Review of ‘The Cainozoic in Australia: A Reappraisal of the Evidence’ edited by M.A.J. Williams, P. De Deckker and A.P. Kershaw and ‘Lessons for Human Survival: Nature’s Record from the Quaternary’ edited by Paul Bishop

21st May 2014

‘The Cainozoic in Australia: A Reappraisal of the Evidence’ edited by M.A.J. Williams, P. De Deckker and A.P. Kershaw, 1991, Geological Society of Australia Special Publication No. 18, 346 pp. ISBN 0-909869-76-6 (pbk)
‘Lessons for Human Survival: Nature’s Record from the Quaternary’ edited by Paul Bishop, 1990, Geological Society of Australia Symposium Proceedings 1. 92 pp. ISBN 0-909869-73-1 (pbk)

Review by Scott Smithers

The Cainozoic in Australia: A Reappraisal of the Evidence provides a critical overview of the evolution of the Australian environment during the last 65 million years, an era of vital importance in the earth’s history, and for which the geological record in Australia, compared to those of North America and Europe, is remarkably intact. In contrast, Lessons for Human Survival: Natures Record from the Quaternary examines only the last 1.6 million years, but with a global perspective. The former publication was inspired by the 1987 Cainozoic conference held in Warrnambool, Victoria, and contains expanded and revised versions of many papers presented at this conference, together with several additional contributions. The second volume results from a symposium held as part of the International Geographical Union Congress, held in Sydney 1988. It consists of seven papers delivered at this conference, albeit in some instances with different emphasis, as well as two solicited papers and a brief introduction by the editor.

The Cainozoic in Australia: A Reappraisal of the Evidence is clearly not a text compiled specifically for an archaeological readership. Consisting of three approximately equal parts covering the Palaeogene, Neogene and Quaternary, much of this book focuses on Australian palaeoenvironmental history considerably more ancient than that normally dealt with by archaeologists.

The interpretation of palaeoenvironmental conditions around Australia from Tertiary geological sequences, both terrestrial and marine, is a dominant theme of the first two sections. Early chapters concentrate on Australia’s gross geologic evolution, detailing major pre-Cainozoic tectonism and Cainozoic vulcanism in eastern Australia associated with Australia’s northward drift. Remaining chapters in the Palaeogene and Neogene sections examine the palaeoenvironmental consequences of Tertiary changes in sea level, climate and tectonic activity, with more a regional or local emphasis. Papers by Sluiter, Martin, and McEwan Mason add a palaeoecological dimension, reconstructing and/or re-evaluating vegetation histories derived from palynological evidence from Lake Eyre, the inland rivers of New South Wales, and Lake George.

The antiquity of landscape development and environmental change discussed in the ‘Tertiary’ chapters undoubtedly limits their archaeological relevance, however sufficient new information and perceptive re-interpretations are proffered for them to be intrinsically interesting and worth a read. Many of the more pertinent revelations for the specialist archaeologist are, however, concealed from easy view by the breadth and sheer volume of detail presented. The value of these chapters for the persistent archaeologist is that they present a long-term evolutionary perspective of the pre-Quaternary Australian landscape within which the vicissitudes of Quaternary environmental change and the onset of human occupancy can be viewed. Fortunately for archaeologists with less stamina, the concluding six chapters are devoted to the Quaternary and can be readily accessed.

Chapters by Williams et al. and Kershaw et al. which reconstruct palaeoclimatic conditions from two different types of evidence, and from different environmental settings begin the Quaternary section of this book. Williams et al. continue the theme of palaeoenvironmental interpretation from geological sequences, examining aeolian, alluvial and lacustrine landforms and sediments from a desert margin system in western New South Wales. They suggest that their study site, located midway between the arid desert and the wetter eastern Highlands, is sensitive to climatically driven erosion/deposition, and have reconstructed a palaeoclimatic history for the last 33ka based on geomorphic evidence. They identify the intimate nature of sediment supply sink relations between aeolian, fluvial and lacustrine systems; and conclude that much of the landscape is comprised of fossil landforms formed under climatic conditions without contemporary parallel. In contrast, Kershaw et al. establish the nature and chronology of broad palaeoclimatic change for eastern Australia during the last 100kaby comparing two of Australia’s longest pollen records, one from the tropical Atherton Tablelands, the other from the temperate volcanic province of western Victoria, and correlate their palaeoclimatic interpretation with that inferred from oxygen isotope analysis of deep ocean sediments. Prehistorians will be abreast of most of the palaeoclimatic reconstruction contained within this paper, and the real value of this work lies in the comparative exercise, most notably the excellent discussion of the problems entailed in correlating palynological (environmental) phases between distant sites. Indeed much of the content of both these chapters relevant to archaeologists will already be familiar, from earlier work by the same authors or from other work dealing with similar sites. To be fair however, both of these papers were aimed at a broader audience, and neither has set out to especially thrill archaeologists.

Chapters by Head et al., Gill et al., and Peterson are less equivocal in their contributions to Australian archaeology; all three papers are smacked with intrigue and innovation. Head et al. present both radiocarbon and palynological evidence suggesting that archaeological sites associated with the lakes and swamps in the Mt. Eccles Tower Hill region of western Victoria are Pleistocene in age. They convincingly place the end of vulcanism in this region around 20 ka, considerably earlier than the early mid Holocene finish previously accepted, by verifying pre-Holocene dates previously thought unreliable using stratigraphic palynological evidence of Pleistocene vegetation. By dating the final volcanic activity as Pleistocene, Head et al. exclude volcanic destruction as a possible explanation for the lack of known archaeological sites predating the late Holocene, implying that the scarcity is real. The implications of an earlier end to vulcanism for the Aboriginal prehistory of the region are discussed within the context of post-eruption landscape and ecosystem evolution and its affect on Aboriginal economies. In this respect Head et al.’s synthesis of geomorphic, palynological and archaeological evidence is particularly effective, and demonstrates the need for a thorough understanding of the interaction between landscape, climate and vegetation when investigating a region’s prehistory. Given that volcanic deposits have blocked drainage systems and initiated wetland development across much of western Victoria, similar systems with archaeological significance should be likewise investigated.

An intriguing shell deposit in Hopkins River
Estuary, Warrnambool provides the archaeological
focus of Gill et al.’s contribution, although the
methodology of their investigation is equally
enthralling. Does their shell deposit have an
anthropogenic or natural ancestry? Estimated to be last
interglacial in age, a confirmed anthropogenic heritage
would re-write Australian prehistory. Gill et al. answer
this challenging question using a methodology which is
innovative and eloquent. They conclude that the deposit
is natural, and propose several mechanisms by which it
may have formed. Most significantly for archaeologists
(given the negative conclusion!), their use of microfossil (foraminiferal) abundance as an indicator of predation or natural deposition is pioneering, and well demonstrated to be a useful technique which will surely be invaluable in determining the history of other shell deposits of ambiguous origin.

Peterson’s chapter challenges the narrow scope of models of human dispersal to Sahul which variously involve glacial low sea levels, flimsy water craft and ‘shortest hop’ voyages by small founding populations. Instead he liberates archaeological thought from these constraints by proposing that people could be rafted to Sahul from Wallacea upon floating islands. Scenarios by which these islands may form are outlined, and several documented cases of floating islands presented as geomorphic analogues. Although acknowledging the current rarity of these islands (they may have been more prolific during previous marine transgressions), Peterson hypothesizes that large floating islands represented a viable alternative mechanism by which early occupants were delivered to Australia’s shores. He contends that Australia’s earliest human occupants were limited to small and flimsy watercraft not suitable for oceanic voyaging, and proposes that floating islands large enough to sustain and support groups of people over long distances represent an equally probable mode of human introduction. In conceiving the floating island model I believe Peterson set out to widen the debate concerning how humans entered Australia. This he has surely done.

Whitehead’s geochemical chronology of volcanic activity for Mt. Napier and Mt. Rouse seems awkwardly placed amongst the other Quaternary papers, being determinedly geological in its aspect. This awkwardness is symptomatic of most of this book when read from an archaeological viewpoint. This is not a criticism of the book itself but rather an observation regarding the extent to which a book dealing with Australia’s Cainozoic history can touch upon matters archaeological. Despite the inclusion of several excellent papers of undoubted value to prehistorians, at $65.00 it is difficult to recommend the purchase of this volume of those with a tight budget and strictly archaeological interest.

The long established geological principle of uniformitarianism broadly states ‘that the present is the key to the past’. With the prospect of an uncertain environmental future many researchers are fast becoming devotees of another, newer principle. The tenet of this principle is that the past is the key to the future, and Quaternarists are perhaps the most zealous converts. Lessons for Human Survival: Nature’s Record from the Quaternary is a volume where the practice of predicting future environmental change based on Quaternary palaeoenvironmental research is demonstrated and debated.

So where does this book sit with respect to Australian archaeology? Palaeoenvironmental reconstructions of Quaternary Australia are included in the contributions from Kershaw and Gell, and from Chappell, but appear in greater detail elsewhere. These two papers are the most spatially and temporally aligned to Australian archaeology of this collection; the other papers focus outside Australia and/or prehistorical time. Among the other papers Machida’ s tephrochronology of catastrophic vulcanism in Japan during the late Quaternary and its implications for human occupation may tantalise prehistorians working in parts of Australia subject to late Quaternary volcanic activity.

The need for careful interpretation of Quaternary stratigraphy and palaeoecology, and the limitations of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction and the use of Quaternary analogues for predictive purposes is stressed by several authors. This theme has resonance for archaeologists, who are often forced to consider the nuances of prehistorical evidence within a palaeoenvironmental framework constructed with a good dose of extrapolation and postulation.

Lessons for Human Survival: Nature’s Record from the Quaternary is a collection of very readable papers in which the interaction of human activity and environmental change forms a recurrent theme. At $20 it is easier to recommend than the more expensive The Cainozoic in Australia: A Re-Appraisal o f the Evidence however it is similarly thwarted in its archaeological appeal by its unashamed multidisciplinary philosophy and temporal focus largely outside of prehistorical time.

Smithers, S.
Review of 'The Cainozoic in Australia: A Reappraisal of the Evidence’ edited by M.A.J. Williams, P. De Deckker and A.P. Kershaw and ‘Lessons for Human Survival: Nature’s Record from the Quaternary’ edited by Paul Bishop
June 1993
Book Reviews
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