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Getting the main ideas

Look at the sample extract again. Consider the questions, then click on the highlighted text to see a possible answer.

    Paragraph 1

    Trade between distant people is often seen as a mark of a more advanced economic life. If this insight is valid, many groups of aboriginals must have been far from backward because their raw materials and manufactures were traded to people hundreds of miles away. It is probable that every tribe in Australia traded with its neighbours, and a few commodities were involved in such a sequence of transactions that they crossed from the tropical coast almost to the Southern Ocean.
  1. What is the main point of the first paragraph?
  2. Why do you think the writer is making this point?


  3. Paragraph 2

    Pearl shell travelled further perhaps than any other Item. In Western Australia an explorer saw an aboriginal wearing, as a sporran, pearly oyster-shell which had travelled at least 500 miles from its point of origin. Some of the pearl shells were as wide as a bread-and-butter plate, and their silvery-white surface was engraved with a simple pattern. Many shells were neatly perforated at the top so that they could be worn as a pendant. They could be seen, suspended from the neck of aboriginals, near the Great Australian Bight, which was about one thousand miles overland from their home seabed. Similarly, Kimberley pearl-shells were found as far away as the Mallee scrub lying between Adelaide and the Victorian border. Baler shell from tropical beaches near Cape York were picked up far to the west of Alice Springs and as far away as Leonora (W.A.). Many hands must have fondled those ocean shells in the course of their long journey to the interior. Their journey consisted of many transactions between neighbouring groups, most of which did not even know of the existence of an ocean. If sea shells could travel so far into the interior, it is likely that spears or ochres from the interior were traded in the opposite direction, eventually reaching the hands of people who did not even know that the world held sweeping plains and deserts.

  4. What do you expect the author will do in the rest of the text?
  5. What is the main subject discussed in Paragraph 2?
  6. What point is being made about this subject?
  7. Why is the author making this point? That is, how does it follow on from the first paragraph and fit in with the text as a whole?
  8. Paragraph 3-6

    In eastern Australia the axe-stone also moved over a wide area. In a quarry on the smooth slopes of Mount William, about forty miles north of Melbourne, stone axes were intermittently mined and shaped by Billi-Billeri at the time when the first Europeans arrived with their sheep. The stone was volcanic, ranging in colour from black to lightish green, and perhaps was prized in its own hinterland even more than high grade axe-steel was to be prized there a century later. For generations, stone axes from that quarry cut wooden canoes for the rivers flowing south to the Murray, and the axes reached aboriginals as far away as Swan Hill, nearly 200 miles to the north.



    A quarry which provided stone fit for stronger, sharper axes was likely to supply trade routes stretching in every direction. As many quarries were worked for generations, yielding thousands of tons of rock, they eventually scarred a considerable expanse of ground. At Metton Mowbray in southern Tasmania the chips and debris of a chert quarry covered about one acre. At Moore Creek, near Tamworth in New South Wales, an outcrop of greywacke running along the crest of a saddle-back ridge was mined prolifically; the axe-stone was quarried by aboriginals for a length of three hundred feet and to a maximum width of twelve feet. On countless still days the noise of the chipping, the patient chipping, must have carried across the slopes.



    As the written records were thin in tracing the trade in stone axes from the Tamworth district; other ways of reconstructing the extent of the trade were needed. Petrological analysis was one promising technique. It has been applied as long ago as 1923 to reveal that the so-called bluestone used in building Stonehenge in southern England had been carried all the way from Pembrokshire in Wales. With this technique in mind an enterprising archaeologist, lsabel McBryde, examined a total of 517 edge-ground axes which had been found scattered over a large part of New South Wales. She mapped the places where each stone axe had originally been collected old aboriginal camping grounds, trade routes, or simply places where an aboriginal had lost or broken his axe or had bartered it away to a European pioneer. In the laboratory a thin sliver of stone was sawn from each available axe. Each specimen of stone was then ground down to a transparent thinness and examined under the microscope of the geologist, R.A. Binns. Once the minute characteristics of the stone had been identified, the search for its place of origin could be concentrated on those regions or even specific hills or valleys which were known to contain that type of stone. In those areas which had been mapped with intensity the exact quarry which produced some axes could even be located. Binns and McBryde were able to name one quarry which had originally produced the stone for sixty-five of the axes that were found in scattered parts of New South Wales.



    This kind of archaeological jigsaw – the exact matching of axe and quarry – can be solved only when every likely source of stone has been discovered and described. In a sparsely-peopled territory the mapping is slow and the geological knowledge is not easily gathered. Nonetheless Binns and McBryde were able to gauge the extent of territory or market which was supplied with stone axes quarried from the long ridge of Moore Creek or from similar rock formations to the north of Tamworth. They found that axes had gone overland through a chain of tribal territories to Cobar, Bourke, Wilcannia, and other points on the plains as remote as 500 miles from the home quarries.The longest of these routes, transposed on to a map of western Europe, was almost equal to a walk overland from the English Channel to the Mediterranean.

    Blainey, G. (1975). Triumph of the nomads: A history of ancient Australia. South Melbourne, Vic.: Macmillan, pp. 203-204

  9. What subject is discussed in each of the remaining paragraphs?
  10. What point is being made about each topic? (Note that skimming may be sufficient to give you the basic idea.)
  11. How do paragraphs 3-6 contribute to the development of the text as a whole?
  12. You should now have some sense of the overall purpose of this text. Which paragraphs and points do you think are more central and which less so?

Chapter Twelve

Trade Routes and Rituals

Paragraph 1

Trade between distant people is often seen as a mark of a more advanced economic life. If this insight is valid, many groups of aboriginals must have been far from backward because their raw materials and manufactures were traded to people hundreds of miles away. It is probable that every tribe in Australia traded with its neighbours, and a few commodities were involved in such a sequence of transactions that they crossed from the tropical coast almost to the Southern Ocean.

Paragraph 2

Pearl shell travelled further perhaps than any other Item. In Western Australia an explorer saw an aboriginal wearing, as a sporran, pearly oyster-shell which had travelled at least 500 miles from its point of origin. Some of the pearl shells were as wide as a bread-and-butter plate, and their silvery-white surface was engraved with a simple pattern. Many shells were neatly perforated at the top so that they could be worn as a pendant. They could be seen, suspended from the neck of aboriginals, near the Great Australian Bight, which was about one thousand miles overland from their home seabed. Similarly, Kimberley pearl-shells were found as far away as the Mallee scrub lying between Adelaide and the Victorian border. Baler shell from tropical beaches near Cape York were picked up far to the west of Alice Springs and as far away as Leonora (W.A.). Many hands must have fondled those ocean shells in the course of their long journey to the interior. Their journey consisted of many transactions between neighbouring groups, most of which did not even know of the existence of an ocean. If sea shells could travel so far into the interior, it is likely that spears or ochres from the interior were traded in the opposite direction, eventually reaching the hands of people who did not even know that the world held sweeping plains and deserts.

Paragraph 3

In eastern Australia the axe-stone also moved over a wide area. In a quarry on the smooth slopes of Mount William, about forty miles north of Melbourne, stone axes were intermittently mined and shaped by Billi-Billeri at the time when the first Europeans arrived with their sheep. The stone was volcanic, ranging in colour from black to lightish green, and perhaps was prized in its own hinterland even more than high grade axe-steel was to be prized there a century later. For generations, stone axes from that quarry cut wooden canoes for the rivers flowing south to the Murray, and the axes reached aboriginals as far away as Swan Hill, nearly 200 miles to the north.

Paragraph 4

A quarry which provided stone fit for stronger, sharper axes was likely to supply trade routes stretching in every direction. As many quarries were worked for generations, yielding thousands of tons of rock, they eventually scarred a considerable expanse of ground. At Metton Mowbray in southern Tasmania the chips and debris of a chert quarry covered about one acre. At Moore Creek, near Tamworth in New South Wales, an outcrop of greywacke running along the crest of a saddle-back ridge was mined prolifically; the axe-stone was quarried by aboriginals for a length of three hundred feet and to a maximum width of twelve feet. On countless still days the noise of the chipping, the patient chipping, must have carried across the slopes.

Paragraph 5

As the written records were thin in tracing the trade in stone axes from the Tamworth district; other ways of reconstructing the extent of the trade were needed. Petrological analysis was one promising technique. It has been applied as long ago as 1923 to reveal that the so-called bluestone used in building Stonehenge in southern England had been carried all the way from Pembrokshire in Wales. With this technique in mind an enterprising archaeologist, lsabel McBryde, examined a total of 517 edge-ground axes which had been found scattered over a large part of New South Wales. She mapped the places where each stone axe had originally been collected old aboriginal camping grounds, trade routes, or simply places where an aboriginal had lost or broken his axe or had bartered it away to a European pioneer. In the laboratory a thin sliver of stone was sawn from each available axe. Each specimen of stone was then ground down to a transparent thinness and examined under the microscope of the geologist, R.A. Binns. Once the minute characteristics of the stone had been identified, the search for its place of origin could be concentrated on those regions or even specific hills or valleys which were known to contain that type of stone. In those areas which had been mapped with intensity the exact quarry which produced some axes could even be located. Binns and McBryde were able to name one quarry which had originally produced the stone for sixty-five of the axes that were found in scattered parts of New South Wales.

Paragraph 6

This kind of archaeological jigsaw – the exact matching of axe and quarry – can be solved only when every likely source of stone has been discovered and described. In a sparsely-peopled territory the mapping is slow and the geological knowledge is not easily gathered. Nonetheless Binns and McBryde were able to gauge the extent of territory or market which was supplied with stone axes quarried from the long ridge of Moore Creek or from similar rock formations to the north of Tamworth. They found that axes had gone overland through a chain of tribal territories to Cobar, Bourke, Wilcannia, and other points on the plains as remote as 500 miles from the home quarries.The longest of these routes, transposed on to a map of western Europe, was almost equal to a walk overland from the English Channel to the Mediterranean.

Blainey, G. (1975). Triumph of the nomads: a history of ancient Australia. South Melbourne, Vic.: Macmillan, pp. 203-204

The main point of the first paragraph:

Aborigines traded between distant people and this suggests they had an advanced economic life.

Why the writer is making this point:

This question isn't easy to answer here because we haven't looked at the chapters before this one, and so do not know how this chapter might fit into the text as a whole, or follow from the preceding chapter.

However, given the book's title ( The Triumph of the Nomads) we might guess the author wants to show that the Aborigines were part of quite an advanced system and were not as backward as was believed by many people at the time the book was published (in 1972).

What the author might do in the rest of the text:

The author will probably provide evidence to support the claim that Aboriginal trade was extensive and advanced.

The main subject discussed in Paragraph 2:

The trade in pearl shell.

The point being made about this subject:

That trade in pearl shell took place over large distances.

Why the author is making this point:

He is providing evidence supporting the claim made in Paragraph 1.

Subjects discussed in the remaining Paragraphs 3-6

Paragraph 3: the trade in axe-stone

Paragraph 4: some quarries provided better axe-stone

Paragraph 5: methods used to link axe-stone to places of origin

Paragraph 6: mapping trade from the findings of these methods

The point being made about each topic:

Paragraph 3: that the trade in axe-stone was extensive

Paragraph 4: that certain quarries were more important and heavily mined than others

Paragraph 5: that the methods used can provide quite precise and reliable information

Paragraph 6: that with these scientific methods and careful work the trade routes can be discovered

How each paragraph contributes to the development of the text:

Paragraph 3: these points provide further evidence of just how extensive Aboriginal trade was

Paragraph 4: (as above)

Paragraph 5: emphasises the reliability of the evidence and makes the author's case more persuasive. He is in effect answering a question that has not been asked:

How can we be sure that stone found in one place came from so far away?

Perhaps he is doing this because he thinks his readers will not easily accept that Aborigines had such an advanced trading network.

Paragraph 6: emphasises (and thus further persuades the reader) just how extensive we can know such trade to have been

Summary comments

It is worth emphasising what the writer does in this text:

Paragraph 1: he states a thesis

Paragraphs 2 and 3: he provides the evidence that supports that thesis

Paragraph 5: he doesn't simply ask the reader to accept the evidence on his authority as a historian. He shows how such knowledge has been obtained.

Why does he do this? Clearly it makes the evidence more persuasive, as he does not believe his own authority is sufficient here. This has to do with who he thinks his readers are, and what they need to be persuaded.

Paragraph 6: Finally he reconfirms the original thesis - that trade was extensive. Having gone through the evidence, this re-statement of the point may now seem more solid.

We need to remember why he is taking pains to demonstrate the extent of the trade. Such extensive trade is crucial to his thesis that Aboriginal economic life was advanced.

A text not only says things, but also does something with what it says. For example, information given may be the main claim, or supporting evidence for a main claim. If we understand what is being done in a text as well as what is being said, the text will be easier to understand.

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