Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Cave Bay Cave

The is a large sea cave in Cave Bay on Hunter Island, 6 km from the northwestern tip of Tasmania. The occupation at the site has been found to extend back 23,000 years. The oldest occupation level found was at about 22,759 years ago. Over the following 2000 years 0.5 m of ash accumulated, containing some bone points and stone tools, and smashed, burnt animal bones.

The implements found here, of both stone and bone, are similar to those from the mainland during the Pleistocene, but are the forerunners of those that were to be developed in isolation in Tasmania. A 9 cm long bone point from the shin bone of a macropod found in association with charcoal was dated to 18,550 years ago. Other bone points were similar, but dated from 6,600- 4,000 years ago.

At the time the cave was being used the sea would have been about 30-40 km away, the view from the cave being across the wide Bassian Plain. The remains found in the lower levels of the cave are believed to be the result of occasional occupation by hunting parties. In the levels dating from the ice age have been found brush wallaby, barred bandicoot, tiger cat, native cat, and the Tasmanian pademelon and wombat. These are all extant animals, though the wombat, native cat are not found in later sites. And they are not present in historic times on Hunter Island.

The early occupation of the site apparently occurred spasmodically, and for short periods. This was followed by a period of heavy rockfall, thought to be from the peak of the last glacial phase about 18,000 years ago. It is believed it may have been caused by water freezing in cracks and crevices, which led to the opening of the cracks enough to cause the rock slabs to be pried loose.

The sea reached its present level about 7,000 years ago, and from 18,000 years ago till that time the cave was apparently deserted. From that period there is only 1 small isolated hearth that has been dated to about 15,000 years ago. This indicates that during this period the main occupants were owls and carnivores, though humans were occasionally present. The presence of owls is indicated by many intact small animal bones are indicative of the presence of  regurgitated bones from owl pellets. The presence of the Tasmanian devil is indicated by the many macropod and possum bones that had been chewed into fragments.

When the sea was near its present position, about 6,000 years ago, the cave is occupied again, as shown by the presence of the remains of marine shellfish, that would have been easily found along the now nearby water's edge, suggesting that the occupants now had a well-developed coastal economy. The contents of these more recent levels are similar to the middens from the lower levels at Rocky Cape South, that has been dated to about 8,000 years ago.

The base of the dense shell midden at Cave Bay Cave has been dated to about 6,600 years ago, contained the bones of small macropods and mutton birds, the shells of rocky coast species and some fish bones. Bone points, stone tools, quartz and quartzite flakes, and pebble tools have been found in layers older than 4,000 years.

Bowdler has interpreted this midden to mean that the cave was occupied by people who had a well-developed fishing economy that had been moving further inland as the edge of the sea progressively encroached on previously dry land, and the site at the time of the upper levels of occupation would probably have been on a Hunter 'Peninsula', the link to the Tasmanian mainland being severed as the sea continued to rise, It was then on Hunter Island. The cave was apparently abandoned for several thousand years, only being occupied by people from Tasmania again about 2,500 years ago.

A macropod femur was found that has groups of grooves and scratches on its surface. It has been dated to between 15,400 +/- 330 and 20,850 +/- 290 years ago. There was also a broken swan tarsometatarsus that had deep incisions and an 'embayment' into the bones where grooves are visible. There is a gloss over the ridges. It was found in a shell midden dated to 6,640 +/- 100 and 3,960 +/- 110 years ago (Bowdler, 1984). (from Habgood & Franklin 2008).

A deposit dating to 22,750 +/- 420 BP contained quartz fragments with adhering ochre. (Bowdler, 1984)

See Aboriginal Occupation of south central Tasmania

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, 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


  1. The Tasmanians: Part 8b: Archaeology and the Oldest Tasmanians



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 30/03/2015


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