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12 January 2005

A collection of precious objects tracing centuries of human survival in the Atacama and Puna deserts are on show in a new exhibition just opened at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Extremes: Survival in the Great Deserts of the Southern Hemisphere features key archaeological discoveries from deserts across Australia, South America and Africa, tracing ancient rock art and lives shaped by dramatic environmental and social change.

A seal skin raft, a Chinchorro mummy mask, Tiwanaku caps, a carved snuff tray, conquistador armour, an INKA flag from Chile and early stone tools from Northwest Argentina used by the first human communities entering the area 11,000 years ago, are on show.

'The world's great southern deserts are filled with extraordinary human histories,' said National Museum archaeologist and curator Dr Mike Smith. 'To understand Australia's huge, red inland desert region, we must learn from the desert stories of our southern neighbours.'

Extremes follows the Tropic of Capricorn through the Atacama, Puna and Quebrada de Humahuaca in South America, the Kalahari and Namib in Africa and Australia's Red Centre.

The exhibition looks at the earliest desert peoples and the neighbours, traders, explorers, conquerors and tourists who followed.

Adventure tour guide Rosa Ramos, who grew up on a desert farm near San Pedro de Atacama, travelled to the National Museum of Australia to star in a film which introduces visitors to the Atacama.

Rosa speaks about the unique colours of her desert, the significance of llamas and her spiritual attachment to the Licancabur volcano. 'You can feel very near to god,' said Rosa. 'It's very spiritual. Sometimes you cry at the top, I don't understand why but it's very magical.'

Dr Smith, who travelled to Chile and Argentina looking for objects for the exhibition, said the Atacama is very different to Australia's inland Red Centre, which spans 2000 kilometres, has some rainfall and is home to huge kangaroos.

The South American treasures are on loan from six institutions across Chile and Argentina, including the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino; and the Museo Arqueologico de San Miguel de Azapa of Chile and the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas of Argentina.

The exhibition is on show at the National Museum of Australia until 22 August 2005.

PDF iconMedia release: South American treasures on show in Australia (Spanish version)

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