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Isotope analysis helps tell the stories of Aboriginal people living under early colonial expansion


Acknowledgments: We would like to express our gratitude to the folks at Gkuthaarn and Kukatj who invited us to work on this sensitive project through the lens of truth-telling – particularly Phillip George, Richie Bee and Francine George – whose insights have been an important pillar of the work.

In 2015, members of the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj community of Queensland’s Gulf Country invited us to excavate, analyze and rebury the skeletal remains of eight young Indigenous people who died near the town of Normanton in the late 1800s.

The remains were acquired by Walter Roth (1861-1933). Roth was a physician, anthropologist and the first northern Aboriginal protector. He eventually sold the remains to the Australian Museum in Sydney, where they were held for nearly a century before being repatriated to their traditional owners in the 1990s.

The remains were reburied but later exposed by erosion – prompting Gkuthaarn and Kukatj community members to invite us to collaborate with them.

In research published in Archaeologies, let’s see how bioarchaeological techniques have helped shed light on the experiences of these young indigenous peoples displaced by European colonization.

Unfortunately, we only know the name of one of the eight individuals – a young woman named Dolly. Roth’s records show that Dolly was a member of the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people, working in the police barracks (shown on the banner image) in the town of Cloncurry, about 240 miles south of Normanton, when she died.

Rangers from Gkuthaarn and Kukatj reburied the remains in Normanton Aboriginal Cemetery in 2015.
Author provided, Author provided

Driven from their land

In 2018 we have published a study found that these individuals had experienced nutritional stress and, in some cases, syphilis. These findings are consistent with other evidence regarding the experience of Aboriginal people living in the Gulf Country during colonial expansion.

Archaeological records and historical records indicate that Aboriginal people in the Gulf Country lived as foragers until the mid-19th century, when their lands were occupied by Europeans and manned with livestock. The cattle depleted resources critical to a foraging lifestyle, and conflict ensued.

As a result of the violence and loss of resources, many Aboriginal people in the Gulf Country became refugees in their own countries. They had little choice but to move to camps on the outskirts of towns like Normanton. These camps were overcrowded and unsanitary, causing many residents to die of infectious diseases.

We spoke to several Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people during our research. A senior person felt relieved when the remains were safely retrieved and reburied:

(Researchers) put a tarpaulin over it and dug it up (the remains) very tightly. (They were) vulnerable to the sun (…) We felt as if we were just welcomed (by the spirits of the people associated with these remains), as if they wanted to be reburied. (We) just felt like they wanted to be reburied; was a few times they had been exposed.

Insight into movement, disease and nutrition

In our recent study, we analyzed strontium, carbon and oxygen isotopes from the teeth of six of eight individuals.

Measuring isotope ratios in human bones and teeth can reveal information about a person’s diet and geographic movements prior to their death. When we compare strontium isotope values ​​of tooth enamel to an isotope map (called an “isoscape”) constructed for this projectcan we see where the six persons grew up.

Dolly’s strontium reading suggests she grew up near the Gulf of Carpentaria. This is consistent with Roth’s suggestion that Dolly was a member of the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people, as their traditional territory extends to the coast. The strontium results for the other individuals suggest they grew up some distance east or northeast of Normanton.

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Maps showing Normanton’s location relative to the Gulf Plains region and Cape York.
Author provided

Carbon isotope results indicate that in their early years all six individuals had a diet dominated by tropical plants and/or seafood. However, Dolly’s carbon count suggests that her diet was particularly high in such foods. This again corresponds to the fact that in her childhood she lived near the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The oxygen isotope results obtained are also high compared to international samples. We suspect that these elevated values ​​may be explained by a combination of the environmental conditions in the Gulf Country and the effects of infectious diseases that spread to the region with European settlers.

Based on the formation times of Dolly’s tooth samples and her strontium and oxygen levels, we estimate she moved from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Cloncurry area sometime between the ages of 2.5 and 10 years. Our analyzes also suggest she was a young adult when she died.

These reviews are consistent with Roth’s reports from the Gulf States, stating that native girls were often taken away from their families and made to work for Europeans, and that it was common for such individuals to succumb to disease at a young age.

Speaking of the findings, a Gkuthaarn and Kukatj person told us:

I am sad to hear that our people are getting terrible diseases and, with the completion of the study, these were young people who left such a sad story that needs to be told to non-Indigenous people, not only across Australia, but especially in our region. know and understand that these traumas still impact our people 120 years later.

Read more: First Nations people have made a case for ‘truth telling’. By recognizing its past, Australia can finally help improve our future

The voice

Combined with historical records and information from contemporary Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people, our results provide new insight on an individual level into the devastating impact of European colonization on Aboriginal people in the Gulf Country.

Australians are currently debating a constitutional amendment to create an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vote in parliament. The proposed change is an important recommendation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Another important recommendation is that of ‘telling the truth’ about the experiences of Aboriginal people during European colonial expansion.

Science cannot tell us if the vote is the right thing to do. But our findings on these individuals—whose remains we have been privileged to analyze—reveal that scientific work conducted with and by First Nations people plays an invaluable role in the process of telling the truth.

We hope that such work will help reveal more truth about the experiences of those left voiceless by the violence of colonization. As one person from Gkuthaarn and Kukatj explained:

My old grandma was one of those people who said they were terrible and didn’t want to repeat it (i.e. they didn’t want to tell accounts of colonial violence to next generations), but I think it needs to be repeated (to) help us understand better what really happened.

People (listen) only to one side of it. You have people who say that Aborigines simply live on welfare, but there was a reason for that. Aborigines fought for this land. You have people who say you have to get over that (colonial violence), but what I say is: lest we forget.

We would like to thank our co-author Susan Phillips for her involvement in this study.

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