Revisiting an old hypothesis: Aboriginal plant exploitation during the Holocene in West Arnhem Land (APSF 12-3)

APSF 12-3 | Amount: $ 28,500 | Project Leader: T Denham | Project Period: Jul 2012 - Jul 2014

A project undertaken at the School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, and supervised by Tim Denham and Denis Shine

Jones and Meehan (1989) proposed that horticultural experimentation may have occurred in northern Australia during the Holocene. Although Aboriginal lifeways are consistently interpreted as having been ‘hunter-gatherer’ (eg, Lourandos 1997), reassessments of botanical evidence suggest that some food plants, including the greater yam (Dioscorea alata), were introduced and planted in northern Australia in the past (Denham et al. 2009). At present, the long-term history of these introductions are poorly understood, as are the changing cultural and environmental contexts of Aboriginal plant exploitation during the Holocene.

Figure 1. Sorting of archaeobotanical material using a dissecting microscope
Figure 2. Charred plant fragment – currently unidentified, but potentially derived from a tuber

In 2011, we undertook community-led, archaeological excavations at three rockshelters in Western Arnhem Land – Ingaanjalwurr, Birriwilk and Bindjarran, which provide sequences for the Holocene. Although the Western Arnhem Land escarpment is best known for containing some of the oldest sites in Australia, this project focuses upon reconstructing a detailed history of plant exploitation during the Holocene, including plant introductions. Despite the region’s obvious archaeological importance, our excavations are the first in Kakadu National Park since the 1980s (Jones 1985; Allen and Barton 1989; Brockwell 1989) and the first in this area of West Arnhem Land, across the East Alligator River, since the 1960s (Schrire 1982). The escarpment region was chosen because of the excellent preservation and abundance of macrobotanical remains, including tubers and tuber fragments, collected during previous excavations there (Clarke in Jones 1985; mostly destroyed during the Canberra fires of 2003).

The voluminous archaeobotanical assemblages collected from these sites present a unique opportunity to apply modern techniques to the investigation of plant exploitation during the last 6000 years in this region of tropical Australia. The research funded in this proposal includes the supervised sorting of archaeobotanical material, with a focus on the subsequent taxonomic identification of tuber fragments and parenchyma, as well as the potential of identifying plants using preserved ancient DNA (where possible). These investigations are being conducted with the support of the Nayinggul family and the Kunbarlanja community.

Allen, H. and G. Barton 1989. Ngarradj Warde Djobkeng: White cockatoo dreaming and the prehistory of Kakadu. Sydney: Sydney University Press.
Brockwell, C.J. 1989. Archaeological investigations of the Kakadu wetlands, Northern Australia. Unpublished MA Thesis, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University, Canberra.
Denham, T.P., M. Donohue and S. Booth 2009. Revisiting an old hypothesis: Horticultural experimentation in northern Australia. Antiquity 83: 634-648.
Jones, R.M. 1985. Archaeological research in Kakadu National Park. Canberra: Australian Parks and Wildlife Service.
Jones, R. and B. Meehan 1989. Plant foods of the Gidjingal: ethnographic and archaeological perspectives from northern Australia on tuber and seed exploitation, in D. R. Harris & G. C. Hillman (eds.) Foraging and farming: The evolution of plant exploitation: 120-35. London: Unwin Hyman.
Lourandos, H. 1997. Continent of Hunter-Gatherers: New Perspectives in Australian Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schrire, C. 1982. The Alligator Rivers: Prehistory and Ecology in Western Arnhem Land. Canberra: Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University.