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Reconstructing a vanished landscape: a palaecological and palaeoethnobotanical investigation from Barrow Island, WA through archaeobotanical analysis
Macrobotanical remains, such as charcoal, generate valuable data surrounding past relationships between people and plant communities. People belong to complex ecosystems, and the role of the biophysical environment in offering challenges and opportunities to them is fundamental. After all, plants provide subsistence, shape culture and fund technologies. Therefore, understanding the way in which people interacted with their changing environment is essential. This PhD project will focus on the recovery, identification and analysis of archaeobotanical remains, specifically wood charcoal (anthracology), from rockshelter excavations to be conducted on Barrow Island over the next 3 years as part of an ARC Discovery project (Lead CI Prof. P. Veth). It aims to provide insights into Barrow Island’s past occupant’s use of changing plant resources, such as wood acquisition. Anthracology is based upon identifying woody taxa through anatomical characteristics via comparisons to modern reference material. It remains an underdeveloped area of study in Australia and as such, this project is one of a few pioneer applications of the discipline in our region. Examination of wood gathering strategies, favored taxa and vegetation communities represented in the assemblages will lead to inferences about past peoples movements throughout their surrounding landscape. Importantly, the examination and identification of archaeobotanical remains will provide us with a clearer understanding of the vegetation of which past peoples were once connected to, thus acting as a powerful tool for vegetation reconstruction. From 21,000 to 7,000 BP, Barrow Island was linked to the mainland as sea levels were lower. Anthracological analyses from occupation levels dating to this period should allow us to reconstruct the vegetation communities that were growing in the submerged plains, offering us a unique opportunity to visualize a now vanished landscape. The landscape transformations and resource availability caused by the past climatic changes would most certainly have influenced past peoples movements and use of their surrounding environment. Therefore, this project will examine how arid coastal foragers used the changing landscape - questioning how their mobility patterns would be reflected in their choice of economically significant plant resources.
This project will study unique archaeobotanical signatures of arid coastal foragers from caves sites uniquely positioned on Barrow Island, NW Australia. The thesis will address four topics of significance:
1. Identify vegetation communities and propose vegetation reconstruction
2. Examine taxa diversity and frequency throughout time
3. Determine the taxa which was used by past occupants to infer wood gathering strategies (avoidance/preference of specific taxa or of specific vegetation communities)
4. Address methodological considerations (such as the creation of a reference collection and testing of the discipline’s principles to the Australian context)