College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

10 May 2019

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Unearthing history of sophisticated engineering

Some of the largest structures ever documented in the Australian archaeological record are being studied in the remote Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia, revealing the sophisticated engineering capabilities of Indigenous Australians.

James Cook University researchers have been investigating stone-walled fish traps up to 900 metres in length constructed by Kaiadilt Aboriginal people in the South Wellesley Islands. Inundation modelling shows the fish traps were most efficient at present sea level, indicating construction in the past 3,500 years.

“North-eastern Australia has some of the densest complexes of stone-walled fish traps documented anywhere in the world,” said JCU Distinguished Professor Sean Ulm, Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage.

“We recently documented an incredibly dense concentration of fish traps in the South Wellesley Islands built by Kaiadilt people.”

The area was studied using high-resolution close-range unmanned aerial vehicle photogrammetry, and a suite of spatial information analytical techniques. The results are detailed in the paper Aboriginal stone-walled intertidal fishtrap morphology, function and chronology, published by the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“These engineered structures enclose vast areas of the seabed to trap fish, dugongs, turtles and other types of marine animals for people to harvest,” Prof Ulm said. “Primarily, they are a form of aquaculture designed to maximise the productivity and reliability of marine resources.

“We very deliberately talk about them as constructed and engineered. These structures require a deep understanding of not only the environment and animal behaviours, but also construction principles of how to build an enduring wall in a high energy intertidal zone to be the same height over such a large distance. These wall complexes sometimes run across many kilometres of the intertidal zone.

“Increasingly, archaeologists working in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are documenting incredible diversity in past and present Indigenous cultures and technologies across the continent – from building stone houses to mining stone and ochre to constructing vast eel traps.”

Collaborating with communities to understand the land

Over his career, Prof Ulm’s research has primarily focused on understanding the relationships between environmental and cultural change in northern Australia and the western Pacific.

He uses advanced studies of archaeological and environmental sequences to underpin models of past human behaviour.

“There are two things that make my work really exciting,” Prof Ulm said. “The first is the opportunity to collaborate with Indigenous communities on research, which leads to deep understandings of the way people have shaped land and seascapes over time.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners have been living on country for a very long time and comprehend their landscapes and seascapes in ways that no-one else can. It has been an enormous privilege for my colleagues and I to collaborate with communities.

“The second is that we really don’t know a lot about the deep past in Australia. The scale of it is hard to comprehend. This part of the world was occupied 65,000 years ago. That long ago, modern humans had not even reached many parts of the globe.

“Elsewhere in the world decades of research has been done in many areas, but in northern Australia you can almost go anywhere and be guaranteed that no-one has done any research there before.

“The enormous human timescale of Aboriginal occupation of Australia is really mind-boggling and almost a completely unique challenge when looking into modern human past.”

Benchmarks of human history

One of the questions Prof Ulm and his colleagues are trying to answer is the method by which Australia was first colonised.

In July 2018, the Quaternary Science Reviews published Palaeogeography and voyage modelling indicates early human colonization of Australia was likely from Timor-Roti, which attempts to explain not only the pathway used to reach Australia, but the skills, knowledge and intent of those making the voyage.

“That paper is part of a suite of studies we are doing trying to understand how people got to Australia,” Prof Ulm said.  “Not that long ago, we didn’t have a clear idea of how many people you would need to get to Australia to make colonisation viable.

“This is important because no matter which way you come to Australia, there is at least one journey of 100km across open ocean. You might accidentally get a family group across 100km of ocean on a small raft, but if you are looking at getting more than 1,000 people across 100km of ocean you are talking about much more deliberate behaviour and complex technology.

“The importance of this study is showing the first people to arrive in Australia had complex maritime navigation skills. We’re talking 65,000 years ago. It’s not only building the vessels themselves, but you cannot do that on your own so you need language to communicate with others to cooperate in building complex vessels.

“The enormous human timescale of Aboriginal occupation of Australia is really mind-boggling and almost a completely unique challenge when looking into modern human past.”
Prof Sean Ulm, Associate Dean, Research Education

Aboriginal Rock Art in Australia
A tree, rocks and a blue sky

JCU conferred the title of Distinguished Professor upon Sean Ulm in November, acknowledging his exceptional research and scholarship, and significant achievements at a state, national and international level.

“Receiving an award like this is a very humbling experience,” Prof Ulm said. “It is particularly meaningful because the nomination comes from your colleagues and peers in recognising your contribution to the discipline and the institution.”

Last year, Prof Ulm received the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology and is also a Life Member of the Australian Archaeological Association.

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Sean Ulm

Distinguished Professor, Associate Dean Research Education

Prof Sean’s research focuses on persistent problems in the archaeology of northern Australia and the western Pacific. His research seeks to understand the relationships between environmental and cultural change through advanced studies of archaeological and palaeo-environmental sequences.

Professor Sean’s priority has been to develop new tools to investigate and articulate co-variability and co-development of human and natural systems. A major strand of his research has been in the field of archaeological science, where he leads research programs designed to improve our knowledge of the past and improve methods to increase confidence in the data underpinning our models of past human behaviour and environmental change.