Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Occupation - The Western Coast - Pilbara

The desert extended to the west as far as the sea 40,000 years ago, and at that time the western desert was cooler than elsewhere and it is indicated by ancient pollen records from the Pilbara that it was colder between 42,000-39,000 BP than at ay other time in the last 100,000 years. It appears the area was in a period of climatic transition from cooler wetter to cooler drier, having an average of 9 dry months per year, low rainfall and very little summer rain. It is still not known how the ancestral Aboriginals first colonised this part of the Australian continent, whether they moved from the arid interior or arrived on the coast. Both possibilities are suggested by the archaeological evidence. The author1 suggests that both of the possible routes of settlement would have had difficulties, one of which was, and would also have been at the time of colonisation, the few rivers present along this part of the coast, as well as the desert extending to the coast.

An example is the old coastline that ran to the south from the Kimberley, a flat area about 300 km seaward of the present coast which comprised a vast fan of arid country that extended to the west from what is now the Great Sandy Desert, with no permanent rivers. The Murchison River, Gascoyne River and the Fortescue River are the largest rivers in the Pilbara, none of which are permanent rivers, though they are long. The Fortescue River flows more than 1,000 km from the desert to the sea. They take large quantities of water to the sea in the wet season, and are believed to have done so in the past. Following the heavy rains of the wet season at the present the Murchison River has an average flow of about 200 gigalitres, though on occasion it has carried more than 1,800 gigalitres in time of extreme flood. In the wet season there are raging torrents in the Pilbara rivers and those of the Kimberley, leaving intermittent streams in the dry season in which freshwater pools are linked by underground sections of the rivers, which would have provided conduits for settlement between the desert and the sea and the sea to the desert.

Sites of great antiquity have been found on both sides of the Pilbara Block. Djadjiling on the Hamersley Plateau has been dated to 39,400-41,700 BP and Jansz Cave on the Cape Range Peninsula has been dated to 39,000-41,300 BP. See The Djadjiling Archaeological Site.

A unique aspect of the living environment of the Pilbara at the time of first settlement is that its shores are set against a steep continental shelf. As a result of this steep continental shelf the coastline of the present is similar to what the coastline was like about 40,000 BP, the difference between 40,000 years ago and the present coastline being 12 m. The author1 suggests the Pilbara coast is probably the only coastline in Australia where the living conditions of the first settlers can be seen, at least to some extent. All other sites of coastal occupation have been submerged by rising sea levels since the close of the last ice age, though in the Pilbara not all ancient coastal sites were flooded. It is therefore possible to uncover evidence of early occupation of the coast, and such evidence has been found in Jansz Cave on the Cape Range Peninsula situated between Exmouth Gulf and the Indian Ocean. At this cave the occupants were exploiting both marine and terrestrial resources, hunting kangaroos, turtles and fish and collecting emu eggs and shellfish about 40,000 BP. The oldest evidence of marine subsistence in Australia has been found in a mixed economy at this site, as well as others such as Mandu Mandu Shelter that is a short distance to the south, that included bandicoots, bettongs, and possums. In the basal layers of these deposits there are also thylacine bones.

The country south of the Pilbara is also arid along the coast of Western Australia, and there are no permanent rivers for more than 1,200 km until the Swan River near Perth. The Swan River flowed further west across the coastal plain at 40,000 BP, beyond what was then Rottnest Hill, and is now Rottnest Island, until it entered a huge canyon. Now under water, this canyon begins at the 50-m contour, and by 160 km into the sea it reaches 2,000 m in depth. This canyon is longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon, and at the time of the first settlement it would have been an intriguing natural feature that would have been a source of plentiful food as the marine life emerged from the deep to feed on the abundant life in the oceanic upwelling near the coast. There is provisional and indirect evidence of human occupation about 50,000 years ago on Rottnest Island, that became an island about 6,500 years ago. While it was still a hill on a broad plain, about 50,000 years ago, it would have overlooked the oceanic canyon.

Artefacts have been found strewn on an old living floor further inland along the Swan River, the artefacts being believed to be at least 38,000 years old, and possibly up to 40,200-46,900 years old. Of these artefacts a small number were made from fossiliferous chalcedony obtained from a source on the coastal plain. This same material has also been found in other archaeological sites in southern Western Australia but is not found in the archaeological record after 4,600 years ago as by then the rising sea had submerged the quarry making the original source inaccessible. The people living inland along the Swan River are indicated to have moved between the river and the coast to acquire the material by its presence in their occupation site.

In Western Australia the most southerly part was dry 40,000 years ago, which is similar to the situation at the present, though at that time there was a belt of forest to the west of Bunbury and Albany, extending for 20 km past Naturaliste Hills (now islands) and Leeuwin Hills (now capes) to the west across a narrow coastal plain. This area was also settled a long tome ago, based on evidence of human occupation in a limestone cave, Devil's Lair, 46,000-47,000 years ago, that has artefacts that are scattered at levels that the author1 suggests are more likely to have an age of 50,000 years. The cave was 25 km from the archaic coastline when the first colonists arrived. The evidence of their presence is a bit sparse, 4 old fire places and 111 implements, suggesting a small number of people visited the site only infrequently. The occupants of this cave lived in semi-darkness, and included among the bones indicating what they ate were bones of possums, wallabies, snakes, lizards, frogs, bats, birds and emu eggs, the latter suggesting they lived at the site in winter. There were also megafauna bones, Protemnodon, Sthenurus, and possibly Thylacoleo. Among the implements were a surprisingly large number of bone tools, more than in the rest of the country, that are among the oldest bone tools known from Australia. Some have been either split or ground to form awls, some of which are so small that it suggests they were used as needles to puncture and sew animal skins together. The cave probably provided some degree of warmth in winter, which were cold there at that time. The fur coats may have been used for hunting in winter.

Devil's Lair is about 3,000 km from Arnhem Land, therefore people that had occupied that site were living at the most southerly location. The author1 suggests the great antiquity of Devil's Lair might be compared to that of Malakunanja in Arnhem Land to give some idea of the enormity and nature of settlement and adaptation across the continent. According to the author1 'The timescale involved is immense, the terrain traversed is colossal, and the scale of human accomplishment is difficult to comprehend. Comprehension finds corroboration through archaeological interpretations and physical chronologies that tell a human story of great social, geographic and chronological magnitude'. At Devil's Lair archaeological findings demonstrate that ancient people explored, established and expanded throughout the vast dry continent in a manner that absorbs and validates the oldest calibrated antiquities that have been asserted for human settlement. 'Colonisation at such a grand scale requires and gives proof to great uncontested antiquity, both documented and implied, through the establishment of regional societies of cohesion, order and engagement'1 . Settlement throughout Australia was based on sequential regional occupation, and required traditions of community and domesticity, creativity, self-awareness, and a resolute adaptability. 'It belongs to a greatness of time, by proof of the science that defines it, fundamentally beyond our intuitive grasp'1. Everywhere in palaeo-Australia there are landscapes of great antiquity that are embedded with innovation, artistry and adaptation. As the author1 says 'It is a land of seafarers, woodsmen, fishers, hunters and gatherers, adventurers, explorers, artists constituting a super-nomadic continental tradition at the very edge of measureable time.'

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: 18/10/2015
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