Scientific evidence for the identification of an Aboriginal massacre at the Sturt Creek sites on the Kimberley frontier of north-western Australia

Pamela Smith, Mark Raven, Keryn Walshe, Robert Fitzpatrick, F Pate

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    6 Citations (Scopus)


    Archival research into episodes of frontier violence in the Kimberley region of Western Australia indicate that the bodies of Aboriginal victims of massacres were frequently incinerated following the event. This paper presents the results of a scientific investigation of a reported massacre at Sturt Creek where burnt bone fragments were identified in two adjacent sites and documents the archaeological signatures associated with the sites. The methodology used to undertake the project brought together three systems of knowledge: the oral testimonies of the descent group originating from a sole adult survivor of the massacre; archival, historical and scientific research. An archaeological survey defined the two distinct sites containing hundreds of fragile bone fragments; a third site was found to be highly disturbed. Scientific investigations included macroscopic and microscopic examination of selected bone fragments by an anatomical pathologist and a zooarchaeologist and X-ray diffraction analysis of sixteen bone fragments. The anatomical pathologist and zooarchaeologist undertook macroscopic and microscopic examinations of selected bone samples to identify morphological evidence for human origin. It was concluded that three bone fragments examined may have been human, and two of the fragments may have been from the vault of a skull. It was concluded that the likelihood of them being human would be strengthened if it was found that the three samples had been subjected to high temperatures. X-ray diffraction analysis of 16 bone fragments provided this evidence. All fragments showed sharp hydroxylapatite peaks (crystallite sizes 9882 nm and 597 nm respectively) and all had been subjected to extreme temperatures of either 600 °C for more than 80 h, 650 °C for more than 20 h, 700 °C for more than 4 h or 800 °C for more than 1 h. XRD analyses were also done on bone samples collected from three cooking hearths at three different archaeological sites. It was found that two of the three samples had been exposed to substantially lower temperatures for a short time period. It was concluded that there was strong pathological and archaeological evidence that the bone fragments were human in origin, but that the evidence was not conclusive. This research also identified archaeological signatures for the identification of massacre sites in similar Australian environments and circumstances.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)258-267
    Number of pages10
    JournalForensic Science International
    Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017


    • Australian Aboriginal massacres
    • Kimberley frontier
    • Massacre archaeology
    • Sturt Creek massacre
    • XRD burnt bone


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