Australia: The Land Where Time Began
Prior to the discovery of the sites of ancient habitation around the Top End it had been postulated by a number of researchers that the first Aborigines to arrive in Australia would have landed at places like Arnhem Land, Cape York or the Kimberly region, based on the proximity of these places to New Guinea and the islands of Southeast Asia. All 3 regions have now yielded evidence of Pleistocene human occupation. Some of the sites are in excess of 30 000 years in age. What has surprised archaeologists was the finding of Pleistocene sites in extremely arid parts of the Pilbara, Central Australia and even as far south as the Nullarbor Plain.
It seems that by 25 000 years ago there was already a well-developed inland economy based on macropods and emu eggs in the Pilbara, and the Central Australian Ranges humans were present in the spinifex sand hills throughout the glacial maximum, the time of maximum dryness in the Australian inland.
Not bad for a people who were thought to be backward and unchangeable, coming from the wet tropics and adapting so well to the arid conditions that they were soon living in one of the harshest places on Earth, and at a time when the dryness would have been at its worst.
Changing to a settled way of life would have been difficult at best, as the climate over most of Australia is too dry and erratic for dependence on crops, and as is now known, Australia has the most impoverished soils in the world. A nomadic lifestyle was probably the best option,, as they could move around their territory, allowing other parts to recover before they returned.
At both Mushroom Rock and the 10 000-year-old layer at Early Man Shelter there were small rock fragments with grinding marks hinted at edge-grinding in the late Pleistocene in Cape York Peninsula. This find considerably extends the time of the introduction of edge-ground axes in the region and in the continent.
Ground-edge axes have been found in a number of Pleistocene layers sites in north Queensland, the Top End of the Northern Territory and in highland New guinea - kafiavana, Kiowa, Yuku, and Nombe, where a complete axe was found in a layer dated to 26 000-14 500 years. In Western Australia's Kimberly region, flakes showing signs of grinding were found in a 27 000 BP layer in Widgingarri 1, and the 18 000 year-old layer at Miriwun Shelter.
The Kimberley region in northern western Australia is one of the places where it had been thought Aborigines could have landed in Australia. At present the Kimberley Escarpment forms the rugged coastline of the area, but if they arrived 50 000-60 000 years ago they would have landed several hundred kilometres from the present coast on the continental shelf. It would probably have been above the sea, but it is not certain if the land was grassland, savanna woodland or muddy mangroves. As the continental shelf is now submerged any occupation sites on the shelf would also be beneath the sea. If this was a landing point for the first arrivals the earliest occupation sites would be on this submerged continental shelf, and depending how long they took to move further inland, any such sites would be even older than the known sites.
This rugged coastline is broken in a number of places by rivers flowing to the sea and in some places by plains. The Ord Valley is one of these. 2 occupation sites have been found in the Ord Valley, at least 1 of which is of Pleistocene age.
The Miriwun Rock Shelter
This site on the Ord River was excavated in 1971 as part of an emergency salvage program before the area was flooded by the Ord River irrigation scheme.
Small tools were found in the upper levels of the site. In the dark brown lower levels, from 18 000 to 3 000 years ago, a distinctive early assemblage was found. The find included thick, denticulate or notched flakes, core scrapers and small blades, pebble tools and quartzite fragments that could have been part of grindstones or anvils.
Among the artefacts of this site were 2 flakes from below the 18 000 year-old horizon. They had been struck from tektites, or Australites as they are known in Australia. 750 000 years ago a shower of tektites fell across Australasia. In Australia tektites are found in a swathe across the southern half of Australia, especially in Central Australia and southern inland parts of Western Australia.
One of the flakes was analysed and found to be from the Indochinite group, tektites from Indochina. This flake is the first of this type of tektite found in Australia. So there is the possibility, however remote, that this tiny flake was brought from Southeast Asia, as so far no unworked tektites of this kind have been found in Australia in association with occupation sites. The Miriwun tektite may be the first Asian artefact from the Ice Age period to be found in Australia.
There may be a long continuity of technological tradition in the Kimberley, in grooved, ground-edge axes and serrated flakes. The Kimberley serrated spear points are renowned for their fine crafting and their symmetry. They were made by the pressure-flaking technique, fine flakes are removed by use of wood or bone. Prior to European occupation fine-grained stone was used. This type of leaf-shaped, bifacially trimmed spear points has been used for at least 3000 years.
A feature of the Ord River sites is that organic material if often well preserved. The occupants of the Miriwun site hunted a wide variety of animals from the region. Among them were many eggshells of the pied or semi-palmeted goose (Anseranas semipalmata), this bird breeds in the wet season, so the site may have been a wet season camp from the Pleistocene to the european era.
Widgingarri 1 and 2
The rock shelters at Widgingarri 1 and 2 north-east of Derby on the Kimberley coast, are believed to have been used from about 28 000 BP. At this time they would have been more than 100 km from the coast. Occupation apparently ceased at about 7500 BP. It is believed by some that the increasing aridity is the probable reason for the abandonment of the site.
on a small offshore island, dates from at least 27 300 BP. The age of the first occupation of the site has been estimated to be about 30 000 BP. At this time there was relatively high sea level, which meant the sea would have been close to the shelter. The site shows a heavy dependence on seafood. Among them was the mangrove shellfish Geloina coaxans, very common at this site. Koolan Shelter 2 was abandoned by about 24 600 BP, probably as a result of increasing aridity, as the sea level dropped and the coast retreated about 220 km. The island became a peak in an inland range in the arid west Kimberley. People re-occupied the shelter about 10 400 BP, when the sea had returned, making the peak an island once more. The inhabitants seem to have followed the shore line as it moved towards the mainland and retreated again.
This shelter, on Northwest Cape, in western Australia, has an occupation site dated to 34 000 years. It is in Cape Range National Park, facing west over the 1-km wide coastal plain to Ningaloo Reef. More than 500 stone artefacts were found in the upper layer, together with marine and terrestrial bone fragments and marine mollusc shells. In the lower, Pleistocene layer below a layer dated to 19 500 BP, were fish teeth and some parts of mollusc shells. This continental shelf is narrower here than inn any other part of the continent.
The Pleistocene tools were mostly of poor-quality silcrete and limestone. The flakes of this age are much longer and thicker than in the later assemblages, and more cores and amorphous flaked pieces. In this Pleistocene assemblage the most recognisable tools is a 595 gram limestone horsehoof core. It was found about 10 cm below the 19 590 BP dated layer.
By the Holocene there is a noticeable change in the tool, now there is a higher percentage of re-touched artefacts and better quality silcrete. And distinctive artefacts such as adzes, and 1 tula, make their appearance after 2400 BP. The later assemblage there is a significant in flake size.
This is the earliest-know evidence for the exploitation of marine foods in Australia. it is the first dated occupation on the large arid stretch of the west Australian coast. The aridness of the area was previously thought to have posed a barrier to occupation. This shelter was used intermittently until about 19 000 years ago when it seems to have been abandoned, probably because of increased aridity and retreat of the sea to about 10 km from the site. It was re-occupied about 2500 BP. Extensive middens in the region have given earlier Holocene dates. At Woroora Midden dates of about 8000 BP have been measured.
It seems likely that increasing aridity around 19 000 BP led to the abandonment of the Australian desert zone until the climate changed again in the early Holocene. A unique find for the Pleistocene in Australia was made in this area, 22 shell beads. They were made from small marine cone shells and were associated with the bailer shell that gave the date of 34 200 years. These beads show similar wear patterns to those on threaded recent shell necklaces. The only other decoration of this type from Pleistocene Australia were bone beads found in Devil's Lair.
Shell bead necklaces were common inn recent Aboriginal Australia, especially in Tasmania. There is a very long continuity of Aboriginal decorative traditions.
Recent excavation on the Monte Bello Islands, now 120 km off the present Pilbara coast, has found evidence of Pleistocene occupation. 3 limestone caves have been excavated on Campbell Island. Cultural material was found and a marine shell at the base of the deposit in Noala Cave gave an age of 27 220 BP. At this time in the Pleistocene when it was adjacent to the coast. The deposit show the occupants were hunting kangaroos and other mammals on the surrounding plain as well as fish.
Retouched stone artefacts were of materials like metamorphic rock that is not found on the island. between 8000 and 7500 BP the island was joined to the mainland by low sea levels. Soon after 7500 BP they appear to have been abandoned. They were uninhabited islands 50 km offshore by 6500 BP.
Unexpectedly, a number of occupation sites have been found on the Hamersley Plateau in the Pilbara. As part of the arid zone, it would have been even drier at the height of the Ice Age, when it would have been 500 km inland.
Mt Newman Rock Shelter Orebody XXIX
The first of the sites found, overlooking the headwaters of the Fortescue River. Ash, charcoal and ochre were found at this site. 11 hearths were found, of these 1 was of the type typical of those used by modern Aborigines for baking animals. Most of the 400 artefacts found were simple flakes or re-touched pieces. 2 implement types were found - steep-edged scrapers and notched scrapers. Radiocarbon dates from the 1-metre deep excavation put it at more than 20 750 years old.
A recent discovery was an occupation site at Shark Bay, an arid coastal area on Peron Peninsula - the most westerly part of the continent, 450 km south of Northwest Cape. This is an open site called Silver Dollar. In the lower occupation layer were found stone artefacts associated with many kangaroo and wallaby teeth and a lot of emu eggshell, as well as some fragments of baler shell. Dating of the eggshell and the bailer shell gave an age range of 18 000-25 000 for the lower artefacts. The site was about 100 km from the coast during this period. The camp was unoccupied between 18 000 and 6000 years ago. When it was again occupied the food remains were dominated by marine remains.
It seems likely the colonisation of Australia by Aborigines was around the coast and up the river systems, but they apparently adapted to the most arid parts of the continent at a much earlier time than has been thought likely. By the time of the arrival of Europeans the whole continent had been occupied by Aboriginal tribes.
Prior to 1987 there was no proof that central Australia had been occupied in the Pleistocene.
Puritjarra Cave Rock Shelter
With the excavation of Puritjarra Cave Rock Shelter, almost at the dead centre of the continent, it was shown that people had already occupied the site by 22 000 years ago. This is a very large rock shelter in hard red sandstone cliffs, 45 m long and 20 m high, with a shaded floor space of 400 sq m.
The Puritjarra site is close to the only permanent water in the Cleland Hills, near the eastern of the Western Desert, about 320 km west of Alice Springs. The area id made up of spinifex grassland and mulga woodlands around the central ranges. In an area with an average rainfall of less than 350 mm/year, the ranges act like an oasis, with permanent springs, waterholes, deep rock 'reservoirs' and soakages in creek beds. All the rivers of the area, such as the Finke, flow only after rain, or even after heavy rain, but there are usually some water holes and soakages along their otherwise dry beds.
There is a large array of rock art, stencils, paintings and Panaramitee-style engravings. This type of engraving is also at the nearby Thomas reservoir site. 11 sq m of the site were excavated. Charcoal provided 12 radiocarbon dates, and 6 TL dates from the sediments. The base of the lower level has a preliminary date of 30 000.
The site was first occupied for a short period well before 22 000 years ago. The first long period use began about 22 000 BP. This appearance of artefacts is marked by the presence of charcoal and 10 pieces of high-grade red and purple ochre, 60 stone flakes, including a single large steep-edged tool, and about 200 small pieces of flaking debris.
Between 22 000 and 13 000 years ago the shelter was used occasionally, only a few artefacts being added per millennium. The uppermost laye if formed of loose, gritty sand with cooking hearths, charcoal and flaked tools, many grindstones, ochre and emu eggshell. There are no grindstones in the Pleistocene layer. This spans 6000 years. It shows that in the last 1000 tears there was a large increase in occupation of the region.
The 22 000-year-old occupation level coincides with the onset of major aridity. This is probably the beginning of a pattern of land occupation where reliable water was of major concern. From 22 000 to 13 000 years ago there was repeated, light use of the site, probably related to the fact that this was the height of full glaciation. The repeated use of the Puritjarra site, as well as it location away from major corridors, indicates there may have been a resident population in this refuge area.
At least 2 caves in the far southwest of South Australia were being used before 30 000 years ago.
Radiocarbon dates for Koonalda Cave shows it was occupied by 24 000 BP. Allen cave was occupied by 25 000 BP. TL dates for the occupation levels where carcoal didn't survive are 34 000 years. Preliminary optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) for Allen's Cave has a date of 34 000 +/- 7000 years 1 m above an artefact, so presumably the artefact is much older. Similar dates have been found at Koonalda Cave.
Koonalda Cave is a crater-like doline (limestone sinkhole) in the karst of the Nullarbor Plain. It was used as a flint mine, quarrying being carried out underground, often in places with no natural light, the resulting flint nodules being transported elsewhere for manufacture of tools. In the first dimly lit chamber of the cave, which was 100 m from the surface and 70 m below ground level, there were hearths, charcoal and mining residue. Later excavations found that flint mining had been practiced between 24 000 and 14 000 years ago.
A notable find in the cave was Pleistocene rock art, finger markings on the wall, 300 m from the entrance, where there was no natural light. There were 2 major attractions in this cave, reliable water and a plentiful supply of flint.
Allen's Cave is near Eucla, about 80 km west of Koonalda Cave. After the first occupation of the cave there was a break when the cave was apparently abandoned, between 17 500 and 15 000 years ago. This coincided with a period of increased aridity and the accompanying sealevel fall that cause the coast to retreat about 160 km further south. The Eucla-Koonalda region became a treeless plain. The estimated average annual rain fall at this time was about 160-180 mm. Allen's Cave was mostly abandoned during this time. Between 22 000 and 15 000 BP there was intermittent use of Koonalda Cave. It assumed the people of the area moved south to follow the coastline, probably living on the exposed plain. The sea rose again about 12 000 years ago.
It has been established by archaeological evidence that by 30 000 years ago all major geographic areas, coastal and inland, had been occupied. During the phase when the inland lakes, such as Lake Mungo, were full, occupation took place in very arid regions, as long as water could be obtained, people moved in. Australia is the driest inhabited continent and the Western Desert is the driest part of the driest continent. Yet even here Aborigines managed to adapt to the conditions. If the dates from Puritjarra on the eastern edge of the Western Desert is included, it means there are now firm dates of that show that even this most inhospitable of places was populated before 30 000 BP.
Pleistocene sequences have been found at 2 sites in the Western Desert, Serpent's Glen Rockshelter, and Kulpi Mara. 2 others are expected to provide more evidence, Durba Springs and Kaalpi. At these sites it appears they were abandoned at time of peak glacial aridity, but reoccupied as soon as the peak had passed. his pattern of occupation is also seen at Noala Cave, dating to 30 000 BP and Mandu Mandu Rockshelter dating to 34 000 BP.
As the climate improved new sites were occupied, such as Cuckadoo 1 Shelter near Cloncurry, in semi-arid Queensland.
Penetration to the heart of the Strzelecki dunefields has been demonstrated by dates from hearths with mussel shell fragments and charcoal from the JSN site by 16 850 +/-190 BP. By 15 000 BP the Finders Ranges had been occupied at Hawker Lagoon. Stone artefacts associated with 2 hearths have been found in dune cores on the lower Cooper Creek in the Lake Eyre Basin that date to about 11500 years.
Archaeological excavations of the 'barrier deserts' and adjacent dunefields has found - Rudall Lake, Balgo region, Simpson Desert, Lake Eyre Basin, Coongie Lakes and Cooper Basin has found hundreds of sites from the last 5000 years. Pleistocene sites in these areas haven't been found yet.
It was surprising to find early sites in the far southeast and southwest of Australia, but the dates for the more southern sites fit with a spread over the continent beginning about 60,000 BP. Southwest Western Australia has 2 known sites dating between 40000 & 30000 BP. In the southeast site of similar age have been found at the Willandra Lakes and a more controversial early date near Sydney.
Some archaeologists doubt the early dates from Kakadu, this would make for a very unusual spread, from south to north, that seems barely believable, where could the colonists have come from to the south of Australia, and the alternative seems not much less likely, colonists travelling down the coast to land along the southern part of Australia.
An open-air campsite on an an ancient floodplain along the upper Swan River. It has been dated to 38000 BP. Among the artefacts found at this site were were flakes made from a distinctive chert contain fossils. The same chert has been found in a number of other Western Australian sites with ages in excess of 4600 BP, and the probable source of the chert was subsequently found in drill cores from the seabed off the coast, on the continental shelf that would have been dry land when the first people arrived in Australia. It appears to have been a toolmaking site.
This is a cave in the far southwest of Western Australia, 5 km from the present coast and 20 km north of Cape Leeuwin. At the time of low sea level it would have been about 25 km from the sea. Its single chamber has an earth floor that is covered by flowstone, a sheet of stone, about 20 cm thick, that occasionally form on the floors of limestone caves. The upper levels contained large numbers of bones from the Tasmanian devil, hence its name. It was originally excavated by palaeontologists looking for animal remains, as these are common in limestone caves. Once it was realised there were artefacts in the cave excavations were taken over by archaeologists. Possible artefacts and a human incisor were found. The artefact-containing lower levels have been dated to 33000 BP.
Bones of a wide range of animals were found, some charred, and in one case in an an intact hearth, indicating that it wasn't the kill of a predator. Some of the bones of giant kangaroos, Protemnodon & Sthenurus, had been cracked and a couple have possibly been used as tools. If this proves to be true it will be the first definite evidence from Australia that the early inhabitants hunted megafauna.
More than 50 Plesstocne sites have been found in southwest Tasmania, covering an area of 13000 sq km.
This is a large island, 150 by 50 km, that has been separate from the mainland for nearly 10000 years. For some unknown reason the mainland Aborigines call it the 'Island of the Dead'. On the island there is plenty of evidence of occupation in prehistoric times. It is separated from South Australia by Backstairs Passage. This body of water would be very difficult to cross in canoes. It is subject to strong currents, heavy tidal swells and steep breaking seas. The first evidence of Aboriginal habitation on Kangaroo Island was the discovery of hammer stones at Hawk's Nest near Murray's Lagoon in 1903. In 1930 more stone tools were discovered and excavation was proposed. It was based on the finds at Kangaroo Island that the first suggestion was made that colonisation by Aborigines might date fro the Pleistocene.
Fieldwork in the early 1930s near Murray's Lagoon, a land-locked freshwater lake, revealed some hammer stones and some massive pebble implements. Subsequent exploration found revealed the presence of 47 camp sites on the island, by 1958 the number had risen to 120. Hundreds of pebble choppers, horsehoof cores and hammer-stones. The tool industry was named the Kartan, after the name for the island among the mainland Ramindjeri tribe.
The Kartan industry is characterised by the massiveness of its core tools. The dominant implements are hammer-stones and pebble choppers. Hammer-flaking technique is used to get flakes from one side of a quartzite pebble. The result is usually oval-shaped and a sharp edge is produced by trimming the margin. Many of the pebble choppers were perfectly symmetrical, finely-made by what must have been highly skilled craftsmen with a strong aesthetic sense. Another characteristic of the Kangaroo Island tools is the large, heavy, horsehoof core, but there are not as many of them as there are of the pebble choppers.
The world's oldest ground-edge hammer-dressed axes, Australia's oldest grindstones and paint palette, and the earliest human occupation found so far in Australia.
TL dates from 2 rock shelter deposits suggest people arrived in northern Australia between 50 000 and 60 000 years ago. It seems the Kakadu area was uninhabited until 55 000 years ago.
Pleistocene ground-edge axes seem to be restricted to north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and to the extreme north of the continent. In the Holocene, ground-edge axes were the main chopping tool over most of mainland Australia, but not in Tasmania.
|Author: M.H.Monroe Email: email@example.com Sources & Further reading|