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Nature, culture and history

Natural environment

Riversleigh's distinctive pale-grey limestone was deposited in Tertiary times. Photo: Mark Nemeth, Qld Govt.

Riversleigh's distinctive pale-grey limestone was deposited in Tertiary times. Photo: Mark Nemeth, Qld Govt.

Riversleigh's fossils have been superbly preserved in limestone. Photo: Mark Nemeth, Qld Govt.

Riversleigh's fossils have been superbly preserved in limestone. Photo: Mark Nemeth, Qld Govt.

Palaeontologists from the University of New South Wales collect, treat and research the fossils from Riversleigh. Photo: Henk Godthelp.

Palaeontologists from the University of New South Wales collect, treat and research the fossils from Riversleigh. Photo: Henk Godthelp.

Millions of years in the making

Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park is one of Queensland’s most significant geological parks, with interesting rocks and landscapes spanning thousands of millions of years.

Shaped by water

In the Riversleigh area, pale-grey limestone, deposited between 25 and 15 million years ago in Tertiary times, lies on top of older, Cambrian limestone. The younger limestone was deposited in small rainforest lakes that flourished in the wetter climate of the time. This limestone is famous for the innumerable fossil invertebrates it contains. Early relatives of today’s fauna fell or were washed into those lakes and were preserved for posterity in the lime-rich sediments.

World Heritage Wonder

The Riversleigh World Heritage Site is part of Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. The World Heritage area is in the south-east section of the park and covers 10,000 ha. Riversleigh D Site is the only area open to the public.

In 1994, Riversleigh and Naracoorte in South Australia were jointly inscribed as the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites (Riversleigh/Naracoorte) World Heritage Area. Located 2000 km apart, these sites provide evidence of different stages in the evolution of Australia’s mammal fauna and are outstanding for their extreme diversity and the quality of preservation of their fossils.

Riversleigh—where ancient mammals rest in pieces

The Riversleigh fossil deposits are among the richest and most extensive in the world, with some fossils dating back 25 million years. These fossils have been superbly preserved in limestone outcrops. Riversleigh was once a lush rainforest filled with lakes and waterways. The high concentration of calcium carbonate in the water has ensured that fossils have been extremely well preserved. When the skeletons of dead animals came into contact with this water, the bones were quickly coated in limey mud.

Later the bones were replaced with hard minerals from the limestone-rich water. Millions of years later, the fossilised bones have been exposed as a result of weathering by wind and water that dissolved and removed layers of surrounding soil and rock.

Scientific research and activities in the area are predominantly coordinated by a group of palaeontologists from the University of New South Wales who conduct studies at Riversleigh each year.

For more information, see the University of New South Wales’ Coalition for Research into the Evolution of Australian Terrestrial Ecosystems (CREATE).

Culture and history

The expansive grasslands of the Gulf region were opened up to grazing leases in the mid 1800s. Photo: Mark Nemeth, Qld Govt.

The expansive grasslands of the Gulf region were opened up to grazing leases in the mid 1800s. Photo: Mark Nemeth, Qld Govt.

Today the Waanyi are the majority owners of the Lawn Hill Riversleigh Pastoral Company. Photo: Mark Nemeth, Qld Govt.

Today the Waanyi are the majority owners of the Lawn Hill Riversleigh Pastoral Company. Photo: Mark Nemeth, Qld Govt.

The pastoral industry

The Gulf region was opened up to grazing leases in the mid 1800s. Pastoral pioneers, including Page, Mytton and Cooper, brought the first cattle to the Lawn Hill Creek area in the 1860s. But this was soon followed by an outbreak of ’Gulf Fever’ (a type of typhoid fever) that caused many graziers to leave the area. In the mid 1870s, Frank Hann purchased numerous leases launching the beginnings of the South Esk Holdings, which later became the Lawn Hill Riversleigh Pastoral Holding Company. Hann accumulated 9,000 km2 of land in total. Over the next century several graziers became leaseholders of the land, until the famous 'cattle king' Sebastiao Maia arrived from Brazil.

Sebastiao Maia arrived in Sydney in March 1975. He was unable to speak English and employed a Sydney taxi driver to be his interpreter and chauffeur as he travelled the country in search of potential cattle stations. In 1976, Maia took over the lease of Lawn Hill Station that had grown to 11,000 km2 and was one of the largest cattle stations in Queensland. In the early days Lawn Hill Station was also declared the largest fauna sanctuary on leasehold land in Queensland and in 1984, Maia surrendered 12,200 ha of Lawn Hill Station to the Queensland Government for a national park. Today the Waanyi are the majority owners of the Lawn Hill Riversleigh Pastoral Holding Company.

Waanyi culture

Aboriginal occupation at Lawn Hill dates back at least 17,000 years and may extend beyond 30,000 years. The Aboriginal Traditional Owners—the Waanyi people—know this country as Boodjamulla or the Rainbow Serpent country. According to the Waanyi people, Boodjamulla—the Rainbow Serpent—formed the Lawn Hill Gorge area and created the permanent spring water. Lawn Hill Gorge is a sacred place used only for ceremonial and celebratory purposes. The Waanyi believe that if you tamper with the water, pollute it or take it for granted, the Rainbow Serpent will leave and take all the water with him.

During the wet season the Waanyi people would gather under overhanging rocks and in caves, while in the dry months they would camp in paperbark shelters along the creek banks. They made paperbark canoes for travelling short distances and used a shield-shaped wooden dish, called a coolaman, to carry babies, prepare food or to transport fire and food.

The Waanyi people were hunters and gatherers. Men hunted while the women and children gathered edible plants and fruit. Boomerangs and spears were used for hunting while grass-woven nets were made for catching fish. Boodjamulla country provided plenty of food for the Waanyi people. Their staple diet consisted of fish (wirigatyigatyi), turtle (wabungara), kangaroo (mailadyi), and goanna (dyambapna), and was supplemented with berries, mussels (mulla mulla), pandanus fruit (bulalula), wild banana and cabbage palms cores (wodidy). They used stones to grind lily seeds for damper and used earth ovens (dundee) of hot coals and rocks for cooking.

Evidence of Aboriginal occupation can still be found today in the remaining mussel middens, grindstone relics and rock art. Waanyi Elders have interpreted some of these sites, providing visitors with an understanding of their traditional lifestyle.

Last updated
12 June 2019