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Why Tasmanian Aborigines Stopped Eating Fish

Updated on December 18, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

Woodcutting of a Tasmanian Aborigine
Woodcutting of a Tasmanian Aborigine | Source

In 1777, members of Captain Cook’s third expedition stumbled upon a peculiar mystery. They attempted to make contact with the indigenous people of Tasmania by offering them the fish they had caught that day. Instead of accepting this offer, the Tasmanian Aborigines were mortified to discover that the fishes were to be eaten. The mutual meeting of two cultures got off to a bad start that never improved.

For years afterward, it was believed that the Tasmanian Aborigines had always shunned a fish diet. However, in the 20th century, archaeological digs at the site of ancient settlements debunked this belief. It turned out that fish had been on their menu at one point in their history.

Despite this finding, however, more questions were asked. And when they began to be answered, the simple story of a group of people changing their diet took on a more complex story that included isolation, geological changes, and a loss of vital abilities of a once thriving civilization.

When Tasmania was connected to Australia (14,000 years ago).
When Tasmania was connected to Australia (14,000 years ago). | Source

An Ancient Civilization Isolated

Cook’s expedition was possibly the first time the Tasmanian Aborigines came into contact with anyone outside their island home. For 10,000 years these people (also known as Palawa) had lived in isolation from other Aborigine tribes on mainland Australia. Neither group had boating technologies. And at the time, they didn't need it; Tasmania was connected to Australia by a land mass called the Bassian Plain.

At the end of the last Ice Age, the ocean water levels rose and flooded this plain, creating what is now known as Bass Strait. This body of water cut off access to mainland Australia.

Several tribes survived on the island after this event. However, warfare and the sustainability of resources on the island at the time reduced their numbers to 5000.

The Tasmanian Aborigines were mostly nomads and lived off the land and water. Many of them were skilled in making hooks and tools, as well as wooden shelters. Also, they enjoyed a fish diet. This fish diet, however, would last up until circa 1400 BCE. The date was based on dating of artifacts and fish bones found at the excavated sites.

Isolation Takes its Toll

There are several speculations to explain this sudden rejection of fish. One theory was that the red algae in the area may have contaminated the fish and poisoned those who ate them. Another speculation was that the lack of boating technology prevented them from going out into deeper waters to fish. Also, the abundance and easier access of food on land deemed fishing to be useless.

Evidence does indicate that Tasmanian Aborigines had technological skills that deteriorated over the years. Unrelated, but applicable to this subject, UCLA Professor and writer Jared Diamond, wrote that cultures thrive when they are in contact with other cultures. Each one will borrow technologies, skills or philosophies from each other and further advance their societies.

Tasmanian Aborigines didn't have other cultures, except those on the small island, to intermingle with. As a result their skills became stagnate.

One theory suggests that small societies will not take part in high risk activities for fear of losing a member of their tribe. In a small social order, every person plays a crucial part. Larger societies can get away with risk because a person in that system can be replaced.

Small Group Don’t Take Chances

Another problem was the small number of skilled people on the island. Within each tribe of twenty or thirty, there would've been one or two people skilled in something such as sewing, cooking or making tools. If one of these people is lost, that tribe loses a vital resource and will not have anybody to replace that person, unless the information is passed down from one generation to the other.

The small number also led to avoidance as a survival skill. One theory suggests that small societies will not take part in high risk activities for fear of losing a member of their tribe. In a small social order, every person plays a crucial part. Larger societies can get away with risk because a person in that system can be replaced.

canoe replica of the Tasmanian type. Originally posted at http://www.aboriginalheritage.tas.gov.au/canoes
canoe replica of the Tasmanian type. Originally posted at http://www.aboriginalheritage.tas.gov.au/canoes

Fishing Skills Vanish

Fishing was a high risk activity. Often they may have had to compete with larger predators such as sharks. Also, there was the danger of rough waters (waves) and storms. On top of that, there was no guarantee that the fish caught would be viable to eat. Red tide was another factor that made fish eating very dangerous.

The aversion from eating fish was not the only skill to vanish. The ability to make hooks would vanish. Other vital skills such as creating fire, sewing clothing and building shelter soon vanished from this society. By the time the Europeans arrived, the Tasmanian Aborigines were dubbed the simplest people on Earth. They lacked all most of the skills and technology that their Australian counterparts had.

A Tragic End for the Tasmanian Aborigines

The most definite answer to this mystery could have been answered by the Aborigines on the island. These people would meet a sinister demise. Within one century after the arrival of the first Europeans, The Tasmanian Aborigines were all but wiped-out, slaughtered by English settlers. By the dawn of the 20th century all "full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines had died off.

The colonists didn’t see past their perceived primitive sate. They saw “lowly savages” that were not fit to be on their own land. And, much of this, indirectly, can attributed to their declining way of life…and their loss of the important skill of fishing.

Tasmania, Australia

History of the Tasmanian Aborigines

© 2015 Dean Traylor

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    • profile image

      Jack Hearts 

      4 months ago

      Most likely ate puffer fish which poisoned them and thus stopped eating fish as food was still plentiful. Major collapse of population occured before English settlement? Smallpox?

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 

      3 years ago from United States

      This was interesting my friend. Makes you wonder what significant event or happening to have caused their change in life.Nice work. whonu

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Wow! Dean, this was very interesting and informative. I have read quite a bit about Tasmanian aborigines but never knew they had stopped eating fish and lost those other skills due to isolation etc. Voted up.

    • profile image

      Kevin Goodwin 

      3 years ago

      Very interesting to learn that people surrounded by water turned away from fish.

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