It's been an epic year for Sue O'Connor. She is currently a Chief Investigator for the Centre of Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) and has just published The Archaeology of Sulawesi (Terra Australis 48) through ANU Press, co-edited by David Bulbeck and Juliet Meyer.
2018 also marked the end of her Australian Research Council Linkage Project, Life Ways of the First Australians. This research project went beyond its original scope of contributing to the understanding of when and how the first Australians lived and managed the land in the Kimberly region in Australia’s north west and extended into community partnerships and generated new projects that will continue to advance knowledge of Australia’s Indigenous past.
The research built upon excavations carried out by O’Connor and Professor Jane Balme of the University of Western Australia in the 1990s at Carpenter’s Gap and Riwi and enabled new excavations at Djuru/Windjana Gorge Water Tank site, Moonggaroonggoo, and Mount Behn rockshelter. The rock art of the southern Kimberley was mapped in close working relationships with Bunuba and Gooniyandi elders, rangers, and corporations on community-driven initiatives.
The project provided the opportunity to work with Indigenous ranger groups to develop cultural heritage platforms for these groups for site management, and opportunities for sustainable livelihoods in cultural tourism on country.
Partnering with the Kimberley Association of Australia, the Western Australian Museum and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the project resulted in new archaeological discoveries that advance knowledge and understanding of past climates, vital for better modelling of future climate change in the region.
“This research made a significant contribution to our understanding of the palaeoenvironment of the Kimberley region of northern Australia during the late Quaternary (the last 11.5 thousand years),” said Professor O’Connor. ‘This means we can use past climatic fluctuations to extrapolate to gain more accurate predictions for the coming century,” she explained.
The project had a significant impact on the understanding of Indigenous technological innovation, and how Indigenous people occupied and managed the land. “The work was done in collaboration with the Bunuba and Gooniyandi Traditional Owners and their contribution to the fieldwork and interpretations of the archaeological materials is important in promoting greater understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” said Professor O’Connor.
The research at Riwi Cave provided tangible benefits to the Goonyandi community living near Mimbi in assisting their tourist business. In collaboration with the Mimbi Community elders, O'Connor and Balme produced and published a bilingual booklet in English and Goonyandi, 'Mimbi Goorroomba' which is sold by the Goonyandi community at Mimbi Caves. The community run an independent business taking tourists to see the caves and the rock art on their country.
All photographic images taken for the project have been entered into a database containing the site names provided by the Traditional Owners, GPS locations and the associated Traditional Owner Group and information about access (open access or restricted).
“This database is permanently stored at the repository held at the University of Western Australia and the data relevant to the Bunuba and Gooniyandi sites has been provided to each of the Native Title group on our final project visit to the communities in 2018. The database can be opened using free software from which distribution maps of sites and associated images can be created. This can then be used by the traditional owners for their heritage management and planning and for general educational purposes,” explained Professor O’Connor.
The project has attracted interest from the media and we have had local and national newspaper, web, radio and television coverage in all years of the project. The project has also provided material school education as Riwi, is used as a case study in the textbook “Ancient Australia Unearthed’ by Alethea Kinsela designed for the Australia Curriculum: History year 7 topic ‘Ancient Australia’.
The results of this project were instrumental in putting together the West Kimberley National Heritage List.
“The research also resulted in over 25 academic publications so far and gives remarkable evidence for the oldest continuous archaeological sequences in the Kimberley region and some of the longest in Australia,” explained Professor O’Connor. “In addition to significant new knowledge the project has left the way open for future research and still greater understanding.”
“Most significantly perhaps the work on the responses of Aboriginal people to the European Contact period in the southern Kimberley provides an interesting window into the variable histories of this period in Australia’s past.”