Archaeobotany of Aboriginal plant foods during the Holocene at Riwi, south central Kimberley, Western Australia

  • India Ella Dilkes-HallEmail author
  • Jane Balme
  • Sue O’Connor
  • Emilie Dotte-Sarout
Original Article


Riwi, a limestone cave located in the south central Kimberley, northwest Western Australia, has one of the most accurately dated archaeological sequences in Australia, with human occupation beginning between 46,400 and 44,600 cal bp. Macrobotanical remains are well preserved at the site, particularly in upper stratigraphic units 1 and 2 dated to the late and mid-Holocene, respectively. Macrobotanical materials (excluding wood charcoal) are uncommon in Pleistocene contexts, and direct dating of some of the macrobotanical remains recovered from Pleistocene hearths suggest that they derive from the directly superposed Holocene layers. Analysis of the macrobotanical remains from the Holocene layers reveals a pattern where Aboriginal groups occupying Riwi intermittently between 7,000 years ago and the present principally exploited monsoon rainforest ecosystems for food plants, especially Vitex cf. glabrata. Fruiting times of dominant monsoon rainforest taxa indicate that the site was occupied seasonally, corresponding with periods of rainfall when people were able to move away from rivers and other permanent water sources. Results demonstrate a strong cultural preference for fruits associated with monsoon rainforest—a vegetation type restricted in distribution—highlighting the importance of moisture retaining limestone outcrops in foragers’ subsistence organisation in the south central Kimberley.


Australian archaeology Macrobotanical remains Economic plants Monsoon rainforest Holocene 



The authors would like to thank the Mimbi community, especially Rosemary Nuggett, for sharing their traditional ecological knowledge and for their assistance with field work. Gooniyandi Traditional Owners, June Davis and Helen Malo, were especially generous in sharing their traditional ecological knowledge. This study has benefited from the botanical expertise of Russell Lindsay Barrett, Matthew David Barrett, and Kevin Kenneally whom we thank for sharing their knowledge on Kimberley flora and assistance with taxonomic identifications. Thank you to Dorcas Vannieuwenhuyse, who produced Figs. 3 and 4a, b. This research was funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage Grant LP100200415 ‘Lifeways of the First Australians’ with contributions from the Kimberley Foundation Australia and the Department of Sustainability, Water, Populations, and Communities, awarded to O’Connor and Balme. Flora were collected in Windjana Gorge National Park with appropriate Regulation 4 Authority-8 and Scientific or Other Prescribed Purposes Licenses. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.

Supplementary material

334_2019_744_MOESM1_ESM.xlsx (27 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (XLSX 26 kb)
334_2019_744_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (1.5 mb)
Supplementary material 2 (PDF 1584 kb)


  1. Asmussen B (2005) Dangerous harvest revisited: taphonomy, methodology and intensification in the Central Queensland Highlands, Australia. PhD, Australian National University, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  2. Atchison J (2000) Continuity and change: a late Holocene and post contact history of Aboriginal environmental interaction and vegetation process from the Keep River region, Northern Territory. PhD, University of Wollongong, WollongongGoogle Scholar
  3. Atchison J, Head L, Fullagar R (2005) Archaeobotany of fruit seed processing in a monsoon savanna environment: evidence from the Keep River region, Northern Territory. Aust J Archaeol Sci 32:167–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Atlas of Living Australia (2018) Atlas of Living Australia. Accessed Feb 2018
  5. Balme J (2000) Excavations revealing 40,000 years of occupation at Mimbi Caves, south central Kimberley, Western Australia. Aust Archaeol 51:1–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Balme J (2013) Of boats and string: the maritime colonisation of Australia. Quat Int 285:68–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Balme J, O’Connor S, Maloney T, Vannieuwenhuyse D, Aplin K, Dilkes-Hall IE (2019) Long-term occupation on the edge of the desert: Riwi Cave in the southern Kimberley, Western Australia. Archaeol Oceania 54:35–52. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Beard JS (1979) The vegetation of the Kimberley area: explanatory notes to sheet 1. University of Western Australia Press, PerthGoogle Scholar
  9. Beaton JM (1982) Fire and water: aspects of Australian Aboriginal management of cycads. Archaeol Oceania 17:51–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Beck W (1982) Aboriginal preparation of Cycas seeds in Australia. Econ Bot 46:133–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Beck W, Balme J (2003) Dry rainforests: a productive habitat for Australian hunter-gatherers. Aust Aborig Stud 2:4–20Google Scholar
  12. Begg RJ, Dunlop CR (1980) Security eating, and diet in the large rock-rat, Zyzomys woodwardi (Rodentia:Muridae). Aust Wildl Res 7:63–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bowman DMJS (2005) Grass, fire and ecological engineering. Australas Sci 26:20–22Google Scholar
  14. Bowman DMJS, Cook GD (2002) Can stable carbon isotopes (∂13C) in soil carbon be used to describe the dynamics of Eucalyptus savanna–rainforest boundaries in the Australian monsoon tropics? Aust Ecol 27:94–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bowman DMJS, Panton WJ (1993) Decline of Callitris intratropica R. T. Baker & H. G. Smith in the Northern Territory: implications for pre- and post-European colonization fire regimes. J Biogeogr 20:373–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Bowman DMJS et al (2010) Biogeography in the Australian Monsoon Tropics. J Biogeogr 37:201–216CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bronk Ramsey C (2009) Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 51:337–360CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Bureau of Meteorology (1996) Kimberley, Western Australia: climatic survey. Australian Government Publishing Service, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  19. Bush LL (2004) Boundary conditions: macrobotanical remains and the Oliver Phase of central Indiana, AD 1200-1450. University of Alabama Press, TuscaloosaGoogle Scholar
  20. Cane S (1987) Australian Aboriginal subsistence in the Western Desert. Hum Ecol 15:391–434CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Clarke A (1987) An analysis of archaeobotanical data from two Sites in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. MA, University of Western Australia, CrawleyGoogle Scholar
  22. Clarke PA (2012) Australian plants as Aboriginal tools. Rosenberg Publishing, KenthurstGoogle Scholar
  23. Clayton-Greene KA, Beard JS (1985) The fire factor in vine thicket and woodland vegetation of the Admiralty Gulf Region, northwest Kimberley, Western Australia. Proc Ecol Soc Aust 13:225–230Google Scholar
  24. Cordain L, Miller JB, Eaton SB, Mann N, Holt SHA, Speth JD (2000) Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. Am J Clin Nutr 71:682–692CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Cosgrove R, Field J, Ferrier A (2007) The archaeology of Australia’s tropical rainforests. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 251:150–173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Crawford IM (1982) Traditional Aboriginal plant resources in the Kalumburu area: aspects in ethno-economics. Records of the Western Australian Museum 15. Western Australian Museum, PerthGoogle Scholar
  27. Davis J, Street M, Malo H, Cherel I, Woodward E (2011) Mingayooroo—Manyi Waranggiri Yarrangi. Gooniyandi seasons (calendar) Margaret River, Fitzroy Valley, Western Australia. CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, DarwinGoogle Scholar
  28. Denham T et al (2009) Archaeobotany in Australia and New Guinea: practice, potential and prospects. Aust Archaeol 68:1–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Dennell R (1976) The economic importance of plant resources represented on archaeological sites. J Archaeol Sci 3:229–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Dietsch M-F (1996) Gathered fruits and cultivated plants at Bercy (Paris), a Neolithic village in a fluvial context. Veget Hist Archaeobot 5:89–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Dilkes-Hall IE, O’Connor S, Balme J (2019) People-plant interaction and economic botany over 47,000 years of occupation at Carpenter’s Gap 1, south central Kimberley. Aust Archaeol 85:30–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Dilkes-Hall IE, Davis J, Malo H (in press) “Doog girndi”. Using experimental archaeology to understand the archaeobotanical record: an investigation of mid-Holocene Vitex glabrata fruit processing in Gooniyandi Country, northwest Australia. The Artefact. Accepted for publication 2 July 2019Google Scholar
  33. Doonday B et al (2013) Walmajarri plant & animals: Aboriginal biocultural knowledge from the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area, southern Kimberley, Australia. Northern Territory Botanical Bulletin 42. Paruku IPA, Mulan Aboriginal Community, Halls CreekGoogle Scholar
  34. Dotte-Sarout E, Carah X, Byrne C (2015) Not just carbon: assessment and prospects for the application of anthracology in Oceania. Archaeol Oceania 50:1–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Edgar J et al (1997) Mayi: some bush fruits of the west Kimberley. Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, BroomeGoogle Scholar
  36. Fairbairn A (2007) Seeds from the slums: archaeobotanical investigations at Mountain street, Ultimo, Sydney, New South Wales. Aust Archaeol 64:1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Ferrier A, Cosgrove R (2012) Aboriginal exploitation of toxic nuts as a late-Holocene subsistence strategy in Australia’s tropical rainforests. Terra Australis 34:103–120Google Scholar
  38. Field E, McGowan H, Mos PT, Marx SK (2017) A late quaternary record of monsoon variability in the northwest Kimberley, Australia. Quat Int 449:119–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Fitzsimmons KE et al (2013) Late quaternary palaeoenvironmental change in the Australian drylands. Quat Sci Rev 74:78–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Florin SA (2013) Archaeobotanical investigations into plant food use at Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II). Unpublished honours dissertation, University of Queensland, St. Lucia QueenslandGoogle Scholar
  41. Ford RI (1979) Paleoethnobotany in American archaeology. In: Schiffer MB (ed) Advances in archaeological method and theory, vol 2. Academic Press, New York, pp 285–336Google Scholar
  42. Forster PI (1991) A taxonomic revision of Cynanchum L. (Asclepiadaceae: Asclepiadoideae) in Australia. Austrobaileya 3:443–466Google Scholar
  43. Fritz G, Nesbitt M (2014) Laboratory analysis and identification of plant macroremains. In: Marston JM, D’alpoim Guedes J, Warinner C (eds) Method and theory in paleoethnobotany. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, pp 115–145Google Scholar
  44. Gallagher DE (2014) Formation processes of the macrobotanical record. In: Marston JM, D’alpoim Guedes J, Warinner C (eds) Method and Theory in Paleoethnobotany. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, pp 19–34Google Scholar
  45. Gamage HK, Mondal S, Wallis LA, Memmott P, Martin D, Wright BR, Schmidt S (2012) Indigenous and modern biomaterials derived from Triodia (‘spinifex’) grasslands in Australia. Aust J Bot 60:114–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Gorst JR (2002) Indigenous fruits of Australia. Acta Hortic 575:555–561CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Gould RA (1969) Subsistence behaviour among the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia. Oceania 39:253–274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Head L, Atchison J, Fullagar R (2002) Country and garden: ethnobotany, archaeobotany and Aboriginal landscapes near the Keep River, northwestern Australia. J Soc Archaeol 2:173–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Hesse PP, Magee JW, van der Kaars S (2004) Late quaternary climates of the Australian arid zone: a review. Quat Int 118–119:87–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Hogg AG et al (2013) SHCal13 southern hemisphere calibration, 0-50,000 years cal B.P. Radiocarbon 55:1889–1903CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kakudidi EKZ, Lazarides M, Carnahan JA (1988) A revision of Enneapogon (Poaceae, Pappophoreae) in Australia. Aust Syst Bot 1:325–353CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kamminga J (1988) Wood artefacts: a checklist of plants utilised by Australian Aborigines. Aust Aborig Stud 2:26–56Google Scholar
  53. Karadada J et al (2011) Uunguu plants and animals: Aboriginal biological knowledge from Wunambal Gaambera Country in the north-west Kimberley, Australia. Northern Territory Botanical Bulletin 35. Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation, Wyndham, W.A.Google Scholar
  54. Kenneally KF, Beard JS (1987) Rain forests of Western Australia. The rainforest legacy: Australian National Rainforests Study, vol 1—the nature, distribution and status of rainforest types. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, pp 289–304Google Scholar
  55. Kenneally KF, Keighery GJ, Hyland BPM (1991) Floristics and phytogeography of Kimberley rainforests, Western Australia. In: McKenzie NL, Johnston RB, Kendrick PG (eds) Kimberley rainforests Australia. Surrey Beatty & Sons, Chipping Norton, pp 93–132Google Scholar
  56. Kenneally KF, Edinger DC, Willing T (1996) Broome and beyond: plants and people of the Dampier Peninsula, Kimberley, Western Australia. Department of Conservation and Land Management, Broome Botanical Society, Western Australia, Western AustraliaGoogle Scholar
  57. Kimberley Land Council (2019) Native title map. Accessed 13 May 2019
  58. Latz PK (1982) Bushfires and bushtucker: Aborigines and plants in central Australia. MA, University of New England, Armidale, New South WalesGoogle Scholar
  59. Latz PK (1995) Bushfires and bushtucker: Aboriginal plant use in central Australia. IAD Press, Alice SpringsGoogle Scholar
  60. Lowe T (1991) Wild plant foods of Australia. Australian nature fieldguide, Revised edn. HarperCollins Publishers, SydneyGoogle Scholar
  61. Mangglamarra G, Burbridge AA, Fuller PJ (1991) Wunambal words for rainforest and other Kimberley plants and animals. In: McKenzie NL, Johnston RB, Kendrick PG (eds) Kimberley rainforests of Australia. Surrey Beatty & Sons, Chipping Norton, pp 413–421Google Scholar
  62. Marinval P (1999) Les fruits et leurs usages au travers des restes archéologiques: en France, de la Préhistoire á l’Antiquité. In: Chauvet M (ed) Le patrimoine fruitier. Hier aujourd’hui, demain. Actes du colloque de La Ferté Bernard (Sarthe), 16-17 octobre 1998. AFCEV, Paris, pp 53-64Google Scholar
  63. Martin S (2014) Bush Tukka guide: identify Australian plants and animals, and learn how to cook. Explore Australia Publishing, RichmondGoogle Scholar
  64. McArthur M (1960) Food consumption and dietary levels of groups of Aborigines living on naturally occuring foods. In: Mountford CP (ed) Record of the American-Australian expedition in Arnhem Land, vol II. Anthropology and Nutrition. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, pp 90–135Google Scholar
  65. McConnell K (1997) Palaeoethnobotanical remains of Carpenter’s Gap Site 1, the Kimberleys, Western Australia. MSc, Australian National University, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  66. McDonald WJF (1998) Spatial and temporal patterns in the dry seasonal subtropical rainforests of eastern Australia, with particular reference to the vine thickets of central and southern Queensland. PhD, University of New England, Armidale, New South WalesGoogle Scholar
  67. McKenzie NL, Belbin L, Keighery GJ, Kenneally KF (1991) Kimberley rainforest communities: patterns of species composition and Holocene biogeography. In: McKenzie NL, Johnston RB, Kendrick PG (eds) Kimberley rainforests of Australia. Surrey Beatty & Sons, Chipping Norton, pp 423–451Google Scholar
  68. Meehan B (1989) Plant use in a contemporary Aboriginal community and prehistoric implications. In: Beck W, Clarke A, Head L (eds) Plants in Australian archaeology. Tempus: archaeology and material culture studies in anthropology 1. Anthropology Museum, St. Lucia Queensland, pp 14–30Google Scholar
  69. Miksicek CH (1987) Formation processes of the archaeobotanical record. Adv Archaeol Method Theory 10:211–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Minnis PE (1981) Seeds in archaeological sites: sources and some interpretive problems. Am Antiqu 46:143–152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Nesbitt M, Colledge S, Murray MA (2003) Organisation and management of seed reference collections. Environ Archaeol 8:77–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Nuggett J, Nuggett A, Bangu N, Hand M, Kogolo A, Woodward E (2011) Walmajarrijarti Wangki Martuwarra Kadaji. Walmajarri words from the riverside, Fitzroy Valley, Western Australia. CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, DarwinGoogle Scholar
  73. O’Connell JF, Latz PK, Barnett P (1983) Traditional and modern plant use among the Alyawara of Central Australia. Econ Bot 37:80–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Paddy E, Paddy S, Smith M (1993) Boonyja Bardag Gorna: all trees are good for something, 2nd edn. Western Australian Museum, PerthGoogle Scholar
  75. Pearsall DM (2010) Paleoethnobotany: a handbook of procedures, 2nd edn. Left Coast Press, Walnut CreekGoogle Scholar
  76. Pittman HT (2010) Pointless spinifex? An investigation of Indigenous use of spinifex throughout Australia. Honours Thesis, Flinders University of South Australia, AdelaideGoogle Scholar
  77. Pittman HT, Wallis LA (2012) The point of spinifex: Aboriginal uses of spinifex grasses in Australia. Ethnobot Res Appl 10:109–131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Playford G, Hocking RM, Cockbain AE (2009) Devonian reef complexes of the Canning Basin, Western Australia. Geological Survey of Western Australia Bulletin 145. Government of Western Australia, PerthGoogle Scholar
  79. Price O, Bowman DMJS (1994) Fire-stick forestry: a matrix model in support of skilful fire management of Callitris intratropica R. T. Baker by north Australian Aborigines. J Biogeogr 21:573–580CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Rangan H et al (2015) New genetic and linguistic analyses show ancient human influence on baobab evolution and distribution in Australia. PLoS ONE 10:e0119758. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Rossetto M et al (2017) From songlines to genomes: prehistoric assisted migration of a rain forest tree by Australian Aboriginal people. PLoS ONE 12:e0186663. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Roth WE (1901) String, and other forms of strand: basketry-, woven bag-, and net-work. North Queensland Ethnography Bulletin 1. Government Printer, BrisbaneGoogle Scholar
  83. Russell-Smith J (1985) A record of change: studies of Holocene vegetation history in the south Alligator Region, Northern Territory. Proc Ecol Soc Aust 13:191–202Google Scholar
  84. Russell-Smith J (2001) Pre-contact Aboriginal, and contemporary fire regimes of the savanna landscapes of northern Australia: patterns, changes and ecological responses. Ngoonjook 20:6–32Google Scholar
  85. Russell-Smith J, Bowman DMJS (1992) Conservation of monsoon rainforest isolates in the Northern Territory, Australia. Biol Conserv 59:51–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Russell-Smith J, Ryan PG, Klessa D, Waight G, Harwood R (1998) Fire regimes, fire-sensitive vegetation and fire management of the sandstone Arnhem Plateau, monsoonal northern Australia. J Appl Ecol 35:829–846CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Scarlett NH (1985) A preliminary account of the ethnobotany of the Kija people of Bungle Bungle outcamp. East Kimberley Working Paper 6. Center for Resource and Environmental Studies, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  88. Smith M (1982) Late Pleistocene zamia exploitation in southern Western Australia. Archaeol Oceania 17:117–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Smith M, Kalotas AC (1985) Bardi plants: an annotated list of plants and their use by the Bardi Aborigines of Dampierland, northwestern Australia. Rec West Aust Mus 12:317–359Google Scholar
  90. Specht RL (1958) An introduction to the ethnobotany of Arnhem Land. In: Specht RL, Mountford CP (eds) Records of the American-Australian Scientific expedition to Arnhem Land, vol 3. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, pp 479–503Google Scholar
  91. Van der Veen M (2007) Formation processes of desiccated and carbonized plant remains—the identification of routine practice. J Archaeol Sci 34:968–990CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Vannieuwenhuyse D (2016) Mind the gap: geoarchaeology and micromorphology of cave and rockshelter sequences from the Kimberley, north-west Australia. PhD, University of Western Australia, CrawleyGoogle Scholar
  93. Webb LJ (1959) The use of plant medicines and poisons by Australian Aborigines. Mankind 7:137–146Google Scholar
  94. Wheeler JR (ed) (1992) Flora of the Kimberley region. Department of Conservation and Land Management, PerthGoogle Scholar
  95. Whitau R, Balme J, O’Connor S, Wood R (2017) Wood charcoal analysis at Riwi cave, Gooniyandi country, Western Australia. Quat Int 457:140–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Whitau R, Vannieuwenhuyse D, Dotte-Sarout E, Balme J, O’Connor S (2018) Home is where the hearth is: anthracological and microstratigraphic analyses of Pleistocene and Holocene combustion features, Riwi Cave (Kimberley, Western Australia). J Archaeol Method Theory 25:739–776CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Wightman G (2003) Plants and animals of Kija and Jaru Country: Aboriginal knowledge conservation and ethnobiological research in the Upper Ord Catchment, Western Australia. Australian Government Land & Water Australia, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  98. Williams CJ (2013) Medicinal plants in Australia. Volume 4, an antipodean apothecary. Rosenberg Publishing, DuralGoogle Scholar
  99. Wiynjorrotj P et al (2005) Jawoyn plants and animals: Aboriginal flora and fauna knowledge from Nitmiluk National Park and the Katherine area, Northern Australia. Northern Territory Botanical Bulletin 29. Jawoyn Association, KatherineGoogle Scholar
  100. Wood R, Jacobs Z, Vannieuwenhuyse D, Balme J, O’Connor S, Whitau R (2016) Towards an accurate and precise chronology for the colonization of Australia: the example of Riwi, Kimberley, Western Australia. PLoS ONE 11:e0160123. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Archaeology, M257, School of Social SciencesUniversity of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  2. 2.Archaeology and Natural History, School of Culture, History, and Language, College of Asia and the PacificAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  3. 3.ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and HeritageAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  4. 4.School of Archaeology and AnthropologyAustralian National UniversityActonAustralia

Personalised recommendations