University of Tasmania

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Reliable Mr Robinson and the Controversial Dr Jones

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-24, 19:23 authored by Rebe TaylorRebe Taylor
Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. He began, in the early 1960 so carrying out a series of excavations in Aboriginal middens on Tasmania’s northwest coast. He soon discovered that Aboriginal people had stopped throwing away scale fish bones in those middens about 3000 years ago. Jones concluded that the traditional Tasmanian Aborigines had stopped eating fish. He then supposed that as a result of the millennia of isolation, caused by the rising seas at the end of the Pleistocene, that the Tasmanian Aborigines had slowly regressed. Not only had they stopped eating fish, Jones postulated, but had lost the use of various wooden tools and even their ability to make fire. The result, he concluded, was ‘the world’s simplest technology’. Even if Europeans had never reached Tasmania, Jones famously asked, were the Aborigines nonetheless, ‘doomed to a slow strangulation of the mind? Jones presented this thesis in Tom Hayden’s 1978 film The Last Tasmanian as a premise to a historical narrative of tragic colonial genocide ending in total extinction. Many movie-goers around Australia drew the conclusion that Rhys Jones said the Tasmanian Aborigines had been ‘going to die out anyway’. Tasmanian Aborigines, who had just succeeded in being officially recognised as a living people, were appalled not only by the reiteration of their extinction, but by an apparently ‘natural’ explanation as to why it happened. They accused Jones of being a nineteenth-century social Darwinist and colonial apologist. So too did many academics.


Publication title

Imperial Curiosity Conference Paper


College Office - College of Arts, Law and Education

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University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania

Event title

Imperial Curiosity Conference Paper

Event Venue

University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania

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  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Understanding Australia’s past

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