Associate Professor Morley was awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to apply his techniques to better understand the dispersal of early humans eastwards from Africa into Southeast Asia, and beyond into Australia. The work was put on hold due to travel restrictions over 2020 and 2021.
“I’m delighted to be able to resume this work in early 2023, and will be travelling to Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and East Timor to collect samples, as well as various sites across Australia,” he says. “I’m interested to understand these past landscapes – what the areas looked like, whether rivers flowed through them and the sorts of vegetation that grew.”
New evidence about the nature of former landscapes in Asia and Australia will help scientists better understand how humans and related human species such as Homo floresiensis (identified in Indonesia), Homo luzonensis (identified in the Philippines) and the Denisovans (first identified in Siberia but now evidenced in Laos) survived and maybe even co-existed with members of our own species, Homo sapiens, in this region more than 50,000 years ago.
While COVID-related travel restrictions temporarily closed a door, another one opened: Associate Professor Morley’s research opportunities in Australian landscapes have expanded significantly in recent years.
“I’m working with colleagues on sites in Southern Queensland where Aboriginal huts called gunyahs were constructed in the past,” he says. “We’re looking in sediments for evidence of preserved floor surfaces to see how long those houses were used over time, to learn what kinds of fuel were used for fireplaces and to reveal other hints about the past lives of people living here.”
Associate Professor Morley has also been working closer to home at Naracoorte Caves in South Australia, using his micromorphology technique to better understand the history of the important paleontological record in the caves and reconstruct the way the site and immediate landscape has changed through time.
“For us living in urban areas today, we tend to forget how dynamic our world can be,” he says. “Revealing past landscapes and exploring how early humans lived and responded to their environments is what I find really fascinating.”