Beyond Space and Defense: The Indigenous Archaeology of the Woomera Range

The Woomera Range Complex located in the northwest region of southern Australia was a hub of space and defense testing and development for the nation of Australia beginning in the late 1940s. The Complex, consisting of the Woomera Prohibited area and the Woomera Restricted Airspace, remains an area of defense related development for the Australian government, and serves as a location for weapons testing, the mining and development of explosive and hazardous materials, and special forces preparation (Royal Australian Air Force). However, the range itself was the location of significant human development before it was utilized by the commonwealth. The range served as a home for countless Indigenous Australian people of different groups, and contains sites of significance to many that still exist in Australia to this day. The history of the Woomera range goes back thousands of years, and the presence of Indigenous Australians on its grounds cannot be ignored. 

Figure 1. Footprint of the Woomera Prohibited Area. Retrieved from Bush Heritage Australia.

The land of the Woomera Protected area includes the lands of six Indigenous Australian groups. A majority of this land (30%) belonged to the Maralinga Tjarutja and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yunkunytjatjara, and the remainder was spread between the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara, Arabana, Gawler Ranges, and Kokatha people (Department of Defence). The land of the Kokatha Native Title is home to a number of Indigenous archaeological sites, including multiple in the Lake Hart region. Archaeologists discovered a series of fourteen stone structures which were likely used for housing or hunting by the Kokatha people. A nearby site known as Wild Dog Creek is home to a series of rock carvings produced in the Panaramitee style, which involved breaking away smaller pieces of the rock with sharp man-made tools. These carvings depict life for the Kokatha people and include images of human footprints, shelters, kangaroos, and many species of birds (Trask, 2022). Some of these portrayals match the recreations of a species known as Genyornis newtoni – a giant bird species ranging from two to two and a half meters tall that went extinct approximately 50,000 years ago (Musser, 2022). While the dating of features and artifacts within the Woomera rage can be difficult due to the harsh weather and wide open nature of the climate, these depictions have added weight to estimates that the Kokatha people inhabited the lands of the range as far back as 50,000 years ago (Trask, 2022). 

Figure 2. Depiction of Panaramitee carvings at Wild Dog Creek. Retrieved from SBS News.

The deep ties that Indigenous people have to the Woomera Range are represented in the name of the complex itself. The word Woomera pays homage to an Indigenous Australian spear thrower called the Woomera (Royal Australian Air Force). The weapon itself displayed extreme accuracy and was one of the most prominent technological advancements of the time period. The research and development in space and defense technologies completed by the Australian Commonwealth within the Woomera Range Complex are mirrored in the advancements of the Indigenous Australian peoples that inhabited the lands previously, and ignoring their accomplishments when discussing the Woomera range discounts a significant portion of the region’s history.

Figure 3. Woomera (Spear-Thrower). Retrieved from Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa.



Department of Defense, Commonwealth of Australia. “History of the Woomera Prohibited Area: Sectors.” Defence. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence. Accessed December 4, 2022.  

Royal Australian Air Force. “Woomera Range Complex.” Woomera Range Complex | Air Force. Accessed December 4, 2022. 

Unknown. Woomera (Spear-Thrower). n.d. Hardwood, grass tree resin, fibre, Overall: 155mm (width), 650mm (length), 25mm (depth). <a href=””>Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa</a>; Collection: History; Gift of Alexander Turnbull, 1913.

Trask, Steven. “The Significance of These Very Rare Aboriginal Shelters Has Been Revealed.” SBS News, June 23, 2022. 

Musser, Anne. “Genyornis Newtoni.” The Australian Museum, April 4, 2022. 

Taylor, Kate. “Life in the Woomera Prohibited Area.” Bush Heritage Australia, December 3, 2020.


Clyde Snow: Father of Forensic Anthropology

In 1985 a Texan man stands by a mass grave in Argentina. He wears beaten down cowboy boots and speaks with a warm southern drawl. His work will help identify countless human remains around the globe. This man is Clyde Snow. 

Born in the town of Fort Worth, Texas in 1928, Snow would go on to be expelled from high school, drop out of his first university, and join the air force before earning his Phd in anthropology. His career began investigating airplane crashes with the Federal Aviation Administration and progressed into work in crime scene investigation, historical documentation, and human rights efforts (O’Dell). 

Figure 1. Clyde Snow 1986. Photograph by David Longstreath (Associated Press)

In the early stages of his career, modern analysis techniques weren’t widely used, and most scientists relied on the Bertillon system, which involved a series of different measurements ranging from the little finger to the femur (Snow 1982:98). Snow developed techniques himself using the knowledge he gained while working towards his doctorate. He could estimate the age of an individual by examining the fusion of growth plates through a process called ossification, and behavioral information like handedness or muscle use was revealed to him by differences in arm length and bone density respectively. Some of his most influential developments came from analysis of the skull, which allowed him to estimate facial structure, sex and ancestry – this knowledge made him a pioneer in the field of facial reconstruction (McFadden 2014). Snow’s ten step process of forensic anthropology outlines the proper order of investigation and is still taught around the world today (Snow 1982:104).

Figure 2. Clyde Snow and Argentinian volunteers 1985. Photograph courtesy of Clyde Snow

Snow used these techniques in a wide variety of settings, ranging from the identification of victims of serial killers to documentation of mass grave sites. One of these large scale burial sites was located in Argentina, where a group of students assisted him in analyzing the skeletons of over five hundred individuals who disappeared during the seven year “dirty war”. These individuals showed evidence of violent torture, and the work of Snow and his students lead to legal ramifications for those involved in the disappearances. He did similar work in Croatia and El Salvador, and investigated mass murder cases in Ethiopia, Guatemala, and the United States – including the victims of infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy (Well 2014). His work also had significant effects on the interpretation of history, particularly when he identified the remains of Nazi “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele in Brazil. 

Figure 3. Clyde Snow presenting at the trial of the Argentinian Junta 1985. Photograph by Daniel Muzio.

However, it was his efforts in the investigation of the murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy that sparked immense rewards for the field of forensic anthropology. His confirmation of the president’s x-rays pushed the American Academy of Forensic Sciences to make forensic anthropology an official specialty (Well 2014). In his words, the field of forensic anthropology is “the application of the physical anthropologist’s specialized knowledge of the human sexual, racial, age, and individual variation to problems jurisprudence”, and though it is straightforward in practice, the effects that field has had on criminal investigation and historical documentation cannot be underestimated (Snow 1982:128).


McFadden, Robert.

    2014. Clyde Snow, Sleuth Who Read Bones from King Tut’s to Kennedy’s, Dies at          86. The New York Times.               found-clues-in-bones-dies-at-86.html. Accessed October 1, 2022.


O’Dell, Larry.

     Clyde Snow. Oklahoma Historical Society | OHS.  Accessed             October 1, 2022


Weil, Martin.

     2014. Clyde Snow, Forensic Anthropologist Who Identified Crime Victims, Dies at           86. The Washington Post. WP Company.                                             anthropologist-dies-called-grave-digging-detective/2014/05/16/f93778a4-dd44-           11e3-bda1-9b46b2066796_story.html. Accessed October 1, 2022


Snow, Clyde.

1982. Forensic Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology. Volume(11):97-131.