Professor Tim Denham

BA (Hons.) (Cambridge), MS (PennState), PhD (ANU), Professor of Archaeological Science, College of Arts and Social Sciences

I started out as a geographer, completing my BA (Hons) at Cambridge University (England) and MS at Penn State (USA). I then spent six years working as a consultant archaeologist, primarily in Hawai`i and England. In 1997, I came to the Australian National University to begin a PhD working with Professor Jack Golson on the emergence of agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the highlands of New Guinea. After (and partly before) being awarded my PhD in 2004, I lectured in soil science at Bournemouth University (UK, 2001-2002), archaeology at Flinders University (Adelaide, 2002-2004), environmental change at Monash University (Melbourne, 2009-2012), archaeology at La Trobe University (Melbourne, 2013) and archaeological science at the Australian National University (Canberra, 2013-2015).

Since coming back to the ANU in July 2013, I successfully convened the Masters of Archaeological Science program (until September 2015). From September 2015 to September 2016, I was Associate Dean (HDR) within the College of Arts and Social Sciences. From October 2016 to September 2020, I was an ARC Future Fellow undertaking research on plant exploitation, early cultivation and plant domestication in the wet tropics of Papua New Guinea, Island Southeast Asia and northern Australia.

I have become a hybrid researcher who has made substantive contributions to several cross-disciplinary fields, as well as to archaeology. I do not feel bound by disciplinary boundaries in the pursuit of research questions or in terms of the methods adopted to address them. As my research career has progressed, my activities have increasingly become focussed upon the promotion of others (ECRs and HDRs), as demonstrated through the establishment of two important research collectives: Geoarchaeology Research Group (GRG) and TropArch (Tropical Archaeobotany). Members of these research groups are applying new methodologies and technologies - including microarchaeology, QEMSCAN and microCT - to archaeological questions, including the transitions to sedentary living, the emergence of early agriculture, and tropical plant domestication.

Research interests

1. Exploitation, cultivation and domestication of vegetatively reproducing plants

My PhD research clarified that the highlands of New Guinea were a location of early agriculture and plant domestication. Since then I have continued to investigate the socio-environmental implications of early agriculture on New Guinea and Southeast Asia. Drawing on this experience, I have become interested in the domestication of vegetatively propagated food plants in the wet tropics, especially bananas (Musa cvs), and have also broadened my geographical focus to extend from northern Australia to southern China. I founded and lead the TropArch research group in Tropical Archaeobotany at the ANU.

Key Publications

Denham, T.P., H. Barton, C. Castillo, A. Crowther, E. Dotte-Sarout, S.A. Florin, J. Pritchard, A. Barron, Y. Zhang and D.Q. Fuller. 2020. The domestication syndrome in vegetatively propagated field crops. Annals of Botany 125: 581-597.

Williams, R.N., D. Wright, A. Crowther and T.P. Denham 2020. Multidisciplinary evidence for early banana (Musa cvs.) cultivation on Mabuyag Island, Torres Strait. Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Denham, T.P. 2018. Tracing Early Agriculture in the Highlands of New Guinea: Plot, Mound and Ditch. Oxford: Routledge. Paperback edition 2020.

Golson, J., T.P. Denham, P.J. Hughes, P. Swadling and J. Muke (eds.) 2017. Ten Thousand Years of Cultivation at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Terra Australis 46. Canberra: ANU E Press.

Fuller, D.Q., T.P. Denham, M. Arroyo-Kalin, L. Lucas, C. Stevens, L. Qin, R. Allaby and M.D. Purugganan 2014. Convergent evolution and parallelism in plant domestication revealed by an expanding archaeological record. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 111: 6147-6152.

Perrier, X., E. De Langhe, M. Donohue, C. Lentfer, L. Vrydaghs, F. Bakry, F. Carreel, I. Hippolyte, J-P. Horry, C. Jenny, V. Lebot, A-M. Risterucci, K. Tomekpe, H. Doutrelepont, T. Ball, J. Manwaring, P. de Maret and T.P. Denham  2011. Multidisciplinary perspectives on banana (Musa spp.) domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 108: 11311-11318.

Denham, T.P., J. Iriarte and L. Vrydaghs (eds.) 2007. Rethinking Agriculture: Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Perspectives Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Denham, T.P., S.G. Haberle, C. Lentfer, R. Fullagar, J. Field, M. Therin, N. Porch and B. Winsborough 2003. Origins of agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of New Guinea. Science 301: 189-193.


2. MicroCT applications in archaeobotany

The TropArch research group has developed new archaeobotanical applications of microCT imaging and visualisation technologies. Foremost, we are using the technique to determine the domestication status of archaeobotanical inclusions and impressions within pottery, including: spikelet bases of rice in Southeast Asia, sorghum rachis in Sudan, and pearl millet involucres/bracts in Mali. The technique is especially suited to wet tropical and arid environments with poor archaeobotanical preservation.

We are also revitalising research on archaeological parenchyma; effectively a missing link for understanding ancient plant use. At TropArch, we are developing a microCT on-line reference database (to be hubbed@ANU with support of RSPhys) of archaeological parenchyma and key reference plants in the Indo-Pacific region to enable remote virtual histological examination. We are also applying the technique to archaeological parenchyma from Australia, New Guinea, Southeast Asia, southern China and beyond.

Key Publications

Barron, A., D.Q. Fuller, C. Stevens, L. Champion, F. Winchell and T.P. Denham 2020. Snapshots in time: MicroCT scanning of pottery sherds determines early domestication of sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) in East Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 123: Article 105259.

Barron, A., I. Datan, P. Bellwood, R. Wood, D.Q. Fuller and T.P. Denham 2020. Sherds as archaeobotanical assemblages: Gua Sireh reconsidered. Antiquity 94: 1325-1336.

Pritchard, J., T. Lewis, L. Beeching and T.P. Denham 2019. An assessment of microCT technology for the investigation of charred archaeological parenchyma from house sites at Kuk Swamp, Papua New Guinea. Journal of Anthropological and Archaeological Sciences 11: 1927-1938.

Barron, A. and T.P. Denham 2018. A mixed-method protocol for the visualisation and identification of domesticated plant remains within pottery sherds. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 21: 350-358.

Barron, A. M. Turner, L. Beeching, P. Bellwood, P. Piper, E. Grono, R. Jones, M. Oxenham, N.K.T. Kien, T. Senden and T.P. Denham 2017. MicroCT reveals domesticated rice (Oryza sativa) within pottery sherds from early Neolithic sites (4150-3265 cal BP) in Southeast Asia. Scientific Reports 7.


3. Geoarchaeology and environmental change

I am a geoarchaeologist, namely, I draw on the disciplines of geomorphology, sedimentology and soil science to augment my understanding of archaeological sites. I have applied my geoarchaeological skills to fishpond aquaculture in Hawai`i, to early agriculture at Kuk Swamp in the highlands of New Guinea and to Pleistocene palaeosurfaces at Lake Mungo (Australia), among other sites in Australia, Mexico, South Africa and elsewhere. I am particularly interested in how human-environment interactions in the past can be used to better understand environmental problems in the present/future. I lead the Geoarchaeology Research Group (GRG) at the ANU.

Key Publications

Herries, A.I.R., J.M. Martin, A.B. Leece, J.W. Adams, G. Boschian, R. Joannes-Boyau, T.R. Edwards, T. Mallett, J. Massey, A. Murszewski, S. Neubauer, R. Pickering, D.S. Strait, B.J. Armstrong, S. Baker, M.V. Caruana, T.P. Denham, J. Hellstrom, J. Moggi-Cecchi, S. Mokobane, P. Penzo-Kajewski, D.S. Rovinsky, G.T. Schwartz, R.C. Stammers, C. Wilson, J. Woodhead and C. Menter. 2020. Contemporaneity of AustralopithecusParanthropus, and early Homo erectus in South Africa. Science 368: eaaw7293 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7293.

ArchaeoGLOBE 2019. Archaeological assessment reveals Earth’s early transformation through land use. Science 365: 897-902.

Edwards, T., E. Grono, A.I.R. Herries, F.J. Brink, U. Troitzsch, T. Senden, M. Turner, A. Barron, L. Prossor and T.P. Denham 2017. Visualising scales of process: Multi-scalar geoarchaeological investigations of microstratigraphy and diagenesis at hominin bearing sites in South African karst. Journal of Archaeological Science 83: 1-11.

Denham, T.P. and E. Grono 2017. Sediments or soils? Multi-scale geoarchaeological investigations of stratigraphy and early cultivation practices at Kuk Swamp, highlands of Papua New Guinea. Journal of Archaeological Science 77: 160-171.

Boivin, N.L., M.A. Zeder, D.Q. Fuller, A. Crowther, G. Larson, J.M. Erlandson, T.P. Denham and M.D. Petraglia 2016. Ecological consequences of human niche construction: Examining long-term anthropogenic shaping of global species distributions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 113: 6388-6396.

Matthews, J.A., P.J. Bartlein, K.R. Briffa, A.G. Dawson, A. De Vernal, T.P. Denham, S.C. Fritz and F. Oldfield (eds) 2012. The SAGE Handbook of Environmental Change. Two Volumes. London: Sage Publications.

Denham, T.P. and S. Mooney (eds.) 2008. Human-Environment Interactions in Australia and New Guinea during the Holocene. Special Issue, The Holocene 18(3).


4. Revising the Holocene histories of Island Southeast Asia, the New Guinea region, northern Australia and beyond

I work with archaeologists, geneticists and linguists to re-examine: the consilience of different lines of multidisciplinary evidence for Austronesian language dispersal from Taiwan; the social significance of the Lapita phenomenon; the long-term histories of interaction between mainland Southeast Asia, Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea; and socio-environmental transformations in northern Australia.

Key Publications

Denham, T.P., Y. Zhang and A. Barron 2018. Is there a centre of early agriculture and plant domestication in southern China? Antiquity 92: 1165-1179.

Denham, T.P. 2017. Breaking down barriers: Prehistoric species dispersals across Island Southeast Asia, New Guinea and Australia. In N. Boivin, R. Cressard and M. Petraglia (eds.) Human Dispersals and Species Movements: From Prehistory to the Present, pp. 164-193. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Denham, T.P. and J.P. White (eds.) 2016. Renewing the Past: Sue Bulmer’s Contribution to the Archaeology of Papua New Guinea. Special Issue, Archaeology in Oceania 51(S1).

Specht, J., T.P. Denham, J. Goff and J.E. Terrell 2014. Deconstructing the Lapita Cultural Complex in the Bismarck Archipelago. Journal of Archaeological Research 22: 89-140.

Denham, T.P. 2013. Early farming in Island Southeast Asia: An alternative hypothesis. Antiquity 87: 250-257.

Donohue, M. and T.P. Denham 2010. Farming and language in Island Southeast Asia: Reframing Austronesian history. Current Anthropology 51: 223-256.

Denham, T.P., M. Donohue and S. Booth 2009. Revisiting an old hypothesis: Horticultural experimentation in northern Australia. Antiquity 83: 634-648.

Current student projects

PhD Students:  Chair/Primary Supervisor

Vida Kusmartono, Human occupation in the interior equatorial rainforest of Kalimantan: an archaeological and comparative study

Lauren Prossor, Geoarchaeological investigations of sedentism at a Natufian site, Wadi Hammeh 27, Jordan.

Yekun Zhang, Archaeobotanical and palaeoecological investigations at three riverine shell middens dating to the early-mid Holocene, Yongjiang River, Guangxi, southern China. (Submitted 2021)

Aleese Barron, Archaeobotanical applications of microCT imaging and visualisation.

Alexandra Ribeny, Fuelling the Khmer: anthracology, tropical deforestation and expansion, c. 11th – 15th centuries AD.

Tracey Pilgrim, Petrographic analysis of Metal-Age pottery assemblages at Catanauan, Philippines.

Elaine Lin, Plant exploitation and environmental change in upland Borneo.

Joshua White, The diet of ancient marine reptiles.


PhD Students: Member of Supervisory Panel

Michelle Richards Polynesian exchanges, negotiated cross-cultural engagements and Western trade: a contribution from pXRF analyses in museum collections. (Submitted 2021)

Warren Gumbley Adaptation of a tropical horticultural system to the temperate climate of New Zealand. (Submitted 2021)

Diana Tung People, palms and edible grubs: commodification and development in Iquitos, Peru

Past student projects

Recent PhD Students

Elle Grono, Settlement at the micro-scale: microstratigraphy and micromorphology of transitional Neolithic settlement sites in Vietnam (5000 cal BP to 2500 cal BP). (Submitted and Graduated 2020)