Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Australia’s Deserts – The ‘Desert Transformation’ Concept

One possibility that has been widely canvassed is that at the time of colonisation there may have been only modest aridity, in which case the first people to arrive would have encountered a more productive landscape with active rivers and large permanent lakes. ‘Reliable rainfall extended across the heart of the continent. Active rivers drained into permanent lakes … there was a spread of rain-forest flora over the centre of the continent … [and] a diversified and predominantly herbivorous land fauna (Mulvaney, 1961: 63). Following Bowler’s work  on the Willandra Lakes, it was suggested ‘the Mungo Lacustrine Phase would have given major access to the reactivated river and lake systems which ringed the arid heart’ (Jones, 1979: 453) was accepted by many researchers (White & O’Connell, 1982; Hiscock, 1988a; Ross, Donnelly & Wasson, 1992; Thorley, 1998a; Hiscock & Wallis, 2005: 43). I has been argued in the ‘coastal colonisation hypothesis’ (Bowdler, 1977) that in the Murray-Darling Basin early sites represented a ‘transliterated coastal economy’ that was centred on rivers and lakes. This idea was extended to central Australia when it was suggested (Thorley, 1998a) that more regular and abundant resources would have been provided by the  Lake Amadeus and the Finke-Palmer River system at the time the first humans arrived than at the present. These ideas were brought together in the ‘desert transformation’ model (Hiscock & Wallis) in which they argued that prior to 45,000-40,000 years ago exploration and exploitation of these unique interior landscapes was facilitated by the presence of large permanent water bodies, and that the Australian deserts of the present formed where the early settlers had been living rather than the people moving to the already established desert areas (2005, 41-3). In this book Smith endorses the alternative view according to which the first people in Australia found arid landscapes with xeric biota when they moved to the interior of the continent. The vital statistics of the desert into which they moved differed somewhat from the deserts of the present, though still an arid environment. This is a case in which chronology is critical to this question. The series of fluvial and lacustrine events in the interior has recently been unpicked by the use of luminescence and palaeomagnetic dating.

According to Smith these archaeological ideas risk creating an amalgam of landscapes with ages and potential that differ widely, conflating evidence from the last interglacial (MIS5.5, 132,000-115,000 years ago) with conditions in early MIS3 (60,000-45,000 years ago), as a more detailed history has emerged. 

Sources & Further reading

  1. Smith, Mike, 2013, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, Cambridge University Press





Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 10/04/2014
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