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Naive Island Landscapes

Naïve Island Landscapes: People and Environmental Change in Tropical Sclerophyll Landscapes

What happens when people enter new environments? This study identifies and measures the impacts of human arrivals on the Australian environment using the rich archaeological and palaeoenvironmental records of the South Wellesley archipelago in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria to produce integrated models of human-environment interaction over the last 10,000 years.


1 January 2012 - ongoing


With financial support from the Australian Research Council and Australian Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Engineering

Academic Group:Social Sciences
Key Words:

Archaeology, Kaiadilt, Aboriginal Australia, Islands

Project description

The recent timing of Kaiadilt Aboriginal settlement on these islands provides a unique opportunity to investigate human impacts on undisturbed Australian ecosystems against a backdrop of natural environmental change. Results are crucial for advancing our understanding of human responses to changing coastal environments in the context of rapidly shifting climates.

When humans enter new landscapes they profoundly change the natural order. These impacts are particularly marked on previously uninhabited islands. For example, following the first arrival of people on Pacific islands, archaeological and palaeoecological records clearly demonstrate plant and animal translocations, major changes in local resources (including local extinctions), as well as alterations to vegetation and erosion patterns. It follows that the arrival of people in Australia, the world’s largest island, would have inevitably altered the environment. Here it has been suggested that events such as the extinction of megafauna, the initiation of widespread soil erosion and radical restructuring of vegetation communities were related to the arrival of humans.

Advancing research on these issues is critical for resolving fundamental debates such as the antiquity of human occupation, the development of unique Australian ecosystems and the long-term history of human-environment interaction, yet there has been a surprising absence of systematic research aimed at identifying and measuring the impacts of human arrivals on the Australian environment.

To directly address these issues, we have partnered with the Kaiadilt Aboriginal Corporation to undertake an integrated archaeological, palaeoecological and palaeoclimatological study of the South Wellesley Archipelago in the Gulf of Carpentaria of tropical northern Australia. Results are advancing our understanding of the impacts of humans on unique Australian ecosystems and cultural responses to changing climates and environments.

Project partners

  • James Cook University
  • Kaiadilt Aboriginal Corporation
  • The University of Queensland
  • Queensland University of Technology
  • Wallis Heritage Consulting
  • Victoria University of Wellington
  • University of Waikato
  • Dynamic Spatial Solutions
  • University of Southern Queensland
  • University of Wollongong
  • Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
  • Queensland Museum
  • Australian National University

Project team

  • Sean Ulm (James Cook University)
  • Patrick Moss (The University of Queensland)
  • Craig Sloss (Queensland University of Technology)
  • Daniel Rosendahl (James Cook University)
  • Lynley Wallis (Wallis Heritage Consulting)
  • Lynda Petherick (Victoria University of Wellington)
  • Lincoln Steinberger (The University of Queensland)
  • Fiona Petchey (University of Waikato)
  • Jason Scriffignano (Dynamic Spatial Solutions)
  • Kelsey Lowe (University of Southern Queensland)
  • Robin Twaddle (James Cook University)
  • Lynda Mackenzie (The University of Queensland)
  • Selene Kenady (James Cook University)
  • Texas Nagel (James Cook University)
  • Anna Kreij (James Cook University)
  • Shoshannah O’Connor (Queensland University of Technology)
  • Sarah Slater (James Cook University)
  • Annette Oertle (University of Wollongong)
  • Sarah Collins (James Cook University)
  • Tanya Drury (James Cook University)
  • Alison Sternes (Queensland University of Technology)
  • Clair Davey (The University of Queensland)
  • Luke Nothdurft (Queensland University of Technology)
  • Quan Hua (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation)
  • Geraldine Jacobsen (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation)
  • Henk Heijnis (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation)
  • Christopher Wurster (James Cook University)
  • Michael Bird (James Cook University)
  • Geraldine Mate (Queensland Museum)
  • Nicholas Evans (Australian National University)
  • Erich Round (The University of Queensland)
  • Paul Memmott (The University of Queensland)
  • Kaiadilt Aboriginal Corporation

Key contact: Chief Investigator, Professor Sean Ulm at