Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 


Arnhem Land Sites

A few sites in Australia had produced some remarkable discoveries long before their antiquity was revealed by new dating techniques. 2 main successive stone tool traditions were identified.

The earlier tradition was the chunky, steep-edged flakes and cores, found at Nanwalabila, in the 20,000 year old level, and at Ngarradj Warde Djobkeng (white cockatoo Dreaming), Kakadu in the basal level dated to 10 000 years ago,

The more recent tradition was characterised by 5,000 year old stone spear points.

An unexpected find in these sites was stone axes with grooves around their sides and ground edges in the Pleistocene levels. Prior to these finds, they had been found only in sites from the most recent few thousand years. Since then, the basal levels of other northern sites have been found to contain them, such as the Sandy Creek Shelter in Queensland.

A feature of the Australian ground-edge artefacts from Arnhem Land distinguishing them from those of Asian sites is that they are smaller, more properly called hatchets, for one hand use, instead of axes, for 2 hand use, as found in Asia. This indicates that they were probably a local invention. Other supporting evidence for them being developed in Australia is that the early use of hammer-dressing of ground-edge tools is confined to northern Australia. 

Some of Australia's oldest grindstones have been found in Arnhem Land. 3 were found at Malakunanja II, the associated charcoal dating them to 18,000 years ago. 2 of them have flat to slightly concave grinding surfaces, one of them showing signs of being used to grind red and white ochre. The 3rd has a circular grinding hollow, about 10 cm wide, on one face. Similar grinding hollows have been found in the lower levels of Nawamoyn, and are common in Arnhem Land rock shelters. They were probably used for grinding ochre as well as plant food preparation, such as seeds.

The oldest known ground stone axe has been found in the Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter in Arnhem Land, in the country of the Jawoyn people. Dated to 35,000 years ago, it is currently the oldest known stone axe in the world.

Comparing earliest Australian stone tools with contemporary tool industries in Europe and Africa

Australian industries are distinctive, with some unique tools such as large, waisted axes and the horsehoof core, a single platform core often used as a chopper. There are also similarities between the Australian industries and the contemporary Mousterian industries from Europe and the Middle East, as well as to the Mesolithic of Africa, with the Levallois flake technique.

It has been suggested that if the 'Out of Africa' hypothesis is correct, the first arrivals in Australia would have had a basic tool kit that, like the marsupials, evolved in isolation. Some of their artefacts appear to have arisen by the process of convergent evolution, arriving at the same solution to a problem independently, while others were entirely local inventions.

One big difference between the development of the tools in Australia and Europe is that in Europe there was a creative explosion, whereas in Australia the process was much more gradual and incremental. Wobst has put forward a theory that Europe had 'Arctic hysteria', in which the explosion of new ideas was triggered by the need to find any way they could of surviving the Last Glacial Maximum.

In Australia there was no such need. When the northern hemisphere is glaciated Australia gets drier. Hunter-gatherers have been called the original affluent society. The Aboriginal People adapted to the changes as they occurred, their artefacts gradually changing as the need arose. In fact, they adapted so well to every difficulty presented by changing climate that they were indeed an affluent society.

It is now known that the Australian stone age was not a static period, the tools gradually evolving towards more effective, smaller and a greater variety of implements. Rhys Jones has estimated, based in the increase of average working length per unit weight, that stone tools became 8 times more efficient over a period of 25,000 years. (Flood, 2004).

The occupation site at Wyrie Swamp, that was covered by an expanding swamp, became a peat bog that preserved the wooden tools, is a very rare, if not unique glimpse of the non-stone part of the culture, showing that then, as at the time of first contact, tools of wood formed a big part of the tool kit. It shows that the digging sticks used by women, even now in a few places, were used thousands of years ago. It also shows that the barbed 'death spear' was not a recent invention, being used for thousands of years since some time in the Pleistocene.

On the driest continent on earth, with a climate that was too erratic over most of it for settled communities to become established, where the type of agriculture seen in other parts of the world could develop, they developed a tool kit to suit their needs. A kit that was easily transportable as they moved around their territory, never staying in one place long enough to exhaust the resources to the point where the environment could not recover by the time they returned. This tool kit allowed them to live sustainably for 60,000 years.

 Australian Pleistocene technology


Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications, 2004


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 30/09/2011

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