Archaeoecology in Southwestern Australia Part 2: What could you possibly learn from a quokka?

I’m excited to introduce a guest post today, written by Dr Joe Dortch. Joe’s research has explored megafaunal extinctions, the preservation of ancient DNA in archaeological bone, and human-environmental relationships. His PhD research investigated environmental changes and human occupation in WA’s southwestern forests. Joe is also one of my PhD supervisors, and is the other half of the crowdfunding team behind “How nature and nurture created biodiversity in south-western Australia“.


In my first post for Archaeoecology I’d like to show what the remains of quokkas (Setonix brachyurus) can tell an archaeologist. It’s based on their ecology, and their place in ethnography – the records of cultural practices.

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Quokkas – now famous for their reputations as the world’s happiest animals – were also a favoured prey animal by Aboriginal people in southwestern Australia. [Image source]

Despite their abundance on waterless and sunny Rottnest Island, where quokkas have few predators, what they really like is thick vegetation around watercourses. Their home is their castle, as it’s difficult for a dingo or human predator to travel through a thicket. Add fire, however, and the threat from humans changes dramatically. When their home is on fire, they will reach their maximum speed of a stately 12 km/hour and keep going in the opposite direction from the fire. Quokkas prefer habitat that has been long unburnt – so much so that they stay in one locality for most of their lives, provided it stays unburnt, and only the youngest members of the clan will migrate if the population increases to bursting point.

What do these observations have to do with archaeology? It seems obvious that Aboriginal hunters could have easily used fire to hunt quokkas. Put some good quokka catchers and dowak throwers on one side of a thicket, get someone else to light up the other side, and boom, plenty of food for everyone. However, it takes 10 years to build up suitable quokka habitat. That means looking after a resource before it was harvested. More crucially, as Sylvia Hallam argued recently, the responsibility of management implies some form of ownership.

Karri forest around a cave site is great quokka habitat

Karri forest around a cave site is great quokka habitat. Image: Joe Dortch.

In Noongar country of the early 1800s, when a few British colonists were keenly observing Noongar practices, you couldn’t just burn anyone’s quokka thicket. You could only burn your own – or if you did want to burn someone else’s, the owner had to be present. Noongars of south-western Australia even had a word for burning on someone’s patch without permission – quippel.

One fine summer day in 1831, Nakinah, estate owner on the north side of King George Sound, asked the commander of the Albany garrison, Captain Collet Barker, for the loan of a boat to take him and several other young men to Bald Head and burn for “wallaby” – in a few days. When Barker asked why not go now, Nakinah said, we must wait for the owner, Coolbun, who is away, or it’s quippel – stealing. The men, including Coolbun, did get their wallaby, and quokkas, several days later.

This story points to another thing about hunting quokkas (and wallabys). When it was time to burn them out, people would have needed to organize a firing (and catching) party. That means at times of year when it was difficult to get a lot of people together, it was also best not to worry about burning. In south-western Australia, that season is winter. For various reasons, winter was a good time to travel in small groups across the small creeks in the hinterland. It was also too wet to keep bush-fires going. Instead, it was the time of year to hunt solitary big game, like kangaroo, and make do with what grew. Come summer, people gathered to transact business, go fishing, and burn patches that were ready.

All very well, but what about the archaeology? How do we know whether people who lived thousands of years ago did the same thing as those who lived just 200 years ago? We don’t know for sure, but after digging through layers of campfires and other traces of occupation, as well as other layers that don’t have evidence for occupation, we have worked out whether the abundance of quokka bones (and bones of other species) correlates with evidence for past Aboriginal occupation. In short, we have a fair idea of whether a species was a likely food item at certain sites over time. It turns out that three cave sites in the south-west corner of Western Australia have abundant quokka bones – but those bones don’t correlate with human occupation. They probably got there thanks to other predators, like dingoes. People could have hunted them still – just not at the season that those sites were occupied. It’s an interesting point that each of those sites is rich in emu eggshell – emu eggs are best harvested when fresh, in winter and spring.

A 13,000 yr old campfire bed - rich in animal bones, but not so much quokka. Image: Joe Dortch.

A 13,000 yr old campfire bed – rich in animal bones, but not so much quokka. Image: Joe Dortch.

As result, we can say that quokka hunting was not the main pre-occupation at the season when people used those three caves. We can also say that people mainly used those caves in winter, and must have been somewhere else in summer. We don’t know for sure where that is, but coastal sites seem like a good bet, since Noongars often headed to the coast in summer. A fourth cave near Margaret River could provide an answer, but we’re still crunching the numbers.

The hunt is on for that good quokka site! And there’s still one big question – what do they taste like?

I acknowledge the help of many traditional owners of south-western Australia with this topic.


Further reading:

Barker, C., 1992. In: Mulvaney, John, Green, Neville (Eds.), Commandant of Solitude: the Journals of Captain Collet Barker 1828-1831. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Dortch, J., J. Balme and J. Ogilvie 2012 Aboriginal responses to late Quaternary environmental change in a Mediterranean-type region: Zooarchaeological evidence from southwestern Australia. Quaternary International 264:121-134.

Hallam, S. 2002 Peopled landscapes in southwestern Australia in the early 1800s: Aboriginal burning off in the light of Western Australian historical documents. Early Days 12(2):177-191.

Hayward, M., de Tores, P.J., Augee, M.L., Fox, B.J. and P.B. Banks 2004 Home range and movements of the quokka Setonix brachyurus (Macropodidae: Marsupialia), and its impact on the viability of the meta-population on the Australian mainland.
Journal of Zoology 263:219-228.

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