Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2017

Into the Heart of Tasmania, by Rebe Taylor

It seemed to me as I read the concluding pages of this intriguing book, that it was worth reading for the last chapters alone, where the author Dr Rebe Taylor offers an explanation for the vexed state of enquiry into Indigenous issues in Tasmania.  It’s obviously not an easy thing to decide whether and what aspects should be studied, and by whom, and for what purpose, and who needs permission and who gives that permission.  More than I knew – though I knew about the unedifying History Wars – the politics of Indigenous identity are especially fraught in our island state.  It was a surprise to read that the archaeologist Rhys Jones was not welcome in Tasmania although he was a key figure in dating the arrival of Indigenous Australians, first with radiocarbon dating and later with luminescence techniques.  It’s all very complicated, and rather than try to summarise it, I think it’s best left to readers of this fine book to learn about it for themselves.

The main focus of the book, however, is about a different man entirely.  Into the Heart of Tasmania is the story of a man called Ernest Westlake, an eccentric English naturalist, anthropologist and amateur geologist who went to Tasmania looking for rocks to prove a theory and unwittingly collected valuable information which proved something else altogether.

Science is suppose to be neutral, but it can have an unconscious bias.  English scientists of the 19th century all believed that Tasmanian Aborigines were extinct, and Westlake was no exception.  He went to Tassie to prove that there was a stage in human history between the opportunistic use of stones that were naturally the right shape to be useful as tools, and the next stage which was distinguished by the stones being adapted in some way, e.g. by polishing them.

Back in 1865, Sir John Lubbock came up with his theory of four Pre-Historic Ages:

  • Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic)
  • New Stone Age (Neolithic, with the polished stones)
  • Bronze Age
  • Iron Age.

But no sooner had the ink dried on his pages than evidence turned up suggesting evidence of human activity before the Palaeolithic Age.  Rocks that were called eoliths (eo meaning dawn, and lithic meaning ‘of stone’) that might have been human tools.) Archaeologists were in dispute: obviously there must have been ancestors before the Palaeolithic Age but whether these eoliths were proof was not agreed, because they might just have been stones broken by natural causes and not by the agency of humans.

Westlake, with just enough income to be able to indulge his amateur interest in collecting, had kept his faith in the wake of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but he was keenly interested in the evolution of man.  He had his lightbulb moment when, having collected a large quantity of eoliths in Auvergne in France, he saw a British Museum exhibition of stones from Tasmania that looked similar.  Westlake thought that whereas the origins and use of his French stones were lost to antiquity, the ‘Stone Age’ people of Tasmania had only recently become ‘extinct’ and so there might still be surviving witnesses who could tell him how the stones were made and used.

(BTW when I say ‘a large quantity’, I really mean massive.  The quantity and weight of his collections as they were transported around the world beggars belief, and it was no wonder that after he died, neither his son Aubrey nor museums in Britain were very keen to keep on storing them).

But even though Westlake’s initial premises were all wrong (and are now deeply offensive to Tasmanian Aborigines who are not ‘extinct’ at all), his open-mindedness and his willingness to listen to the descendants of Indigenous Tasmanians resulted in an extraordinary treasure trove of anthropological information.  Between 1908 and 1910 he trekked and cycled all over Tassie, often in dreadful weather, as he recorded stories from nearly a hundred informants about how Tasmanian rock samples had been made and used and lots of other information besides.  Some of this information turned out to be crucial: at one stage in Tassie’s anthropological journey there was a theory that because the Tasmanian Aborigines were cut off from the mainland by the rising waters of Bass Strait, they had, in consequence of their isolation-induced regression, lost the ability to make fire and could only pass it on from one to another.  Westlake’s notes, recording descendants talking about the activities of their grandparents, disprove this theory.   But Westlake did not realise the value of his research:  he did not regard his informants to be reliable witnesses of traditional Tasmanian culture because they were being interviewed more than a century after first settlement and he thought they were not ‘real’ Aborigines because (using terms no one would use today) they were ‘half-castes’ and not living ‘a wild life’.

Back in Britain, Westlake’s plans to write up his research never came to fruition and today he is better known as the founder of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, which is a quaint sort of non-militaristic version of scouting.  (Westlake had a Quaker upbringing).  He fell out with his daughter Margaret over her romance with an improvident artist but fortunately they were reconciled just before Westlake was killed in a car accident in 1922.  His son Aubrey inherited more in the way of responsibilities than money: he pursued a number of academics to publish his father’s work but there was disinterest and worse, refutation of his theory.  Some of the  French rock collection was used as ballast for a driveway.  It was not until the 1960s when the Welsh-Australian anthropologist Rhys Jones saw the value of Westlake’s research: not to illuminate the European Palaeolithic, it was their potential to realise the depth of Australia’s Aboriginal past.

There is more to Into the Heart of Tasmania than an interesting piece of the patchwork of scientific discovery.  Dr Taylor also discusses the ethics of removing artefacts to museums; the offensive labelling of descendants by percentages (e.g. ‘quadroon); and the vilification of the Straits communities where a creole society developed because of judgements shaped by geography, space and politics. She discusses the work of recent scholars like James Boyce and Lyndall Ryan, and also the opposing conclusions of Nicholas Clements and Patsy Cameron, both of whom were supervised by notable historian Henry Reynolds.   It really is a very interesting book!

For a review that’s from an Indigenous standpoint, see Tjanara Goreng Goreng’s review at Honest History.

Author: Rebe Taylor
Title: Into the Heart of Tasmania, a search for human antiquity
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Publishing), 2017
ISBN: 9780522867961
Review copy courtesy of MUP.

Available from Fishpond: Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity or direct from MUP (also available as an eBook)



  1. You get some extraordinary books to review. And this sounds like one of the best.

    • I was a bit cheeky with this one. I can’t remember where I saw it, but I thought it would make a good companion to my post about Lyndall Ryan’s book (which is my all-time, most popular post) so I emailed MUP and asked for a review copy! And, lovely people that they are, they sent me one:)

  2. […] Into the Heart of Tasmania by Rebe Taylor, published by Melbourne University Publishing – I’ve read this one, see my review. […]

  3. […] Rebe Taylor Into the Heart of Tasmania (MUP), see my review […]

  4. […] into the Heart of Tasmania by Rebe Taylor (MUP), see my review […]

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