Review of ‘Kakadu: Natural and cultural heritage and management’ edited by Tony Press, David Lea, Ann Webb and Alistair Graham.

07th January 2014

‘Kakadu: Natural and cultural heritage and management’ edited by Tony Press, David Lea, Ann Webb and Alistair Graham. 1995, Darwin: Australian Nature Conservation Agency and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 336 pp. ISBN 0-7315-2171-4 (pbk).

Review by Sean Ulm

Kakadu: Natural and Cultural Heritage and Management is yet another contribution to the vast corpus of literature on Kakadu National Park and surrounds. Kakadu is an edited collection of papers contributed by specialist re- searchers and managers who have had a long and intimate association with the region. This volume provides a synthesis of the state of knowledge on various topics, including information previously only available in unpublished Park management plans and consultancy reports.

Seven major topics are covered: ‘Aboriginal Heritage’ (Brockwell, Levitus, Russell-Smith and Forrest), ‘Social History Since Colonisation’ (Levitus), ‘The Physical Environment’ (Russell-Smith, Needham and Brock), ‘Flora’ (Russell-Smith), ‘Fauna’ (Press, Brock and Anderson). ‘Fire Management’ (Russell-Smith) and ‘Management Considerations’ (Wellings).

The book begins with an overview of ‘Aboriginal Heritage’ issues, reflecting the centrality of Aboriginal ownership and aspirations in the management of Kakadu. Brockwell et al.’s paper attempts to synthesise the immense body of archaeological and ethnographic data from the region, out- lining site types, dating techniques, climatic and landscape change, colonisation arguments, technology, art (particularly the divergent chronologies of Chaloupka [1993] and Lewis [1988]), sacred sites, the seasonal cycle and traditional ecological knowledge (rockshelter) deposits and open sites which may be confusing for the general reader. This division is especially confusing later on when it is stated that ‘between 4000 and 1500 years ago … there is archaeological evidence of habitation at open sites on the floodplains which contain middens and extensive surface scatters of stone artefacts’ (pp.20-1). What is the difference between an occupation deposit and a deposit formed as a result of habitation?

The results of luminescence dating of Malakunanja II, Malangangerr and Nauwalabila I to between 50 and 60 ka BP are outlined, and it is stated that ‘these are the oldest dates so far proposed for Aboriginal occupation in Australia’ (p.19). This statement may be misleading for the general reader given the sustained debate concerning earlier occupation (ca. 100-140 ka BP) based on pollen and ocean core evidence (e.g. Kershaw et al. 1993; Singh et al. 1981; White 1994; Wright 1986). 
In Chapter 3, Levitus charts the course of European invasion and social dislocation of Aboriginal people in the region, elegantly documenting modifications in traditional lifeways and the active role of Aboriginal people in negotiating their part in this process. Levitus’s ‘Social History’ is separated into two major sections: ‘Non-Aboriginal Eco- nomic Activity’, including the buffalo industry, mining, missionary activities and the cattle industry; and ‘Effects on Aboriginal Life and Society’, outlining changes in demography and subsistence economy.

Chapter 4 covers ‘The Physical Environment’, including
climate, hydrology, geology (landforms and soils) and mineral resources. Russell-Smith et al. outline in some detail the
 palaeoecological development of the region, which is repeated
in part in several other contributions. This chapter may have been more usefully placed at the beginning of the book, as it provides a succinct overview of the geomorphological development of the region, and because it provides context for the other papers, particularly the contribution on ‘Aboriginal Heritage’, which draws heavily upon this material.

In Chapter 5. Russell-Smith provides an excellent overview of vegetation classification schemes employed in Kakadu, and outlines vegetation types and species composition. This discussion is illustrated by clear colour vegetation maps, diagrams and colour photographs. The faunal resources of the Park are reviewed in the succeeding chapter, supported by an extensive bibliography and checklists of mammals, birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, freshwater fish and insects occurring within the Park.

Chapter 7 on ‘Fire Management’ outlines the strategies employed in the Park and how these are modelled on ‘traditional Aboriginal burning regimes’ (p.219). Russell- Smith also reviews natural, traditional, historical and con- temporary burning practices and their role in maintaining biodiversity.

The final chapter briefly covers some of the various considerations in managing the resources of the Park, including ownership, consultation, administration, principles and objectives, visitor use and cultural resources (including rock art and archaeological sites). Much of the information presented in this chapter is included in previous contributions.

The book is repetitious and disjointed in places, probably reflecting its genesis as a series of separate reports compiled over a long period. Introductions and conclusions to individual chapters could have been employed to integrate the text in a more cohesive manner.

The original conception of the book as a ‘Kakadu Resource Book’ is evident in the final product. While reading the volume, one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer volume of research that has been undertaken in the region. The work contains a great deal of data which will make this a useful reference for all those with an interest in the Top End. Access to these data is effected by a subject index and separate comprehensive taxonomic index. The book is lavishly illustrated for a work of this type (and price), with 79 photographs (most in colour) in addition to clear and informative figures.

The interdisciplinary approach to the management of the natural and cultural resources of Kakadu National Park, as evidenced in this book, ensures that it will continue to serve as a model for the management of other important natural and cultural areas. Kakadu is well suited to its stated purpose of providing information to the general reader rather than the specialist. For the specialist reader the contributions are best seen as a recent overview of current knowledge and introduction to the literature on each topic. Kakadu is an important contribution, not only to the existing literature on the Park, but also to literature on management processes generally.


Chaloupka, G. 1993 Journey in Time: The World’s Longest Continuing Art Tradition: The 50,000 Year Story of the Australian Aboriginal Rock Art of Arnhem Land. Chatswood, NSW: Reed.

Kershaw, P.. McKenzie, G.M. and McMinn. A. 1993 A Quaternary vegetation history of northeastern Queensland from pollen analysis of OPD site 820. In J.A. McKenzie, P.J. Davies and A. Palmer-Julson (eds) Proceedings of the Ocean Drilling Program, Scientific Results 133. Pp. 107-14. Houston: Texas A. & M. University in cooperation with the National Science Foundation and Joint Oceanographic Institutions Inc.

Lewis, D. 1988 The Rock Paintings of Arnhem Land, Australia: Social, Ecological and Material Culture Change in the Post-Glacial Period. BAR International Series. Oxford British Archaeological Press.

Singh, G., Opdyke, N.D. and Bowler, J.M. 1981 Late Cainozoic stratigraphy, palaeomagnetic chronology and vegetational history from Lake George, NSW. Journal of the Geological Society of Australia 28(4):435-52.

White, J.P. 1994 Site 820 and the evidence for early occupation in Australia. Quaternary Australasia 12(2):21-3.

Wright, R. 1986 How old is Zone F at Lake George? Archaeology in Oceania 21:138-9.

Ulm, S.
Review of ‘Kakadu: Natural and cultural heritage and management’ edited by Tony Press, David Lea, Ann Webb and Alistair Graham.
December 1997
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