29,000 years of Aboriginal history confirmed on the River Murray

  Last updated July 16, 2020 at 9:48 am


The known timeline of Aboriginal people in South Australia’s Riverland region has been extended by as much as 22,000 years.

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An aerial view of the Pike River tributary. Credit: Ian Moffat, Flinders University

Why This Matters: Scientists are continuing to unravel the complex history of Aboriginal people.

Evidence of Aboriginal settlement dating back 29,000 years has been uncovered along the River Murray in South Australia.

The new study, from Flinders University, has shown they occupied the Riverland region since before the Last Glacial Maximum – which is 22,000 more than previously thought.

It also offers insights into how the first Australians adapted to periods of dramatic environmental change, given the uniquely fluctuating, unpredictable nature of this section of the River Murray.

As the 2500 kilometre-long river enters South Australia, it starts to flow through a deeper confined valley, explains Flinders University’s Craig Westell, first author of a paper published in the journal Australian Archaeology.

Also: Aboriginal artefacts reveal first ancient underwater cultural sites in Australia

“This setting is a bit of a double-edged sword,” he says; “it contains flood water when it arrives, but when flows are low, saltwater enters the floodplains from saline aquifers around the cliff lines.”

Aboriginal people dealt with prolonged periods of severe climatic stress

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Mussel shells collected from along the River Murray. Credit: Flinders University

The impact of these changing climates became profoundly clear during Australia’s prolonged drought from late 1996 to 2010, when extensive salinisation had critical ecological ramifications.

Such conditions would have challenged Aboriginal people during periods of climatic stress, including the cold, dry environment of the Last Glacial Maximum.

“When we look at the deeper timeline of floodplain development, it’s clear that there were prolonged periods of severe stress – the Millennium Drought on steroids,” says Westell.

“The dating aims to inform a picture of how people have adapted and innovated in this unique setting.”

Aboriginal people likely exploited freshwater mussels

The researchers conducted an extensive survey spanning 200 kilometres of the River Murray to find archaeological sites they could map to different periods of physical landscape development, up to the late Holocene.

They applied radiocarbon dating to 31 samples of freshwater mussel shells (primarily Alathyria jacksoni), reflecting meals eaten by Aboriginal people long ago, carefully collected from an area overlooking the Pike River floodplain downstream from Renmark.

Also: Evidence of Indigenous botanical knowledge found in ancient planet remains

A standout feature of the findings, says Westell, includes the rapid appearance of extensive freshwater mussel shells that blanketed the valley cliff lines around 15,000 years ago. This coincides with profound changes in the river, when it was replaced by a more sinuous, regularly flowing body of water. This would have provided a better environment for freshwater mussels, which the ancient tribes exploited.

“The development of these middens points to the dynamism in Aboriginal societies: here we see a change in hydrology and ecology met with a rapid reconfiguration, or a changing emphasis in economy,” says Westell.

“It speaks to that deep, intimate knowledge of country and an ability to respond quickly to change.”

According to co-author Amy Roberts also from Flinders University, the work forms part of a larger five-year collaboration with traditional owners – the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation – to explore the region’s past and contemporary connections to country.

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About the Author

Natalie Parletta
Natalie Parletta is an Australian freelance science writer.

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