Australian Archaeologists at the Cutting-edge

Liz Vaughan, Archaeology Honours student at the University of Western Australia


(Photo: Karleah Bonk)

  • New work at Riwi reveals 50,000 year old dates;[1]
  • Earliest figurative rock art in World from Sulawesi presented at AAA; [2]
  • ‘The Hobbit’ Homo Floresiensis did not have down syndrome, is a separate species;[3]
  • New hominin remains recovered from 2.0-1.4 Million year old ‘Main Quarry’ in South Africa- possibly worlds oldest bone tools;[4]

How have people lived in our country for the last 55 thousand years? How did they travel through the landscape, what did they eat, what tools did they make and use… How did they change the landscape and how did the landscape change them? These are all questions that have been explored and presented over the last 3 days at the annual Australian Archaeological Association’s annual conference, jointly organised with the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology. This conference brought archaeologists from all over Australia and indeed internationally to Cairns, in far-north tropical Queensland.

High-quality and cutting-edge scientific and social research was presented from all corners of Australia, telling the story of the Ancestors of this land. Scientists have been doing microscopic analysis of charcoal to find out what wood fuel people were sourcing at the site of Madjedbebe in the NT[5], and using X-Ray guns to look at the chemical signatures of the rock art pigment painted on cave walls in the Kimberley, to find where the artists collected their paint.[6] Archaeologists in Tasmania have been investigating the possibilities of people using fire to change the landscape over thousands of years by examining ancient pollen they obtained from drilling cores through the ground in the Surrey Hills region.[7]

Social issues were also a hot topic at the conference. Many overseas institutions house the skulls and bones of Aboriginal Australians— student researcher, Tahlia Stewart explained her work on ‘re-humanising’ these people who are held in Museums and private collections around the world, using museum and genealogical records to investigate where they came from and who they were.[8] This type of research led to the recovery of the skull of the celebrated Western Australian warrior Yagan— who was returned to the Noongar community in 2010.

Dr Duncan Wright and his mentors and co-researchers from Torres Strait shared the archaeological and present day stories of the Wagedoegam Kod (men’s meeting place) on the island of Mabuyag. The audience was privileged to hear three senior Elders from the Mabuyag sing the song of the sitetheir deep voices harmonising and swelling around the captivated crowd in the small conference room.

As would be expected at a gathering of over 500 archaeologists, there was a lot of talk of the past, but there was also much discussion on the present and future. Conference delegates gathered to discuss the current protection of Aboriginal archaeological and sacred sites in Australia, concerned that the protection and management of these important places is decreasing. For example, recent research in Western Australia indicates that the number of Aboriginal heritage places the WA government’s Aboriginal heritage advisory body assessed as being Aboriginal sites under law has decreased 74% from 2011, and recent changes mean mythological sites are no longer protected.[9] Delegates engaged in numerous forums on Indigenous cultural heritage, challenges and issues in rock art, and also the future of Historical Archaeology, where lively and passionate discussions took place by contributors interested in the continued health of these important and unique Australian places.

Concern for the country’s world-class rock art in places such as the Kimberley, Pilbara and north Queensland was a key discussion point, as these economic and cultural zones experience competing interests for land use, such as mining and tourism. Another key discussion topic was the National History Curriculum, this conference brought archaeologists and educators together to collaborate and plan for the future.[10]

Archaeological research in Australia is continuing to prove to be an exciting field, with another year of research shedding more light on the rich human past of this vast continent. The next Australian Archaeological Association conference will be hosted by the University of Western Australia at Fremantle in 2015—expect more exciting research to emerge next year!

The 2014 Australian Archaeological Association’s annual conference was held at the Pullman’s conference centre in Cairns, Queensland, from the 1st to the 3rd of December.

Full abstracts of papers presented available here (

[1] Jane Balme, University of Western Australia
[2] Maxime Aubert, Griffith University
[3] Debbie Argue, Australian National University
[4] Alex Blackwood, La Trobe University
[5] Xavier Carah, University of Queensland
[6] Jillian Huntley, University of New England
[7] Emma Watson, University of Queensland
[8] Tahlia Stewart, University of Western Australia
[9] Elizabeth Vaughan, University of Western Australia
[10] Nichols and Zarmati, DATSIMA, James Cook University, and University of Western Sydney

Australian Archaeological Association media contacts:

Liz Vaughan, University of Western Australia. Ph: 0400 993 907


Professor Peter Veth, University of Western Australia. Ph: 08 6488 1807

Mob: 0408 094 607