Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Australian Occupation – Did it Occur Prior to 50,000 BP?

Questions with regard to the reliability of evidence for colonisation at about 50,000 BP have remained unanswered regarding the formation of sites or disturbance at sites due to the dearth of research into these subjects, though according to Hiscock this is no reason to reject the claims. Though evidence that claims of the colonisation of Australia between 50,000 – 60,000 BP has not been demonstrated sufficiently to satisfy all archaeologists, it has not been demonstrated to be false. According to Hiscock evidence that is consistent with colonisation occurring prior to 50,000 BP cannot be jettisoned, which is contrary to the arguments put forward by Allen & O’Connell, simply because it was poorly presented and is hard to evaluate.  Hiscock also suggests the evidence from a number of sites where artefacts have been recovered from levels that contained luminescence estimates of age greater than 45,000 BP cannot be dismissed easily. In the 1970s Rhys Jones laid the foundation for an ‘early colonisation model’ when he posited that humans arrived in Australia slightly earlier than 50,000 BP, pointing out that radiocarbon analysis was inherently unsuited to the investigation of colonisation of Australia by the ancestral Aboriginal people. Rhys Jones explained that undoubtedly the colonising of Australia occurred before 40,000- BP, and that sophisticated radiocarbon analyses were not reliably capable of dating samples older than 40,000 years (Jones, 1979; Chappell et al., 1996). With the development of luminescence techniques it became possible to estimate the age of deposits that were older than the ‘radiocarbon barrier’; as a result there was an announcement (Roberts, Jones & Smith, 1990a) that at Malakunanja II artefacts were recovered from sands that had been estimated to be 50,000-6,000 years old. There were, however, several archaeologists who, as Hiscock put it “were wary of the stratigraphic associations inferred at Malakunanja II” (Bowdler, 1990, 1991; J. Allen, 1994; O’Connell & Allen, 1998, 2004; Allen & O’Connell, 2003).

According to Hiscock artefacts found at Nauwalabila may have undergone vertical movement in the grey and yellow sand levels, as had been hypothesised (Allen & O’Connell, 2004), though it is more difficult to understand how the artefacts could have moved so far down into the rubble at the base of the excavation which was packed densely. Hiscock suggests it seems likely that the artefacts found within the rubble had moved down very little since they were deposited (Roberts et al., 1990a, 1990b). The accumulation of sands on top of the rubble about 53,000 BP (48,000-59,000 BP) is suggested by Hiscock to indicate the artefacts had been trapped in the rubble for somewhere around 50,000 years of more, though the rubble and artefacts have not been described adequately, and might represent a palimpsest that was formed by erosion.

There is an even more convincing case for colonisation at Malakunanja II. The lowest artefacts found in that deposit came from 230-260 cm below the surface. There were 3 luminescence age estimates at those depths: Sample

1.     KTL164 was 45,000 (38,000-52,000) years BP for sediments 230-236 cm deep,

2.     KTL158 52,000 (46,000-60,000) BP for sediments 241-254 cm deep, and

3.     KTL162 61,000 (51,000-71,000) BP for sediments 254-259 cm deep (Roberts et al, 1990a).

Artefacts were found at all of these depths. It was noted by the excavators that the artefact size and raw material did not suggest their wholesale displacement (Roberts et al., 1990b), though it was conjectured by sceptical researchers that the artefacts had move d downwards to enter sands of a pre-human age (Hiscock, 1990; O’Connell & Allen, 2004). Hiscock says it is now clear that the apparent associations cannot be explained away by vertical displacement of artefacts.

There was stratigraphic evidence of a small pit about 20 cm deep in Malakunanja II that had been dug from an old land surface that had been covered by sands that were analysed in the KTL164 sample. This ancient pit had not been disturbed or displaced, it was fragile and had been preserved only as a delicate difference in the sediments. This pit had been dug sometime between the deposition of the sand that was estimated to be 45,000 BP and 52,000 BP. Based on these luminescence estimates, that are highly imprecise, the age of this pit would be consistent with it being slightly younger than 40,000 BP or substantially older than 50,000 BP, though it is agreed by archaeologists that it is consistent with humans being present at Malakunanja earlier than 45,000 BP.

A final point, which has not been discussed very much, in favour of an ‘early colonisation’ model, is raised by evidence from Lake Mungo and Malakunanja. The presence of humans at these sites at least 43,000-45,000 BP has been demonstrated unambiguously, and evidence has been discovered that hints at humans occupying the Australian continent close to or earlier than 50,000 BP. According to Hiscock if it is concluded that humans lived at these sites 45,000-50,000 years ago, this was the latest period when colonisation could have occurred. A minimum age for the arrival of people on the continental shelf of Australia is represented by the earliest reliable archaeological evidence that has been found in Australia. Hiscock suggests colonisation probably occurred long before the earliest residues that have been identified in Australia. Very little has been preserved from the initial period of human occupation of Australia; of the first settlements on the continental shelf that is now submerged it is likely nothing has been preserved. As a consequence of the earliest settlements being on the continental shelf that is now submerged the earliest traces of human activity have bon been found. Even if the pit at Malakunanja had been dug prior to 45,000 BP it might not represent the earliest occupation of the shelter by humans, and it is certainly not evidence of the arrival of humans in Australia. Hiscock suggests it would be astonishing luck if Jones and Smith had even uncovered evidence of human occupation within a few thousand years of the first landfall. There is almost no knowledge of where the first landing took place, and how many people arrived at that time on the coast of Greater Australia, and there is no reliable estimates of how long it took to reach the area around Malakunanja, that was some distance inland from the coast during the Pleistocene period of low sea levels, where the landing took place, and to use the site intensely enough to leave an archaeological signature. It cannot be known, for the same kinds of reasons, how long people landing on the northern arrival points took to spread across the continent to places in the southeast such as Lake Mungo. Hiscock suggests it is likely there was an unknown period of time between the first arrival of humans on the coast, which is now beneath the sea, and their occupation of places that have been studied archaeologically.  When it is considered that it has been demonstrated that the southeast of the continent had been colonised more than 45,000 years ago, even a conservative consideration of the evidence might concede colonisation could have occurred 50,000 years ago, or even earlier.

A Balanced Perspective

Hiscock suggests that looking at the archaeological evidence recovered from Malakunanja and Lake Mungo it would be prudent to accept 2 points made previously (Hiscock & Wallis, 2005).

First, it is not possible to determine the exact date of human colonisation at the present. Dating techniques are too imprecise, and combined with the distorting effects that are caused by disturbance, results in uncertainty of about 5,000-10,000 years for the lowest cultural evidence for early sites.

Second, a minimum age for the arrival of humans is provided by archaeological evidence; the oldest undeniable evidence of humans in Australia must represent a time after colonisation. It can be conjectured that humans became visible archaeologically at southern sites, such as Devil’s Lair and Lake Mungo, long after colonisation, though the speed with which humans spread across Australia is not known.

It can therefore be considered that the antiquity of human colonisation of Australia is older than 45,000±5,000 years BP, an age which can be accepted by all archaeologists for sites such as Malakunanja II and Lake Mungo. Hiscock suggests it is possible that humans landed on the continental shelf of Greater Australia between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago, though it is more likely the colonisation of the continent took place between 50,000 and 60,000 BP.

Sources & Further reading

Hiscock, Peter, 2008, Archaeology of Ancient Australia, Taylor & Francis.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 02/03/2017
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