Arnhem Land Expedition (1948)

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The Arnhem Land Expedition to northern Australia was co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and the Australian Commonwealth. The trip which lasted from March to December, represented a significant cross-cultural and multidisciplinary undertaking. The expedition team consisted of seventeen American and Australian scientists, anthropologists, photographers, and others who spent the trip exploring, documenting, and collecting specimens among the swamps, forests, and coastlines of Australia. Charles P. Mountford, Australian anthropologist and photographer, was the designated leader of the group. The other Australian participants included botanist Raymond L. Specht, anthropologist Frederick D. McCarthy, and Colin Simpson; a radio broadcaster who accompanied the expedition making sound recordings of local songs, ceremonies, and interviews with expedition members for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Four Smithsonian staff members, Frank M. Setzler, David H. Johnson, Herbert G. Deignan, and Robert R. Miller, participated in the anthropological and biological expedition which collected skeletal and ethnological specimens (These collections helped to increase the amount of Australian skeletal material available for study in the United States). Harrison Howell Walker, photographer and writer from the National Geographic Society, was another important American accompanying the expedition. During the course of the 10 month expedition, three bases were established from which operations and explorations originated. The first was Groote Eylandt on the Gulf of Carpentaria. By the fourth month, the second base camp was set up at Yirrkala, on the Gove Peninsula. Finally, the third base was located at Oenpelli (now known as Gunbalanya). In total, 400 birds, 800 marsupials, 10,000 fish, and several hundred anthropological specimens were sent back to the Smithsonian Institution. Over 13,000 botanical specimens were collected and left in Australia for classification before being distributed. Sound and video recordings were made, along with a large collection of native art.


Thomas, M., & Neale, M. (2011). Exploring the legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition. Camberra: ANU E Press.

Date Range

1948 - 1948


  • Animals
  • Zoology
  • Birds
  • Ichthyology
  • Mammalogy
  • Plants
  • Ornithology
  • Botany


  • Groote Eylandt
  • Australia
  • Arnhem Land
  • Yirrkala
  • Oenpelli


Expedition name