Shell mounds as the basis for understanding human-environment interactions in far north Queensland, Australia


  • J. S. Shiner Rio Tinto Alcan Pty Ltd
  • P. C. Fanning Department of Environment and Geography, Macquarie University
  • S. J. Holdaway Department of Anthropology, The University of Auckland
  • F. Petchey Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory, University of Waikato
  • C. Beresford Department of Anthropology, The University of Auckland
  • E. Hoffman Department of Anthropology, The University of Auckland
  • B. Larsen Department of Anthropology, The University of Auckland



The Weipa shell mounds have a long history of archaeological research that has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the emergence of late Holocene coastal economies in northern Australia. However, much of this work has focused on broad comparisons of mounds between multiple locations rather than detailed studies of multiple mounds from single locations. This level of analysis is required to understand the record of both human occupation and environmental change and how these have given rise to the form of archaeological record visible in the present. In this paper we describe the results of a recent pilot study of four Anadara granosa-dominated shell mounds at Wathayn Outstation near Weipa in far north Queensland. We adopt a formational approach that investigates variability in shape, size, orientation, stratigraphy, shell fragmentation and diversity and mound chronology, as well as dating of the surfaces upon which the mounds have been constructed. Results indicate multiple periods of shell accumulation in each mound, separated by hiatuses. The mounds are the end product of a complex mix of processes that include how often and how intensively mounds were used and reused, together with the nature of the shell populations that people exploited and the post-depositional environmental changes that have occurred over the centuries the mounds have existed.