Laureate Professor Sue O’Connor, Professor Simon Haberle are Chief Investigators of a new ARC Centre of Excellence. Research Fellow Janelle Stevensen is an Associate Investigator.
The new Centre for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, based at the University of Wollongong, will tell Australia’s ‘epic story’. It was launched at Parliament House in Canberra on the 22nd of June 2017.
Professor Brad Pillans and Dr Rachel Wood Research School of Earth Sciences at ANU and Dr Larissa Schnieder, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at CHL, make up the ANU's research team for the Centre.
The research will transform existing knowledge of the history of human habitation and the environment. A main objective is to equip future leaders and policy makers with the knowledge necessary to protect the environment.
The research is ambitiously transdisciplinary, incorporating both science and humanities disciplines, is organised around six themes: Humans, Climate, Landscapes, Wildlife, Time and Models.
The storyline is indeed epic, encompassing human and environmental history of Australia, Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia from 130,000 years ago – when Australia was devoid of humans and the climate was similar to today’s – to the time of initial European contact.
Archaeologist Sue O’Connor will be leading the research theme of Humans.
She will be working in Western Australia and South East Asia looking at the arrival of the earliest arrivals of people but also in Indonesia looking at routes of entry.
‘There is much debate whether people came through Timor down the Kimberly coast or through Borneo, West Papua and down into Northern Australia.
‘The biggest dilemma is the dates for the occupation of Australia are significantly older than anywhere to Australia’s north. There has to be missing data sets in those islands to the north.
‘A lot of the debate about human occupation of this continent has been focused on how old it is not what people did when they got here, which is the interesting stuff. Australia is such a huge continent, and even 60 000 years ago would have been very environmentally diverse. People would have done different things in different places with different biota. We don’t know any of that really interesting story because we have so few data points.
‘This grant allows me to build on my previous research and look for new early colonization entry points in North west Australia. It brings together researchers who would otherwise would be each doing their own thing in various places.
‘My focus will be on the earliest capacities of people in those regions– what type of adaptations did they make? Our earliest sites in Australia have very few stone artefacts, maybe only 20-30 artefacts from the earliest time. You can’t really say much about what people were doing unless you have fauna and pollen preserved to actually build up a picture.’
Dr Janelle Stevenson, a Research Fellow at the School of Culture, History and Language, is a paleoecologist specialising in ecologies and environments of the past.
‘My expertise in South East Asia is my contribution to the project. I am working on very old paleological records from Sulawesi in Indonesia. I match the vegetation records with DNA sequences to help understand of the role of climate in shaping the environment over many hundreds of thousands of years.
‘I research how the forests and environments reassemble themselves between big events like ice ages. My focus is the environmental aspect of this research but as we get closer to the present I consider how environmental change intersects with cultural development.
‘This project gives the capacity it gives this research community to do this work but the most wonderful thing about it is the core objective of translation of that research into education.’
Professor Simon Haberle, paleoecologist and Director of the School of Culture History and Language is also a Chief investigator in the Centre.
‘My role will be looking at collaborating with archaeologists in country whether that be Northern Australia, East Timor or Papua New Guinea to try and understand how people in the past changed those landscape and made them what they are today.
‘What we can do through our techniques of paleoecology and archaeology is reconstruct a picture of past landscapes. Then we can build a narrative about how the landscape has changed and what different influences have come into play.
‘This year I am conducting fieldwork in East Timor where we will be looking at a major lake system that has probably existed for the last 3-400 000 years. It holds evidence of what the monsoon was doing through time but also of when people first arrived in Timor and then hopped over to Australia about 50000 years ago.
‘We want to see if we can see that in the record how these first people existed, and why they might have made that leap and come to Australia. We will be doing similar things up in Papua New Guinea as well, looking at agricultural impacts but also in deeper time, when the first people arrived there, and then the epic migration events when people arrived in Australia what impact that had on the landscape.
‘It’s an exciting opportunity to continue the work we have been doing but create new discoveries around the notion of how people change the landscape of Australia and the region,’ said Professor Haberle.
Seven Australian universities (University of Wollongong, James Cook University, University of New South Wales, The University of Adelaide, Monash University, The Australian National University and University of Tasmania) and a range of partner organisations in Australia and overseas (Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, France, Germany, Denmark, the UK and the USA) comprise the Centre of Excellence.
The centre is supported by an ARC grant of funded by a $33.75 million grant from the ARC, $1 million from the NSW Government, and $11 million from participating universities, museums, and other organisations. These will support around 40 new research positions and more than 50 new research students over the 7-year life of the Centre, led by Distinguished Professor Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts of the University of Wollongong.