The arrival of secret visitors is often the first and only explanation invoked to explain the discovery of exotic artefacts. Very often other, simpler, explanations are overlooked or ignored entirely. In scientific and other logical reasoning the simplest explanation – the one that introduces the fewest unproven leaps of faith, or is based on processes and events that are known to happen elsewhere – is preferred. This idea is often termed Occam’s Razor or the principle of parsimony. As well as referring to explanatory mechanisms, Occam’s Razor also favours the fewest revisions to what is already known. It can be worth thinking about those circumstances which could result in the appearance of out of place artefacts in a way that fits Occam’s Razor. Using known facts is it possible to expect that we could, one day, find exotic artefacts in Australia? If we found a mobile phone in a Pleistocene rockshelter deposit in central Australia it would be foolish to invoke time-travel, extra-terrestrial intervention or long-forgotten Aboriginal telephony as the best explanation. Well before we call on unproven and unsupported ideas, we would need to look at the question of prior disturbance of the deposit by animals and humans, whether people still camped there, deliberate fraud or hoaxing, errors by the archaeologists and so on, all of which are known to have happened in the past. Each of these explanations is testable, and each could explain the mobile phone’s presence without having to alter what we already know about Australian Pleistocene archaeology.
Similarly, knowing that Macassan fishermen harvested trepang in Australian waters, it is reasonable to ask whether the well-established maritime trade networks that connected China and India via the Malay archipelago may also have extended as far as Australia or, if not, at least have provided a conduit for some clearly exotic material to end up in pre-1606 Australian contexts. This post takes a look at what we know of this trade. The Macassan presence in northern Australia deserves a few posts on its own.