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Aboriginal body shape and clothing, and the Tasmanian problem(s)

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Among modern humans (and earlier hominins), body shape varies with climate according to the biological ‘rules’ of Bergmann (1847) and Allen (1877). In essence, having a lighter and more slender body build is better in warm environments, and vice versa. This pattern is seen with Australian Aborigines, as demonstrated by a re-analysis of Birdsell’s (1993) data. Rather than supporting his ‘trihybrid’ theory of three different founding populations, the variation in morphological indices which Birdsell documented corresponds to meteorological conditions. A similar climate pattern is seen with indigenous clothing – although throughout the continent, Aborigines were habitually unclad. This routine nakedness was true even in the colder climate of Tasmania, leading some anthropologists to cite the lack of ‘adequate’ clothes as an example of the Tasmanians’ alleged cultural devolution due to isolation. However, while morphological data are scarce, it is likely that the Tasmanians had developed enhanced biological cold adaptations which allowed them to survive with less clothing than their mainland relatives. To add to the Tasmanian enigma, archaeological evidence reveals that significant innovations appeared during the late Pleistocene – innovations which elsewhere are construed as examples of modern human behaviour. Yet these innovations (such as bone tools) disappeared during the Holocene, adding to the picture of local devolution. Conversely, insofar as it relates to clothing, the loss of technology can instead be seen as an adaptive response.

This talk is part of the Biological Anthropology Seminar Series series.

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