Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Malakunanja II Arnhem land (more recently called Madjebebe)

This is a shallow rock shelter near Ngarradji Warde Djobkeng and Ja Ja Billabong, south of Malangangerr. It has faded paintings on its overhanging walls. The first excavation found charcoal dating to 18,000 years ago. Associated with the charcoal were a grinding hollow and 2 flattish mortars, one of which had clear traces of ochre.

Later excavations in the 1980s established Malakunanja as the oldest dated site in Australia. The first signs of  Human occupation appear 2.6 m below the surface. The layers showing signs of human occupation were TL dated to between 61,000 and 52,000 years ago. Humans apparently appeared abruptly dated to 61,000 +9,000/-13,000. The sand below this layer was devoid of any signs of human activity. From a depth of 2.5-2.3 m there was dense occupation, from between 52,000 +7,000/-11,000 BP and 45,000 +6,000/-9,000 BP. More than 1500 artefacts were found in the lowest occupation layer.

Artefacts included those made from silcrete, quartzite and white quartz, a grindstone, pieces of dolerite and ground haematite, chlorite and mica and red and yellow ochre. The researchers allowed for the earliest occupants to have trodden artefacts into the soft sand of the floor, putting the first occupation of the site at a conservative time of 52,000 years BP. Below the earliest occupation there was 2 m of sand that were deposited gradually over a period of 110,000 years.

The presence of high grade haematite in this deposit indicates that long distance exchange or transport took place during the Pleistocene, as the nearest known possible sources for the haematite are long distances from the site (Jones & Johnson, 1985b; Jones & Negerevich, 1985; Chaloupka, 1993).

See Stone Tools


According to the authors3 the date of the first arrival of humans on the Australian continent has important implications for the debate on human origins. Later evidence for the timing of the entry of humans into Australia was provided by the optical dating of unburnt quartzose sediments from Nauwalabila I, Lindner Site in Deaf Adder Gorge, 70 km to the south of Malakunanja II. Optical dates were obtained from several stratigraphic levels in an excavation that was 3 m deep where flaked stone artefacts and ground pigments were found in a primary depositional setting. Dates of 53.4 ± 5.4 ka and 60.3 ± 6.7 ka bracket the lowest human occupation levels, and that there is good agreement between optical and 14C age estimates has been demonstrated by the upper levels. Associated directly with the 53 ka level is a high quality haematite with ground facets and striations that indicates the earliest Aboriginals were already using pigments. The authors3 suggest evidence for the colonisation of northern Australia a short time after 60 ka should be seen in the context of this region being the likely entry route of the first human movement into Sahul.

Ngarrabullgan Cave, a Pleistocene Archaeological Site, Australia - New Optical and Radiocarbon Dates, Implications for Comparability of date and Human Colonisation of Australia

See Aboriginal Occupation - Populating the Continent - The Evidence

Sources & Further reading

  1. Flood, Josephine, 2004, 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
  3. Roberts, Richard G., Rhys Jones, Nigel A. Spooner, M. J. Head, Andrew S. Murray, and M. A. Smith. "The Human Colonisation of Australia: Optical Dates of 53,000 and 60,000 Years Bracket Human Arrival at Deaf Adder Gorge, Northern Territory." Quaternary Science Reviews 13, no. 57 (// 1994): 575-83.


  1. Australian Aboriginal prehistoric sites
  2. Radiocarbon determinations, luminescence dating and Australian Archaeology


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 15/11/2013


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