Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Occupation - Populating the Continent - The Evidence

The author1 suggests that coastal settlement taking place 70,000 BP, on the continental shelf that is now submerged, might have left some evidence further inland by 65,000 BP, even if it got off to a slow start, gradually gathering momentum, taking 5 times longer than is suggested by hypothetical modelling. And if they arrived 50,000 BP evidence could be expected to be present inland by 45,000 BP. It is hard to be confident in any predictions concerning the timing of landfall, and of the archaeological evidence that maybe related to it, as there are a vast number of demographic possibilities. There is also a problem with the many destructive variables making it hard to believe it is possible that any traces of lives lived so long ago, whether or not they are related to landfall. A few sites have been found relating to that era, in spite of all the destructive possibilities they could have been exposed to.

At a location that the author1 says is surprisingly small, has been found under the sheltered overhang of a sandstone outlier, Malakunanja, which has more recently been called Madjebebe. Overlooking the flood plain of the Magela River, a tributary of the East Alligator River in sub-tropical Arnhem Land, which would have been cooler and drier at that time. At the time of first landfall Malakunanja was 500 km from the coast but is now only 50 km inland. It is not known how long it took to reach this site from the coast. On the walls there are faded paintings from the distant past and the floor contains histories from that past, the sediments having been accumulating for 105,000 years. The first signs of human occupation begin abruptly, the first time humans were in the bush of inland Greater Australia.

About 100 artefacts have been recovered from the sediments at this location, the oldest of which was dated to 61,000 BP. Over the next 15,000 years, in the next 30 cm of the deposit in the shelter, 1,500 artefacts were left at the camp. An age of 52,000 BP has been retrieved from the middle of this horizon. At some time between 52,000 and 45,000 BP someone dug a small pit in the ground, a fragile feature that is 20 cm deep and about 40 cm wide, which is about the size of a typical oven that is used to roast goannas or bake tubers in earth pits at the present. What is amazing is that this feature has not been disturbed or displaced since it was dug, the sediment having been found to have last been exposed to light about 45,000 BP, which indicates a minimum age for the pit and associated artefacts that were still present within it.

These age determinations have a measure of statistical uncertainty, which is consistent with the ambivalence of time. There is a 1 in 3 chance that the actual date of the site could be either 10,000 years younger or 10,000 years older, the result of which is that the occupation of Malakunanja could be as much as 71,000 BP or 51,000 BP. The older date is consistent with the settlement of Australia resulting from the impact on human populations in Indonesia of the Mount Toba eruption, and the more recent date is consistent with the broader age of occupation that has been discovered in other locations in Australia.

Artefacts made of quartz and silcrete were left by people under the overhang, as well as a grind stone and pieces of igneous rock they had brought to the shelter. Ground haematite (a very high quality source of red ochre) crayons that were use-striated, were left at the camp, as well as other fragments of red and yellow ochre, and pieces of mica and chlorite. Mica is sheeted silica that is perfectly laminated, which gives it a sparkling, crystalline quality that produces 'a magical sheen when rubbed into the sin'1. The author1 has observed mica being mixed with ochre and applied to the skin to give a dramatic effect in the most sacred ceremonies. Chlorite is soft enough to be scratched with a fingernail and also has a sparkling quality and the powder produced is green and feels oily. The purpose implied is either decoration or ceremony, either of which entails social awareness and consequential social consciousness. The coloured crayons, when conservatively interpreted, alludes to an ancient artistic expression that is expressed, at least as decoration, possibly on the peoples' skin or hair, or wooden artefacts and valued possessions, such as bags, string, dishes and adornments. According to the author1 as there is a possible association between ochre and ritual activity is equally obvious, and requires that a sophisticated social and political system existed in the deep past. The presence of these materials implies creativity and aesthetic appreciation, as might be understood at the present, whatever the function implied for them, among ancient people very early in the ancestral Aboriginal occupation of Australia.

Antiquity and artistry seem to have been characteristic of the great past in Arnhem Land, and of the discoveries by archaeology. The Nauwalabila site, 70 km from Malakunanja, is another example. Early occupation at this site is also associated with ground haematite. This larger rock shelter, in Deaf Adder Gorge, was formed by a boulder toppling off the adjacent escarpment. An old man who had once camped in the rock shelter led archaeologists to it early in 1972, and their subsequent excavations found that the probable ancestors of his people had occupied the site continuously from the first time it was occupied. More than 30,000 artefacts were found in the deposit, of which 230 were within sand and interlocked gravel that has been dated to 60,000-53,000 BP, with a 1 in 3 chance of being from 67,000-48,000 BP.

Nawarla Gabarnmang Cave

In the archaic tradition of Australia the bedrock of Arnhem Land asserts itself in such a grand style. About the same time people were grinding ochre and making stone tools in Arnhem Land, ancient Australians were camping on the coast and occupying the highlands of New Guinea. At that time the climate was about 4oC cooler than at the present, and the tree line was lower, the deciduous forest and the savannah extending to the sea. The mountain valleys were covered by broad areas of dense rainforest, though trees didn't grow above 3,000 m, and above 4,200 m glaciers covered the mountains.

At bobongara, the Huon Peninsula, on the northeast coast of New Guinea, an ancient camp has been found, that at the time it was occupied was on a shore that was productive and hospitable, that was vegetated by mangroves and located among lagoons that overlooked fringing reefs, and there were forests in the hinterland. The camp and the old shore line have since been raised by continuing tectonic activity that powers orogenic activity so that the site of the camp is now located on a raised coral terrace about 40 m above the sea. A number of stone axes were recovered that were sealed beneath consolidated volcanic ash adjacent to a stream on the terrace, and hundreds more were present in the creek. These were flaked axes with a chipped groove to form a 'waisted' axe for attachment to a handle. These waisted axes are at least 44,500 years old, and possibly as much as 61,000 years old, making them the oldest known hafted axes in the world.

The coastal people are indicated by the presence of these waisted axes to have been utilising the forest, clearing areas of the forest for occupation and food collection, and they were also used by nomads living in the mountains. At the time people were living in the forest there were also people living in the Ivane Valley 2,000 m above sea level which at that time, when the climate was in a cool phase, was vegetated by beech forests. In Greater Australia (Sahul) these ancient nomads had begun to tame the forest. The settlers had an established forest tradition, and the clearing of the forests for hunting, gathering and living was aided by the development of hafted axes (axes fixed to a handle). The author1 suggests the hafted axes were used to penetrate and utilise the forest, possibly by clearing trees, splitting wood, ring-barking trunks, trimming branches, clearing roots and opening the canopy of the forest to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor for the production of food plants, various bush bananas, vegetables and beans and to improve the production of fruit on Pandanus palms.

Microscopic grains of starch were still attached to some of the artefacts that were recovered from this valley which indicated that Dioscorea yams were being harvested, processed and consumed. The identification of charred Pandanus nuts indicating that both yams and nuts were being consumed 49,000-44,000 years ago. Pandanus was growing abundantly in the local area at that time, but yams grew at lower altitudes, which indicated either the nomads occupied large territories, or that food exchange was being carried out with other groups of people who lived in different altitudinal environments.

The author1 suggests it is not surprising that a colonising population felled trees, as they had come from tropical Southeast Asia which was forested and were probably familiar with the variety of potential foods, such as forest yams, taro, sago and Pandanus nuts. The ancient axe heads that still had organic remains adhering to them are testimony to the high degree of ingenuity, environmental adaptation and social organisation of the first settlers in Australia. It is demonstrated by the ancient sites in New Guinea that the penetration, management, exploitation and successful occupation of forest environments at high altitude occurred about 40,000-60,000 years ago.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin
 Scott Cane has included in his book, written as a companion to the ABC TV series of the same name, a number of stories from his days living among Aboriginal people in the desert and moving around with them.
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  16/11/2013
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