Recently published research in Australian Archaeology has vastly extended the known timeline of Aboriginal occupation in the Riverland region of South Australia, Dr Amy Way discusses.


Recently published research in Australian Archaeology by Craig Westell, PhD candidate at Flinders University, and colleagues has vastly extended the known timeline of Aboriginal occupation in the Riverland region of South Australia. The broader research program, led by Associate Professor Amy Roberts has been conducted in collaboration with the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation (RMMAC). The authors present evidence for the oldest River Murray site in South Australia. This site dates to approximately 29,000 years ago and extends the archaeological evidence for Aboriginal occupation of the South Australian Riverland by approximately 22,000 years. “These studies show how our ancestors have lived over many thousands of years in the Riverland region and how they managed to survive during times of hardship and plenty,” says RMMAC spokesperson Fiona Giles.

Midden shell exposed on the Pike cliff line.

Midden shell exposed on the Pike cliff line.

Image: Dr Amy Roberts
© Flinders University

What did they find?

At one of the study sites (PikeAWE15_10), a high cliff-line next to the Pike River in the Murray valley and 35 km downstream of Calperum, the team found a shell lens that dated to 29,000 years. This thin lens of shell was an Aboriginal midden which was exposed in a windblown sand sheet, which capped the Pike cliff. Aboriginal shell middens are distinct concentrations of shell. They often contain evidence of past Aboriginal food processing activities including ash from fires associated with cooking.

This very old midden was found in association with many other younger shell middens, hearth (fireplace) features and stone artefacts in eroded surface features. Together these formed a broad site complex extending over 8 km along the cliff line. Thirty-one dates are reported in this paper, with ages ranging between approximately 2,600 and 29,000 years, and show a dramatic increase in the number of fresh-water mussel middens around 15,000 years ago. The authors argue that this long sequence demonstrates that this cliff line has remained relatively stable through time.

Freshwater mussel, staple food for Aboriginal people of the Riverland for at least 30,000 years.

Freshwater mussel, staple food for Aboriginal people of the Riverland for at least 30,000 years.

Image: Flinders University
© Flinders University

What was the climate like back then?

This occupation sequence predates the last Ice Age, or Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), approximately 20,000 years ago. This means the people living in this area at that time experienced radical changes in landscape, climate and ecology. Before the LGM the climate was relatively humid. It then entered an increasingly arid and cooler period through the LGM, which continued until mid-Holocene approximately 6,000 years ago when the climate became wetter and then more variable.

How does this site fit into the bigger River Murray picture?

The broader southwest Murray Darling Basin has evidence of occupation to at least 45,000 years ago. This is found at the Willandra Lakes (Allen and Holdaway 2009; Bowler et al. 2003; Fitzsimmons et al. 2014; O’Connell and Allen 2004), the Menindee Lakes (Cupper and Duncan 2006; Hope et al. 1983) and Lake Tyrell (Richards et al. 2007; Westell et. al. 2020).

The first evidence of occupation along the River Murray is similar to that reported in this paper. It consists of radiocarbon evidence from 29–25 ka from small single lens middens at Karadoc Swamp (Luebbers 1995), Monak Swamp (Edmonds 1997) and Lake Victoria (Abdulla et al. 2019; Gill 1973; Kefous 1981).

It is unclear why the first River Murray sites appear so much later than the 45,000 year old sites found in the broader southwest Murray Darling Basin. The River Murray sites would have displayed similar environmental and ecological conditions to the Basin sites to the north. Quite possibly, this gap in the record is due to site visibility and landscape changes over time, which can serve to erode and cover evidence of occupation.

What’s next?

While the results of this study extend the known occupation timeline in the Riverland to approximately 29,000 years ago, there is a significant gap between both the earliest Murray Darling Basin dates of 45,000 years, and the next phase of occupation in this study which begins approximately 15,000 years ago. The team’s next goal is to explore whether the absence of occupation in the Riverland through these periods means that this Riverland area was sparsely occupied in the earliest period and then vacated during the last Ice Age, approximately 20,000 years ago.

The team will investigate whether earlier evidence, in line with that found in the broader Murray Darling Basin, can also be found along the Murray River. The research team plan to conduct additional dating and explore new sites in the Pike River region.

Drone photography of the Pike River

Drone photography of the Pike River.

Image: Ian Moffat
© Flinders University

Amy Mosig Way, Scientific Officer, Archaeology, Australian Museum Research Institute; and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.


We would like to thank Associate Professor Amy Roberts, Flinders University for providing images and comments on this blog.


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