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Gurdip Singh (1932–1991)

by Josh Newham

This article was published:

Gurdip Singh, n.d.

Gurdip Singh, n.d.

Gurdip Singh (1932–1991), palynologist, was born on 11 July 1932 at Katni, Madhya Pradesh, India, son of Mohan Singh, railway engineer, and his wife Janam Kaur. His father’s employment meant that the family moved often, and Gurdip attended eleven schools before entering Government College (BSc, 1951), Hoshiarpur, Punjab. He then studied botany at the University of the Punjab (BSc Hons, 1953; MSc, 1955). Focusing on the postglacial vegetation history of the Kashmir Valley, he undertook doctoral studies in Quaternary palynology and pollen morphology at the University of Lucknow (PhD, 1961), Uttar Pradesh. He also held several research and teaching positions in the Birbal Sahni Institute for Palaeobotany at the university between 1955 and 1969.

Singh had married Brinder Kaur Hanspal at Amritsar, Punjab, in 1960, before travelling as a Colombo Plan scholar to undertake a second doctorate at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland (PhD, 1964). On completion he returned to the Birbal Sahni Institute, lecturing in palynology and palaeobotany, and conducting field research and pollen analysis on salt lakes in the Rajasthan Desert, north-western India. His work was ‘much acclaimed and very frequently cited in literature’ (Meher-Homji 1996, 250), notably its contribution to understanding the impact of climatic change on the Indus Valley’s ancient Harappan civilisation. In July 1970 he commenced as a research fellow in the department of biogeography and geomorphology in the Research School of Pacific Studies, the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra.

For thirty years the focus of Singh’s research was the Quaternary vegetation of the world’s arid and semi-arid regions. According to his colleague Donald Walker, ‘nobody knew more about this [field] and nobody made a greater individual contribution to it’ (1991, 2). Singh’s palynological research in Australia, where the field was still in its infancy, made him ‘a pioneer in examining the natural history of the continent’ (Swete Kelly and Phear 2004 9). His analysis of core samples from Lake Frome and Lake Eyre, part of the ANU’s salt lakes, evaporites, and aeolian deposits research program, made a significant contribution. He also established a network of modern pollen survey stations across south-eastern and central Australia, studying present-day pollen distribution as an aid to interpreting core sample data. By supervising the research of several young palynologists, he contributed to the field’s growth in Australia.

In 1973, 1980, and 1987 Singh undertook study in India and Pakistan, in the United States of America, and at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, respectively. Numerous papers and presentations resulted, culminating in a major article titled ‘History of Arid Land Vegetation and Climate: A Global Perspective’ (1988), which collated his fieldwork and research into an account of the global development and history of arid land plant communities since the advent of angiosperms in the Cretaceous period. The exceptional quality of his research was recognised by his election as a fellow of the Indian-based Palaeobotanical Society, an F. L. Stillwell award (1981) from the Geological Society of Australia (shared with J. M. Bowler and N. D. Opdyke), and a guest research fellowship at the Royal Society of London (1987).

A study of an eighteen-metre core sample from Lake George (Weereewa), near Canberra, in the 1980s produced Singh’s most controversial assertion. Continuing with the interdisciplinary application of his palynological research, he posited that the presence of charcoal, dated from the last interglacial period (120,000 years ago), could be the result of Aboriginal burning practices. The figure dwarfed contemporaneous archaeological estimates of the duration of Aboriginal occupation of Australia, forty thousand years being the generally accepted figure at the time. He was aware of the contentious nature of the claim but saw no other explanation for the evidence of regular burning he found in the core. Later research, however, argued that his analysis had overlooked groundwater fluctuations that may have affected the stratigraphy, and therefore the dating, of organic and carbonaceous materials in the core.

While the early date proposed by Singh has never been accepted by archaeologists as plausible, he is remembered as one of a small cohort to advance the notion that Aboriginal use of fire had a role in shaping the Australian landscape. His assertion that Lake George was ‘one of the world’s most important repositories of information about climatic and biological changes in ancient time’ (ANU Reporter 1984, 1) is supported by the fact that it remains a topic of study and debate. A dapper man, with a well-kept goatee, dark hair, and deep-set eyes, he was remembered by a laboratory assistant, Gillian Atkin, as ‘a formal academic, and a gentleman, seldom seen without a shirt and tie’ (2014, 215). He was a secular Sikh and with his wife was an active member of Canberra’s Indian community. His colleagues valued his humble, polite, and inquiring nature. He died suddenly from a cardiac arrest after a family game of badminton on 9 November 1991 in Canberra and was cremated. His ashes were scattered on Lake George and in his home country. He was survived by his wife and their three daughters.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • ANU Reporter. ‘Did Aborigines Arrive 130,000 Years Ago: Are Eucalypt Forests Artefacts? Lake George Opens a Window to Australia’s Tantalising Past.’ 24 August 1984, 1–2
  • Atkin, Gillian. ‘Fieldwork and Fireworks: A Lab Assistant’s Tale.’ In The Coombs: A House of Memories, edited by Brij V. Lal and Allison Ley, 213–19. Acton, ACT: ANU Press, 2014
  • Australian National University Records. Gurdip Singh staff files, 12187-001–003
  • Canberra Times. ‘Indian Editor Greeted at Cocktail Party.’ 17 January 1981, 14
  • Canberra Times. ‘Many People at Indian Reception on Wednesday.’ 30 January 1983, 16
  • De Deckker, Patrick. ‘The Record of Weereewa-Lake George with an Ambiguous Dating Issue.’ Quaternary Australasia 37, no. 1 (July 2020): 21
  • Meher-Honji, V. M. ‘Past Environments through Palynology: A Short Appraisal with Reference to the Western Ghats.’ Environment and History 2, no. 2 (June 1996): 249–52
  • Singh, Brinder. Personal communication
  • Singh, Gurdip, and Elizabeth Geissler. ‘Late Cainozoic History of Vegetation, Fire, Lake Levels and Climate, at Lake George, New South Wales, Australia.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 311, no. 1151 (1985): 379–447
  • Singh, Hari Pall. ‘A Tribute to Gurdip Singh, 1932–1991.’ Palaeobotanist 42, no. 2 (1993): 242–43
  • Walker, Donald. ‘Obituary.’ ANU Reporter, 27 November 1991, 2.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Josh Newham, 'Singh, Gurdip (1932–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Gurdip Singh, n.d.

Gurdip Singh, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


11 July, 1932
Katni, Madhya Pradesh, India


9 November, 1991 (aged 59)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

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