The Arid Zone of Australia : Part Three : Parnkupirti

Parnkupirti : Parukuproject

Parnkupirti is located along the border of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia and represents rare circumstances where alkaline freshwater meets the arid desert; juxtaposing two very distinct environments (Bowler, Wyrwoll & Lu, 2001; Veth, et al., 2009).

Recent excavations at Parnkupirti have been focussed on assessing the site’s future potential for additional research relating to arid communities in the central and western desert. Evaluation of the regional area an array of past shoreline features signifying periods when the lake area was significantly larger than the present day.

This presence of a freshwater ecosystem with an abundance of birds, mussels and fish, set with the adjacent dunes makes it highly probable that Parnkupirti was heavily exploited by hunter-gatherer communities (Veth, et al., 2009).

It can, therefore, be argued to hold significant amounts of archaeological data that will contribute to our understandings of Australian desert communities. Initial investigations by Veth, et al. (2009) assessed three sites at Parnkupirti, where the stratigraphy of each site gave an indication into the sequential alterations in dynamic fluvial discharges and fluctuations in lake levels.


A richness of stone tool technologies was later assessed from pilot excavations at site three, identifying lithic tools constructed from local chert and quartzite. Veth, et al. (2009) illustrates that this material scatter is of late Holocene age, due to its abundance of tulas and tula slugs. Found in situ within the cobble bed (Unit C), a large silcrete core referred to PKP4-1 has been named the most significant discovery during the 2008 excavations.

Dating using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), stratigraphic correlations between site two and three confined ages of Unit C to ~40- 50ka (Veth, et al., 2009).  By association and the position of PKP4-1 in the cobble bed, it has been estimated that the silcrete core is most likely to be within a ~50-45ka range.

This proves the sites significance as the first evidence of activity within the arid northwest region dating before the Last Glacial Maximum. The preliminary research carried out at Parnkupirti has opened the doors for additional investigation in the area. Findings during this initial study yielded substantial information regarding Pleistocene occupation of western desert communities, where Veth, et al. (2009) has concluded that Lake Gregory will prove to be a ‘northern analogue for the Willandra Lakes’.

Major creek section at Parnkupirti - 100,000 years of the history of Lake Gregory : australian archaeological association inc.

The arid desert represents the largest proportion of the continent, where human exploitation of these sites is invaluable to our understandings of early hunter-gatherer populations in Australia.  Debates on the conservatism and uniformity of desert life have been challenged by the archaeological assessment at Puntutjarpa, Puritjarra and Parnkupirti. It is now known that hunter-gatherer communities represent highly dynamic populations that have been occupying the central arid zone for over 35 000 years.

These variations correspond to climatic changes that would have directly influenced these hunter-gatherer communities throughout the terminal Pleistocene. In particular, Puntutjarpa offers new insights into the conclusion of multiple reconfigurations of technological, economic and social practices, where recent excavations at Parnkupirti indicate that it offers a richness of archaeological material that has yet to be discovered.

Due to the immense amount of information these sites have already portrayed, additional information would heavily contribute to our understandings of some of the early human communities within Australia. Furthermore, the analysis of desert communities assesses human resilience and ability to adjust economic and social strategies in some of the most environmentally challenging ecosystems on the planet.

Part 1 | Part 2

References: Part One, two and three:

Balme, J., Garbin, G. & Gould, R., 2001, Residue Analysis and Palaeodiet in Arid Australia, Australian Archaeology, No. 53, pp. 1-6.

Bowler, J. M., Wyrwoll, K. & Lu, Y., 2001, Variations of the northwest Australian summer monoon over the last 300 000 years: the paleohydrological record of the Gregory (Mulan) Lakes System, Quaternary International, Vol. 83, pp. 63 -80.

Flood, J., 2006, The original Australians: story of the Aboriginal people, Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia.

Gardiner, H. G., 1986, ‘Dynamics Of Perennial Plants In The Mulga (Acacia Aneura F. Muell.) Zone Of Western Australia. Survival Of Perennial Shrubs and Grasses’, The Australian Rangeland Journal Vol. 8 , pp. 28–35

Glover, I.C. & Lampert, R. J., 1969, ‘Puntutjarpa Rockshelter Excavations by R. A. Gould: A Critical Review’, Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 222-228.

Gould, R.A., 1969, Puntutjarpa Rockshelter: A reply to Messers, Glover and Lampert, Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 229-237.

Gould, R.A., et al., 1968, ‘Preliminary Report on Excavations at Puntutjarpa Rockshelter, Near the Warburton Ranges, Western Australia’, Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 161-185.

Gould, R.A., Koster, D.A. & Sontz, A.N., 1971, ‘The Lithic Assemblage of the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia’, American Antiquity, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 149-169.

Gould, R.A., et al., 1977, ‘Puntutjarpa Rockshelter and the Australian Desert Culture’, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 54, Pt. 1.

Hayden, B., 1977, ‘Stone tool functions in the Western Desert’, in Stone tools as Culture Markers: Change, Evolution and Complexity ed. R.V.S. Wright, pp. 178-188, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

Haynes, R. D., 1998, Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Hiscock, P., 2008, ‘Arid zone economies in the Holocene’ in Archaeology of Ancient Australia, Routledge, New York.

Hiscock, P. & Veth, P., 1991, Change in the Australian desert culture: a reanalysis of tulas from Puntutjarpa rockshelter, World Archaeology, Vol. 22, No. 3, Archaeology and Arid Environments, pp. 332-345.

Hiscock, P. & Wallis, L.A., 2005. ‘Pleistocene settlement of deserts from an Australian perspective’, in Veth, P., Smith, M. & Hiscock, P. (eds) Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives. London, UK: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 34-57.

Johnson, I., 1979, The getting of data: A case study from the recent industries of Australia, The Australian National University, Canberra.

O’Connor, S., Veth, P. & Campbell, C., 1998, ‘Serpent’s Glen Rockshelter: Report of the First Pleistocene- Aged Occupation Sequence from the Western Desert’, Australian Archaeology, No. 46, pp. 12-22.

Prescott, J. R., Williams, F.M. & Hunt, C.D., 2007, Comparison of TL multiple aliquot, single grain GLSL SAR and C-14 for the Puritjarra, Australia, rock shelter, Quaternary Geochronology, Vol 2, pp. 344-349.

Smith, M. A., 1989, ‘The Case for a Resident Human Population in the Central Australian Ranges during Full Glacial Aridity’, Archaeology in Oceania, 1989, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp.93-105.

Smith, M.A., 1993, ‘Biogeography, Human Ecology and Prehistory in the Sandridge Deserts’, Australian Archaeology, Issue 37, pp. 35-50.

Smith, M. A, Vellen, L. & Pask, J., 1995, ‘Vegetation history from archaeological charcoals in central Australia: The late Quaternary record from Puritjarra rock shelter’, Vegetation History Archaeobotony, Vol. 4, pp. 171-177.

Smith, M. A., Prescott, J. R. & Head, M. J., 1997, ‘Comparison of 14C and Luminescence Chronologies at Puritjarra Rock Shelter, Central Australia’, Quaternary Geochronology, Vol. 16, pp. 299-320.

Smith, M. A., et al., 2001, ‘New Abox Ams-¹⁴C Ages Remove Dating Anomalies at Puritjarra Rock Shelter’, Australian Archaeology, No. 53, pp. 45-47.

Smith, M. A., 2005, ‘Desert archaeology, linguistic stratigraphy, and the spread of Western Desert Language’, in Veth, P., Smith, M. & Hiscock, P. (eds) Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives, pp. 222- 242, Oxford: Blackwell.

Smith, M. A., 2006, ‘Characterising Late Pleistocene and Holocene Stone Arefact Assemblages from Puritjarra Rock Shelter: A Long Sequence from the Australian Desert’, Records of the Australian Museum, Vol. 58, pp. 371–410.

Tedford, R. H., 1968, ‘Mammalian remains from the exploratory trench, Puntutjarpa rockshelter, Warburton Ranges, Western Australia’, in ‘Preliminary report on excavations at Puntutjarpa Rockshelter, near the Warburton Ranges, Western Australia’, Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 161-185.

Tindale, N.B., 1941, ‘Hand Axes used in the Western Desert of Australia’, Mankind, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 37-41.

Veth, P.M., 1989a, ‘The prehistory of sandy deserts: spartial and temporal variation in settlement and subsistence behaviour within the arid zone of Australia. Doctoral dissertation, University of Western Australia, Perth.

Veth, P. M., 1989b, ‘Islands of the Interior: A model for the colonisation of Australia’s arid zone’, Archaeology in Oceania, Vol. 24, pp. 81-92.

Veth, P., et al., 2009, ‘Excavations at Parnkupirti, Lake Gregory, Great Sandy Desert: OSL ages for occupation before the Last Glacial Maximum’, Australian Archaeology, No. 69, pp. 1-10.

Walshe, K., 2000, Carnivores, Taphonomy and Dietary Stress at Puntutjarpa, Serpent’s Glen and Intitjikula, Archaeology in Oceania, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 74-81.

Written by Ashleigh Murszewski

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