Climate change nothing new in Oz

Sep 23, 2013

While we grapple with the impact of climate change, archaeologists suggest we spare a thought for Aboriginal Australians who had to cope with the last ice age.

"The period scientists call the Last Glacial Maximum, or LGM for short, is the most significant climatic event ever faced by humans on this continent," Associate Professor Sean Ulm from James Cook University in Cairns said.

Research recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science sheds new light on the ways Aboriginal civilisation met the challenges of extreme climate change during the Last Glacial Maximum, which peaked around 20,000 years ago.

"The magnitude of change was phenomenal," said Professor Ulm, a lead researcher on the project and Deputy Director of JCU's Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science.

"Lakes dried up, forests disappeared, deserts expanded, animals went extinct and vast swathes of the Australian land mass would have been simply uninhabitable."

Annual temperatures plummeted by as much as 10 degrees below present-day levels, with massive reductions in rainfall. Glaciers appeared in the Snowy Mountains and Tasmania.

"This was a time of massive change," Professor Ulm said. "Sea levels fell more than 120 metres during the LGM, exposing much of the continental shelf and connecting mainland Australia to Papua New Guinea and Tasmania."

Australian researchers from James Cook University, the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales teamed up with colleagues from Oxford University in the United Kingdom and Simon Fraser University in Canada to use advanced geospatial techniques to analyse archaeological from across Australia.

"We are trying to understand how people responded to these extreme conditions," Professor Ulm said.

The researchers found that during times of high climatic stress, contracted into localised environmental 'refuges', in well-watered ranges and along major riverine systems, where water and food supplies were reliable.

Co-leader of the study, Alan Williams from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University, said surviving the last ice age required Aboriginal communities to adapt to massive change.

"As much as 80 per cent of Australia was temporarily abandoned by Aboriginal people at the height of the LGM, when conditions were at their worst," he said.

"Along Australia's east coast, people contracted to refuge areas with good water supplies – most likely the result of increased summer snow melt coming off mountain ranges like the Victorian Alps, or glacier-fed river systems such as those of the central highlands of Tasmania."

Professor Ulm said that while those better-watered areas would have provided more reliable resources, Aboriginal people needed to make significant changes to their way of life in order to survive.

"The archaeological evidence reflects major changes in settlement and subsistence patterns at this time," he said.

"Many previously occupied areas were abandoned.

"There were changes to hunting practices, the types of food people were eating, and the technologies they were using, to deal with new circumstances.

"We expect there would have been huge impacts on social relationships and religious beliefs as well, but these types of changes are much harder to detect in the archaeological record.

"One thing we can say for sure is that extreme results in the fundamental social and economic reorganisation of society.

"This was certainly true in the past and will be true in the future."

Explore further: Dingo wrongly blamed for extinctions

More information: The research is published in the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Dingo wrongly blamed for extinctions

Sep 09, 2013

Dingoes have been unjustly blamed for the extinctions on the Australian mainland of the Tasmanian tiger (or thylacine) and the Tasmanian devil, a University of Adelaide study has found.

Birds on the move

Sep 21, 2012

(Phys.org)—Over the past 60 years, areas that have a climate suitable for certain Australian bird species have shifted much faster than previously thought, and not exactly in the expected direction.

Australian climate on 'steroids' after hottest summer

Mar 04, 2013

Australia's weather went "on steroids" over a summer that saw an unprecedented heatwave, bushfires and floods, the climate chief said Monday, warning that global warming would only make things worse.

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

Apr 17, 2014

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...