Precarious islands: Kulkalgal reef island settlement and high mobility across 700 km of seascape, central Torres Strait and northern Great Barrier Reef

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Small Pacific reef islands (including atolls and sandy cays) are often precarious landscapes for human habitation on the margins of sustainability. Formed mostly within the past 4000 years, reef islands are amongst the newest and most recently colonised landscapes in human history. Innovative strategies developed by saltwater peoples to successfully colonise and sustainably occupy these dynamic environments illustrate human ingenuity with implications for modern reef island communities facing the predicted impacts of global warming. As a prelude to future archaeological research, this paper presents a detailed synthesis of early ethnohistorical and ethnographic information on settlement patterns, secular and ceremonial site types, and social interactions of the Kulkalgal people who continue to inhabit the small, drought-prone reef islands of central Torres Strait, northeast Australia. These skilled navigators voyaged in large double outrigger sailing canoes across 700 km of seascape and possessed the most geographically-dispersed settlement pattern known for any Australian Indigenous coastal group. The Kulkalgal developed dense networks of social interactions and exchange relationships with their neighbours, especially the Eastern Islanders of Torres Strait and New Guinea peoples to the north. In addition to expressing historically-contingent socio-political relationships, it is argued that these networks formed part of a range of socio-economic risk-buffering strategies to offset the dry season impoverished terrestrial resource base (plant foods and drinking water) of reef islands. Kulkalgal settlement patterns were complex and flexible and designed in part to take advantage of super-abundances of marine foods and to accommodate the seasonal vagaries of terrestrial resource availability. They ranged from population dispersal during the long dry season to congregation during the wet season when crop planting and communal ceremonies were scheduled. Investigating the long-term emergence and development of these socio-economic arrangements presents opportunities for mutually-informative comparisons with the more established archaeology of Pacific atoll societies. (c) 2014 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39 - 55
Number of pages17
JournalQuaternary International
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Central Torres Strait
  • Kulkalgal
  • Reef islands
  • Riskbuffering
  • Settlement patterns

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