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Research Funding Provided by: Australian Government
Research Funding Provided by
Australian Government

Australian Research Council

Environmental Futures Network
Environmental Futures Network
The University of Adelaide
North Terrace Campus
Darling Building
South Australia 5005

Phone: +61 8 8303 3952
Facsimile: +61 8 8303 4364

Project: Plant exploitation and domestication east of the Wallace Line:movement, manipulation and management of plant biodiversity

CI(s)/Institution: Tim Denham, Monash University, School of Geography & Environmental Science (Funded in 2005, total funding $87,450)
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· Aim/Brackground
· Publications
· Workshops


To foster cross-disciplinary exchange and to develop long-term research agendas regarding the effects of traditional plant exploitation practices on plant morphogenetics and biodiversity in Australia and New Guinea.
Plant exploitation practices east of the Wallace line are often represented by a dichotomy: agriculture/horticulture in New Guinea and hunting and gathering in Australia; whereas a range of practices of varying intensity were actually employed in both regions. These practices will have differentially exerted selective pressure on plants, which will have produced differential morphogenetic transformations in plants and plant parts. At present, the effects of these practices on plants - and resultant biodiversity - over the long term are poorly understood. Indeed, researchers working on these types of question require greater cross-disciplinary input to come to grips with what we already know before we can begin to formulate over-arching research strategies.

Given the range of plant exploitation practices across New Guinea and Australia from the distant past to the present, the region is ideally suited to investigate the effects of different practices on plant phenotypes and genotypes. What does this range of practices mean for our understanding of the concept 'domestication', which in turn is often used as a basis for interpreting 'agriculture'? If selective pressures (although variable) are exerted on different plants and plant parts under most types of plant exploitation, where do we draw the line to delineate 'domestication'? We still do not understand the variable selective pressures exerted on different plants and plant parts under one set of practices, i.e., consider the different types of plants in a New Guinea garden and their degrees of 'domestication', let alone between different types of plant exploitation


This project draws together a range of disciplines (agronomists, archaeologists, ecologists, ethnobotanists, geneticists and palaeoecologists) to compare the effects of plant exploitation practices on the genotypes and phenotypes of specific plants used over the long term across New Guinea and Australia. Groups of plants for comparison can be identified based on major groupings such as:
  • Production practices: ranging from intensive wetland horticulture in the Highlands of New Guinea to extensive semi-arid foraging in the Central Desert of Australia
  • Cultivated form (in New Guinea): wild/domesticated
  • Mode of plant reproduction: sexually/vegetatively reproduced
  • Type of plant: root crop/grass seed, starchy staple/leafy vegetable, tree/shrub/herb/etc.
Workshops will be conducted based on three sub-themes:
  • understanding plant exploitation practices across New Guinea and Australia
  • understanding how plants have changed through time with regard to: a) their general evolutionary trajectories; b) their biological characteristics, c) the effects of environmental change, and d) the effects of different plant exploitation practices upon them
  • summarising existing knowledge on a range of staples and subsidiary crops/plants in Australia and New Guinea and decide upon which to focus with ARC Discovery/Linkage Grant proposals

Outcomes/Workshops (Year 1)

In line with the original proposal, the first workshop (Canberra Museum, August 2006) focused on understanding plant exploitation practices across New Guinea and Australia. The workshop was highly successful; most significant researchers in the field were present, knowledge 'gaps' were identified and new research frameworks and synergies were outlined.

Participants at the workshop (#ECRs):

Tom Jones, University of Canberra
Jane Joe, Dept for Env. & Heritage
Jerry Find#, University of Sydney
Paul Class, National Museum

Objectives met: