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Exposed shell midden on the Pike River cliff line near the Riverland region Aborigines’ project site.      Source: Flinders University

Study Shows Riverland Region Aborigines Were Thriving 29000 Years Ago

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Researchers have established that Riverland region Aborigines lived in South Australia much earlier than previously thought. They determined that Riverland region Aborigines lived in the area an amazing 29000 years ago, thriving at a time when the environment was much harsher than it is today.

A team from Flinders University retrieved shells from a midden at an Aboriginal site on the Murray River. The shells were taken from an archaeological site that overlooks the Pike River floodplain which is 150 miles (280 km) north of the city of Adelaide, in an area known as the Riverland region. The Murray River has been the site of human settlements for millennia. According to the researchers the shells came from ‘remnants of meals eaten long ago.’ Shell middens consist of shells and other remains. They are very important because they can provide valuable evidence about ancient Aboriginal diets and food gathering strategies.

Mussel shells collected and dated from along the River Murray, downstream of Renmark in South Australia’s Riverland region. (Flinders University)

Mussel shells collected and dated from along the River Murray, downstream of Renmark in South Australia’s Riverland region. ( Flinders University )

29000-year-old Shells Eaten by Riverland Region Aborigines

A total of 31 shell samples were taken between 2018 and 2019 and analyzed at an Australian government facility and at Flinders University. These samples ‘were selected on the basis of their landscape context’ the researchers wrote in Australian Archaeology . Experts were able to carbon date the organic material based on the carbon-14 isotope deterioration rate. What they found came as a major surprise.

The data confirmed that a Riverland region Aborigine community occupied the site in South Australia some 29,000 years ago. Previously it was believed that the ancestors of the first Aboriginal Australians only lived in the area about 7000 years ago. Craig Westell, a PhD student who took part in the study, said that the results ‘extend the known Aboriginal occupation of the Riverland by approximately 22,000 years,’ reports Flinders University .

Flinders archaeologist Craig Westell conducting field work. (Flinders University)

Flinders archaeologist Craig Westell conducting field work. ( Flinders University )

Riverland Region Aborigines Came After the Ice Age

The research findings also established that the site of the shell midden is the ‘oldest River Murray Indigenous site in South Australia’ according to Flinders University .  It is believed that Modern Humans ( Homo sapiens ) arrived in Australia up to 50,000 years ago. However, others have claimed that they arrived more than 60,000 years ago.

The team also dated other materials from the site which showed that Aboriginal people lived in the area from 15,000 to 29,000 years ago, during a period of extreme climate and environmental change . Craig Westell, a PhD student who took part in the study said that, ‘These results include the first pre-Last Glacial Maximum ages returned on the River Murray in South Australia and extend the known Aboriginal occupation of the Riverland by approximately 22,000 years’ reports Flinders University .

Post-Ice-Age Period in Australia Like the Millennium Drought

This period after the ice age in Australia was possibly the most severe climate faced by any humans that ever settled on the vast island. The Daily Mail reports team members as saying that the river and region ‘were under stress during this time.’ Advancing dunes and salination of the water led to a drop in the food supply. And there were often flash floods as the river became more unpredictable. It was not like the beautiful and bountiful Riverland of the present day. The Daily Mail quotes the researchers as saying that the community ‘adapted to a river unrecognizable in the modern system, an image far removed from the verdant shoestring oasis we imagine this river to be.’

The post-ice-age period’s impact on the environment has been likened to the Millennium Drought, one of the worst droughts in Australian history which lasted from 1996 to 2010. The Daily Mail quotes the team as stating that this drought ‘provides an idea of the challenges Aboriginal people may have faced along the river during the Last Glacial Maximum and other periods of climate stress.’

The samples taken from the Riverland sites allowed the team to better understand how people adapted to a variety of environments and how their relationship with the landscape varied with a changing climate. The findings indicate that the Riverland region Aborigines had to have been very resourceful and adaptable to be able to live in such a changing environment.

The Riverland region Aborigines’ project is on-going and researchers hope to discover more about the Aboriginal communities that lived in the area.  During the research process, the team collaborated with The River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation. This group administers the archaeological site which is on land belonging to the local indigenous people.

Top image: Exposed shell midden on the Pike River cliff line near the Riverland region Aborigines’ project site .      Source: Flinders University

By Ed Whelan

References

C Westell, A Roberts, M Morrison, G Jacobsen and the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation, ‘ Initial results and observations on a radiocarbon dating program in the Riverland region of South Australia’ (2020) , Australian Archaeology DOI: 10.1080/03122417.2020.1787928

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