Discovery pushes back Aboriginal occupation

Professor Peter Veth at the Barrow Island excavation site.

Professor Peter Veth at the Barrow Island excavation site.

A team of international archaeologists has confirmed evidence from a remote cave in Australia’s north west that pushes back human occupation of Australia to around 50,000 years ago.

The discovery is of international significance in providing one of the earliest age brackets for the settlement of Australia.

It also has the longest record of dietary fauna providing unprecedented insights into the lifeways of the earliest Australians.

Lead archaeologist Professor Peter Veth, from The University of Western Australia, said the findings provided unique evidence for the early and successful adaptation of Aboriginal 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,” Professor Veth said.

“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 team focused on Barrow Island, which provides a unique window into the now-drowned North-West Shelf of Australia.

Barrow Island is a large limestone island located 60 km off the Pilbara coast of Western Australia.

“The large cave on Barrow Island provided rich records of ancient artefacts, gathering and hunting of marine and arid animals, and environmental signatures which show the use of a now-drowned coastal desert landscape – if you like an Atlantis of the South,” Professor Veth said.

“We know about old desert sites from the northern hemisphere but few have these extraordinary dietary records.”

The research, published in Quaternary Science Reviews, was led by UWA under the Barrow Island Archaeology Project funded by the Australian Research Council, and included researchers from The University of Queensland, James Cook University, The University of Waikato, The University of Adelaide, Sacramento State University, Curtin University, Oxford University and the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife.

The researchers worked with four international dating laboratories to rigorously date deposits in Barrow Island’s Boodie Cave. Professor Veth said the location provided the longest sequence of dietary remains from any Australian site.

“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 7000 years ago when rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland,” he said.

“Our current research at Barrow Island has provided the earliest evidence of coastal living in Australia. 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.”

The research was undertaken with the participation and support of the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation and Kuruma Marthudunera Aboriginal Corporation and was funded by the Australian Research Council as a Discovery Project.

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