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Desert Stories: Archaeology merges with Geology


I first spent time with Mike on an expedition to Lake Eyre in 1992, coordinated by John Magee and including John Chappell and Rainer Grün from the ANU. What a grand introduction to the heart of the arid zone. Mike was completely comfortable surrounded by geologists reconstructing the climate of the Late Quaternary, and contributed to our interpretive debates where the early colonization of the continent was tightly interwoven with changes in the climate, flora and fauna of the continent as preserved in the records dune mobility, fluvial activation and the wetting and drying of the great salt expanse of Lake Eyre.

More recently, Mike joined Midra and I for our field campaign in the sand dunes of the arid Ningaloo coastal region of WA in 2011. Throughout this region the sand hills were giving up eggshells of the extinct giant bird Genyornis, that unlike any other region, exhibited convincing signs of localized burning. Mike was interested in finding secure field evidence that would either link or deny the role of early humans in that burning activity. This effort, of course, generated many vigorous discussions.

But many an evening around the campfire Mike would entertain us with his marvelous personal stories. Midra has no great fondness for dogs. Yet, Mike’s stories describing the personalities of his two dogs were so compelling and entertaining that Midra, who normally would prefer a great distance between herself and any dog, couldn’t wait to see these two amazing animals.

Mike’s exceptional story-telling skills made me worry that he might be able to convince the scientifically literate of his point of view, even on scanty evidence. But I never witnessed Mike abusing his story telling talent in the sciences……. one of his strongest traits was a willingness to let the data tell the story when it came to the record of humans in the Australian landscapes, rather than being trapped by a particular dogma. It will always be a pleasure to share a camp with Mike in the field, whether sharing stories of our science or of our lives.

Gifford and Midra Miller

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