Australian Desert Perspectives


This project reviews and synthesizes the deep history of Australia’s deserts, charting the development of distinctive Aboriginal societies over 30 millennia.

Co-ordinator: Libby Robin
Australian National University/National Museum of Australia

Brief background to Australian perspectives on global change

In Australia, people were changing landscapes and ecological relations in the depths of the last Ice Age (although this period was characterised not so much by Ice as by continental aridity). Anthropogenic fire arrived in Australia some 55,000 years ago with modern humans, and hastened a trend, already started through the spread of lightning fire and continental drying out, that saw dominant tree species shift from Gondwanan rainforest species to dominant sclerophylly. About this time the grassland/shrubland composition of the interior deserts shifted significantly, altering the food available to herbivores. While habitat change may have partly been a result of continental drying-out (‘natural’ climate change), human fire regimes contributed to this trend.

Mandy Martin S Bend on the Mulligan, Toko Range, Simpson Desert (from Robin, Dickman and Martin eds, Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve (Melbourne, CSIRO 2011)

Whether the megafauna in Australia were hunted to extinction, or forced to extinction by changing habitats due to vegetation change, their demise around 45,000 years ago was story with anthropogenic dimensions long before the Pleistocene extinctions of Europe or North America.

In Australia the agricultural and industrial revolutions arrived simultaneously, with the arrival of the British in 1788, the second wave of humans. Australian history challenges the regular sequencing of human civilizations based on changing technologies (stone age, iron age, bronze age) that emerged in Europe and which has been argued to be ‘universal’.

Australia’s biogeographical isolation made its ecological history very different too. In Africa and many other places, prey animals co-evolved alongside hominins over periods up to 2.5 million years (the range of the genus Homo) or even longer (up to 4.5 million years) if the timespan of australopithecenes is included. Fully modern humans, Homo sapiens, appeared only about 100,000 years ago, so in evolutionary terms, were not a dominant influence on the evolutionary strategies of their prey.

The Australian continent, however, had a biota that had evolved entirely independently of hominids. The continental isolation gave the endemic biota no evolutionary exposure to anthropogenic fire or hunting technologies. When Australian animals finally did encounter hominids 55,000 years ago, they encountered fully-modern humans with advanced technologies.[i] In the words of George Seddon, the Australian continent ‘had a radically new technology imposed upon it, suddenly, twice.’

The Australian IHOPE group has two major complementary projects running under this header, mostly with a strong focus on its most dominant land system, the desert and semi-arid lands that account for about 70% of its modern land mass.

With the publication of the book “The Archaeology of Australia’s Desert,” Inside Story wrote an article about Mike Smith. Read the article here:

(1) The Archaeology of Australian Deserts



Mike Smith 2,1
Alan Williams 1


Alan Williams, A Continental Narrative: Time-Series Analysis of Prehistoric Populations and their response to Climate Change in Australia (Doctoral thesis, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University) Expected completion date 2014 (Supervisors: Libby Robin, Mike Smith, Will Steffen, Peter Hiscock).

Using data from 1,750 archaeological sites across Australia, this thesis explores the response of prehistoric populations to climatic change at local, regional and national scales. Specifically, the thesis has the following broad aims:
• Methodological exploration, development, and application of radiocarbon data manipulation in the form of sum probabilities and time-series analysis.
• The application of new methods (including time-series, z-scores, and geo-spatial techniques) to develop regional and national records of archaeological records and allow direct observational and statistical correlation with climatic records.
• The investigation and analysis of human population and behavior in response to key climatic events such as the Last Glacial Maximum, Antarctic Climate Reversal and onset of the El Nino Southern Oscillation.
• Exploring continent wide questions regarding prehistoric demography, colonization mechanics, and climatic refugia.

Radiocarbon datasets online September 2013 (Work of Alan Williams and colleagues)

AustArch1 and AustArch2 are useful sets of Microsoft® Excel® databases listing radiocarbon, luminescence and uranium series ages from archaeological sites across Australia for several years. AustArch3 can be found in Australian Archaeology (volume 76) The database covers southern Australia and includes 1898 ages from some 696 sites, derived from published and unpublished research over the past 55 years. In addition to radiocarbon data, there are 165 TL/OSL ages available. All three datasets (AustArch1, AustArch2 and AustArch3) are now available for free download from the AAA website through our Resources – Radiocarbon Datasets available here.


Key publications

M.A. Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013

Alan N. Williams A new population curve for prehistoric Australia Proc. R. Soc. B 2013 280, 20130486, published 24 April 2013

(2) A history of scientific endeavour in Australia’s drylands


Libby Robin 1,2,4
Mike Smith 2,1
Steve Morton 3


To document the dynamic interactions among landscapes, people and expanding desert knowledge; outcomes will include a combination of books and journal articles (Historical Records of Australian Science special issue 2014/2015).

The Horn Expedition of 1894 marks a starting point for the program, both because it was the beginning of ‘science’ in the Australian deserts (as distinct from exploration) and because it has been the subject of a reflective collection of essays, Exploring Central Australia. Our project aims to build on this seminal collection in order to review the insights that Australian arid-zone researchers have given to the scientific world as well as to examine the social and economic drivers that have determined the emphases and directions of that science.

The program will inevitably embrace and reflect upon the ‘desert knowledge’ revolution of the past 15 years.  The term desert knowledge has gained prominence in policy circles, and includes connections between science and societal demands for development of more effective livelihoods in desert Australia. Desert knowledge has a back story from the 1920 and 1930s, when Thomas Griffith Taylor and Francis Ratcliffe shone unwelcome spotlights on the struggle of the imperial ethos of development to succeed within the climatic and ecological realities of the inland.  Local scientific endeavour has always navigated a course through perceived economic need – combinations of pastoralism, mining and tourism – and international scientific trends.  Now, in the 21st Century, we see a flowering in the field of Indigenous livelihoods, accelerating through more active partnerships between Aboriginal people, and increasing Aboriginal leadership in science and in archaeology

This project aims to pause at this point and reflect on the development of scientific understandings of arid Australia, to identify principal directions, to outline the social and economic stimuli that guided the core questions investigated, to tell the stories of some of the major figures who undertook the research, and to place these understandings more broadly in international desert knowledge.

The central theme – to outline the history of scientific endeavour in arid Australia through understanding of the interactions among landscapes, people and expanding desert knowledge – draws from a dozen or so fields of scientific inquiry and of economic activity.  Not all elements will be dealt with in detail, particularly those that have already been well-covered elsewhere.

Key References

Smith, M. 2013. The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts by  424 pp, Cambridge University Press, New York.

S.R. Morton, D.M. Stafford Smith, C.R. Dickman et al., ‘A fresh framework for the ecology of arid Australia’, Journal of Arid Environments 75 (2011) 313—329

S.R. Morton and D.J. Mulvaney (eds) Exploring Central Australia : Society, the Environment and the 1894 Horn Expedition, (Chipping Norton: Surrey Beatty, 1996)

Libby Robin and Mike Smith, ‘Science in place and time: archaeology, ecology and environmental history’, in Chris Dickman, Daniel Lunney and Shelley Burgin (eds.) Animals of Arid Australia: Out on their Own?, Mosman, RZSNSW, 188-196.

Mark Stafford Smith and Julian Cribb, Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land (Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing, 2009)

Read here

Affiliated Institutions

1. Australian National University (Fenner School of Environment and Society)
2. National Museum of Australia, Canberra Australia 
3. CSIRO (Arid Zone Research Institute, Alice Springs) 
4. Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm (KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory)

Related Websites

Relevant Publications

Desert science and Anthropocene IHOPE pubs


Scholarly Books:
Robin, Libby, Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde (eds) The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change New Haven: Yale University Press 2013 (565pp.) (WINNER 2013 New England Book Prize for Anthologies)

Robin, Libby, Christopher R. Dickman and Mandy Martin (eds) Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve, Melbourne, CSIRO Publishing. DP0665034 Hardback 2010: Paperback 2011.

Robin, Libby, Robert Heinsohn and Leo Joseph (eds) Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, Melbourne, CSIRO Publishing. 2009 WINNER WHITLEY MEDAL 2009
Robin, Libby, How a Continent Created a Nation, Sydney, UNSW Press. 2007 WINNER NSW PREMIER’S PRIZE FOR AUSTRALIAN HISTORY 2007

Martin, Mandy, Libby Robin and Mike Smith, Strata: Deserts Past, Present and Future, Mandurama: Mandy Martin with Land and Water Australia. 2005

Sherratt, Tim, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds) A change in the weather: Climate and culture in Australia, Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press. 2005

Refereed Chapters in Scholarly Books
Robin, Libby: ‘A Future beyond Numbers’. In Welcome to the Anthropocene. The Earth in Our Hands, Nina Möllers, Christian Schwägerl, and Helmuth Trischler (eds.) (Munich: Deutsches Museum, 2015). [in press]
Robin, Libby: “Eine Zukunft jenseits von Zahlen.” In Willkommen im Anthropozän. Unsere Verantwortung für die Zukunft der Erde, ed. by Nina Möllers, Christian Schwägerl and Helmuth Trischler, Munich: Deutsches Museum, 2014, pp. 19-24

Robin, Libby ‘Biological Diversity as a Political Force in Australia’ in Marco Armiero and Lise Sedrez (eds.) A History of Environmentalism: Local Struggles, Global Histories, NY: Bloomsbury Continuum Books, 2014: pp. 38–55.

Robin, Libby ‘Biography and Scientific Endeavour’ in Christof Mauch and Libby Robin (eds). The Edges of Environmental History: Honouring Jane Carruthers, Munich, RCC Perspectives, 2014, no. 1, 93—99.
Robin, Libby ‘Resilience in the Anthropocene: A Biography’, in Jodi Frawley and Iain McCalman (eds.) Rethinking Invasion Ecologies from the Environmental Humanities, London Routledge (Environmental Humanities), 2014, pp 45—63.

Robin, Libby, Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde, ‘Documenting Global Change’ in Robin, Sörlin and Warde (eds) The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change New Haven: Yale University Press 2013: 1—14

Robin, Libby ‘Ecology: How do we understand natural systems?’ in Robin, Sörlin and Warde (eds) The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change New Haven: Yale University Press 2013:205-208; 220-233; 245-260
Robin, Libby ‘The Anthropocene: How can we live in a world where there is no nature without people?’ in Robin, Sörlin and Warde (eds) The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change New Haven: Yale University Press 2013:479 -482.

Robin, Libby, Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde ‘Reducing the Future to Climate: Commentary’ in Robin, Sörlin and Warde (eds) The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change New Haven: Yale University Press 2013: 506—525.

Robin, Libby 2012. ‘Australia in Global Environmental History’, Chapter 11 in J. R. McNeill and Erin Stewart Mauldin (Eds.) A Companion to Global Environmental History, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-4443-3534-7. pp. 182-195.

Robin, Libby 2012. ‘Seasons and Nomads: Reflections on Bioregionalism in Australia’ in Tom Lynch, Cheryll Glotfelty and Karla Armbruster (eds.) The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place, Georgia FL, University of Georgia Press, pp 278–294. DP0665034

Robin, Libby 2011. ‘History for Global Anxiety’, in The Future of Environmental History: Needs and Opportunities (RCC Perspectives 2011, Issue 3) [eds: Kimberly Coulter and Christof Mauch], Munich: Germany, pp. 41-44

Robin, Libby 2010. ‘Perceptions of place and deep time in the Australian desert: using art in environmental history’ in Timo Myllyntaus (ed) Thinking through the Environment, Cambridge: White Horse Press, 81-99
Robin, Libby and Mike Smith 2010. ‘Desert Channels: A Continental Perspective’, in Robin, Dickman and Martin (eds) Desert Channels: xii-xvii DP0665034

Robin, Libby ‘New science for sustainability in an ancient land’, in Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde (eds) Nature’s End: History and the Environment, London and New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009: 188-211.

Robin, Libby 2009. ‘Emu: National Symbols and Ecological Limits’ in in Robin, Heinsohn and Joseph (eds) Boom and Bust: 241-66

Robin, Libby and Mike Smith 2009. ‘Introduction: Boom and Bust’, in Robin, Heinsohn and Joseph (eds) Boom and Bust: 1-5

Robin, Libby and Leo Joseph 2009, ‘The Boom and Bust Desert World: A Bird’s Eye View’ in Robin, Heinsohn and Joseph (eds) Boom and Bust: 6-34

Robin, Libby 2007. ‘Ecology and Identity: Australians Caring for Deserts’, in David Callahan (ed) Australia: Who Cares? Perth: API network/EASA, 85-105.

Robin, Libby and Mike Smith 2006. ‘Science in place and time: archaeology, ecology and environmental history’, in Chris Dickman, Daniel Lunney and Shelley Burgin (eds.) Animals of Arid Australia: Out on their Own?, Mosman, RZSNSW, 188-196.

Robin, Libby, 2005. ‘Migrants and Nomads’ in Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds) A change in the weather: climate and culture in Australia, Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press: 42-53. .
(Refereed journal articles:

Dickman, Christopher R. and Libby Robin, 2014. ‘Putting Science in its Place: The Role of Sandringham Station in Fostering Arid Zone Science in Australia’, Historical Records of Australian Science, 2014, 25, 186–201

Robin, Libby, Steve Morton and Mike Smith 2014. ‘Writing a History of Scientific Endeavour in Australia’s Deserts’ Historical Records of Australian Science, 2014, 25, 143–152

Bergthaller, Hannes, Rob Emmett, Adeline Johns-Putra, Agnes Kneitz, Susanna Lidström, Shane McCorristine, Isabel Pérez Ramos, Dana Phillips, Kate Rigby and Libby Robin, 2014. ‘Mapping Common Ground: Ecocriticism, Environmental History, and the Environmental Humanities’, Environmental Humanities Vol. 5 (November 2014), pp. 561–576.

Robin, Libby, Dag Avango, Luke Keogh, Nina Möllers, Bernd Scherer and Helmuth Trischler, 2014 ‘Three Galleries of the Anthropocene’, The Anthropocene Review Vol. 1(3) 2014. pp 207–224 doi:10.1177/2053019614550533

Robin, Libby 2014. ‘Wilderness in a Global Age, Fifty Years On’ (Special Wilderness Act Retrospective Forum) Environmental History, Vol 19(4), October 2014: pp. 721-727

Castree, Noel, William Adams, John Barry, Dan Brockington, Bram Büscher, Esteve Corbera, David Demeritt, Rosaleen Duffy, Ulrike Felt, Katja Neves, Peter Newell, Luigi Pellizzoni, Katherine Rigby, Libby Robin, Paul Robbins, Deborah Bird Rose, Andrew Ross, David Schlosberg, Paige West, Sverker Sörlin, Mark Whitehead, and Brian Wynne, 2014 ‘Changing the Intellectual Climate’, Nature Climate Change, September 2014 Volume 4 Number 9, pp. 763-768 (published 27 August 2014) doi:10.1038/nclimate2339

Robin, Libby 2013. ‘The Love-Hate Relationship with Land in Australia: Presenting “Exploitation and Sustainability” in Museums’ Nova Acta Leopoldina Neue Folge (NAL) (Interdisciplinary Journal of the German Academy of Sciences) 114, No. 390: 47-63.

Robin, Libby 2013. ‘Histories for Changing Times: Entering the Anthropocene?’, Australian Historical Studies, 44(3): 329-340 DOI: 10.1080/1031461X.2013.817455.

Robin, Libby 2012. ‘Global ideas in local places: The humanities in environmental management’, Environmental Humanities 1 (2012): 69–84

Other publications
Robin, Libby 2012 ‘Little Desert – When Diversity Won’, Wildlife Australia 50(2):