Aboriginal artefacts just rewrote the record books on human occupation in Australia

Rock art in Kakadu. Photo: Getty Images

A rock shelter on a mining lease within the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park suggests humans have been living in Australia for more than 65,000 years.

The findings, published in the journal Nature today, rewrite the history books, adding at least 15,000 years to earlier estimates that people had lived on the land here as far back as 50,000 years ago.

The conclusions, by a team of archaeologists and dating specialists led by Associate Professor Chris Clarkson from The University of Queensland School of Social Science, come from the Madjedbebe rock shelter within the Jabiluka mineral lease .

Debate over the age of the site has raged for four decades since it was first excavated in the 1970s.

Dr Clarkson, led the fourth excavation of Madjedbebe, in partnership with the Mirarr traditional owners and said more than 10,000 artefacts were found in the lowest layer at the site.

“The site contains the oldest ground-edge stone axe technology in the world, the oldest known seed-grinding tools in Australia and evidence of finely made stone points which may have served as spear tips,” he said.

“Most striking of all, in a region known for its spectacular rock art, are the huge quantities of ground ochre and evidence of ochre processing found at the site, from the older layer continuing through to the present.”

Grinding stones, residues and usewear of specimens collected at Madjedbebe. Source: Nature

The date means that Aboriginal people roamed Australia during the megafauna era, adding to the theory that they played a part in the extinction of giant native animals. A upper jaw fragment of a Tasmanian tiger, coated in red pigment, was also found. The image of a Tasmanian tiger, painted in red ochre, features at one of the most popular rock art spots in Kakadu at Ubirr, nearby.

The team found a range of stone tools, including grinding stones, ground-edge axe heads, flints and ground ochres, in three dense bands during the dig. Optical dating and other analyses of the sediments let to the record new date for the antiquity of human occupation at the cave, which is already regarded as Australia’s older inhabited site.

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation CEO Justin O’Brien said a landmark agreement had made it possible for Dr Clarkson and colleagues to dig the site.

“This study shatters previous understandings of the sophistication of the Aboriginal toolkit and underscores the universal importance of the Jabiluka area,” he said.

The findings mean Australia was settled well before modern humans entered Europe around 45,000 years ago.

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