Footprints in the Sand: Appraising the Archaeology of the Willandra Lakes, Western New South Wales, Australia

By Allen, Harry; Holdaway, Simon et al. | Antiquity, March 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Footprints in the Sand: Appraising the Archaeology of the Willandra Lakes, Western New South Wales, Australia

Allen, Harry, Holdaway, Simon, Fanning, Patricia, Littleton, Judith, Antiquity


The discovery of human footprints dating to between 19 and 23ka in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area (Figure 1) points again to the pre-eminence of the Willandra Lakes for the preservation of a human record for Pleistocene Australia (Webb et al. 2006). The discoverers comment that '... This site offers a unique glimpse of human living in the arid inland of Australia at the height of the last glacial period' (2006: 405). Here, we argue that, like the footprints site, the human activities which produced the archaeological record of the Pleistocene Willandra Lakes consist almost entirely of 'unique' events.

The first part of this paper critiques the assumption that Aboriginal people during the Pleistocene acted in ways similar to those observed by nineteenth-century ethnographers and the assumption that archaeological evidence can be analysed in a cumulative fashion, fitted together like a jigsaw, to provide a composite model of human utilisation of the landscape. A corollary is the belief that the scale of human and landscape events are somehow on a par with each other (Balme & Hope 1990).

The second half of the paper advocates a revised methodology, based on recent studies of semi-arid regions elsewhere in New South Wales, for survey and recording of archaeological data for the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area. It is argued that such a methodology is necessary if Australian archaeologists wish to base their conclusions on reliable empirical data. In particular, we argue that archaeologists must be able to obtain information on the movement of people and materials across that landscape through time, including the duration, intensity and frequency of resource and locality use. The scale of sample required to gain reliable answers to questions of landscape use requires the study of large surface exposures of thousands of artefacts and hundreds of archaeological features, and, as a consequence, archaeologists must adopt a methodology capable of utilising samples of this size.


Archaeology of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area--a critique

Archaeological work carried out in the Willandra Lakes area is summarised by Johnston and Clarke (Johnston & Clarke 1998; Johnston et al. 1998) supplemented by studies carried out elsewhere in the central Murray-Darling basin (e.g. Balme 1995; Hope 1993) which allow the Willandra Lakes archaeological record to be placed within a regional context.

Studies by Allen, Clark, Hope, Johnston, Jones, McBryde, McIntyre, Mulvaney, Shawcross, Thorne, Webb, a multitude of BA (Hons) and MA students from The Australian National University, and most recently, by Webb, Cupper and Westerway (Webb et al. 2006) contribute to our present understanding and provide the basis for this reassessment. However, in spite of the number of studies carried out there remains a perception of unfulfilled potential regarding the archaeology of the Willandra Lakes. Mulvaney and Kamminga (1999: 199) observe '... Despite the wealth of archaeological sites, the nature of settlement and subsistence is poorly understood.' Difficulties apply in varying degrees to all previous surveys and analyses.

The use of a comparative ethnographic framework based on nineteenth-century observations of Aboriginal subsistence activities from the central Murray-Darling basin, or from contemporary observations made elsewhere, is problematical. Allen (1990; 1998) discounts specific parallels, but the problem is deeper than this. It rests at the centre of archaeological expectations whenever the record is organised conceptually in terms of sites, quarries, middens, living floors, base camps and dinner-time camps. It is exacerbated when such units are linked into patterns of presumed behaviour and applied to models of Aboriginal use of the Pleistocene landscape (e.g. Balme 1983; 1995; Balme & Hope 1990; Bowler et al. 1970).

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Footprints in the Sand: Appraising the Archaeology of the Willandra Lakes, Western New South Wales, Australia


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