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Australia has been under Indigenous custodianship for more than 60,000 years. The country is home to sites and artefacts that have been preserved for thousands of years and that can be appreciated today as significant to the history of the whole of humanity.

Archaeology in Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples believe that archaeological sites are not just capsules of the past, but also represent a continuation from the past to the present. This belief influences present-day research and investigation into Australia’s archaeological past.

Archaeology in Australia revolves primarily around researching the peoples and cultures that have lived on this continent for many thousands of years. However, the focus of the archaeology of Indigenous Australian peoples and cultures has shifted over time. Initially, Australian archaeologists focused primarily on finding the continent’s oldest sites. By the 1970s, interest shifted to the impact of the environment on people and vice versa. Since then, research focus has shifted again, with researchers being especially interested in how Indigenous Australian cultures have changed over time and what archaeology can tell us about this process.

Sites and artefacts

Australia is home to many famous archaeological sites and artefacts. Sites like Cuddie Springs, New South Wales and Keilor, Victoria show evidence of the existence of megafauna in Australia: enormous animals such as giant kangaroos and diprotodons (rhinoceros-sized wombat-like mammals). These animals gradually became extinct following a combination of changing climate, shifting habitats and being hunted. That said, determining which of these factors contributed most to the extinction of megafauna remains contentious, with some living as recently as 7,000 years ago.

Ancient sites across Australia also offer new perspectives into the continent’s past. Some of the earliest archaeological sites are found in northern Australia; for instance, a piece of ochre excavated from the Madjebebe site in Arnhem Land is believed to be more than 50,000 years old.

Other significant sites include the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area, in far west New South Wales. This area includes a portion of Mungo National Park, where ‘Mungo Lady’ and ‘Mungo Man’ were uncovered in 1968 and 1973 respectively. Uncovering these human remains, dating back some 40,000 years, radically reshaped Western understanding of how long the Australian continent had been inhabited. The resting place of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man is also understood to be the world’s oldest known site of ritual burial ceremony.

Elsewhere in the Willandra Lakes Region can be found Australia’s very own Pleistocene fossil footprint site. Approximately 533 footprints can be found along a track through the region, along with some prints made by a kangaroo and a young emu. The site has been dated to approximately 20,000 years ago, placing it at the peak of a period of severe climate and environment change known as the Last Glacial Maximum. This site is the largest known collection of Pleistocene footprints worldwide, making it a priceless piece of world heritage.

20,000 year old foot prints from the Willandra Lakes track way.
20,000 year old foot prints from the Willandra Lakes track way.

Cultivation and aquaculture

In their journals, Cook and Banks recorded many instances of Indigenous Australians collecting shellfish and catching fish with spears and hooks and lines. They also saw people cooking birds and kangaroo meat. The Endeavour voyagers themselves ate many types of seafood, birds and animals along with warrigal greens, taro and native beans. They collected the stalks of ‘wild Plantains’ (bananas) to make baskets and enjoyed eating ripe black ‘apples’ (Pouteria australis).

Cook and Banks both recorded opinions that Indigenous Australians ‘know nothing of Cultivation’. However, the traditional knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the records of later Europeans and modern archaeology show this view was misplaced. Numerous examples of Indigenous cultivation and resource management are known and are becoming more widely recognised. These range from records of people cultivating large areas of yam daisy and wild grains to the physical remains of extensive fish traps. Recently, archaeologists have found evidence of people cultivating bananas on the island of Mabauyag in the Torres Strait more than 2,000 years ago, providing another example of the long history of agricultural practice in Australia.

A series of Aboriginal Australian stone fish traps across the Barwon River, New South Wales, circa 1892. National Library of Australia.
A series of Aboriginal Australian stone fish traps across the Barwon River, New South Wales, circa 1892. National Library of Australia.

Cultural heritage management

Along with the efforts of conservation groups to preserve these places of significant cultural and archaeological importance, cultural heritage management laws have been created to help balance the competing interests of conservation and development.  These national, state and territory laws require consultation with traditional owners (Elders) before starting activities on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Country, including works that have an impact on archaeological sites. This often includes traditional owners identifying any sites of cultural significance according to their lore and tradition. This continues the longstanding custodianship of their traditional country.

Ancient banana cultivation site at Wagadagum, Mabuyag, Torres Strait.
Ancient banana cultivation site at Wagadagum, Mabuyag, Torres Strait.