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Geology and trade

Lag Meta Aus: Home in the Torres Strait

Caution: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Geology and trade

Bridge to Strait

Around 9000 years ago the land bridge linking Australia and New Guinea was gradually inundated as sea levels rose. The high points became the Torres Strait Islands, and the area around them evolved into a rich marine environment. The variety of cultures across the Torres Strait result from people’s long occupation and deep knowledge of these diverse environments.

Click on the images below for a larger view of some of the reefs in the Torres Strait Islands

Geology

The Near Western and Inner islands feature granite geology, extensive mangroves and vast reefs.The Eastern Islands contain the remains of ancient volcanoes, which have given rise to productive soils. The Top Western Islands are low lying, swampy land masses formed by silt deposits from large New Guinean rivers, and the Central Islands include a series of cays and sandy islets, with scarce water and barren soils.

Exchange and power

Trade has always played a central role in the Torres Strait, positioned as it is between New Guinea and the northern tip of mainland Australia. Customary exchange networks linked all the island groups. Kales Mosby explained in 1985:

The important objects traded among the Torres Strait Islands were pearl shell, turtle shell, conus shell, human heads, foodstuffs, coconuts, bananas and sugar cane. With New Guinea they traded pig tusks, cassowary and bird of paradise feathers, weapons, bows and arrows, drums, stone clubs, canoes and tobacco. The Aboriginal people of Cape York also had materials to trade with … ground colours, spears, spear throwers and raw materials from which these were made … The trading system also spread new ideas, songs and ceremonies and gave the chance for spreading love affairs and for arranging marriages.

Canoes enabled travel, trade, warfare and resource-gathering throughout the Torres Strait. Large double outrigger vessels were the engine of the exchange network, linking the islands with New Guinea and mainland Australia. The hulls were sourced in the Fly River region of New Guinea, then traded to the Top Western Islands where outriggers, masts and woven nipa-palm sails were fitted.

A canoe made of wood, bamboo, rope, plant fibre and metal.
Kulbasaibai canoe, 2000, made by the Saibai community, National Museum of Australia. This smaller version of a traditional canoe was commissioned by the National Museum and constructed using traditional techniques. Photo: George Serras. Collection record.

War and status

In early times warfare was everywhere in the Torres Strait.
Althea Elarde, 1985

The Torres Strait was a contested place. Skirmishes between island communities and with communities on mainland Australia and New Guinea were an ongoing feature of island life in the past. Islanders had to be constantly vigilant.

Trading expeditions were often tense. If a group had to stay overnight, canoes were kept in shallow water to enable a quick getaway. In traditional Islander society, disagreements over property rights, trade negotiations and family disputes were common causes of conflict, but the prestige of acquiring skulls and the belief in the power of sorcery were also motives. Disputes could be resolved through the kinship system or through ritualistic combat.