Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Mandu Mandu Creek Rock-Shelter

This shelter, on Northwest Cape, on the Pilbara Coast of Western Australia, has an occupation site dated to 34,000 BP. It is in Cape Range National Park, facing west over the 1-km wide coastal plain to Ningaloo Reef. More than 500 stone artefacts were found in the upper layer, together with marine and terrestrial bone fragments and marine mollusc shells. In the lower, Pleistocene layer, below a layer dated to 19,500 BP, were fish teeth and  some parts of mollusc shells. The continental shelf is narrower here than in any other part of the continent, with the sea being about 6 km from the site at the time of its first occupation. It has been suggested by Morse that there may not have been much difference between the types of food exploited by the initial occupants of the site during the Pleistocene when their economy was marine-based and the economy of the Holocene occupants, and the tool kits of the occupants in the Pleistocene may have differed more from that of the Holocene occupants than the food types exploited.

See Jansz Cave 

The Pleistocene tools were mostly of poor-quality silcrete and limestone. The flakes of this age are much longer and thicker than in the later assemblages, and more cores and amorphous flaked pieces. In this Pleistocene assemblage the most recognisable tool is a 595 gram limestone horsehoof core. It was found about 10 cm below the 19,590 BP dated layer.

By the Holocene there is a noticeable change in the tools, now there is a higher percentage of re-touched artefacts and better quality silcrete. And distinctive artefacts such as adzes, and a tula, make their appearance after 2,400 BP. The later assemblage show a significant decrease in flake size.

This is the earliest-know evidence for the exploitation of marine foods in Australia. It is the first dated occupation on the large arid stretch of the Western Australian coast. The aridness of the area was previously thought to have posed a barrier to occupation. This shelter was used intermittently until about 19,000 years ago when it seems to have been abandoned, probably because of increased aridity and retreat of the sea to about 10 km from the site. It was re-occupied about 2,500 BP. Extensive middens in the region have given earlier Holocene dates. At Waroora Midden dates of about 8,000 BP have been measured.

It seems likely that increasing aridity around 19,000 BP led to the abandonment of the Australian desert zone until the climate changed again in the early Holocene. A unique find for the Pleistocene in Australia was made in this area, 22 shell beads. They were made from small marine cone shells and were associated with the bailer shell that gave the date of 34 200 years. These beads show similar wear patterns to those on threaded recent shell necklaces. The only other decoration of this type from Pleistocene Australia were bone beads found in Devil's Lair.

Shell bead necklaces were common in recent Aboriginal Australia, especially in Tasmania. There is a very long continuity of Aboriginal decorative traditions.

Ochre has been found throughout this deposit, but peaks in levels dating from between 20,040 +/- 440 and 25,200 +/- 250 (Moore, 1993b). The known ochre sources that are nearest to the site are 300 km to the northeast on the Hamersley Plateau and at Wilgie Mia, 850 km to the southwest (Morse, 1993b).

22 Conus sp. shell beads were found in the basal layer dating to 32,000 BP, between 34,200 +/- 1,050 BP and 30,000 +/- 850 BP. A date of 22,100 +/- 500 has been obtained from a layer about 20 cm above the Conus shells. A date of 21,000 BP has been estimated for 3 cone shell fragments. One of the fragments may have been modified. Fragments of either Nautilus or pearl oyster shell, and a scaphopod shell (Dentalium sp) were found in late Pleistocene deposits. These are known to have been used in recent times as pendants. (Habgood & Franklin, 2008).


According to Cane1 there were 23 small cone shell, Conus sp., that appear to have been selected for their beautiful colour and intricate patterning. All but 1 of these shells had been modified deliberately, 6 of them had holes made in their apex and their internal structure had been removed, the author1 speculating it may have been with a hardened stick, to hollow out the entire shell. The remaining shells had their apex removed and a hole was drilled through their centres to create small rings of shell. There is wear apparent that was consistent with them being hung on a threaded necklace that form a decorative display about 18 cm long. As with the Riwi and Carpenter's Gap sites, this site displays a ancient tradition of design and creativity, as well as a sense of self-respect and aesthetics that the author1 finds to be surprising for such ancient times. The author3 suggests the existence of these decorative objects indicates that "the people who made and wore them outside common perception of ancient nomadic survival, and implies notions of choice, outlook and opportunity. The existence of these shell beads means that the people who wore them had taste, social aspirations, social structure and broader empathic human relationships (see also Hiscock, 2008, p. 25)".

Near this cave the coastline is steep, the site never being far from the sea, however low the sea level dropped in glacial times, but there is little evidence of the occupants spending much time foraging in or on the margins of the sea. There were 123 artefacts that were found in oldest part of the deposit, indicating that an average of 30 artefacts were left in the site per 1,000 years of occupation of the site. Over a period of 10,000 years leading up to the glacial maximum only 30 gm of shell were recovered from the deposit, that included a piece of nautilus shell, that was possibly an ornament, a baler shell fragment (Melo), and some pieces of Turbo, mud whelk (Terebralia) and chiton (Acanthopleura). Though the clues are small they indicate they indicate the use of varied resources with is congruent with the times: the presence of  chiton and Turbo are indications that foraging was occurring on a rocky ocean shore, the mud whelk remains indicates they were wading in the mud around mangroves. Among the small amount of fish bones there are jaw and teeth of what is possibly a rock cod (Epinephelus), suggesting they possibly fished in ocean rock pools. Evidence of the use of the ocean is very small, though the cave looked out across the coast. As the glacial conditions intensified leading up to the glacial maximum the cave was abandoned (172).

The author3 suggests that the pattern of occupation of this site is more indicative of a group of desert people living within easy reach of the sea where they also made some use of the food resources that were easily obtained, though spending more time focusing on the arid land further inland. The same situation is found on Peron Peninsula not far from Mandu Mandu. People camped on a sandy ridge, the Silver Dollar Site, 35,000 BP, about 50 km from the coast, which they visited, a fragment of baler shell was found in the lower level of the site, possibly a fragment of a larger shell used to carry water, until 22,000 BP, though mostly hunted wallabies and collecting emu eggs.


Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications, 200
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008
  3. 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.


Shell beads from Mandu Mandu Creek Rock-shelter, Cape Range Peninsula, Western Australia, dated before 30,000 b.p.



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  05/11/2013
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