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  • Writer's pictureCassie Gordon

The Not-So-Great Intensification Debate

How Harry Lourandos’ concept of ‘intensification’ can be viewed as a reductive model for Pleistocene human-environment explanations in Greater Australia

Yet I am not arguing that their life and thought have never changed, or cannot change. It would be unwise to make such statements even if there were no evidence to turn to. Actually, there is a good deal of evidence … another kind of change, not development, but ‘alteration’. We cannot suppose these styles altered autonomously. There must have been many psychic and social concomitants.

W.E.H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays 164-65.

Introduction to how Harry Lourandos' concept of 'intensification' can be viewed as a reductive model for Pleistocene human-environment explanations in Greater Australia

Personally, I found that even at an undergraduate level the reading of Australian archaeological literature produced before the turn of the century reveals a trend, or rather an undercurrent, of Eurocentrism. We see the far-reaching impacts that this invisible lens of bias has had on the reading of Sahul’s Pleistocene record, pervading explanations for archaeological patterns, and favouring European-Australian comparisons. Fortunately, in the late-1960s the discipline began to move away from a partiality for culture-history comparisons, and, by the late-1980s the discipline had advanced towards the processual approaches taken on by ‘New Archaeology’. For more on this, see my posts on the Pomeii Premise and the lead up to it for the festivalCHAT last year! With the New Archaeology acting as the underpinning dogma for Lourandos’ work we will evaluate the notion of ‘intensification’ in Australian archaeology.

In order to appreciate both the advantages and disadvantages of a concept like Harry Lourandos’ ‘intensification’ model we have to place such a concept in its historical context first. Once the historical context for this notion is established Lourandos’ model of intensification will be briefly explained before being assessed through examples of publications that both support and reject his theory. Finally, the concept will then be assessed and discussed in terms of its usefulness/uselessness in the archaeology of Australia today.

Pleistocene Beginnings: Pushing Back The Past of Aboriginal Australia

When geomorphologist, Jim Bowler, unearthed the remains of WLH1 (more commonly known as Mungo Woman) in 1968 and went on in the following year to unearth WLH3, Mungo Man, from the lunette of a dry inland lake in south-eastern Australia, ages for occupation of the continent were cemented deep in the past with radiocarbon age estimates of ~40 ka bp, pushing an upper limit of ~42 ka (38-42 ka) (Bowler et al. 1970, 2003; Hiscock 2008). Though John Mulvaney determined Pleistocene ages of occupation at Kenniff Cave, Queensland, in the early 1960s and laid the foundations for the bipartite system of technocomplexes in Australian archaeology today (Mulvaney & Joyce 1965) it was the visibility to the wider population of the Lake Mungo finds that strengthened Mulvaney’s evidence. With current dates pushing the initial occupation of Greater Australia to a time-depth of ~65 ka bp (see volume 83, issue 3 of Australian Archaeology 2017 for discussions of this age estimate) it is hard to imagine a time when sites of Pleistocene age were not widely accepted in the archaeological community. Whilst verifiable evidence for Pleistocene occupation acted in helping to dissolve long-held views of early Aboriginal Australians as primitive peoples, the pancontinental descriptions purporting cultural continuity that followed acted ingenuously in framing Australian pre-history as static and unchanging (Hiscock 2008, p. 102; Lilley 2001).

From the 1990s onwards there were many sites indicating a strong presence of humans in Australia with ages of more than 40 ka. With Pleistocene archaeology at sites such as Allen’s Cave, Carpenter’s Gap, Cuddie Springs, Devil’s Lair, GRE8, the Willandra Lakes system, Malakunanja (or Madajabebe II), Ngarrabullgan, Parmerpar Meethaner, Puritjarra and Riwi (Figure 1, below) (cf. Hiscock 2008, pp. 34-35), one might in all fairness assume that the peopling of niche environments would require a variety of socio-economic adaptations. Although there were sites in Australia with Pleistocene ages (i.e., King’s Table, Kisope, Kenniff Cave and Koonalda Cave (cf. Cosgrove 2012)) before the proliferation of the discovery of Pleistocene sites from the 1990s the debate amongst archaeologists of the 1980s explored the notion of ‘intensification’ in regards to mid-to-late Holocene sites increasing and instilled a foundation for debate on the implications for Pleistocene Aboriginal lifewa


Pictured, right, is a map of Greater Australia (at sea level of ~130 m) shown in grey, and its relationship to modern Australia, New Guinea and parts of Melanesia and southeast Asia. Locations of Pleistocene sites are plotted on this map from Hiscock 2008, pp. 34-35.

Foundations for the ‘Intensification Debate’

In the early 1960s, Harry Lourandos (Figure 2), a young second-generation Greek-Australian undergraduate began his fieldwork in Tasmania with archaeologist Rhys Jones (Bowdler 2006, p. 40; Lilley 2001, p. 79).

Bowdler (2006, p. 41) writes that at the time there was “…a considerable ferment in the air about research into the Tasmanian Aboriginal past…” and that Lourandos went on to challenge longstanding constructions of the Aboriginal past in Tasmania in his honours, and subsequently his Masters, theses (cf. Bowdler 2006). It was not until the 1980s, however, that Lourandos described in detail the concept with which he would become synonymous – intensification (Brian 2006, p. 107).

Harry Lourandos, age 24, at Mount Cameron West, Tasmania, in 1969

By the 1980s, Lourandos had published a series of works (1983a, 1984, 1985a, 1985b) proposing that the “increases in both productivity and production (1985a, p. 389)” seen over the last 5000-4000 years of the Holocene in Australia were indicative of intensification. This concept was one already in use in European and American explanations of intensification associated with the advent of agriculture (Bender 1978; Hayden 1981).

To me, there is some sense here of trying to force the square to fit in the circle in the way that these international discourses are imposed over the top of the Australian record. Although Lourandos intended to explain the Late Holocene record in a way that was not comparative to European archaeological work but rather contrasted to the hunter-gatherer culture of Australia his concept of social evolution and the ‘intensification’ of hunter-gatherer Aboriginal Australia leads to a Holocene Australia starkly contrasted to a uniform and unvarying record of Pleistocene Greater Australia into the early-to-mid Holocene. Unfortunately it further engrains that lens of Eurocentrism discussed at the top. This partitioning of the Australian archaeological record sparked a debate that would permeate the Australian archaeological discipline for nearly four decades.

The Notion of ‘Intensification’

In 2008, Holdaway, Fanning & Rhodes proficiently challenged Lourandos’ concept of intensification in an article published in journal, The Holocene. Summarised quite deftly by Holdaway, Fanning & Rhodes (2008, p. 404), Lourandos’ model of intensification (1983a, 1983b, 1984, 1985a, 1985b; Lourandos & Ross 1994) along with the concept of more complex social organisation as proposed by Lourandos (1997) is condensed into the following:

“Indicators of intensification include: increased intensity of site use identifiable by larger number of artefacts; an increase in the number of sites (both in comparison with earlier times in the Holocene); expansion into new, more marginal areas; an increase in the complexity of economic systems (in semi-arid areas, this involves use of grass seeds); and, the development of complex exchange systems. An increase in population numbers goes hand-in-hand with these changes, but Lourandos (1997: 306) sees this as consequential rather than causal.”

The debate comes as a dichotomy: a dichotomy of explaining social and economic complexity (Mulvaney & Kamminga 1999, p. 267-72; Lilley 2001) as being driven by either socio-economic forces, or driven by environmental factors (see Beaton 1985, 1990; & Lourandos 1984, 1985b). Essentially, the debate is structuralism versus functionalism. It is this division of theoretical approaches that dictate the understanding of relationships of change—especially in the late Holocene—in the archaeological record.

How well has this concept held up over the past 40 years?

I believe that we sometimes have to be look back in order to move forward (no wonder I pursued a career in archaeology), so I think the real question about this intensification debate is 'how well has it held up?' Never truly resolved, evidence has been found to both support and reject intensification: the debate over intensification still persists in the academic literature nearly forty years on. Explanations of Holocene change as being related to ecological influences act in challenging Lourandos’ notion of intensification while social drivers as explanations for change work to support the concept.

Val Attenbrow and Peter Hiscock (2015) recently challenged the foundational support for the intensification model of Australian Holocene site occupation by assessing whether radiometric dates are a robust proxy for long-term prehistoric demographic change. They came to the conclusion that the measuring of “things” and dates are not “robust and validated (p. 34)” and cannot be used to “reliably describe chronological changes in population size and land use (p. 34)” as Lourandos suggests, but Williams et al. (2015), using palaeoclimatic information coupled with radiocarbon data as a proxy, utilising a “dates as data” approach, come to the conclusion that this approach actually is robust. Reliance on the environmental factors as drivers for change or on radiometric dates as data—particularly change when comparing the Pleistocene to the Holocene—while associated with dramatic changes ecologically neglects to account for any sense of complex culture before the ‘intensification’ of 4,000-3,000 years ago.

The Pleistocene to Holocene Transition: False Images of Homeostasis

As the Younger Dryas ended, and as the globe entered Marine Isotope Stage 1 (MIS1), the Holocene brought with it the warm climate, increased rain, and rising sea levels (Hiscock 2008). This change in sea level submerged coastal sites to a depth of ~130 m and isolated what was once Sahul, transforming it over a few thousand years to a continent where New Guinea and Tasmania are geographically separate (Hiscock 2008).

A proponent of an explanatory model for this watery burial of Pleistocene coastal sites combined with a theory of initial continental occupation (albeit somewhat untestable as a model in and of itself), Sandra Bowdler (1977) also essentially argued for a static and unchanging people of the Pleistocene. She suggested rising sea levels and geographical expansion as an occupation driver for Holocene change in Australia and ignored northern Pleistocene sites that did not fit her model. At the time of her 1977 publication, two years before Lourandos was to be appointed a lectureship where Bowdler and he would become colleagues (Bowdler 2006, p. 45), little archaeology had been done in the arid centre of the Australian continent (Flood 1983, p. 79). While not trying to rationale a ‘dates as data’ approach, the amelioration of Pleistocene dates from the 1990s on and in areas once thought to be marginalised and unoccupied does beg the question, ‘why, if Aboriginal people were here, there and everywhere on the continent, would they not have had a socially complex package that allowed for them to inhabit and distribute across a diverse array of landscapes?’ Perhaps the answer lies in the preferential preservation of younger Holocene sites (Rowland 1989) or of the visibility of sites and their differential destruction (Holdaway et al. 2008).

Is it a useful concept in Australian archaeology?

Although we do see an ‘intensification’ as described by Lourandos (1983a, 1983b, 1984, 1985a, 1985b, 1997; Lourandos & Ross 1994) and outlined above, the collective base of knowledge in Australian archaeology is increasingly broadened as dating techniques are improved or new techniques introduced, as sites in areas once unexplored are sought out and unearthed, and as new theoretical approaches are employed by archaeologists to explain human behaviour of the past.

Lourandos’ concept of ‘intensification’ might well be a good explanation for the amplification of Holocene changes in the record but what it fails to do is provide an explanation for Pleistocene human-environment interactions and their social counterparts. These would have been established well before the cultural responses to climatic upheavals at the end of the LGM manifested themselves in the archaeological record. Evidence for complex social relations and economic intensification is found in Pleistocene-aged sites all around the continent (like the shell beads of Mandu Mandu in a coastal Western Australian site (Morse 1993) or the edge-ground axes of Arnhem Land (Geneste et al. 2010); even the recently World Heritage Listed Gunditjmara eel traps of Budj Bim in southwest Victoria, once thought by Lourandos to be indicative of the social elements of his intensification model now date not to the late Holocene, but to 6,500 years ago (McNiven et al. 2012)).

At first glance, Lourandos’ concept seems to deliberately ignore the multidimensional complexities that would have been faced by those living in Pleistocene Australia, and at closer inspection, it appears to perform as a means by which to further entrench a pre-existing lens of Eurocentrism that quietly coloured the Australian archaeological literature of the mid-twentieth century. Analysing the great ‘intensification debate’ has raised many questions. Questions like, ‘did the introduction of an alternative representation of Indigenous Australians in the 1980s prove to distance archaeologists from the concept of the unchanging Aborigine (as was Harry Lourandos’ empathetic intention), or did it prove to further establish a Westernised reading of a homeostatic Pleistocene record?’ ‘Were the hunter-gatherers of Australia’s deep past changing and adapting to external environmental pressures, or was change driven by immaterial spiritual or social dynamics untraceable in the archaeological record?’ ‘Were these dynamic cultural processes acting in the Pleistocene or are they only manifest after population increases related to the last c. 4,000 years?’

Archaeology, the perfect marriage of social and material sciences, is just as any other science is: it is a quest to find answers to mysteries. With a continually growing base of research across the Australian continent, and new archaeologists (like myself and my peers and colleagues) entering the discipline, hopefully we can work towards resolving the debate of intensification with middle-range theoretical applications and new or under-applied dating techniques that might prove to challenge previously accepted dates.



Attenbrow, V & Hiscock, P 2015, ‘Dates and demography: are radiometric dates a robust proxy for long-term prehistoric demographic change?’, Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 50, pp. 30-36.

Beaton, J M 1983, ‘Does Intensification Account for Changes in the Australian Holocene Archaeological Record?’, Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 94-97.

Beaton, J M 1985, ‘Evidence for a coastal occupation time-lag at Princess Charlotte Bay (North Queensland) and implications for coastal colonization and population growth theories for Aboriginal Australia’, Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 20, pp. 1-20.

Bender, B 1978, ‘Gatherer-hunter to farmer: a social perspective’, World Archaeology, vol. 10, pp. 204-22.

Bowdler, S 2006, ‘Harry Lourandos’ life and work: an Australian archaeological odyssey’, in B Barker, I J McNiven & B David (eds), Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, pp. 40-49.

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Cosgrove, R 2012, ‘Comment’, Australian Archaeology, no. 74, pp. 23-24.’

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Geneste, J M David, B Plisson, H Clarkson, C Delannoy, J J Petchey, F & Whear, R 2010, ‘Earliest Evidence for Ground-Edge Axes: 35,400±410 cal BP from Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land’, AustralianArchaeology, no. 71, pp. 66-69.

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Lilley, I 2001, ‘Of Cowboys and Core-Tools: Revisionist Reflections on Rhys Jones and ‘The Great Intensification Debate’ ’, in A Anderson, I Lilley & S O’Connor (eds), Histories of Old Ages: Essays in honour of Rhys Jones, Pandanus Books, Canberra, pp. 79-88.

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