• Mussel shells collected from the Riverland region of SA. (Flinders University)Source: Flinders University
A chronology of human habitation in the River Murray area within South Australia has lead to a new timeline that dates back at least 29,000 years.
Royce Kurmelovs

15 Jul 2020 - 3:28 PM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2020 - 3:29 PM

The oldest known Aboriginal site along the River Murray within South Australia has been identified in the first comprehensive archaeology survey of the Riverland region.

The site, identified by radiocarbon dating mussel shells taken from a midden overlooking the Pike River floodplain downstream from Renmark, was part of a project that sought to establish a chronology of human habitation in the area by analysing material taken from over 30 sites in the region.

Prior work by other researchers performed in the 1990s dated skeletal remains in the area to around 4000 years ago.

The latest research data pushes that timeline all the way back to the time before the last Ice Age.

Spokesperson for the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation (RMMAC), Fiona Giles, said the work was invaluable in helping “fill the gaps” by providing a deep timeline of human movement and ecological events along the river.

“It paints a picture of us, of how our ancestors lived here and how times have changed, how the levels of the waters all change,” Giles said. “That was life, the river, that was the flood, that was the lifeline. All life came from the river, from water.”

The work was done as part of an ongoing partnership between the RMMAC and researchers from Flinders University working in a team led by Associate Professor Amy Roberts.

“Being on a river and a flood plain, the archaeology and the evidence of how people lived in that landscape is extensive. There’s almost too much to record, I think it would be fair to say,” Roberts said.

“We often throw around these dates like they’re just a number, but how many generations of people is 30,000 years? When you think about it like that, it’s mind-blowing.”

“We often throw around these dates like they’re just a number, but how many generations of people is 30,000 years? When you think about it like that, it’s mind-blowing.”

Craig Westell, a Phd candidate and an archaeologist who is leading the radiocarbon dating program, said the story unfolding from the research is one of a rugged landscape and a hardy people who have survived drastic changes in the landscape.

Back then when the climate was colder and drier, the area around Murray-Darling Basin was arid with the river and its systems under stress.

“In the [distant] past there was evidence of more severe climate conditions,” Westell said. “The area was basically a desert, you had sand dunes moving about and falling into the river, you had a lot of salt accumulating in the floodplain.”

The recent Millennium Drought, which wore on from 1996 to mid-2020, offers an insight into what things might have been like.

“The Millennium drought was a window into what people had to endure in the past and we see how the Aboriginal people alive then lived, how they innovate, how they respond – they’re problem solvers,” he said.

“[Over time] we see connections in the archaeology up and down the river, in terms of the materials that are being shifted into and out of the Riverland.

“Chert, a very valuable stone resource available in the Riverland, finds its way throughout the broader region, out into the Mallee, up the river. Similarly, big sandstone grinding dishes that were traded from downstream up into the Riverland.”

Establishing this chronology is a first step in a larger project that tracks how people lived during this period.

“We’ve been using methods such as ground penetrating radar to look at what sites might look like under the surface, so have they been disturbed or dug out. Other methods show us if people have been using burning in the landscape, so old campfires,” Roberts said.

“The landscape is diverse, so you’ll have scar trees from where canoes were made, old oven sites where people processed food over and over again, to quarries where people dug to get ochre or stone and where they made stone tools.”

“The project is broader than the article we’ve published and we’ve been using different methods, but fieldwork has been interrupted by Covid.”

The importance of recording this information has only been underscored by recent news of mining giant Rio Tinto destroying the Juukan Gorge cave site in the Pilbara.

“That was horrible,” Giles said. “It would be like me going to the West Terrace Cemetery in the middle of Adelaide and blowing that up. That’s the only way I can put it.”

“We need to protect these sites [in the Riverland] as well. All these sites –they all have a story to tell and they all get pieced together into one big picture of what it used to be like.

“How we survived droughts, how we survived floods –it’s all written out there. We need to document it all to get that picture, that jigsaw puzzle picture of how we survived.”

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