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1991 …2024

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On Gunditjmara Country in SW Victoria with Richard Frankland interviewing Ian McNiven about the c.1830s Convincing Ground Massacre

 On Eastern Maar Country in SW Victoria with Uncle Robbie Lowe, Ian McNiven, and colleagues discussing the Moyjil site

 On Dingaal Country in N Qld with Neil Oliver and Ian McNiven discussing middens


The past for the future

ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHAEOLOGIST Professor Ian McNiven is digging in support of Australian Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Papua New Guinean communities - with international ramifications. His work is changing understandings of First Nations societies and what it was like before and after European arrival/invasion. Fundamental to Ian's approach to research is Indigenous community engagement and involvement and ensuring that all of his research projects are collaborative projects where Indigenous communities are central to research development, implementation, analysis, interpretation, and outreach and outputs.

One of Ian's largest undertakings has been in far north Queensland, where he has helped Torres Strait Islanders with the world's largest native title claim over the sea.

'I was the archaeological expert witness. I was requested to provide detailed background documentation about who Torres Strait Islanders were in the past to assist Justice Paul Finn of the Federal Court of Australia make assessments of the degree of cultural continuity between current generations of Torres Strait Islanders and their ancestors.'

Legal precedents are nothing new for the region, however: 'Torres Strait Islanders seem to lead the way here, with native title claims for the land (the historic Mabo decision), and now they've done the same with the sea. They like going for it.'

Ian's expertise comes from having investigated over the past 20 years the origins of Torres Strait Islander maritime specialisation.

'They're one of the most specialised maritime cultures in the world, but with lower sea levels ten thousand years ago, Torres Strait was Torres Plain - dry land studded with isolated hills.'

'Why do you have this archipelago now, with these incredible marine specialists, hunting turtles and dugongs, and eating four hundred different species of marine foods? Through our archaeological research out of Monash University, we have been able to track the development of Torres Strait Islander society over the past 9000 years.'

Also off the Queensland coast, Ian has been involved in studying the archaeology of Aboriginal use of the Great Barrier Reef. This research has been a collaboration between Ian and the Darumbal (Shoalwater Bay region) and also between Ian, JCU archaeologists, and the Dingaal (Lizard Island north of Cairns).

In Darumbal sea country 'On the southern Great Barrier Reef, we've excavated a site on an island off the coast of Shoalwater Bay that reveals Aboriginal use of marine resources back to 5500 years ago. To get to the island required a canoe voyage across some 25 kilometres of open sea. That is no mean feat in a bark canoe.'

'It is interesting to think that at 5500 years ago, Polynesia wasn't even on the human global map. There's nobody in the remote Pacific at this time. It's empty of people. There's no such thing as 'Hawaiians', there's no such thing as 'Easter Islanders'. There are no people in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa and New Zealand - these people don't exist at this time. The Pacific was a different world back then, and Aboriginal Australians were some of its earliest voyagers.'

One of Ian's biggest endeavours, however, has been excavations associated with development projects in Papua New Guinea.

'Basically, we had every single archaeology student and more from the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, and more from around the world, salvaging archaeological sites before ExxonMobil built their 10 billion dollar liquified gas plant. We would have twenty or so university students digging with us every day - and so we were helping train the future generation of archaeologists in Papua New Guinea. It was an incredibly rewarding exercise.'

Ian has also been instrumental in lobbying for what would has become Victoria's second World Heritage listing: the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape centring on Lake Condah in the Western District. This landscape contains extraordinary evidence of ancient Aboriginal aquaculture belonging to the Gunditjmara people.

'We've got fish traps going back at least 6600 years, making them some of the world's oldest. The complexity of it is outstanding - really on a world scale.'

Working closely in partnership with the Gunditjmara people, Ian's discoveries are helping to force a re-evaluation of Aboriginal Australians as strictly foragers.

In July 2019, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. This is a great achievement for the Gunditjmara community and a major opportunity for this heritage to be shared with the world.

Some of the best work to come out of the excavations in western Victoria, however, has been cross-cultural, rather than archaeological.

'The excavations have been through my field methods class. Because the Aboriginal community owns the land, I get to introduce the students to a completely new dimension of Australia, and it's probably that dimension which has been the most significant to them. The students can see how the Gunditjmara manage, and look after, their landscapes - that's the big eye opener for them.'

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 2 - Zero Hunger
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 14 - Life Below Water
  • SDG 15 - Life on Land
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Collaborations and top research areas from the last five years

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