Part 7: Origins, Genetics and outside Relationships
The origin of the Tasmanians ever since the 17th century has been widely speculated about, but no consensus was ever reached. It remains a conundrum today.
Some thought and still think of them as distant relations of the the Andamanese and other Negrito and/or of the the Papuans. Others thought and still think of them as a more or less distant branch of the mainland Australian aborigines or of the Papuans. Evidence for these and other such speculation was never strong or conclusive and it still is not.
Scientific progress in molecular genetics (DNA analysis) has only recently advanced to the point where answers could be given with some degree of confidence. Unfortunately, just as answers seem to be within reach, the Palawa group in Tasmania blocks this. Until their ban is lifted, nothing much can be said about the likely affiliations of the ancient Tasmanians.
For more related information, see also Part 8 "Archaeology and the Oldest Tasmanians".
7.1. Who are the Tasmanians' closest Relatives?
How uncertain popular as well as scientific opinion was (and still is) about the Tasmanians is reflected only too clearly in the confused treatment the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1985 (15th edition, Micropedia vol. 11, pp. 571-572) gave the subject:
On page 572 the Tasmanians were described as
"The original Tasmanians, now extinct, were a Negrito people who numbered some 2,000 people at the time of European settlement in the early 19th century. The last full-blooded Tasmanian died in 1876 on Flinders island where the people had been sent." (page 571)
On the very next page 572 of the same work they were miraculously transmogrified into Australian aborigines:
"The Tasmanians were Aboriginal Australians, not a separate or distinctive population, and were cut off from the mainland area when a general rise in the sea level flooded the Bass Strait about 10,000 years ago."
The Britannica editors in 1985 seem not to have known which position to take, so they picked two from a wide spectrum of scientific opinion - and published both.
Since the Palawa political pressure group in Tasmania does not allow DNA testing, only craniometric methods are available. Most of these were made up to a century ago but the measurements are valid even though they do not approach the precision of contemporary molecular DNA analysis. Modern craniometry can be done with laser beams to a very high level of precision. It is a method by which skulls of several populations are measured and results then then compared. The slight differences in the shape of the skulls allow degrees of relationshipsbetween various population groups to be established. The method is widely used in palaeoanthropology (see our Brazilian chapter on thr Lapa Vermelha find also known as "Luzia" where craniometriy has been extensively used and with good results.
The diagram shows the relationship of the Tasmanians to other populations as established by craniometry (from W.W. Howells. 1973. Cranial Variation in Man. Peabody Museum, Harvard University).
The blue figures indicate the part of the world where the
names population lives orhas lived:
Note that the Tasmanians are craniometrically more closely related to the Tolai (living on New Britain, off the east coast of Papua-Newguinea)) than to the Austrralian aborigines.
For more detail see
The caption in the original publication reads as follows: Norma Frontalis illustrates several skull traits described by the French writers. Parasagittal depressisons are discernible between the keel and the parietal bosses. The orbits are rectangular and low and the interorbital space is wide. The maxillae are small in their vertical extent and the apices of the maxillary incisors are in close relations to the inferior margin of the wide, low nasal aperture. The teeth are of large dimension in this specimen and attritional wear is not apparent. The remaining eight skulls of the collection possess much smaller teeth, but it is understandable that the presence of such an exceptional case of macrodontia as seen in this skull, occurring in a very small series, could have abetted the original observation and concept that the Tasmanians had 'enormous' teeth.
(from N.W.G. Macintosh and B.C.W. Barker, no date but after 1961, The Osteology of Aboriginal Man in Tasmania, The Oceanoa Monographies 12).
Brian Plomley in his The Tasmanian Aborigines (1993, The Plomley Foundation) wrote
During the last fifty years or so many of the skulls in the various collections have been re-examined, more accurate measurements made as well as new ones, in particular the so-called epigenetic traits, that is, the characteristics of certain foramina and processes which carry nerves and blood vessels or have muscles attached to them. All this new research has produced new information about the relationships between peoples. Of greatest importance has been the elaboration of special statistical methods for evaluating measurements of cranial size and shape, the methods of multivariate analysis. These show that the Tasmanian skull, in spite of its particular characters, is closely related to that of the Australian Aboriginal, and the latter in turn are related to Melanesians of New Britain and elsewhere.
It is not known whether there were any regional differences in cranial size and shape in the modern Tasmanian skull, but the general structure of the population makes it unlikely and because the number of Tasmanian skulls is small, about 87, and information about the tribes to which the individuals belonged is uncertain in most cases. The recent destruction of many Tasmanian skulls has made difficult all research on its characters.
As well as study of cranial size and shape, there is some suggestion that other parts of the skeleton show differences between the Tasmanians and other peoples. Unfortunately, far too little material has been available for study. It is possible that the spinous processes of the vertebrae of the neck show such differences. It can also be pointed out that the lower limbs form a greater proportion of the total stature than in Europeans, just as found in the Australian Aborigines.
There are other features of the human body which can provide information about the relationships between peoples. The first of these to be investigated thoroughly was the blood groups, and they have provided a good deal of accurate information about certain peoples, especially those geographically close to one another. Some measurements have been carried out on Tasmanian mixed-bloods, but the few blood types studied and the smallness of the sample render the results meaningless.
A recent and very promising line of research has been the study of the actual material of inheritance. This is a chemical substance, deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA), of which four varieties are involved. Assemblages of DNA form the genetic material, that is, the genes, and the genes are joined together end to end in long strings to form the chromosomes of the cell. Other nucleic acids occur in other parts of the cell, for example, the mitochondria, but the chromosomal DNA is of particular interest at present.
Using complex chemical manipulations, genes and groups of genes can be removed from their chromosomes for study, and comparisons can be used to indicate the relationships between peoples. A matter of considerable importance is that it has been possible to recover chromosomal material from long dead tissue and in one of the earliest investigations of this sort, material was extracted from Egyptian mummies which enabled the sequence of the dynasties to be established.
No doubt in the future many now unthought of methods of studying the relationships between peoples will be elaborated, providing even more accurate information about them.
... but not if the present-day descendants of ancient Tasmanians persist in destroying the scientific evidence.
When first discovered, th Tasmanians looked not spectacularly different from the inhabitants of mainland Australia, they were just a little different. Like most (but not all) Australians, the Tasmanians' hair and skin was darker than that of most Australians and they had deep-set eyes overhung by brow ridges. Their noses were broad and separated from their brow by a deep groove, their mouth was wide and their lips full, heir cheekbones were prominent and their overall body-build lean with tlong and slender limbs.
A major difference to the Australians was that the Tasmanians had woolly rather than straight or wavy hair, in fact they had hair very similar (but not identical to) the hair of Negritos and some Papuans and Africans. DNA analysis could throw a great deal more light on the matter and perhaps decide it one way or another - but this is blocked by political considerations: neither the surviving mixed descendants of the ancient Tasmanians nor the Australians want scientific results to "separate them". It is not a questions of fact-finding, it is one of politics.
The Tasmanians were adapted so well to their cold, wet and windy climate that for this reason alone their residence on the island must have lasted for a very long time and a genetic adaptation is likely. Despite their cold climate, the traditional Tasmanians before the arrival of whites went virtually naked, winter and summer. Tasmanian women also dived deeply and frequently into thecold sea to collect mussels, crayfish and other sea creatures from the sea bed (the Tasmanian men, by contrast, seem to have been less happy to do so). Diving into such cold waters is an unusual feat, but not quite as much as it might appear at first sight. The Fuegian women and men at the southern tip of South America (see Fuegians, Fuegian Tribes and Fuegian archaeological sites in the American Chapter 54 of this site) also dived for food in waters that were still colder than those of southern Tasmania. Tasmania is located at "only" 43 degrees South while Tierra del Fuego is fully 7 degrees of latitude closer to Antarctica. Clearly, human adaptability is greater than even optimists usually allow! As Carleton S. Coon has pointed out (in his The Origins of Races, 1962, Alfred A. Knopf, New York)
...It indicates that ill-clad human beings carrying fire and the crudest of tools ... could have entered North America over the Bering Strait at any time when the sea level was low enough to permit passage [and even when it was not if they had some form of boat - HJW]. At such times, with the flow of arctic water cut off and the Japabnese current swinging along the southern shoreline, the climate could have been no colder than it is in modern Tierra del Fuego.
The ancient Tasmanians as an argument for the early populating of the Americas!
Apart from the women's frequent diving in cold waters, Tasmanians of either sex did not wear clothes on dry land, either. Mothers sometimes wore a strip of kangaroo hide over one shoulder to carry an infant but such would not have protected the naked infant from the cold and rain. Some protection was provided by smearing animal fats, ochre and/or charcoal over their bodies, but this seems to have been done as much for ritual protection in the form of body-painting as for protection against the elements.
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Last change 1 February 2008