Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Hay Cave A 30,000 Year Cultural Sequence, Mitchell-Palmer Limestone Zone, North Queensland, Australia

Hay Cave is one among many limestone caves in the Mitchell-Palmer area in tropical north Queensland. The 30,000 year cultural sequence at the cave makes it archaeologically of major significance, with good preservation of faunal remains as well as stone artefacts and abundant rock art. This cave therefore provides the opportunity for investigating local archaeological trends in the long term at a single site and to compare them with regional trends from a wider range of sites throughout this area that is archaeologically rich (David & Lourandos, 1997).  In this paper the authors1 ask several questions which guided their research:  

         How can these long-term cultural trends be characterised from an individual site?

         In what way do they reflect wider regional trends and patterns?

         How do they compare with palaeoenvironmental trends?

         And how can we connect different spatial scales of investigation (the local or site-specific and the regional) at a more general level, when seeking to explore long-term cultural trends?

Hay Cave is well endowed in different kinds of archaeological materials, and it is a limestone cave with alkaline soils which make for good preservation, which also raises the question of the relationship between different kinds of archaeological evidence when cultural trends are explored through time. To what degree are independent evidence sets represented by each category of archaeological material, and to what degree can they be related inter-textually? Bearing in mind such questions, the stone artefacts, animal bone, land-snail shell, mussel shell, brush-turkey eggshell, charcoal and hearths in Hay Cave are examined in this paper in relation to wider regional chronological patterns for Cape York Peninsula (see David & Lourandos, 1998). In order to investigate these data in adequate chrono-stratigraphic detail a large number of AMS radiocarbon determinations were obtained.


Long-term archaeological trends have been characterised in a number of ways at Hay Cave by employing a multifarious approach, which included a range of separate indices and trends. The overall general archaeological trend was found to be consistent across a variety of lines of evidence, as well as across different analytical scales, both site-specific and regional. Generalised, long-term archaeological trends at Hay Cave have been found to compare favourably with general, regional trends that have been derived from data sets that are separate. The rates of site and regional land use by people are low at both site and regional scales beginning at about 30,000 BP and continuing until after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and during the terminal stage of the Pleistocene about 15,000 BP noticeable increases occurred in all indices, with even higher rises occurring in the Late Holocene after about 3,000 BP up to recent times.

 Palaeoenvironmental trends at Hay Cave were analysed using the vertebrate faunal material and the shells of land snails, which also reflected wider, general regional trends, though at the same time presenting a focus that was more localised. Hay Cave is located further inland than the coastal belt that is more humid and it climatic oscillations that are more dramatic. The broader relationships between the long-term, regional palaeoenvironmental trends, and cultural patterns, as well as human demographic trends, have been discussed elsewhere (cf. David & Lourandos, 1997, 1998, 1999; Lourandos & David, 2002). For example the rock art at Hay Cave is clearly a local manifestation of the regional rock art patterns of the past 2000 years that have been found across the wider area of Cape York Peninsula that have been viewed in terms of Aboriginal populations that were increased and denser (David & Lourandos, 1998). Overall, these spatio-temporal patterns of human behaviour that have been observed by the analysis of individual sites and their broader regional patterning, which incorporates emplaced art and rates of deposition of varied cultural materials, amount to a spatial history of Aboriginal Australia.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Lourandos, H., David, B., Roche, N., Rowe, C., Holden, A. and Clark, S.J., 2012, in Simon G. Haberle & Bruno David, (eds), Peopled Landscapes : archaeological and biogeographic approaches to landscapes, ANU E Press.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 22/08/2014
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