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After the first stone: the Tasmanian correspondence of EB Tylor and Henry Ling Roth

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-24, 19:23 authored by Rebe TaylorRebe Taylor

This paper explores the colonial correspondence that informed responsible for extending and formalizing the ideas of the Tasmanian Aborigines’ low cultural status and their extinction in the 1890s: Edward Burnett Tylor, the first Reader of that discipline in Oxford, and Henry Ling Roth, Halifax businessman and self-published anthropologist deemed them a separate race and declared it extinct. The two ideas became intricately connected, and deeply influential to nineteenth-century European understanding of human history, to an emergent and independent Australian colonial scholarship, and the ways that Australian history writing and national identity have continued to be shaped.

But they were guided and inspired not just by abstracted facts and artefacts, but by local experience, expertise, and opinion on the Tasmanian Aborigines developed independently among a growing colonial scholarship.

A goal of this archival exploration is not only to explore the importance of this influence, but to also disambiguate, or at least distinguish by attribution, the entangled and often symbiotic ideas of the Tasmanian Aborigines’ low evolutionary status from that of their supposed extinction.

In its epilogue, this paper explores a further colonial scholarly interest in Tasmania that also emerged independently of the metropole. From the late 1880s, Australian archaeologists became intensely interested in the origins of the supposedly unique and isolated Tasmanian race.

While fused in their expediency, when returned to an individual, archival level, the two anthropological ideas of ‘low’ and ‘extinct’ emerge as separate research projects. The antipodean aspiration to reveal in Tasmania a deep Aboriginal past offered an image in reverse of Tylor’s objective to illuminate a European antiquity. As such it rejected the ahistorical premise of an evolutionary comparative schema and help to found an important new direction in Australian archaeology.


Publication title

Before the Field


College Office - College of Arts, Law and Education

Place of publication

Deakin University, Melbourne

Event title

Before the Field

Event Venue

Deakin University, Melbourne

Date of Event (Start Date)


Date of Event (End Date)


Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Understanding Australia’s past

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