Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Cuddie Springs                                                                                                                            

This is a shallow ephemeral lake near Carinda, in semiarid New South Wales. This is a fossil site where bones of megafauna have been found. It also contains Aboriginal cultural material. There are several deposits of megafauna bones in the Cuddie Springs site. There were remains of Diprotodon, Sthenurus, Genyornis, Macropus titan, large wombats and giant reptiles. Upper parts have been dated to about 19,000 to 30,000 years ago. At about 30,000 years ago there are artefacts and an increase in the amount of charcoal that continues from that time. Among the artefacts were some with reworked edges with traces of blood and hair. There were also grindstones with starch residue on them. There were also ochre and a probable cylcon (a cylindrical stone). Hearths were also found. Study of the artefacts has produced evidence of occupation at about 30,000 years ago in the form of cultural practices, and the processing of animal and plant material. At the time the deposits were forming Cuddie Springs was a shallow freshwater lake amidst relatively arid shrubland. At the approach of the Glacial Maximum the lake became ephemeral as they climate continued to dry out.

At this site megafauna bones and artefacts occur in the same strata in association with charcoal that provides secure dates. Artefacts are found associated with bones of megafauna, as well as in earlier and later levels. At 30,000 years ago the artefacts are associated with the remains of Diprotodon and Genyornis a silcrete core with wear use and blood and fur traces being found associated with charcoal dated to 29,570 BP above the mandible of an Diprotodon optatum and below a tarsus-metatarsus of Genyornis newtoni. Elsewhere in the world large stone points were associated with megafauna hunting. These did not exist in Australia until thousands of years later. At Cuddie Springs, where there is little doubt the people were eating megafauna, the stone implements appear to be all of the type used for processing carcases rather than hunting large animals. This has led to the suggestion that they may have been eating dead or dying animals that had been trapped in the mud around the water's edge.

A number of points make it very unlikely that the artefacts and bones were all transported to the lake by agencies such as floodwater. The very low gradient of the surrounding land would preclude the possibility of high-energy streams, so no mechanism for transporting large bones or artefacts existed in the area. There is also the evidence of pollen, charcoal as well as hearths, some intact bones. And the artefacts have traces of biological material on them, highly unlikely if they had been subject to movement by natural processes such as floods.

Analysis, and comparison with DNA extracted from fossil bones, has shown that the blood on the artefacts is from Macropus titan and Diprotodon. These findings were still to be confirmed at the time of writing.

It has been suggested that the animals may have been butchered after they were trapped in mud at the edge of the lake, either killed or scavenged. It is possible they might have been killed elsewhere and brought to the site for cooking. Hearths were found at the site.

In Unit 5, dated to between about 30,000 and 19,000 years ago were ochre, many stone artefacts, mostly flakes, cores, scrapers. These were mostly silcrete, but some were made from quartz, feldspar porphyry, chert and conglomerate. Over time the raw materials tended to change from quartzite to chert. There was a wide range of sizes/weights of the stone artefacts, between 0.02 gm and 300 gm. Horsehoof cores and tula adzes were used at this site. Analysing the use-wear and residues on the tools indicate that they were being used for woodworking, as well as processing other plant material. The largest of the flat grindstones was found in Unit 5 has been dated to 28,310 years ago. Traces of plant tissue and grains of starch were found on its polished surface. Grass seeds, Acacia seeds and tubers of the bulrush Typha could have been the origin of the plant material on the grindstone. From this period the pollen record showed that Typha was indeed present. It is believed, based on the polish on its surface, it resulted from the grinding of grass seeds, grindstones from the Holocene that were used for this purpose show a similar polish.

The oldest example of grindstones with use-polish and and siliceous starchy residue from 30,000 years ago are evidence for the oldest known instances of plant food processes by Aborigines in Australia. Some of these grindstones predate known grindstones from the rest of the world by 20,000 years.

At Cuddie Springs, a weathered cylcon (cylindrical stone), was one of the most important finds. One end had been ground into a cone, the other end being broken. These were believed to be sacred stones used in rituals. Nearly all have been found on surface sites in western New South Wales. It is the only cyclon that has been found in a site where it could be dated, the Pleistocene age was totally unexpected, demonstrating as it does the highly conservative nature of Aboriginal rituals and culture, have remained substantially unchanged over thousands of years.

A sandstone quarry has been found 75 km from Cuddie Springs that would have provided the raw materials for the grinding stones and other stone implements used, but there is no site known in the area where the people could collect the sort of stone necessary for making large stone spear points.

The pollen data from the Cuddie Springs site indicates a decline in trees, grasses and shrubs as the climate changed in the Late Pleistocene, and an increase in saltbush (Chenopodaceae) as the severity of aridity increased with the approach of the glacial maximum. 180 km to the southeast, at Ulungra Springs, the environmental evidence over the period from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago also indicates that aridity was increasing, demonstrating that the arid expanse at the centre of the continent had expanded by at least 150 km. Cuddie Springs was an ephemeral freshwater lake within the arid zone when people camped around it 30,000 years ago.

Ochre in this deposit dated to between 33,600 +/- 530 BP and 30,280 +/- 450 BP. (Fullagar & Field, 1997; Field & Dodson, 1999).

See Cuddie Springs and Pleistocene Fauna Extinction not by Overkill

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 20/03/2017


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