Ascendancy of the Tudulgal, central Torres Strait: Socio-political manipulation and domination of an archipelago polity

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Survival for the ethnographically-known Kulkalgal of the drought-prone reef islands of central Torres Strait focused on high mobility, translocation, food storage, and importation of cultivated plant foods. These buffering mechanisms were underpinned by a dynamic and flexible web of social alliances and exchange relationships spread across 700 km of seaspace. The small and resource-poor island of Tudu (inhabited by the Tudulgal, a subgroup of the Kulkalgal) was a central place within the regional archipelago polity. It is hypothesised that the Tudulgal strategically increased resource self-sufficiency and orchestrated socio-political dominance to help obviate economic vulnerability. These ethnographic patterns provide the basis for developing archaeological hypotheses on socio-political ascendancy of the Tudulgal, focusing on chronological insights into material dimensions of increasing self-sufficiency (e.g., intensified use of local marine foods, horticultural garden produce, and clam shell technology), and increasing regional domination of exchange (e.g., intensified importation of exotics), canoe trade (e.g., intensified production of shell valuables), and headhunting cults and warfare (e.g., intensified use of skull shrines). While cultural complexity is usually associated with resource-rich coastal contexts and hierarchical societies, the Tudulgal demonstrate that regional polity development and associated socio-political and socio-economic complexity can occur in response to limited availability of critical terrestrial food and water resources in societies that are largely heterarchical and egalitarian.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)164 - 180
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Anthropological Archaeology
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Exchange
  • Headhunting
  • Kulkalgal
  • Marine specialisation
  • Risk buffering
  • Socio-political complexity
  • Tudu

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