Mapping cultural landscapes: the Alngith Cultural Heritage Project


Over the past half year or so I have been working on a project documenting the cultural heritage of the Alngith People (pronounced Al-ngit where ‘ng’ is the same as in ‘ping’) , an Aboriginal group whose lands include the Weipa area and surrounds on western Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. It is a fascinating and enjoyable project that has thrown up a number of unique challenges and opportunities in regards to cultural heritage management. The project is funded by the Indigenous Heritage Program via the Malaruch Aboriginal Corporation, representative body for the Alngith group.

In 1932 a Presbyterian Mission was established on Alngith Lands after an earlier settlement inland had failed. It was small, supported a small population (< 200 people) and more to the point, represented the beginnings of the modern Aboriginal community of Napranum. During the 1950s mineral exploration identified extensive bauxite deposits in the region and by the late 1960s a substantial strip mining operation had been established and the mission was closed. Thus, Alngith land is in many ways central to the history of Weipa and Napranum and has a diverse cultural heritage that reflects this. It is is also one of most seriously impacted and developed areas around Weipa, if not on Cape York Peninsula and thousands of hectares of open woodland have been removed to make way for mining as well as industrial, administrative and residential facilities. My own estimate is that well over 60 – 70% of their land has been seriously (and probably irreparably) impacted upon by this development. Despite this, there are some simply magical areas that remain in wonderful condition: wetlands, riverine forests, remnant Eucalypt woodlands,  mangrove lined estuaries and residual dry notophyll vine forests.

Weipa strip mining 2

The Alngith Cultural Heritage Project began several years ago when I was invited to assist the Alngith Traditional Owner group with developing a project to document their cultural heritage. They specifically requested that the project look at heritage in a very broad sense, including archaeology, oral histories, Traditional places, significant resource areas and natural heritage places. In a sense, they essentially wanted me to help begin to map their Country and heritage: a very broad scope indeed, and one that initially had me scrambling in terms of developing a system for this type of cultural landscapes approach to Indigenous heritage.

There is of course an extensive literature on documenting both tangible and ‘intangible’ cultural places and  landscapes (for example, Byrne, Brayshaw and Ireland 2003; Byrne and Nugent 2004; Clarke 2000; Greer 1995; Greer, Harrison and Tamwoy 2002; Mahood 2006; Pannell 2006) which I am only just beginning to come to grips with. Based on my rather preliminary reviews thus far, much of the literature seems to focus on historic or archaeological heritage places with much less consideration of the ways Traditional Owners value natural heritage places, though Pannell (2006) and Mahood (2006) provide notable exceptions from the respective perspectives of an anthropologist and artist. One of the underlying themes across this work is the need for people engaged in research into Aboriginal cultural heritage values to broaden their views and consider cultural values around natural heritage as part of cultural heritage management work, particularly when their work is driven by community groups themselves. This is what the Alngith people were seeking in any case. So recording Alngith natural heritage assets – places that are laden in cultural values – is a critical part of the project that we have developed. Indeed, the approach we take in many ways attempts to document the sort of information required by UNESCO’s definition of a ‘cultural landscape’ which I think is important given the recent beginnings of the world heritage nomination process for Cape York Peninsula.

Within this context of a broadened definition of cultural heritage, natural resource management (NRM) concerns – which are often well off the radar in cultural heritage research – take on a different light. NRM issues include threats to natural heritage places, such as weed outbreaks, erosion, visitor management, littering, mine rehabilitation concerns, theft of natural resources (eg plants), poor fire management and so on. If one adopts a view of  heritage similar to that held by the Alngith people whereby natural heritage assets should be considered part of the cultural heritage assessment process, then it equally stands that NRM issues need to be systematically documented, where possible.

In some respects the process of identifying, recording and managing Alngith natural heritage assets (and associated threats) is very straightforward. Many Alngith natural heritage values are localised and occur at specific places in the landscape (i.e. they can be ‘mapped’ in space). Often they are large areas and are best mapped with a desktop GIS rather than in the field, however the approach we take is to visit important places with elders where we obtain preliminary geographic data along with detailed oral histories, photos, notes and so on about the place and its importance. Follow up work involving more detailed field or desktop mapping with younger, more mobile Traditional Owners takes place later. All of this data is entered into a database and GIS which, ultimately, will sit in Google Earth or Google Fusion Tables as a resource for the Alngith ranger program (more on that in a future post). Threats or management concerns about those places, such as illegal rubbish dumping, weed outbreaks, vehicle tracks and so on, can usually be recorded in similar ways.

Litter at Prunung

Alngith land has been home to the broader local Indigenous community since the 1930s and so in addition to Alngith knowledge and histories, their country is intimately associated with the shared histories of a large portion of the broader local Aboriginal community. It was quite important that the project set out to document these histories, requiring us to shift from mapping places with ‘things’ (ie tangible heritage) to mapping places with historical, cultural or traditional associations. This includes remembered places like former camping sites, ceremonial or story places, locations of former buildings or features, paths or tracks, named places, or where specific remembered events occurred. Byrne and Nugent (2004) use the term ‘geobiographies’ to describe similar work, which is a term I like a lot.

Oral histories are quite critical to documenting this kind of information and the project began by undertaking both semi-structured and unstructured interviews (both in the office and at particular places) to both record oral histories and to identify associated remembered places. This is supplemented by mapping work where we visit prominent places to record stories and recollections about those places, as well as to draw on people’s first hand knowledge to try and reconstruct  what was formerly there, or how a place might have changed.

In addition to all of this, the project draws upon traditional archaeological techniques. We use archaeology to record known places, to document the archaeological component of places identified through oral history work, and finally, to survey in order to identify previously unrecorded features. We have had a lot of great results from this work as well, with several hundred features in the database and more sure to come. We have not had need to carry out any excavations as yet, though that may come.

The mission fence

The project still has a few months left to run as it enters the reporting phase, however the results thus far have been very positive. We have recorded oral history interviews with a wide range of community elders, many of which are associated with particular places and in addition we have documented hundreds of tangible and associative heritage places (natural, historical, archaeological). The work is quite fun for all involved, because instead of taking an overtly blinkered approach (ie. only looking for archaeological sites) we are effectively mapping Alngith cultural landscapes in what I think is reasonably useful way. At this stage, I am calling this a ‘cultural  mapping’ framework (after Mahood 2006) until I discover something better, or until someone points out an inherent flaw in this terminology.

I think this cultural mapping approach has a great deal of applicability to cultural heritage research projects that are driven by Indigenous community groups. While the idea of mapping cultural values around natural heritage places is by no means new, I have experienced some criticism  about this type of approach. So, I should clarify my point: cultural heritage specialists are, in many contexts, in an ideal position to begin to record the cultural values associated with natural heritage places, and the NRM issues that threaten those places, and should endeavour to obtain information that is relevant to the management of cultural values associated with these places. However, just as a cultural heritage specialist might undertake preliminary recording then draw upon additional expertise for types of heritage requiring specialist attention (e.g. a heritage architect or lithic specialist), so too should we draw on environmental scientists, biologists and other scientific specialists to record other dimensions of natural heritage places and assess their overall scientific importance. Anthropologists have an important role to play and, if not undertaking the initial recording work, then they may be required to undertake more detailed follow up work to record and manage important places, and to understand the way people value those places.

I would be very interested to find out if other people are using similar approaches or have any ideas, suggestions or critical comments about this approach. If so, leave a comment here or send me a tweet @mickmorrison. I shall endeavour to follow up on this with a post about the data management issues we are dealing with in the next week or two.


Byrne, D., H. Brayshaw, and T. Ireland. 2003. Social significance: a discussion paper. Sydney: NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Byrne, D., and M. Nugent. 2004. Mapping attachment: a spatial approach to Aboriginal post-contact heritage. Sydney: Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW).

Clarke, A. 2000. Time, tradition and transformation: the negotiation of cross-cultural engagements on Groote Eylandt, northern Australia. In The archaeology of difference: negotiating cross-cultural engagements in Oceania, ed. R. Torrence and A. Clarke, 104-141. London: Routledge.

Greer, S., Rodney Harrison, and S.R. McIntyre-Tamwoy. 2002. Community-based archaeology in Australia. World Archaeology 34, no. 2: 265-287.

Greer, S. 1995. The accidental heritage: archaeology and identity in northern Cape York. Townsville: James Cook University, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.

Mahood, K. 2006. Mapping outside the square: cultural mapping in the south-east Kimberley. Aboriginal History 30: 1-28.

Pannell, S. 2006. Reconciling Nature and Culture in a Global Context? Lessons from the world heritage list. Cairns: Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management.


9 Responses to “Mapping cultural landscapes: the Alngith Cultural Heritage Project”

  1. 1 Alun

    It sounds like a fascinating project. I have what is probably a very basic question. What makes someone an elder, and do the younger people have their own cultural references and localities that aren’t part of the heritage described by the elders? I was thinking along the lines of things like children’s culture, but I imagine that if you’ve grown up in the damaged landscape then, even as an adult, you’ll relate to it differently and that might have an effect of creating a new, but authentic(?) culture.

  2. Mick – what a cool project you’re working on! I particularly like how it sounds like you’re engaging the community in more than just giving you oral histories…

    One question: what is the hopeful final result? Online archive that will be available to an even larger public? Something different?

  3. 3 David Robinson

    The persons you need to talk to are Geoff Wharton and Don Egan, Geoff was Comaloc’s Librarian, historian and Public Relations Manager for many nyears. Don was the DAIA MAnager and later Comalco Special Projects Officer specialising in family relationships and group associations. Geoff was in Holland Park Brisbane last I heard and Don in Mount Tambourine area. Both these people have a wealth of information relating to the previous generations of Alngith people

  4. I think you are spot-on here, Mick. I’ve worked on numerous projects where vegetation of various kinds were considered highly significant by community members, but because it was covered by a different management regime and different legislation, it was only possible to protect it by a specific agreement on a case-by-case basis. Often there was no specific cultural knowledge attached to the location itself, but the presence of certain plants went with other kinds of knowledge. And interestingly, it was more often than not women’s knowledge about food and medicine.

    The Canadians have done some really good work on cultural mapping, management and land tenure but I can’t think of any references off the top of my head.

    Of course you may want to refer to Wallis, Gorman and Wilson in press for more about the “unnatural” division between “natural” and “cultural” in NRM/CHM!

  5. 5 mickmorrison

    Thanks Alun,

    Not a basis question at all, in fact I was recently asked something similar by someone reviewing a paper. The idea of ‘elder’ is a term used out of respect for people within the community who are usually (but not always) older and have the authority/knowledge to speak about country and historical or cultural matters. Some people have problems with the term however I use it here because it is how the senior people in the community are referred to by younger people, and how they often refer to themselves. ‘Senior Traditional Owner’ is a more widely used term in CHM work which has a similar sort of meaning.

    In regards to your second question about children’s culture and new landscapes: you are spot on. A lot of our focus has been upon working with more elderly people, because that is what I have been asked to do, and because their experiences and knowledges are of quite a lot of importance to the broader community and really are at imminent risk of loss. However, without devaluing those histories they are in fact the remembered landscapes from the 1930s-1950s when the elders were small children and young adults, growing up in the mission dormitories, living in the mission village and heading out on country with elder kin and so on. Anthropologists and archaeologists around at that time were barely interested in the contemporary situation, as they were often more focused on recording information about ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ Aboriginal culture and landscapes (and, I would argue, rightly so). I’m not sure I am answering this in a straightforward manner, however, I agree that generational change sees people engaging with new landscapes in new or modified ways, influenced by both history and the circumstances in which they live. There are various points of major change in the history of the community, which I suspect resulted in substantial reconfigurations of the way people engaged with the world around them (arrival of missionaries ca. 1890S; establishment of the new mission ca. 1932; commencement of mine exploration ca. 1950s; full scale mining in late 1960s, etc).

    So to answer your question: children today, as well as those who grew up in the 1970s after mining went into full swing, certainly do have lots of knowledge which is an important part of the story of the community. However my view is that of a heritage manager: we need to work on what is of most importance to the community, and and this stage that is the remembered landscapes and histories before the 1950s.

    I hope that answers your questions!

  6. 6 mickmorrison

    Hi Terry,

    That will be the subject of the next post on this issue. Basically, I’m trying to use some of the new technologies around to ensure that this information can be accessed in a controlled manner. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I’m working more and more with Google services (Fusion and docs in particular) to allow access to different sorts of detail via Google Earth/Maps. Omeka ( also has a lot of potential as well, though I have no funding to work on that at this stage. What level of information is available to the broader public will be determined by the Alngith and other people who have participated in the project, and while I can’t say in what form or level of detail that will be, my feeling thus far is that people are keen to use this information to inform others about the history of the community. There is also talk of a book.

    Of course, there will be a community report written in accessible style (lots of quotes from elders, maps and photos of places) that will aim to tell the story of each of the places. That will go out to each of the participants.

    Does that answer your query?

  7. 7 mickmorrison

    Hi David,

    I’m sorry but we haven’t met, but clearly you have some knowledge of Weipa. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    I am in touch with Geoff quite a lot about this and other projects, in fact Geoff is working on some aspects of this project with independent funding. As for Don: well, I have no contact details though I did meet him in Weipa back in 2000 or 2001, and again in 2004 or 05. He is someone I would very much like to interview! I might email you about this privately.


  8. 8 mickmorrison

    Alice thanks – you couldn’t forward me your paper could you, I would very much like to read it if possible?

    Also, re the work the Canadians are doing: as I said, I am sure this approach is not all new and I am very keen to read up on anything similar done by others. I know Steve Hemming has written on similar issues, and I think George Nicholas has as well. Anyway, will be sure to post and tweet further sources as I find them!


  9. Thanks, Mick! spot on. Omeka is, I think, going to really have an enormous impact on cultural heritage development: it’s going to be a free way for museums and projects like yours to have a dynamic web presence, just like wordpress let’s anyone have a snazzy looking blog. Looking forward to the next post!

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