Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Puritjarra Cave Rock Shelter

With the excavation of Puritjarra Cave Rock Shelter, almost at the dead centre of the continent, it was shown that people had already occupied the site by 22,000 years ago. This is a very large rock shelter in hard red sandstone cliffs, 45 m long and 20 m high, with a shaded floor space of 400 m2. Later it was shown to go back to about 32,000 BP. The site was occupied up to the 1930s when the people moved onto mission stations and rations depots in the western MacDonnell Ranges. This site is unique in the region at the present, as it is at the conjunction of a large, sandy-floored shelter and a large, reliable water source, and provided a refuge for foragers in the past.

The deposit is formed of 3 stratigraphic layers that are well-defined. Layer 1, composed of loose, gritty, light-brown sand (Munsell colour 5YR 5/8), that extends from the present surface to 42 cm in which there are rockfall lenses, intact hearths, charcoal, flaked stone artefacts, grindstones, ochre and emu eggshell. The site has evidence of a major occupation increase in the region over the last 1,000 years, such a change being shown in more detail at other sites (Napton & Greathouse, 1985: 90-108; Smith, 1986: 123-30).

The Puritjarra site is close to the only permanent water in the Cleland Hills, Murantji Water Rockhole, a deep water body that was fed by an aquifer, near the eastern end of the Western Desert, about 320 km  west of Alice Springs. The area is made up of spinifex grassland and mulga woodlands around the central ranges. In an area with an average rainfall of less than 350 mm/year, the ranges act like an oasis, with permanent springs, waterholes, deep rock 'reservoirs' and soakages in creek beds. All the rivers of the area, such as the Finke, flow only after rain, or even after heavy rain, but there are usually some water holes and soakages along their otherwise dry beds.

There is a large array of rock art, stencils, paintings and Panaramitee-style engravings. This type of engraving is also present at the nearby Thomas reservoir site. 11 m2 of the site were excavated. Charcoal provided 12 radiocarbon dates, and 6 TL dates from the sediments. The base of the lower level had a preliminary date of 30 000 BP.

The site was first occupied for a short period well before 22,000 years ago. The first long period use began about 22,000 BP. This appearance of artefacts is marked by the presence of charcoal and 10 pieces of high-grade red and purple ochre, 60 stone flakes, including a single large steep-edged tool, and about 200 small pieces of flaking debris.

Between 22,000 and 13,000 years ago the shelter was used occasionally, only a few artefacts being added per millennium. The uppermost layer is formed of loose, gritty sand with cooking hearths, charcoal and flaked tools, many grindstones, ochre and emu eggshell. There are no grindstones in the Pleistocene layer. This spans 6,000 years. It shows that in the last 1,000 years there was a large increase in occupation of the region. Chemical analysis of the red ochre, found in layers dated to between 32,000 and 13,000 years ago, at this site have placed its source in the Karrku quarry, 150 km away, indicating that some level of mining was already taking place in the Pleistocene (Smith, 1996; Smith et al., 1998; Gibbs & Veth, 2002).

The 22,000-year-old occupation level coincides with the onset of major aridity. This is probably the beginning of a pattern of land occupation where reliable water was of major concern. From 22,000 to 13,000 years ago there was repeated, light use of the site, probably related to the fact that this was the height of full glaciation. The repeated use of the Puritjarra site, as well as its location away from major corridors, indicates there may have been a resident population in this refuge area.  

In levels dating to between 32,000 BP and 18,000 BP, in the centre of the shelter floor, small fragments of ochre were found that weighed 0.1 g. From 13,000 BP onwards, larger amounts of ochre were found in deposits against the walls adjacent to a panel on the wall of stencils and paintings. The earliest identifiable pigment was found that came from this period. It was a piece of very fine-grained yellow pigment, 10 mm across, that is believed may have been a droplet of thick paint that had been moulded on a small brush (Rosenfeld & Smith, 2002). It contained about 30 % organic matter, which is consistent with it being prepared paint (Smith, 1989; Rosenfeld & Smith, 2002).

The excavation was extended to more than 250 cm where the oldest artefacts were recovered from a level that was 39,000 (36,500-42,500) BP (Smith et al., 1997)4. Though artefacts were recovered from almost every level of the deposit, only a few were found that dated to the Pleistocene. It has been argued (Smith, 1989c) that the vertical movement of objects was not common, and that as artefacts were recovered from throughout the deposit it is indicated that humans visited the cave intermittently from about 40,000 BP up to the Holocene. According to Hiscock persistent use of refuges embedded within desert landscapes, such as at Puritjarra, that were rich in resources and water is a feature of the early occupation across the inland.

Mining and quarrying

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

3.     M.A. Smith in Murray, Tim, 1998, Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia, Allen & Unwin.

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

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 06/03/2017


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