The occupation by Australia’s earliest Indigenous people has now been pushed back to more than 50,000 years ago. The discovery was made in a remote cave on the Western Australia coast. The discovery provides the earliest direct dates for Aboriginal use of marine resources in Australia.
The dating of artifacts, sea, and land fauna from sites on Barrow Island provided the evidence that Aboriginal occupation of Australia dated back to a period between 46,200 and 51,100 thousand years.
These estimates push back the earliest dates now widely accepted for the first occupation of Australia. Lead archaeologist Professor Peter Veth said the findings provided unique evidence for the early and successful adaptation of Australian’s earliest Indigenous people to both coastal and desert landscapes of Australia:
“This site contains cultural materials clearly associated with dates in the order of 50,000 years.
“This pushes back the age of occupation from the previous and more conservative limit of 47,000 years ago. Even older dates are entirely plausible.”
The research provides new evidence that humans during the Late Pleistocene had adapted to the desert landscapes by using maritime resources for subsistence. Their findings were published in Quaternary Science Reviews.
Archaeologist Dr. Tiina Manne, who specializes in the analysis of animal remains from archaeological sites, explained that the antiquity of this site, along with its exceptionally well-preserved bone and shell, is unknown from other sites in northern Australia:
“Most archaeological sites in the north do not have food remains as they just don’t survive in harsh, tropical conditions.
“The animal remains from Barrow Island provided us with an incredible archive of local environmental change over a very long period of time, along with profound insights into how people adapted and responded to a new and ever-changing arid landscape.”
The fragments of shellfish were consumed 42,500 years ago representing the oldest marine dietary remains found in Australia. Four independent facilities were used to date a range of specimens, which included charcoal and shell.
The combined results of radiocarbon and optical luminescent dating provided largely consistent chronologies. Dr. Vladimir Levchenko, who supervised the radiocarbon dating, said in a statement:
“Prof Veth’s group, who carried out a field survey over three years, has helped to clarify our understanding of the behaviour of modern peoples who dispersed from Africa and reached Australia.
“This research strongly supports the theory that Aboriginal people, although living inland, were relying on the resources of the coast.
“Although the coastal areas where the first inhabitants of our continent lived now lie under water, the team located a site on a continental island that has proved to be remarkably rich.”
Barrow Island was once connected to the mainland by a land bridge until 6,800 years ago. Australian’s earliest indigenous occupation of the island was abandoned when sea level rose. Professor Veth said:
“The cave was used predominately as a hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago before becoming a residential base for family groups after 10,000 years ago.
“It was abandoned by about 7,000 years ago when rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland.
“Remarkably, the early colonists of the now-submerged North West Shelf did not turn their back on the sea or remain coastally tethered, but rapidly adapted to the new marsupial animals and arid zone plants of the extensive maritime deserts of North West Australia.”
One of the largest excavation sites with stratified deposits was the 328-foot-long (100 m) Boodie Cave, where over 10,000 artifacts were recovered. The earliest deposits from the lowest level of the cave included burnt bone, shells, and stone artifacts. The researchers believe that foragers carried mollusks from the coast up to 12.4 miles (20 km) to the cave.
Through all periods of occupation, it was discovered that marine resources were transported to the cave in varying quantities, despite fluctuating sea levels and the dramatic extensions of the coastal plain. The limestone cave itself and the arid climate are credited in providing the excellent preservation of the archaeological deposits.
Like this article? Subscribe to our weekly email for more!