Just Add Water: Transformations in a peopled riverscape in the Riverland region of South Australia

Author: Craig Westell

Westell, Craig, 2022 Just Add Water: Transformations in a peopled riverscape in the Riverland region of South Australia, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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This thesis examines a record of Aboriginal occupation in the upper Riverland region of South Australia against a backdrop of an evolving riverscape. The development of the River Murray floodplains is explored through a geomorphological interpretation of two anabranch systems; the Calperum and Pike floodplains. The structural changes evident in the Riverland floodplains are assessed against a history of shifting hydroclimate identified elsewhere in the broader Murray-Darling Basin (MDB). Some peculiarities in the local evidence are attributed to the nature of flow transmission in the MDB and the configuration of the River Murray valley in the Riverland.

The history of Aboriginal occupation in the Riverland has manifest in a staggering array of archaeological sites and materials. The geomorphological interpretation provides a basis in which to interpret and contextualise this record. The archaeology preserved across the Calperum and Pike floodplains is cast amongst a time-series in landscape development as a means of value-adding, and validating, a set of radiocarbon ages returned on exposures of shell midden and other occupation materials. In combination, the survey and dating results indicate that Aboriginal lifeways in the Riverland existed at the periphery of more sustained occupation in the MDB over a long period of time following the initial Aboriginal settlement in the basin c. 50–45 ka. Short-lived pules in occupation, or strategies embedded in high mobility, seem to have persisted in the Riverland until a major, albeit short-lived, phase in site development c. 15 ka. This parallels evidence from the broader south-western MDB and illustrates a major reconfiguration of regional settlement patterns following the nadir of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). This reconfiguration was defined, in large part, by an expanded use of riverine corridors beyond major lacustrine settings.

The initial phase of site development appears to have been short-lived. A staggered development of middens across the terminal Pleistocene is likely to reveal tipping points in riverine ecology where the viability of freshwater mussel as an economic staple may have periodically collapsed. It is not until the early Holocene, that the extant evidence suggests a more persistent Aboriginal occupation incorporating the broader habitat mosaic into economic strategies. Subsequent periods of climatic variability and ecological stress across the Holocene were accommodated through an expanded use and emphasis on plant resources. The diversified riverine economy observed in historical observations reflects an essential template to accommodate the high level of variability inherent in this riverscape.

Existing narratives and conceptual frameworks around Aboriginal demographic and economic changes in the MDB are assessed against the Riverland evidence. The role of population increase as the instigator of change in past Aboriginal society has been fundamental to a common narrative, though little support for this is found in the Riverland evidence. Instead, economic strategies and technologies employed in various MDB regions were applied in unique combination in the Riverland and honed to suit local circumstance independent of population changes. These solutions may, however, have provided a platform for a substantial increase in economic capacity and Aboriginal populations with improved hydrological conditions in the very late Holocene.

Keywords: aboriginal archaeology, river murray, geomorphology, murray darling basin

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Amy Roberts