Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Kutikina Cave "spirit" (Frazer Cave)

This is a large cave, 170 m deep in the side of a limestone cliff, 35 m from the eastern bank of the Lower Franklin River, 10 km from where it joins the Gordon River. It is about 40 m above sea level.

The cave floor covers an area of about 100 m2 covered by up to 2 m of bone debris in which tools and fireplaces have been found. About 250,000 bones and about 37,000 stone flakes have been found in less than 1 m3, leading to the estimate of the an average density of  70,000 artefacts and 68 kg of bone per cubic metre (Flood, 2004). It has been suggested about 20-30 people camped in the cave for a few weeks every year, probably while they hunted in the area, before moving on. It was in this way that Aboriginal groups tended to not overexploit any one area. In some parts of the cave there are small openings in the roof. Beneath all of these openings, "skylights", were found a mass of stone-working debris, apparently they were utilised as the places with the best light to work on tool making, including some bone points.

There was a thin white layer of calcium carbonate (moon milk) covering the floor of the cave. Below this was a layer about 30-40 cm thick of interleaving hearths. This layer was darker than others because of the amount of charcoal, ash and burnt earth from the small depressions where the cooking fires had been. The top of the hearth layer has been dated to 14,840 +/- 930 years ago. The layers below the hearth layer, that continue down to the bedrock, contained limestone blocks that had fallen from the roof and mixed among them were stone tools and charcoal that allowed dating of the oldest occupation layers in the deposits to about 20,000 years ago. The conditions that led to the formation of the layers containing the limestone blocks probably resulted from the freezing conditions of the ice age.

It has been suggested the stone tools are characterised as a regional variant of the Australian core tool and scraper tradition of mainland Australia from the last ice age. Features include steep-sided, domed horsehoof cores with a single striking platform, and steep-edged, notched and flat scrapers. Quartz and quartzite are the main materials used. Darwin glass, a natural glass, was also used for making cutting tools.

Analysis of the cutting surfaces of Darwin glass tools has revealed traces of collagen and crystallised haemoglobin, that further analysis showed was from the red-necked wallaby, aka Bennett's wallaby, (Macropus rufogriseus). Haemoglobin crystals are unique for each animal species. In this case the haemoglobin crystals proved to be identical to that of the living species. So at least 1 use of Darwin glass was for butchering animals, but it is believed there were multiple other uses for it. It is believed the small flakes may have been used like a modern penknife.

99 % of the artefacts from the lower layers, between about 19,000 and 17,000 years ago, are made of quartzite. There is a change of the dominant material to 99 % milky quartz. These tools were now fashioned by the bipolar hammer and anvil method. This method is usually associated with the manufacture of tools from hard, intractable quartz. The sediments from 17,000 to 15,000 years ago contained the largest concentration of archaeological debris. (Ransom et al.,1983; Jones, 1989). It was from this period that Darwin glass makes its first appearance at the site, as well as other new tools. There is also an increase in the amount of bone of the red-necked wallaby and wombat.

160 very small thumbnail scrapers, round-edged tools abut the size and shape of a human thumbnail, mostly about 20 x 15 mm and about 8 mm thick. Some are even smaller, 11 x 7 x 5 mm. This type of scraper was common in the small tool tradition from the Holocene on the mainland. Prior to their discovery in southwest Tasmania they were almost unknown among Pleistocene assemblages. There is no evidence that the Pleistocene scrapers were ever hafted to a handle. It is believed detailed study will disclose differences between the thumbnail scarpers from the Pleistocene and those from the Holocene. At Kutikina Cave all the known thumbnail scrapers were made of quartz and produced with the bipolar method, though at other sites chert and Darwin glass was also used in the manufacture.

Functional analysis of the thumbnail scrapers from Kutikina and Nunamira Cave has concluded that they were hand held, showing no traces of hafting or use-wear. The backing was apparently the curved, steep retouched edge, apparently to prevent cutting the hand of the user, and all residues are found on the other, cutting edge.

Comparison of the residues on the thumbnail scrapers with that on the cutting edges of tools from the large flake industry in lower levels found that they had a similar use, both showing a similar broad range of functions. 30-40 % of both tool types had traces of butchery on their cutting edges, bone-working 20 %, plant working of various kinds 15 %, woodworking 10 % (Flood, 2004).

There were also bone points from wallaby fibula, but not many animal bones are known to have been modified, though there are 250,000 pieces of animal bone known from the site, giving information about the diet, environment and way of life of the occupants of the cave. Bone preservation is not common in archaeological sites, and even when it is preserved it is difficult to distinguish between the prey of humans and animals that died there at times when the occupation site was not being used by humans. In the case of Kutikina Cave there is no doubt as many of the long bones have been smashed for marrow extraction, marrow being an important source of essential fatty acids, and have often been charred. And not all body parts are present.

Among the animals represented by the bones, red-necked wallabies represented 75 %, wombats 12 %, and a combined fraction of 15 other species, 13 % (Flood, 2004). Red-necked wallabies that were obviously so common in the area during the Pleistocene prefer open shrubland and sedgeland habitats, grazing on grasslands and sedgelands and herbfields. Their presence in the area of Kutikina Cave during the Pleistocene fits with the area as it would have been at the time the cave was occupied, with rainforest present only in sheltered valleys along rivers. In present-day southwest Tasmania few red-necked wallabies are found in the rainforest.

At a time when the annual average temperatures were about 4o C, 6o C lower than at the present, rainfall was about half the present level to about 1500 mm/year, and glaciers flowed down the high mountain valleys. There would have been grassy plains from the forest edges where the wallabies could feed.

As with the hunters in the Northern Hemisphere at this time, the Tasmanian Aborigines occupied deep caves to avoid the freezing conditions of the ice age. The Kutikina Cave remains have been compared with those of the caves of southern France. They had similar tools, cooking methods, and the hunting strategies. The main difference was the prey, reindeer in the France and red-necked wallabies in Tasmania.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J.B. Publishing, 2004
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008
  3. The Tasmanians: Part 8b: Archaeology and the Oldest Tasmanians
  4. Jim Allen, in Murray, Tim, 1998, Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia, Allen & Unwin. 


  1. The Tasmanians: Part 8b: Archaeology and the Oldest Tasmanians

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 01/11/2010


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