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13 January 2003

The largest conference on desert archaeology ever held in Australia opens tomorrow at the National Museum of Australia.

Ninety archaeologists, historians and earth scientists — arriving from 16 nations - will explore how climate change and human settlement have impacted on the great deserts of the southern hemisphere.

The four day conference, entitled 23 Degrees South: Archaeology and Environmental History of the Southern Deserts, will focus on the Australian deserts; the Namib and Kalahari deserts of southern Africa; and the Puna and Atacama deserts of South America, the last the driest in the world. All are connected by the Tropic of Capricorn at 23 Degrees South.

'The conference is a vital milestone in desert research since it is the first time that archaeologists and Quaternarists working in deserts across all three continents have met as a group,' said organiser and archaeologist Dr Mike Smith, Director of Research and Development at the National Museum.

'In the current Australian drought we are reminded of how precarious human settlement can be in these dry environments, but also of how people have adapted to climate and environmental change.

'The conference is a landmark in the Museum's ongoing research for our major international exhibition in 2004 on these themes.'

Keynote addresses will be given by Professor David Thomas (Sheffield Centre for International Drylands Research); Professor Martin Williams (Mawson Graduate Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Adelaide) and Professor Clive Gamble (University of Southhampton). Also speaking will be the distinguished scholars Louis Borrero and Marisabel Hernandez Llosas (Argentina), Claudio Latorre (Chile) and Jill Kinahan (Namibia).

Panel discussions on Friday will compare the colonisation of desert environments and the spectacular rock art and cosmology of its peoples.

23 Degrees South opens with a reception in the Museum's Hall at 6pm Tuesday, 14 January and finishes with a conference dinner on Saturday 18 January.

For interviews with Dr Mike Smith and experts on themes and particular Southern and Australian desert areas, please contact Martin Portus, National Museum of Australia, (02) 6208 5351, 0409 916 481 or

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