Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Box Gully – Aboriginal Occupation South of the Murray River Before the LGM

At Box Gully on the northwest tip of the Lake Tyrrell lunette archaeological investigations have uncovered the first documentation of the extensive region between the Murray River and the Tasmanian highlands dating to before 30,000 calBP. Richards et al. carried out 5 new radiocarbon determinations on charcoal associated with cultural material in the palaeosols ranged from about 32,000 cal BP near the bottom to about 26,600 cal BP near the top, and they are supported by both conventional radiocarbon and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dates that were independently obtained during geomorphic investigations of Box Gully. Within the palaeosols were hearth features, stone artefacts and the remains of bettong, hare-wallabies, shingle-backed lizards, emu and freshwater mussel. Review of the archaeological record of the Late Pleistocene from the western Murray Basin allows the material recovered from Box Gully to be placed in a human occupation context of adaptation to severe climatic stress in the lead up to the LGM. After about 27,000 calBP climatic conditions deteriorated still further and localities that included Willandra Lakes, Lake Tandou and the Lower Darling were frequented much less heavily than they had been up to that time, or as occurred at Lake Tyrrell, they were abandoned. Sustained occupation of the Murray River valley occurred at the same time, as did initial occupation of the southern Victorian rock shelters.

The first documentation of pre-30,000 cal. BP Aboriginal occupation of the extensive area between the Murray River and the Tasmanian highlands was uncovered by recent archaeological investigation at Box Gully, which is located on the northwestern tip of the lunette of Lake Tyrell. The remains were uncovered of repeated small scale camping episodes in palaeosols that capped a buried pelletal clay lunette. There were 5 new radiocarbon dates determined on charcoal that was associated with cultural material in the palaeosols that ranged from about 32,000 cal. BP near the bottom to about 26,000 cal. BP near the top, that are supported by conventional radiocarbon and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) that were obtained independently during geomorphic investigations of Box Gully. There were hearth features, stone artefacts and the remains of bettong, hare wallaby, shingle backed lizards, emu and freshwater mussels that were recovered from the palaeosol. Review of the Late Pleistocene archaeological record of the western Murray Basin allowed the Box Gully finds to be placed in a human occupation context of adaptation to the severe climate stress that was present leading up to the Last glacial Maximum (LGM). Lacustrine localities such as the Willandra Lakes, Lake Tandou and the Lower Darling were frequented much less heavily frequently than they had previously been, or were abandoned as had been Lake Tyrrell. The Murray Valley continued to be occupied at the same time, as did the initial occupation of rock shelters in the southern Victoria highlands.

The archaeological record of pre-LGM Australian Aboriginals has been of intense interest for a long time because of its association with the first occupation by the Aboriginal people of, and the initial adaptation to, the continent. Coupled with advances in dating and controversy over the age claims of certain sites, recent discoveries highlight the relatively small size and patchy distribution of the record that is known for this period (e.g. Roberts et al., 1990,1994; Gillespie, 2002; Thorne et al., 1999; Smith et al., 2001; Turney et al., 2001; Bowler et al., 2003). In southeastern Australia, occupation by Aboriginal people of the Murray River, especially from the Willandra Lakes and the lower Murray River areas, has been well documented (e.g. Hope et al., 1983; Balme & Hope, 1990; Johnston et al., 1998; Bowler et al., 2003). The prehistory of the large area to the south of the Murray River and north of Tasmania is, however, virtually unknown during this period. It was proposed (Ross, 1981, 1982, 1984) that most of the Victorian Mallee, with the exception of areas near the Murray River, was occupied after about 3,500 BP, and this model persisted in the literature (e.g. Flood, 1989:219; Lourandos, 1997: 227-229; Murray, 1998; Mulvaney & Kamminga, 1999: 310).

In late 2001 investigations at Box Gully (AAVA 7427-101), located in a clay lunette at the northern end of Lake Tyrell, Victoria, were carried out as part of a field school that was designed to provide archaeological and cultural heritage management training to local Aboriginal people (Richards, 2004; Richards & Webber, 2004). The presence of Aboriginal occupation deposits in the sediments about 23,400 years radiocarbon (Macumber, 1991) had been suggested by previous geomorphological work, an impression that was supported by archaeological field inspections in 1977 and 1991 (Witter,  Luebbers & Ellender); though this possible site had never been investigated by archaeological excavation. The Box Gully investigation was designed to answer the major research question of whether the Aboriginal people had occupied the Victorian Mallee prior to the LGM. The goal was to evaluate whether evidence of Aboriginal occupation could be retrieved from undisturbed pre-LGM subsurface contexts, and if so, to characterise the nature of the evidence and its chronology, and discuss its significance in the regional archaeological context.


The mallee tree, which is a low, multistemmed eucalypt native to inland semi-arid sandplains of the western Murray Basin in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia (Bowler & Magee, 1978:5), gave its name to the Mallee region. The Mallee refers to a semiarid plain of parallel sand ridges, parabolic sand dunes, sand sheets and saline lakes that are bounded by clay lunettes that cover an area of several million hectares to the south of the Murray River (Hills, 1975: 287-294). A few rivers that originate to the south of the area and terminate within the area (Hills, 1975: 287) are sources of freshwater that consist mainly of scattered springs and soaks.

Lake Tyrell is a strongly saline lake that is fed by groundwater discharge, though Tyrell Creek, a distributary channel for floodwaters from the Avoca River, contributes occasionally freshwater, together with direct rainfall and minor local runoff (Bowler & Teller, 1986: 44; Luly, 1993: 588-589). The lakebed that is figure 8 shaped, is 23 km long (north-south), 11 km wide in the southern basin, 8 km wide in the northern basin, and at present rarely exceeds 1 m depth (Bowler & Teller 1986: 44).

The geomorphology of the site area during the Pleistocene was studied by Macumber in the late 1970s (Macumber, 1991). Box Gully is essentially a series of water erosion channels that cut through the northwestern tip of the Lake Tyrell lunette and into the ancient beach deposits. Lunettes, crescent shaped dunes rich in clay, formed on the eastern side of saline lakes during the Late Pleistocene in southeastern Australia (Bowler, 1973: 315-318, 325-327). There are 2 clay lunette formations that were defined (Macumber, 1991: 54-58):

1)    The lower or ‘red’ lunette, that dated to about 40,000-24,000 BP by radiocarbon (about 44,000-28,900 radiocarbon years cal. BP);

2)    The upper or ‘grey’ lunette that overlay the lower lunette.

A well-developed palaeosol capped the lower lunette, which indicated a period of dune stability that was associated with higher water levels in Lake Tyrrell. A phase of lower lake level followed this high lake level phase, coinciding with the formation of the upper lunette, which has not been directly dated, but post-dated about 24,000 radiocarbon years BP (about 28,900 cal. BP) (Macumber, 1991: 58).

Both lunettes, the upper and the lower, were divided into A, B and C horizons (Macumber, 1991: 55-58). Horizon A, the palaeosol that capped the lower lunette, displayed extensive evidence of burning – many charcoal lenses and patches of discoloured sediments. In the north of Box Gully in 1 of these burnt areas he observed ‘…small chert artefacts, pieces of emu shall and burnt clay…’  (Macumber, 1991:56). A calibrated age of about 28,200 radiocarbon years BP was provided by a radiocarbon determination of associated charcoal. There are 2 other radiocarbon determinations that were obtained on charcoal from horizon A of the lower lunette, one of which came from the southern end of Box Gully and the other from southeastern Lake Tyrrell. An age range of about 26,400-32,000 cal. BP for horizon A was provided by the 3 determinations, which indicated that a stable land surface was formed by the top of the lower lunette for a considerable period.

There are also 2 OSL determinations, which were not published, on the sediments from Box Gully that were available from recent geomorphological investigations (Stone pers. Comm. 2002). An OSL date of about 27,300 BP for the basal part of the upper lunette is in close agreement with Macumber’s model of lunette formation. A determination of about 76,000 BP OSL that was obtained for the onset of the lower lunette is, however, markedly older than the previous date of about 44,000 cal. BP for this event, which suggests a much longer span for formation of the lower lunette than was modelled by Macumber (1991: 54).

Stratigraphy and features

Each stratigraphic layer was characterised in terms of its texture, consolidation and colour. Testing found that alkaline conditions were evident, the pH values ranging from 8.5 to 10. Individual stratigraphic sequences from squares 1 and 2 were combined into a composite sequence that was comprised of 5 strata. Strata 1-3 were sterile compact clays which according to Richards et al. clearly correlate with Macumber’s upper lunette, while Strata 4-5 correspond to his lower lunette (Macumber, 1991). In the excavated squares 1 and 2 cultural material is unambiguously associated with the Stratum 4 palaeosol in the excavated Squares 1 and 2. A small amount was also found at the interface of Strata 3 and 4, and in Stratum 5 in Square 2. The distribution of charcoal, which may be of cultural or natural origin, is characterised by its near absence in Strata 1-3, its concentration in Stratum 4, and especially in association with cultural materials, and its rarity in Stratum 5.

A natural crack, which was largely filled in, in the clay sediment in Square 1 extended from lower Stratum 3 down through the top of Stratum 5. The crack fill, which was easily distinguished from the surrounding sediment was excavated and sieved separately. There was no cultural material within this sediment, and it was interpreted as being material washed into a natural crack during the formation of Stratum 3. A second very minor filled-in crack was present in the middle of Stratum 4. Though these 2 cracks were detectable during excavation, other smaller cracks were only visible in the sections, most being no more than very thin vertical lines between prismatic clay structures. According to Richards et al. if cracking at this site were a problem due to the movement of artefacts, then these items should originally been above their present location, and they should have been scattered at various depths below this concentration. There was no concentration found above Stratum 4, and nearly all stone artefacts, as well as animal bones and charcoal were found in this stratum; the overlying strata were found to be essentially sterile. The cultural material was found within Stratum 4 throughout a range of about 35 cm in depth, in which concentration of the different classes of material, such as stone, bone, egg shell, charcoal, peaked at slightly different depths. A single flake found in Stratum 5 in Square 2 was the only candidate for an artefact moving down section and its most likely source would have been Stratum 4; it was, however, made from a different raw material than artefacts that were recovered from Stratum 4 and was found associated with charcoal that was dated to an appropriate age that was consistent with its depth. There are 3 features that were found at various vertical and horizontal positions throughout Stratum 4 in Square 1. They were easily distinguishable from the surrounding sediments, including the fill in the cracks, consisting of charcoal concentrations overlying burnt sediment (Richards et al., 2004: Figs. 36 39). They are unambiguously of cultural origin, having been used as fireplaces and ovens. There were 2 of these features that extended beyond the boundaries of Square 1, so their maximum dimensions are not known. All 3 are of circular plan, as far as can be determined, with the largest over 88 cm in diameter and the smallest less than 40 cm long. Their thickness ranges from 16 to 30 cm. Also, there are 2 other possible features  in Square 1, stratum 4; Loci 1 and 2 are less discrete concentrations of burnt sediments and charcoal and less definitely cultural in origin. The source of most of the charcoal found in Square 1 are the 3 features and 2 possible features, with the total amount of charcoal in Stratum 4 being 20 times greater than was found in Square 2, Stratum 4.


The Box Gully excavations have been dated by 6 radiocarbon determinations. Charcoal that was used to date the site was analysed using the conventional as well as Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) techniques. A single sample was the dated by the liquid Scintillation Spectrometry technique, and the remaining 5 samples were converted to graphite, after which it was measured by the AMS technique (Hogg, 2002).

Wood charcoal samples were used for all determinations and have been converted to calendar years with the aid of the CalPal 2005 SFPC curve (Weninger et al., 2005), which incorporates the latest datasets for the period about 15,000-55,000 BP (e.g. Hughen et al., 2000, 2004; Burns et al., 2003, a,b; Bard et al., 2004; Shackleton et al., 2004; Fairbanks et al., 2005). The calibrations that resulted agree within 70-700 years with those of the curve employed by Bowler (1998) for the many Willandra Lakes determinations, thereby facilitation comparisons of human and environmental events and processes with Lake Tyrell. Previous uncalibrated 14C determinations from the region have been calibrated on the 2005 SFCP curve, for similar reasons.

Within each square the determinations are in chronological order and agree well with previous radiocarbon dates on charcoal from the lower lunette and recent OSL dates from the upper and lower lunettes as discussed earlier. Dates which bracket the Stratum 4 palaeosol (lower lunette A of Macumber) range from about 32,000 cal. BP at the base to about 26,600 cal. BP at the top, which indicates that the lunette was stable for approximately 5,400 years. Throughout this span occupation by humans continued repeatedly. It is suggested by a date of 44,000 cal. BP from Stratum 5 (lower lunette B of Macumber) that was associated with s single flake of chert that there was a the possibility of sporadic minor occupation also occurring during the earlier dry lake-dune building phase.

Surface collection

Fragments of animal bone as well as teeth, fragments of emu egg shell, flaked stone artefacts, red ochre and fractured stone were exposed on eroded surfaces and section edges around Square 2. Some of these items were still in situ and some had recently been exposed by erosion of the lower lunette deposit. All the cultural material that was observed on the surface near Square 2 was below the upper lunette/lower lunette interface – there was no material on or in Stratum 3; given this surface distribution and the corresponding absence of cultural material above the upper/lower lunette interface in the excavations, the surface material that was collected was attributed with caution to the period of human occupation associated with the lower lunette palaeosol deposits.

Flaked stone

Richards et al. subjected the stone artefacts that were collected from excavated (n=7 and surface (n=7) Pleistocene contexts at Box Gully to a detailed technological analysis (Richards et al., 2004); only the salient features were presented in this paper. A limited range of fracture types is displayed by the Box Gully assemblages, as was expected in such a small sample. It is indicated by the technological attributes of the artefacts that they were not the results of procurement or primary flake activities. Only 1 of the artefacts had a small amount of cortex. Most items were complete or nearly complete flakes. There were 4 platforms and 5 scars of flake removal on the only core that had been recovered and the core is extremely worked down, with a maximum length of 14.0 mm. A very small split tool, with a maximum length of 6.1 mm, was made from quartz and may be the result of retouching or resharpening the edge of a larger tool.

Flake platforms are simply prepared and have a single scar (n=3) or display crushing. Removal of the overhang along the proximal dorsal edge of flakes is also an indication of low intensity preparation of a platform (n=3), and there are incidences of more intensive working. All other flakes have been repeatedly struck in the direction of the platform, having less than 3 dorsal scars. Early stage reduction and limited core rotation is generally indicated.

The dominant raw material that was used was silcrete, followed by quartz. The only small item that was composed of chert is a small, complete flake from Stratum 5 in Square 2. There are no known sources or quarry sites of silcrete in the vicinity of Lake Tyrell (Ross, 1982: 100; Grist, 1995; Kamminga & Grist, 2000), though silcrete is available widely throughout the Mallee in Victoria (Webber & Nicholls, 2004). There are also no known sources of chert or quartz nearby (Bell et al., 1981; Grist, 1995:7).

According to Richards et al. 13.6 mm is the mean maximum length of all artefacts from Squares that have been excavated, whatever the raw material used. This is comparable to the mean maximum of artefacts that have been collected from the surface around Square 2, if the angular fragment is excluded. The 3 flakes, 2 of silcrete and 1 of chert, have a mean maximum dimension of 12.5 mm (S.D. 5.0).

A low intensity of early stage reduction is generally indicated by the technological patterns that were observed in the assemblages; it appears that decortified blocks or stone or flake blanks were being transported to this locality for use, as well as some in situ flaking was also undertaken. A scale and organisation of residential mobility that is consistent with short-term camping events is reflected by this pattern of production and use.

Faunal remains

Richards et al. suggest that it is not surprising that the faunal assemblage are modest, little material being preserved, considering that the faunal assemblage recovered from the Box Gully site date to 30,000 BP. There are not many diagnostic elements present, as only the more robust bones have survived as a result of superior cross-sectional strength (Walshe, 1998). The fauna have been placed within the known suite of animals that were present in the Mallee region of Victoria during the Quaternary, based on the taxonomic identifications from the remains. Notable findings of the detailed faunal analysis (Richards et al., 2004) are presented below.

Generally, the remains did not allow diagnostic capability beyond the genus level, and in many cases not beyond the family level. Among the animals that were recognised were mammals that had a live weight of 1-3 kg (probably bettongs (Bettongia sp.) and (bandicoots); medium sized mammals of less than 5 kg; Shingle Back or sleepy lizards (Trachydosus sp.); Emu (Dromaius sp.); freshwater mussels; other small reptiles and birds (Richards et al., 2004: figs. 46-48). The best identification was found for Bettongia sp. – a lower tooth row that was incomplete with extremely worn molars from either the Burrowing Bettong (Bettongia lesueur), Brush-tailed bettong (Bettongia penicillata) or the Tasmanian bettong (Bettongia gaimardi).  The presence of the hare-wallaby, which was also once common in this region, is indicated by 2 molar fragments, which most likely represent the Eastern Hare Wallaby (Lagorchestes leporides).

The colour of burnt bone fragment recovered from this site is black, brown or blue-white (Richards et al., 2004: Fig. 49), which indicates exposure to a range of temperatures from low to very high (Shipman et al., 1984; Walshe, 1994, 1998). Low temperature short term fire is suggest by black, while a high temperature, long term fire, or repetitive burning on the same spot is suggested by blue-white (calcination). According to Richards et al. it is clearly indicated by the predominance of burnt bone the biased survival of burnt bone over unburnt bone in the assemblages.

On the transverse ends of a few broken small mammal limb bones (Richards et al., 2004: Fig. 50) there are notches indicating bite marks. These bites are consistent with Dasyurus maculatus (tiger quoll or spotted tail quoll) rather than other carnivores that were assumed to have been active in this region 25,000-35,000 years ago (e.g. Sarcophilus sp., Thylacinus sp.). Therefore some of the bone represents scavenger activity and deposition of scat. The presence of calcined bone can, however, be assigned to the presence of humans and suggests that a likely scenario is that Aboriginal people left food scraps that then attracted scavengers during or between occupation events (Walshe, 2000).

The assemblages consist of a few small bone fragments, which prevent identification of breakage patterns that are statistically valid. There are no types that can be assigned to human agency with any certainty, but there are some breaks that are characteristic of the smaller carnivores when they were eating prey (Walshe, 1994). Burning the bones at high temperatures is suggested by Richards et al. to have caused the bones to become highly fragmented, which would mask or obliterate other evidence of human agency in the formation of the assemblages.

The average size of prey animals that were identified is about 1-2 kg, which falls into the realm of locally collected, staples in their diet. This size range allows the prey animals to be consumed completely without the need for processing. All of the animals that were identified could be caught by hand from the ground or by digging out, without the need of spearing. In sites from the Pleistocene in this region it is not uncommon for smaller mammals and reptiles to form a staple diet, as witnessed at Lake Mungo (Walshe, 1998). It was suggested by Richards et al. that the absence of larger prey, such as kangaroos, wallabies and wombats, etc., is probably more a reflection the small amount of excavation that has been undertaken so far, and not a definite behavioural pattern that suggests a preference for smaller game. The larger prey would likely have been prepared differently to smaller, and their remains disposed of in other parts of the occupation area.

A possible seasonal preference is suggested by the presence of emu eggshell and mussel shell. Emus generally lay their eggs in winter, though they are also known to lay them at any time between April and October, depending on the local, variable conditions. It is indicated by the growth patterns of freshwater mussels from the Willandra Lakes region that have been analysed that they undergo seasonal growth spurts. The time for collecting mussels varies and is dependent on local conditions rather than strict calendar months, though they reach their optimum in spring. The best time for the collection of shingle back lizards has been suggested to be just prior to hibernation, when fat has been stored to tide them over winter (Walshe, 1998).

According to Richards et al. the best indicator in these assemblages is the presence of bone that has been highly burnt. Scavenging of discarded food debris from Aboriginal people and the deposition by tiger quolls of scat bone at the site contributed the formation of the assemblages. The assemblages are a reflection of a preponderance of dietary staple items that are available locally, such as small mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates, with a notable absence of medium or large mammals. An occupation from late autumn through winter is suggested by emu eggshell and shingle back lizard scutes, though this suggestion is far from conclusive.

Regional comparisons

The best known pre-LGM archaeological record in southeastern Australia is found at the Willandra Lakes that are located about 140 km to the north of Box Gully. Reconstruction of the palaeoenvironmental record of the lakes is largely the work of Jim Bowler, and it provides a context for dating and interpreting the associated archaeological data (Bowler, 1998; Bowler et al., 2003). The first relevant formation at this locality is the Lower Mungo Unit (LMU), which is divided into a LMU-Sands subunit and a LMU-Soil subunit. The LMU-Sands were deposited during an extended period of sand dune building during a phase of high freshwater, that contained sparse evidence of human activity in the period about 50,000-45,000 cal. BP (Bowler et al., 2003:839). At Box Gully, the single chert flake and associated charcoal flecks that were found in the body of the lower lunette roughly corresponds in age to these ephemeral traces of human occupation at Willandra, though the environmental setting differs in that they correspond to a Pelletal Clay Dune (PCD) building phase at Tyrrell, when it appears the saline lake must have been dry or nearly dry.

At Willandra, the Arumpo Unit dates to about 36,000-22,000 cal. BP during a period when the lake levels were oscillating and the consequent alternation of PCD phases of PCD building and soil formation. A few fish/shell middens characterise the cultural record associated with the Arumpo Unit, and they have the most notable concentration of hearth and ovens in the Willandra sequence, often in association with highly burnt and small animal remains that and fragmented (Bowler, 1998; Walshe, 1998). Box Gully deposits that date from 32,000 to 26,600 cal. BP are similarly characterised by hearth and oven features associated with small animal remains that accumulated on a stable land surface (top of Lower Lunette). Richards et al. suggest it is noteworthy that at Willandra most of the fireplaces at Willandra date to the period 35,000-27,000 cal. BP which corresponds to a major drop in sea level (Gillespie, 1998:180). It was suggested (Gillespie, 1998:180) that the pattern of decreased fish/shell middens and increased fireplaces/ovens: “… can perhaps be interpreted as a human response to dwindling lacustrine resources, with more reliance placed on terrestrial fauna for nutrition during a time of fluctuating but generally lower lake levels.” The stable land surface at Box Gully that would argue for water in Lake Tyrell during this period is the major difference between Box Gully and Willandra. Lake Tyrell was never a source of food resources as a result of its salinity, which differs from the case in most of the Willandra Lakes, though throughout the Pleistocene fresh water may have been available at the nearby soaks and other water holes adjacent to the northeastern end of the lake.

During the deteriorating environmental conditions evidence of human occupation is scarce at Willandra about 26,000-22,000 cal. BP leading up to the LGM at about 21,500-20,000 cal. BP (Bowler, 1998:139,148; Gillespie, 1998:171, Fig. 4). Along the Lower Darling River, including Lake Tandou (Gillespie, 1998: Fig. 5; Bowler, 1998:149; Balme & Hope, 1990: Table 1), it is similarly scarce , and there is no evidence of human habitation at Lake Tyrell after about 26,600 cal. BP until well into the Holocene (Nichols 2001; Richards & Webber, 2004).

At 110-140 km to the northwest of Lake Tyrell there are 3 freshwater shell midden sites there is evidence of human occupation that has been dated to just prior to the LGM. The 3 midden sites are all near the Murray River, which would have carried an increased freshwater load in the Late Pleistocene, and it would have been able to support a resident Aboriginal population. The Karadoc Swamp lunette was occupied during the Late Pleistocene, once at about 25,000 cal. BP and again at about 22,800 (Luebbers, 1995). There were also 2 periods of occupation at Merbein Common, the first at about 22,600 cal. BP and the second at about 20,500 cal. BP (Coutts, 1977; Williams, 1998). Finally the middens at Monak, New South Wales, there are 2 dates that average about 25,300 cal. BP (Edmonds, 1997).

Thee freshwater shell middens that are highly visible, and they are notably rare elsewhere in this region during the period from about 26,000 to about 20,000 cal. BP and indicate continuing human occupation throughout the LGM in the region. At these sites, the timing of the occupation suggests a shift of human population from the lakes that are largely dry to the Murray River, and possibly other rivers (cf. Bowler, 1998:149), or alternatively less seasonal usage of the lakes by populations that were to a large extent resident along the Rivers. Evidence of human occupation increases again at Tandou after about 22,000 cal. BP at Willandra and after about 20,000 cal. BP (Bowler, 1998:149; Gillespie, 1998: Fig. 5) and continues to be present along the Murray River Valley for the remainder of the Pleistocene and throughout the Holocene.

The occupation at Box Gully evidence can be seen, in this regional context, as part of a larger pattern where human populations occupy much of the region, some parts of which were possibly occupied on seasonally, from at least 32,000 to 26,000 cal. BP, in spite of the environmental, which was notably cooler and drier that it is at the present. Some of this are areas was visited less frequently between about 26,000 cal. BP and 20,000 cal. BP (e.g. Willandra, Lower Darling) or abandoned (e.g. Lake Tyrell), probably as a result of extremely harsh environmental conditions as has been reconstructed by Bowler (1998:149) for the Willandra Lakes area during the LGM.

Further away are excavated deposits with evidence of human occupation as early as about 27,700 cal. BP at Drual Rockshelter (Bird et al., 1998, about 150 km to the north of Box Gully in the mountains of Gariwerd. The initial evidence of occupation at New Guinea II Cave, East Gippsland, about 400 km to the southeast of Box Gully, dates to as early as about 26,400 cal. BP (Ossa et al., 1995). It is suggested by Richards et al. that these upland cave and rockshelter sites were first occupied when the climate deteriorated, and as arid areas appear to sustain smaller populations. It is possible that occupation of these caves may have continued through the LGM.


It has been demonstrated by the Box Gully excavations that Aboriginal occupation occurred there before the LGM , over a period from about 32,000-26,600 calBP. As well as extending the known period of Aboriginal occupation of the southern portion of the Mallee by more than 20,000 years, it is the first documented evidence of Aboriginal occupation south of the Murray River and north of Tasmania earlier than 30,000 BP. Evidence was also found of possible earlier occupation before 40,000 BP.

At Box Gully the main occupation occurred during a period of climatic instability leading up to the extreme drying and temperature depression of the LGM (Bowler, 1998; Gillespie, 1998).

Significant pelletal clay dune formation did not occur at Lake Tyrrell, which was less salty than at present, at it contained at least season water, and at the top of the lunette a stable, vegetated land surface formed (Macumber, 1991: 58,286; Bowler & Teller, 1986: 58). Richards et al. suggest fresh water may have been present at this time at nearby Soaks, with the result that although there was a harsh climate, there would have been a variety of plant and animal resources available.

According to Richards et al. at Box Gully the evidence from Stratum 4 needs to be considered to be a composite record of an unknown number of independent occupation events. Open fire places and ovens for heating and cooking purposes were used by the people camping at this site, which they possibly did in the late autumn-winter. The foods consumed at the site were such things as bettongs, hare-wallabies, shingle-backed lizard, emu eggs and freshwater mussels, which all would be expected to be available in the vicinity of the site. Tiger Quoll and other predators were attracted to the site to scavenge the food remains. Evidence of stone working activities mostly indicate low intensity, early stage reduction of material that had been brought to the site from elsewhere in a partially processed form. Evidence at this site of human occupation is consistent with small-scale, short-term, seasonal visits to Box Gully that repeatedly occurred over thousands of years.

Sources & Further reading 

  1. Richards, T., C. Pavlides, K. Walshe, H. Webber and R. Johnston (2007). "Box Gully: new evidence for Aboriginal occupation of Australia south of the Murray River prior to the last glacial maximum." Archaeology in Oceania 42(1): 1-11.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 21/12/2015 
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