“Why Those Old Fellas Stopped Using Them?”: Socio-religious and Socio-Political Dimensions of Stone-walled Tidal Fish Trap Use and Dis-use Amongst the Yanyuwa of Northern Australia

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Archaeological approaches to stone-walled tidal fish traps of Indigenous Australians focus on technology and subsistence, with chronological development linked to demands of increased food production associated with demographic change and social intensification. For the Yanyuwa ‘Saltwater People’ of tropical northern Australia, old stone-walled fish traps found within the intertidal zone are associated with the creative acts of ancestral spirit beings. As such, these fish traps are imbued with spiritual potency and agency such that use requires specialized ritual practices (involving ochre and smoke) by senior men who also prescribe who can and cannot use the traps and eat the resulting catch. Today these traps lie dormant, not because the demand for fish has decreased but because of the demise of old highly initiated men of Law. These senior men not only possessed the requisite ritual knowledge to repair and activate the traps but also the specialized social and political knowledge to ensure adherence to strict and religiously codified laws and rules governing fish catch consumption amongst the community. The Yanyuwa teach us that socio-religious and socio-political factors can in certain contexts be of equal or greater importance than socio-economic factors in understanding why peoples of the past decided to use and dis-use fish trap facilities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)337-355
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Island and Coastal Archaeology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • ontology
  • ritual
  • song lines
  • sorcery
  • spiritual agency
  • stone-walled tidal fish traps

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