems to have been regarded by them as odd.
Assuming for the moment that this widely held picture is accurate, how did this situation arise?
There are two basic responses. One is to look to revelation. The Bible teaches that all the peoples living on earth today have descended from Adam through Noah’s family. Their ancestors, having been dispersed from Babel, lived in a city-building culture, obviously more sophisticated than the simple ‘Stone Age’ technology of many later peoples, not just the Tasmanians. So on biblical authority, all such people must have lost or abandoned some of their ancestors’ technology.
Suddenly losing the ability to communicate with most other groups of people, even to read one’s own writing, would have plunged most people into an ‘instant Stone Age’ at Babel.2 The resultant fear, confusion, suspicion and subsequent hostility would have caused many family/language groups to quickly move away from the turmoil. Creationists have long pointed out that of all the small groups under such migration pressure, only some would take all the ‘know-how’ of their previous society with them.3
For those thus stripped of much of their old society’s technology, a cave is a logical place to seek shelter, and a stone-based technology still serves some societies well today. There might have been little need to rediscover ore bodies or reinvent lost smelting and forging techniques, for example (Genesis 4:22). In time, some would invent new implements and strategies, perhaps more suited to the needs of their new environment. The Tasmanian culture, for example, was actually highly adaptive for that locality, as we shall see.
The other idea
Unfortunately, most of the early European settlers in Tasmania did not allow their reason to be guided by revelation. Since in their (and our) experience, cultures keep on adding technology, it was ‘obvious’ to the settlers that whatever ancestors the Tasmanians had did not possess the intelligence to invent anything more than the crude implements they now had—therefore the Tasmanian Aborigines were regarded as subhuman.
Although this was before Darwin, evolutionary ideas were not uncommon. Darwin’s grandfather had his own theory of evolution. Many assumed that the reason Tasmanian society was low-tech was because they were not far removed from animal ancestors.
For example, Travers writes that the early settlers would scarcely allow the Tasmanians to hinder their expansion since they would have heartily agreed with a Captain Betts that they ‘may almost be said to form the connecting link between man and the monkey tribes’.4
Evolutionists believe that the Tasmanians migrated from mainland Australia on foot5 when sea levels were lower during the Pleistocene Ice Age, at a time when mainland Aborigines had many things which the Tasmanians were not seen to have when Europeans arrived.
Of interest for the creationist model is the evolutionist conclusion that small migrating groups can easily leave some aspects of their technology behind. Furthermore, it appears that even after their arrival, the Tasmanians actually lost some very significant aspects of technology.
They may possibly not have used bone tools to make clothes or go fishing when Europeans came, but generations earlier they did. Such implements have been found in Tasmania, making this claim ‘indisputable’, according to the author of the Discover magazine article.1
All this fits very comfortably with the biblical view of history. There is a general trend that societies at the outer limits of the post-Babel radiation from the Middle East are more ‘low-tech’.
The alleged technological ‘primitivity’ of the Tasmanians has been greatly exaggerated in the mainstream view. Lingering evolutionist bias undoubtedly plays a role, as well as the fact that their culture was largely destroyed before it was well recorded.
In a rare 1837 book by Jorgen Jorgenson, who lived with the Tasmanians, he records that they certainly did know how to make fire.6 However, the general dampness of wood in Tasmania’s harsh, rainy climate made it more practical to carry embers from one camp-site to the next. The ‘burning brand’ carried was actually an efficient tool used to systematically burn off the forest floor, to promote new undergrowth and assist with hunting.
Tasmanian culture was actually extremely adaptive. In an island with almost a complete absence of indigenous grains, nuts and fruits, and notorious for sudden, freezing local squalls, high mobility was crucial. It made sense to carry little and not to invest much cultural energy in shelters. However, in certain parts of the State, they did construct substantial and cleverly designed huts, even with steamed and bent supports.
The squally weather meant clothing could be a disadvantage. Many Tasmanians died of pneumonia after clothing pressed upon them by well-meaning Europeans became rain-soaked.
A contemporary observer reported that the Tasmanian Aborigines did know how to make clothes, but only used them at times of sickness. “Their dress, in case of illness, was a kangaroo or an opossum skin with the woolly side in, laced together by sinews drawn from the kangaroo’s tail. In health and in fine weather they wore nothing.”7 It is not known whether the skin was sewn with wooden implements or small slits made with a stone knife and then the sinews threaded.
What about the lack of boomerangs? These were actually not much use in Tasmania’s dense forest. However, their skill with a throwing club was recognized. “They could kill animals with dexterity by throwing either spear or waddie.”8 Also, with an abundance of ‘tidal protein’ in the form of large oysters, mussels, abalone and crayfish, why continue to divert cultural resources into chasing after finned fish?
[The Discover magazine description of primitive unseaworthy watercraft appears to reflect early biased reports. Others have reported their watercraft being seaworthy in big storms many miles out to sea. It appears that the effort and care put into building the watercraft depended on its purpose. Ability to build these craft may also have varied between individuals.9]
One could go further, but the point should be clear. These were not half-evolved primitives, but fully human descendants of Noah. Forced to cope with an unusually harsh environment, they developed a highly specialized society, abandoning non-adaptive aspects of their technology in the process.
Before and after Darwin, this false evolutionary equation, that low-tech means ‘sub-human’, was an easy justification for the sinful, racist and incredibly brutal treatment (including rape, torture and slaughter) of these people. The Tasmanians were regarded as ‘wild beasts whom it is lawful to extirpate’.10
Then, as now, such ‘scientific’ views contaminated large segments of the Church, with the result that “clergymen in the early days of the colony ignored the aborigines, believing them to be so far beneath the level of humanity as to be not worth teaching”.4
Ideas have consequences
After Darwinism’s rapid triumph, Aborigines’ body parts were, because of their seemingly simple culture, perversely regarded as highly prized specimens of ‘missing links’ and eagerly sought by evolutionary scientists. It has been well documented that deliberate slaughter for ‘science’ was encouraged.11 The Tasmanians, having even fewer ‘tools’, and thus supposedly ‘closer to the animal’, were the most prized specimens. By the late 1870s, with the death of the last full-blood Tasmanian, their genocide was complete.
Then, as now, the Christian Church should have made a bold stand against all ideas which reject the real history of the world given in Genesis. What a difference it can make!
The research and insights of environmental scientist David Langlois of Hobart, Tasmania, were invaluable in the preparation of this article.
References and notes
- Diamond, J., Ten Thousand Years of Solitude, Discover, pp. 4, 49–57, March 1993. Return to text
- I owe this turn of phrase to physicist Dr Russell Humphreys. Return to text
- Imagine breaking our present-day society into small, family-based segments. Many such groups would not include anyone with the know-how to build a computer, a space-rocket, or even to get metal from ores, even though their society before break-up featured all that technology. Return to text
- Travers, R., The Tasmanians—The Story of a Doomed Race, Casella Australia, Melbourne, 1967. Return to text
- This may be open to question, with some suggesting that they were a different group of people altogether who arrived by sea. Future DNA studies may help resolve this. Return to text
- Jorgen Jorgenson and the Aborigines of Van Dieman’s Land, edited by N.J.B. Plomley, Blubber Head Press, Sandy Bay (Tasmania), reprinted in 1991, after being lost for years. Return to text
- Hull, H.M., Lecture on the Aborigines of Tasmania, Mercury Steam Press Office, Hobart (Tasmania), p. 13, 1870. (This lecture was presented by the Clerk of the House of Assembly, Hugh M. Hull, at the Mechanics’ Institute, Hobart, on October 28, 1869.) Return to text
- Hull, Ref. 7, p.15. Return to text
- Meston, A.L., The Tasmanian—A Summary, Rec. Queen Vic. Mus. II.3., August 15, p. 150, 1949. Return to text
- Turnbull, C., Black War: The Extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1948. Return to text
- Darwin’s bodysnatchers, Creation 12(3):21, June 1990; Wieland, C., Darwin’s bodysnatchers: new horrors, Creation 14(2):16–18, March 1992; Monaghan, D., The body-snatchers, The Bulletin, November 12, 1991, pp. 30–38. Return to text
Is the determining factor in loss of technology as simple as distance from Babel? Could it not be that in areas with a major river, e.g. Nile, Indus, Yangtze, or which were at least still tropical such as Central America, the agricultural methods in use at Babel still worked? Whereas in temperate climates a lot of effort would be needed to come up with a new system of subsistence, before they could worry about preserving other parts of the Babel culture.
How sad is the treatment of indigenous peoples by european settlers throughout the world. It just goes to show how pride and prejudice can blur the view of the truth.
We Christians are accused by atheists of being violent towards other people groups throughout history often reciting the crusades for their point of view. They conveniently omit the fact that Islam was attacking Europe for five centuries before the Europeans decided to counter attack thus, the crusades. All said this still doesn't justify violence towards one another. It is well known the most bloody period of human history has been the application of the evolutionary paradigm throughout the twentieth century and it dwarfs all other centuries pertaining to bloodshed.
I often wonder if the Christian settlers of my country, the US, had properly evangelised the native peoples with humility, how things might have turned out. I'm sure there still would have been conflict since man is so hard headed and hard hearted but I think it would have gone better.
Only when we follow you Lord, do we act and treat people the way you command us to, (Mat 22:37-40).
P.S. I see an increasing intolerance for one another in our society today and equate it with the survival of the fittest attitude. Only the love of God can conquer this attitude.
One of the most harmful myths of evolutionary anthropology has been the dividing of humanity into three or four "races" based on external characteristics. The Bible never makes this mistake. It always speaks of "ethnos" - tribal groups or nations. Specifically, the Scripture states clearly that we are all one "race" - one blood, Acts 17:26. In recent years, the concept of "racism" has been used more and more by demagogues like Hitler to promote social unrest and to justify violence and warfare.
This story is interesting because I know of a similar experience in Milne Bay Province, PNG. where my wife and I are missionaries (www.livingwatermission.org). Charles Abel a missionary sent by the LMS arrived in British (actually Australian) New Guinea in 1891 and began his work in ministering to and serving the Papuans in the Gospel. In 1902 one of their number James Chalmers was killed and eaten at Goaribari Island, together with his assistant Oliver Tomkins and 10 young men from Kiwai. The acting Governor, Christopher Robinson took the government steamer together with a bunch of businessmen from the new settlement of Port Moresby to conduct a 'punitive' expedition. They opened fire on the natives of Goaribari Island who came milling around the ship.
When news of this came to Charles Abel he objected stongly to the colonial authorities but was ignored. However in Sydney his friends reported the incident to the authorities there, and the Sydney Morning Herald published it. The general outrage was great enough to result in the ordering of an enquiry.
When that process was under way, Robinson went to the flagstaff lowered the flag and shot himself with his revolver. The other government station at Samarai in Milne Bay area (only 3 miles from Kwato where Abel was based) were incensed because their culture was strongly 'evolutionary' with a mixture of Malthusianism. They felt that the natives were merely half way from evolving from ape into human and as a consequence could be dispatched, when convenient, to make way for 'superior', more evolved, white people. There is still a stone pillar to Acting Governor Robinson with the epitaph "He tried to make New Guinea good for the white man".
Abel made it clear that Papuans were made in the image of God. This was contrary to what the white people (called dim-dims meaning horizon people, by the natives) on Samarai believed. They believed in Darwin's theory of Evolution and for a while the 'New Guinea Man' was seen as a missing link.
Abel and the Kwato mission carried on preaching and teaching Christ and training them in practical skills. By the 1930's the Papuan believers at Kwato were building large wooden boats, running them, plantations and much more besides so that the dim-dims said to Abel "These people will take our jobs if you carry on like this." To this Abel replied. "Just so! It is their country." And many of these same people became the leading lights in PNG at independence. With their passing the country has slipped towards its present state. All this of course was at the same period that Dr Eugen Fischer and the German Army were practising evolutionary frightfulness on the native population in what is now Namibia.