The Roonka site is located on the Murray River, approximately 5 km south of Blanchetown in South Australia. Excavation of the prehistoric Aboriginal cemetery in the Roonka Flat dune began in November 1972, after flooding and erosion had exposed a number of burials (Pretty 1977) . Subsequent years of excavation and decades of analysis by the late Graeme Pretty and his research team revealed that Roonka was both stratigraphically and culturally complex. Indeed the site appears to have been so complex that after prolonged research Roonka still defies comprehensive publication.

The most detailed report on Roonka was published by Pretty in 1977. This "preliminary consideration" contains a description of the stratigraphy of the site and artifactual assemblage, with a brief description of the burials. Skeletal remains of more than 120 individuals have been recovered from Trench A, with radiocarbon dates indicating a sequence from at least 7000 years until the European contact period. The initial reconstruction and description of the material was undertaken by Prokopec (1979), and Pietrusewsky (1984) includes some of the Roonka crania in his multivariate comparison of Australasian and Pacific populations. More recently, Smith et al. (1988) have described the morphological and metrical characteristics of the Roonka dentitions.

Unfortunately, much of the skeletal material from Roonka is poorly preserved with considerable post-depositional warping and erosion. Extensive reconstruction was often required and few of the skeletons are now suited for metrical analysis. The methods of preservation and reconstruction, which may have seemed appropriate in the 1970's, are not those which would be employed today. In particular, large areas of moulded wax were used to produce an idealised reconstructed morphology. A more major problem concerns the absence of a detailed published chronology, or stratigraphic relationship, for the burials. While dates have been published for a number of the burials the majority are of unknown age. Morphologically and metrically the crania appear to be indistinguishable from the recent Swanport collection (Pietrusewsky 1984; Brown 1989) and unlike the terminal Pleistocene Nacurrie and Coobool Creek collections. If some of the Roonka burials are close to 7,000 years in age this suggests that the post-Pleistocene reduction in body size and robusticity in south-eastern Australia (Brown 1989, 1992) occurred between 10,000 and 7,000 years BP.

While I do not believe that it is possible to study diachronic change in skeletal morphology, health or population structure at the Roonka site, Roonka does provide useful information on the biology of European contact. As far as I am aware dental caries does not appear in Australia prior to European contact. This is either because traditional Aboriginal diets, with relatively little refined carbohydrate, did not support cariogenic bacteria or the bacteria were not present in Aboriginal mouths. Perhaps caries spread with refined flour and sugar or you may have needed to get very close to a European and become infected. Caries appears in the mandibular third molars of one of the recent burials at Roonka, Roonka 20, along with pipe stem wear in the incisor teeth. Pipe stem wear, with its typically circular profile, is a product of clenching a European introduced clay tobacco pipe between the incisor teeth.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Roonka cemetery is the variety of artifacts found in association with the burials. Roonka 108 was buried with a kangaroo incisor tooth headband which later became cemented to the cranial vault through the action of secondary carbonates in the dune (Pretty 1977). A similar headband was also found with one of the Kow Swamp burials. A variety of other ornaments including bone pins and pendants are described in Pretty 1977.

The most recent research on the Roonka collection has concentrated on extracting behavioural and cultural information from the better preserved skeletal elements. Durband and colleagues (2014) documented changes in the pattern of maxillary incisor tooth evulsion through time. This is a well documented ritual practice amongst Aboriginal communities, usually more common in men than women, and part of coming of age ceremonies. At Roonka the frequency of this behaviour fluctuated through time and was more common in the earlier phase of site use. Hull et al. (2020) examine the cross-sectional geometric properties of long bones at Roonka. These dimensions can be influenced by the bone remodelling asociated with limb biomechanics, muscle growth and how limbs are used. The authors argue that there are sex based differences in limb biomechanics at Roonka that reflect differences in habitual subsistence behaviour strategies utilised by men and women.


Access to the Roonka Collection

The Roonka collection was originaly curated by the late Graeme Pretty, Senior Curator in Archaeology, at the South Australian Museum. Requests for access should now be addressed to the Anthropology Department, South Australian Museum in Adelaide. People who wish to examine the skeletal material will be required to consult with Aboriginal community representatives.


References Cited

Brown, P. 1989. Coobool Creek: A morphological and metrical analysis of the crania, mandibles and dentitions of a prehistoric Australian human population. Terra Australis 13. Department of Prehistory, Australian National University, Canberra.

Brown, P. 1992. Post-Pleistocene change in Australian Aboriginal tooth size: dental reduction or relative expansion? In T. Brown and S. Molnar (eds), Human craniofacial variation in Pacific Populations, pp. 33-52. Anthropology and Genetics Laboratory, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.

Durband, A.C. et al. 2014. Patterns of ritual tooth evulsion at Roonka. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 154: 479-485.

Hill, E.C. et al, 2020. An examination of the cross‐sectional geometrical properties of the long bone diaphyses of Holocene foragers from Roonka, South Australia. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 172: 682-697.

Pietrusewsky, M. 1984. Metric and non-metric cranial variation in Australian Aboriginal populations compared with populations from the Pacific and Asia. Occasional papers in human biology 3:1-113.

Pretty, G. L. 1977. The cultural chronology of Roonka Flat. A preliminary consideration. In R. V. S. Wright (ed.) Stone tools as cultural markers, pp. 288-331. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

Procopec, M. 1979. Demographical and morphological aspects of the Roonka populations. Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 14:11-26.

Smith, P., Procopec, M. and Pretty, G. 1988. Dentition of a prehistoric population from Roonka Flat, South Australia. Archaeology in Oceania 23:31-36.

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