Pleistocene Settlement in the Australian Arid Zone: Occupation of an Inland Riverine Landscape in the Central Australian Ranges

Article excerpt

Recent excavations at the Kulpi Mara Rockshelter in the Palmer River catchment of central Australia have produced radiocarbon determinations spanning an archaeological sequence of 30,000 years. These results enable re-assessment of models addressing the how, where and when of arid zone colonisation, and human adjustments to environmental change in the later Pleistocene. Whilst the evidence supports early occupation of the central arid zone during wetter conditions, doubts are raised about the continuity of occupation during the height of glacial aridity.


The excavation of Kulpi Mara, a rock-shelter within the central arid ranges, provides new evidence on the early occupation of inland Australia. Radiocarbon determinations indicate that the site was occupied intermittently from around 30,000 years b.p. Prior evidence for occupation in the central arid zone from this time comes from Puritjarra Rockshelter on the western margin of the riverine uplands of central Australia (Smith 1987; 1989). Kulpi Mara extends this evidence to the riverine core of the region where the oldest dated occupation sequences (from previous research by Stockton 1971; Gould 1978; Napton & Greathouse 1985; and Smith 1988) were mid to late Holocene. The results presented here have potential to contribute further to the broader discussion of human colonization of Greater Australia (Sahul).

The arid zone, which constitutes more than two-thirds of the continent under present climatic conditions [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], occupies a special place in the wider view of Australian colonization. Seen by many as a barrier to the first colonists, the penetration of the interior has long been regarded as the most crucial test of successful adaptation to all major ecological zones within the continent. As Jones (1987: 666) states:

Paradoxically, having mastered the capacity to cross water the true barrier to the colonisation of the Australian continent lay not in the occupation of the tropical north but in the extension south into the dry regions of the continent.

Ethnographic accounts attest to the fact that Aboriginal hunter-gatherers had developed a range of economic and social strategies for coping with aridity by the time the first European observers had arrived inland (Spencer & Gillen 1899; Roth 1904; Tindale 1977; Gould 1977; Myers 1986). Among these were the ability to exploit deep subsurface water supplies, the regular and intensive use of low-risk vegetable foods such as seeds, and the maintenance of long-distance ties between relatives to allow access to more favourable areas during times of adversity, social imperatives which acted as 'lifelines of survival' to recent hunter-gatherers in Australia's arid inland (Tonkinson 1991: 40).

However, the extent to which specialized arid adaptations were a feature of early occupation of the continent has been the subject of ongoing debate. One major view holds that adaptive strategies were developed rapidly enabling the first occupants successfully to colonize the interior in a short space of time (Birdsell 1975; Bowler 1976; Jones 1979; Ross et al. 1992). Opposing this proposition, others argue that successful colonization of the more arid regions required specific long-term economic and technological adjustments (Bowdler 1977; Horton 1981; Veth 1989). A third argument, which incorporates aspects of both opposing views, holds that although the arid zone may have been occupied early in the colonization of Sahul, conditions at this time were not sufficiently arid to pose difficulties for human settlement (Hiscock 1988; Hughes & Lampert 1980; White & O'Connell 1982). The proponents of this argument maintain that the first real challenge confronting the colonists of the arid zone came with the Onset of the period of intense aridity during the last glacial maximum, from c. 22,000 to 16,000 years b.p.

Human responses to the glacial maximum have been modelled by Veth (1989) and Smith (1989) who are essentially in agreement that occupation was limited to parts of the expanded arid zone, including the central Australian ranges, that provided refuges from extreme conditions. …