New $46M national research centre to explore Australia’s human and environmental history for our future

New $46M national research centre to explore Australia’s human and environmental history for our future
Narwala Garbarnang rock art site, 30,000 years old. Possibly the largest construction built by Australian first inhabitants.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) has launched a seven-year, $45.7 million interdisciplinary research program to shed light on Australia’s iconic biodiversity and Indigenous heritage.

The first continental-scale project of its kind in the world, CABAH will pioneer a new understanding of the natural and human history of Australia, Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia from 130,000 years ago until European arrival.

Opening in mid-2017 CABAH will support around 40 new research positions and more than 50 new research students over the seven-year life of the Centre.

The Monash node of CABAH directed by Professor Lynette Russell, with Associate Professor Bruno David and Professor Ian McNiven, and based in the Faculty of Arts Indigenous Studies Centre, will play a major role in CABAH. The Centre will provide a unique opportunity for the researchers across the Faculty, and the University, to become in involved in its programs. Professor Russell noted,

We still do not have answers to some of the most fundamental questions about this continent or its people, such as the timing and routes of their dispersal around the continent, the timing and extent of major changes in climate and fire regimes, or how landscapes, plants and animals responded to the altered conditions.

Aboriginal people have lived in this land for millennia, we need to learn from that, and appreciate their sustainable and strategic way of living. Understanding previous climate change and the continents’ environmental history will help us adapt to future environmental challenges.

Excavation, photo by Professor Ian McNiven


CABAH will link researchers from science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines – including earth and climate sciences, ecology and genetics – with scholars from humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) disciplines such as archaeology and Indigenous and museum studies. It will bring the extraordinary environmental and human history of Australia to the public through a comprehensive program of education, outreach and science communication events for schools, museums, science festivals and a range of digital media. 

CABAH will contribute to Australia’s future through a training program to foster young researchers, with an emphasis on Indigenous participation and support for female researchers. Professor Russell noted:

This represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to train Indigenous scholars in a supportive and intellectually rigorous setting.

Excavation, photo by Professor Ian McNiven


In helping future-proof Australia’s unique biodiversity and culture using improved understanding of its legacy, some of the questions this research project will include: What was a warm Australia like before humans? How did the first humans adapt to their new environment? What were the consequences of initial human expansion? How did Australia’s biota survive in an Ice Age landscape? What was the context to Australia’s demographic explosion?

CABAH is led by Distinguished Professor Richard ‘Bert' Roberts of the University of Wollongong, along with Monash, the other universities are, James Cook University, the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, Flinders University of South Australia, and the University of Tasmania. In addition, there are a range of partners in Australia, including the Queensland Museum, the Australian Museum, the South Australian Museum and the State Library of New South Wales. Other partners include world leaders in public engagement, such as the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the Natural History Museum in London, and institutions in PNG, France and Indonesia.