Cambridge Archaeological Journal

Ritually Orchestrated Seascapes: Hunting Magic and Dugong Bone Mounds in Torres Strait, NE Australia

Ian J.  McNiven  a1 and Ricky  Feldman  a2
a1 School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria 3800, Australia;
a2 227a Brighton Road, Elmwood, Victoria 3184, USA.

Article author query
mcniven i j   [Google Scholar] 
feldman r   [Google Scholar] 


People dwell in a world of their own subjective making. For many hunters, engagement with the ‘natural’ world is a negotiated affair because animals, like people, possess spirits. A critical part of the negotiation process is mediation of the human–prey relationship by hunting magic. Torres Strait Islanders of NE Australia are skilled hunters of dugongs, a marine mammal whose capture entails a broad range of ritual practices. Following ethnographic expectations, excavation of bone mounds reveals ritual treatment of dugong bones, especially skulls, to increase hunting success. Extensive use of dugong bones in ritual sites has important implications for the extent to which ‘secular’ midden deposits are representative of Islander subsistence practices. Since dugong bone mounds provide archaeological insights into Islander spiritual relationships with dugongs, chronological changes in use of these sites inform us about historical developments in Islander ontology and their ritual orchestration of seascapes and spiritual connections to the sea.

(Received January 20 2003)

Key Words: hunting magic; Torres Strait Islands; dugongs; Australia, hunting rituals.