Monash University
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Changing places an archaeological study of Manilikarr Country in Western Arnhem Land

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posted on 2017-02-23, 02:11 authored by Shine, Denis
This thesis examines how human connections to place, specifically between the Manilikarr clan and their estate in the East Alligator River region of western Arnhem Land, have changed during the Holocene. I focus on the later Holocene, in particular the period since regional freshwater wetlands formed, as it is this environment that retains ontological significance for local Aboriginal groups in the East Alligator River region today. Aboriginal connections with place are also more decipherable in archaeological horizons that are comparable and contiguous with ethnographic records, as is frequently the case for ‘freshwater’ archaeological sites of recent times. As Aboriginal people engaged with wetlands, they created both freshwater places and personhoods through symbiotic processes of inscription. Freshwater landscapes in the East Alligator River region were imbued with memories, meanings and social significance and became crucial to Aboriginal economic, ecological and cosmological structures. My research examines both when, and how, processes of co-inscription between people and place occurred, primarily through archaeological excavations at three rock-shelters in Manilikarr Country (Ingaanjalwurr, Birriwilk and Bindjarran). The results of these excavations, together with subsidiary evidence from ethnographic recordings, historical sources, rock art research, and palaeoenvironmental studies, indicate that ethnographically recalled Aboriginal engagements with, and significations of, the freshwater landscape in Manilikarr Country emerged within the past 700 years. Customary Aboriginal connections with the freshwater environment remain culturally relevant today, although they are increasingly compromised by cultural change. The impacts of Western worldviews continue to pose enduring challenges for customary engagements with Country, especially among younger generations. Such challenges mean that research like that presented in this thesis, which examines Ancestral-into-present relations between wetland landscapes and people, is of social, cultural and political significance considering contemporary risks posed by rapid social and environmental change. While members of Manilikarr Country ethnographically identified as ‘freshwater people’ and continue to do so today, senior members are keenly aware that decreasing engagements of younger generations with their Ancestral landscapes (as Country) threatens the longevity and future of their identity as freshwater peoples. It is these connections to place and Country that form the subject of this thesis.


Principal supervisor

Bruno David

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Geography and Environmental Science


Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Arts

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