The Arid Zone of Australia

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Puritjarra : Mandy Martin

Evidence of early human occupation throughout the central and western Australian desert offers archaeological data contributing to current understandings of the social and technological adaptations in arid zones.

Puntutjarpa, Parnkupirti and Puritjarra are primary sites representing hunter-gatherer populations exploiting desert economies throughout periods of climatic disparity. Investigations at these sites refuted prior belief that communities were unchanging, suggesting desert peoples were highly mobile and adapted to differentiation in their surrounding environment.


It is also concluded that additional archaeological research would be invaluable to the understandings of Australian desert occupation where, specifically, Parnkupirti holds great potential for additional exploration.

In today’s society, not many grasp the opportunity to experience the Australian desert: arguably one of the most unique features of the national landscape and Indigenous history.  Some may find looking out to this “vast stretch of seemingly featureless country” as a tedious venture, whereas others may feel comfort when looking at a setting yet to be marked by human civilisation (Haynes, 1998 p. 11).

Years of accumulated research conclude that these impressions are equally and profoundly wrong, where deserts have been categorised as some of the most environmentally diverse ecosystems on the planet, representing a series of regional differences in geological regimes (Hiscock & Wallis, 2005; Hiscock, 2008). Whereas in terms of human occupation, the arid desert is home to the Indigenous Australians, known to be one of the world’s oldest cultures (Flood, 2006).

Parnkupirti : Parukuproject

Excavations of three primary sites in the western and central deserts are a principal focus when assessing human occupation and dynamic changes in desert economies throughout the Holocene. Archaeological assessments at Puntutjarpa, Puritjarra and later, Parnkupirti, not only demonstrate the adaptation to climatic variation at the termination of the last glacial maximum, but assess how humans exploited these arid landscapes (Smith, 2005). It is also a tribute to the Aborigines whose resourcefulness has lead to an established and honourable way of life under what has been argued to be one of the harshest environmental settings encountered by any historic or prehistoric hunter-gatherers (Hiscock, 2008).


Sand masses, water bodies carving deep gorges and distinctive flora and fauna surviving in harsh economies all contribute to a vibrant and dynamic environment occupying three million square kilometres of Australian land (Smith, 1993; Hiscock & Wallis, 2005).  Deserts have not only varied geographically, but have similarly varied in climatic and environmental shifts (Hiscock, 2008). Consequently desert sites present a rare set of environmental characteristics that make it difficult for archaeologists to assess occupation in arid Australia.

Initially, despite detailed excavations at many of the rock shelters, including Kaalpi, Karlamilyl and Intirtekwerle, only material culture dated less than 3 000 – 4 000 BP was identified (Hiscock, 2008). Therefore, archaeologists originally interpreted this as an indication of human economies exploiting desert communities post 4 000 – 5 000 BP.  It wasn’t until the discovery of sites such as Puntutjarpa and Puritjarra, and later Parnkupirti, that these interpretations appeared doubtful (Gould et al., 1968; Smith, et al., 1997; Veth, et al., 2009). Although all three sites agreeably contribute evidence of an early desert culture adapting to varying and dynamic climatic influences, they all offer different insights into how hunter-gatherer communities coped with a vibrant and inter-changing environment.

The initial systematic archaeological investigations of the Western Desert commenced with Gould’s excavations at Puntutjarpa rockshelter within the Warburton Ranges district (Smith, 2005). Gould et al. (1977) describes the rockshelter as a form of ‘oasis’, within a larger, more open spinifex covered terrain.

These excavations were undertaken post ethnographical research of the contemporary Ngatatjara Aborigines in 1996 (Gould et al., 1968). Gould offered eight overall radiocarbon ages throughout the strata and divided them into three zones where the oldest age (from Zone C) of the Puntutjarpa deposits was established at 11 890 (12 360 – 11 315) years BP (Hiscock, 2008). Of particular interest is the Townshend Quartzite, forming the low escarpment of the Puntutjarpa Rockshelter. This quartzite provides an important source of raw material utilised for constructing Aboriginal lithic tool technologies (Gould et al., 1977).

Initial test pits, both inside and outside the rockshelter, revealed the overall depth of the deposits and concluded an abundance of cultural material. Additional excavations revealed a richness of stone tool technologies totalling 275 different tools of varying types.

This compares favourably with other well-documented sites indicating that, in ancient times, Puntutjarpa was as intensively occupied as Kenniff Cave, Queensland (Gould et al., 1968). Furthermore, Gould emphasises the presence of adzes; a discoidal stone scraper hafted onto wooden implements in a manner that is consistent throughout the central desert (i.e. spear thrower handle or end of wooden clubs) (Gould, Koster & Sontz, 1971; Tindale, 1965; Gould et al., 1968).  It was concluded that these adzes showed a progression from a smaller “micro-adze”, at depths exceeding 30 inches, to the upper levels and present day outgrowth of the larger ethnographic hafted adze (Gould, 1968). Additional investigations into the stone tools at Puntutjarpa indicate that horsehoof cores were not apparent in the earlier deposits, whereas there is a later appearance in microliths and hafted tools (Gould et al., 1968). Although there is selected changes within these lithic assemblages, Gould argues that there is overall ‘cultural continuity’ at Puntutjarpa, where the absence of sharp breaks in the archaeology record indicate a transitional period (Gould, et al., 1968; 1977).

The main evidence used to construct this hypothesis is gathered from his conclusions of a continuous tradition of adze manufacture throughout the last 10 000 years demonstrating a largely unchanged desert lifestyles (Gould, et al., 1968; 1977).

Gould’s interpretation of the Puntutjarpa rockshelter has been readdressed by additional archaeological interpretations of the material wealth located at the Warburton Ranges, where others have scrutinised conclusions made by his initial investigation (Hiscock, 2008; Hiscock & Veth, 1991; Glover & Lampert, 1969). Ian Johnson (1979) has argued that the radiocarbon dates did not represent a well-ordered sequence with three of the eight dates representing a secondary stratified sequence later classified ‘younger pattern’ (Hiscock, 2008; Glover & Lampert, 1969). The initial sequence preferred by Gould, referred to as ‘old pattern’, specifies that the oldest strata began forming more than 12 000 BP and the younger depositional layers established 6 -7 000 BP.

The previously discussed younger sequence states that the oldest deposits started forming only at 5 000 BP (Hiscock, 2008).  Gould dismissed these discrepancies as impurities, stating that the younger dates observed in older depositional layers was due to “a sample contamination of unknown nature” (Gould et al., 1977).  Another largely criticised conclusion drawn upon Gould’s initial interpretations at Puntutjarpa is the sequence of adzes he used to represent a continuous cultural tradition from the Holocene to contemporary ethnographic communities.

The classification of these adzes within these ancient desert communities is vital to our understandings of the conservative desert culture. Due of this, Hiscock and Veth (1991) have readdressed this issue, concluding Gould’s interpreted ‘tula micro-adzes’ are not adzes but small scrapers. This secondary investigation determined that, using the readdressed classification of adzes, their presence was confined in the upper levels of the deposit post 6 000 BP, using the ‘older pattern’, and less than 1 000 BP utilising Johnson’s (1979) ‘younger pattern’ (Hiscock & Veth, 1991; Gould, 1977; Hiscock, 2008).

This interpretation rejects the notion that there was a continuous exploitation of adzes throughout ancient Aboriginal communities at Puntutjarpa. Consequently, this hypothesis refutes Gould’s initial analysis favouring a prolongation of a continuous stable and unchanging desert culture. On the contrary, it is now interpreted as evidence for a dynamic and adaptive response during the mid to late Holocene. This time period also favours an amplified richness of backed blades and unifacial points throughout the central and western desert sites (Hiscock & Veth, 1991; Veth, 1989). Therefore, in reference to lithic assemblages at Puntutjarpa, this picture of a long-term cultural continuity is founded to be incongruent with new understandings of arid communities, with the majority supporting evidence of a dynamic cultural adaptation.

Assessing the diet of these ancient communities adds to our knowledge of the stresses and adaptations that result from occupying challenging environments. Gould’s initial excavations at Puntutjarpa were not exclusive to lithic technologies as they also included the analysis of some of the richest faunal remains found so far in Australia’s arid zone (Gould, 1996). Fragments of butchered and burnt bone were located both on inside and outside deposits of the rockshelter, where many of these fragments were small and undiagnostic (Gould et al., 1968; 1977).

These bones were primarily from mammalian species, however, there was a prominent tendency toward a greater diversity of marsupial species appearing in the upper (i.e. younger) stratigraphical deposits (Tedford, 1968).  Arguments have been made in relation to what caused this heavy fractionation of the bones at Puntutjarpa. Initially, it has been hypothesised that the distribution of faunal remains resulted from human responses to mitigate conditions of chronic meat stress (Gould, 1996; O’Connor, Veth & Campbell, 1998). Others conclude that extreme fractionation is attributed to non-human factors including reduction by local fauna or burning (Walshe, 2000).

Additional studies into the economic strategies exploited by ancient communities discovered starch grains in varying concentrations on the majority of the lithic assemblages located at Puntutjarpa (Balme, Garbin & Gould, 2001).  The presence of these grains suggests that plant processing and seed grinding were important components of ancient Aboriginal lifestyle within these regions. Further analysis uncovered blood residue and ochre, which indicate the use of these implements when processing animal products and pigments (Balme, Garbin & Gould, 2001). The presence of multiple types of residue on thirteen of the seed grinders indicates that these stone implements were manipulated for a variety of purposes and therefore heavily utilised within these desert communities.

Part Two Coming Soon…..

Written by Ashleigh Murszewski

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