RESEARCH

IN THE FIELD

Fieldwork with Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory
Cave excavation in Seram
Retrieving lakebed cores near Darwin
Recording a shell midden on Lizard Island

RESEARCH PROJECTS

Our vision to reveal a culturally inclusive, globally significant history of Australia’s people and their environment is both ambitious and exciting. We have more than 130 researchers coming together from universities and partner organisations across Australia and overseas. 

More than 80 research projects were underway across our research themes of People, Landscapes, Climate, Wildlife, Time and Models.  Our teams are active in the field across Australia, as well as in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to our north, working with Indigenous peoples to search for vital clues to the cultural and environmental history of our region.

We have established four Flagship projects, spanning multiple research themes, and led by academics working hand-in-hand with Indigenous communities on Country.

Surveying an archaeological site on the southern coast of Seram

Our Flagship projects will be broad, both in geographic scale and the scope of research. This consolidation of resources and expertise is key to their potential to produce significant results.

These Flagship projects will help to fill knowledge gaps and produce results that are beneficial to the people on whose lands we are guests. They will also be springboards for our Education and Engagement and Research, Training and Ethics programs, with PhD students and Early Career Researchers working together, on Country, to solve problems and share knowledge.

Community engagement is at the heart of our Flagship projects, which strive to achieve world’s best practice for researchers partnering with Indigenous communities in collaborative research.

FLAGSHIPS

Top End

The Top End flagship is roughly confined to the climatic region of northern Australia often referred to as the Savannah region. This includes much of the northern part of the Northern Territory and the Northern Eastern tip of Western Australia.

We will build new, and grow existing partnerships with First Nation people to ensure that a culturally inclusive story of this region is told. This will involve interdisciplinary research, often taking a community-led approach, to build a greater understanding of the cultural and environmental histories of this region. This work fosters engagement with country and culture and recognises the importance of traditional knowledge and supports the presentation of it alongside the scientific.

This flagship includes the immensely important 200,000 year paleo-environmental sequence located at Girraween Lagoon, Larrakia Country. As well as looking at archaeological sites in the Ning Bing range, sea-level fluctuations in the gulf country and community-led projects in Arnhem land.

Northern Gateway

The timing and pathways of people arriving in Australia and New Guinea (Sahul) remain hotly debated. Recently, modelling studies have pointed to a northern route, with possible entry points from the Indonesian islands of Halmahera, Seram and nearby Misool. 

This project will involve interdisciplinary research in this northern archipelago, to expand our knowledge of the archaeology and palaeoenvironmental history of this key gateway to Sahul. It builds on the longstanding collaborative relationship with our key partner organisation in Indonesia, the National Research Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS) in Jakarta. Reconnaissance surveys and test excavations have been carried out in several of the northern islands.

Southeastern Connections

The southeast of mainland Australia and Tasmania share similar environmental characteristics and climates and have a common biogeographical history. Although now separated by Bass Strait, they have been repeatedly connected by dry land during periods of low sea level over the past two million years. 

This project will investigate environmental and faunal changes in this southeastern region, by conducting parallel studies in southern Victoria, Tasmania and the Bass Strait islands. Ultimately, this Flagship will reach a deeper understanding of the relationships of people to environmental change, and help to inform the management of land and Indigenous heritage across the region.

RESEARCH THEMES

People

This research theme explores these varied dimensions of our human history over the past 60,000 years and more, from Island SE Asia across the seas to Australia and Papua New Guinea.

How did our species get onto the ‘Southern Continent’, and when? How did these early pioneers survive, and flourish, in their new environments? How did they engage with each other, and what ingenious social and cultural practices did they devise along the way? How did they interact with their surroundings, including the giant megafauna that once populated the Australian landscape? And to what extent did human actions affect the long-term trajectories of environmental change across the ‘Anthropocene’, a landscape now occupied and actively engaged by people?

Climate

The timing and impacts of past — and future — extreme climate change remains highly uncertain. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, the Climate Theme aims to better understand changes over the past 130,000 years, from the last interglacial when Australia was apparently warmer and wetter than today, to the last two millennia, during which the continent experienced spatial and temporal extremes in hydroclimate.

By integrating a host of climate-sensitive proxies preserved in lakes, peats, ocean sediments and trees (so-called ‘natural archives’) with climate models, we are investigating the magnitude, timing and mechanisms of abrupt and extreme change, and provide a context to Australia’s rich ecological and archaeological record.

Landscapes

Our ‘wide brown land’ seems timeless and unchanging. But if we look back across the past 130,000 years we discover that the Australian landscape has changed dramatically and constantly.

Sea level during the last ice age, 20,000 years ago was 120m lower than now. The Australian mainland was joined to New Guinea and Tasmania forming the single continent of ‘Sahul’, 20-25% bigger than Australia today. In the south, large rivers drained icecaps around Mt. Kosciousko keeping the Willandra Lakes in NSW full, where they are now dry.

What drove these changes? How did the first people adapt to this alien ’sunburnt country’? And what can our past tell us about our shared future?

Wildlife

Australia’s unique wildlife is a heritage of immense value. The current diversity and distribution of species is the result not only of millions of years of evolution in isolation, but a history of dramatic change resulting from fluctuations in ice-age climates and interactions with people over thousands of years.

How did wildlife species respond to climate change in the past? What was the impact of human arrival on populations and species of vertebrate animals, and how did this affect the functioning of ecosystems? Can we reconstruct the diversity and distribution of species before arrival of Aboriginal people, and before European arrival? The answers to these questions will strengthen our ability to manage and conserve our wildlife heritage for the future.

Time

Time is fundamental to understanding the story of Australia’s natural and Indigenous history and heritage. Our transdisciplinary research program is connected via a timeline starting 130,000 years ago – during the last interglacial period when Australia was devoid of modern humans (Homo sapiens) and the climate was broadly similar to today’s – and extending to the time of initial European contact in the 17th century. This covers the entire period of Indigenous occupation prior to European arrival.

When did people arrive in Australia? In New Guinea? In Wallacea? How long did it take for people to get from the top of Australia to the bottom? How quickly did people reshape their environments through occupation and the use of technologies like fire?

Models

We are combining the diverse results from our other research themes, using statistical and computational methods to quantify uncertainty and model complex interactions.