Shifting location, shifting scale
: a regional landscape approach to the prehistoric archaeology of the Palmer River catchment, Central Australia

  • Peter Bernard Thorley

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    The research described in this thesis comprised an archaeological study of a specific river catchment in the central Australian ranges. Previous research had demonstrated the potential of the central Australian ranges to contribute to understandings of arid zone settlement and human adjustment to environmental change. To further exploit this potential, an approach was developed which was landscape-centred and bounded in a single catchment rather than based around isolated sites spanning the central Australian ranges and their hinterland.

    Drawing on recent trends in the study of archaeological landscapes, the design of the research aimed to combine the principles of regional landscape formation with ecological approaches to the analysis of human settlement. Following an initial reconnaissance of the catchment, three ten by ten kilometre areas (study areas) were selected for more intensive survey and probability sampling. The location of the three study areas was selected to highlight variability in landscape and water permanency in the catchment.

    The results of the survey revealed that flaked stone artefacts were present throughout much of the catchment although their density varied. High artefact densities were associated with the biologically most productive landscapes along the edges of ranges and floodplains. The importance of water permanency as a variable affecting artefact density was not supported. The study area with the least permanent water revealed the highest artefact density. The richest multicomponent artefact scatter/art sites were also located near temporary waters near the margins of the catchment.

    Five sites were excavated, one of which (Kulpi Mara Rockshelter) produced an archaeological sequence dated to 30,000 years BP. Occupation of the site commenced at a time which palaeoclimatic records indicate was relatively cool and wet. A marked reduction in rates of artefact and sediment deposition raised the possibility that the site was abandoned with increasing aridity from 23,000 BP and remained unoccupied for much of the glacial arid period. A cluster of dates around 13,000 BP indicated a resumption of use during the terminal Pleistocene climatic amelioration after which there appeared to have been minimal occupation until the mid Holocene.

    Radiocarbon determinations from the excavation of the remaining four sites and one site previously excavated in the catchment all produced dates of mid to late Holocene age. Occupation was first established in most sites between 3,500 to 2,000 years BP, a period in which new stone implement technologies first appeared in the form of backed artefacts. These changes were argued to be linked with wider population movements taking place in central Australia and beyond during the middle of the Holocene. There was no evidence for a further consistent increase in site use after 2,000 years BP. Subsequent changes in the use of sites and the development of intensive seed-grinding were inferred to represent adjustments to the fluctuating environment rather than population increase.

    The explanation of the evidence from the surface survey and excavation was approached from the theoretical perspective of human adaptation to risk. Arid and uncertain climatic regimes favoured the selection of technological, economic and territorial strategies which buffered against high spatial and temporal variability in resource distribution. Archaeological data from the Palmer River catchment were combined with existing research in the wider region to review the evidence for such strategies in the central Australian ranges and hinterland over the period of occupation.

    A review of the evidence from Puritjarra Rockshelter cast further doubt on the notion of continuous occupation in central Australia throughout the period of glacial aridity. Using the combined data from over 20 excavated sites in central Australia, it was concluded that the mid to late Holocene provided the first evidence for the development of strategies well-suited to the risks imposed by a widely fluctuating arid environment. Among these were the use of low-risk seed foods and the positioning of aggregation sites to take advantage of rich though temporary resources near ephemeral waters. By structuring sites in this way, populations were able to reduce pressure on critical drought-relieving waters and maintain effective reciprocity networks, social imperatives which provided security against high year to year variability in resource distribution and allowed rapid adjustment to environmental change.

    Overall, the outcomes of the research confirmed the value of a more intensive, systematic and controlled approach to the study of prehistoric settlement in the central Australian ranges. In making use of a smaller scale unit for the purposes of regional study, it was possible to challenge preconceptions about site location and settlement organisation in this arid region. A similar approach to archaeological research and management may be justified in other central Australian river catchments and in many parts of the wider continent.

    Date of AwardNov 1998
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorClayton Fredericksen (Supervisor)

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