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New date for Indigenous occupation in Australia

22 May 2017
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An article on the by Naaman Zhou - Earliest evidence of Aboriginal occupation of Australian coast discovered - reports on the current archaeological research on artefacts found in a cave on Western Australia's Barrow Island dating back more than 50,000 years, providing one of the earliest age brackets for the settlement of Australia. The research is being led by Peter Veth of the University of Western Australia.

New date for Indigenous occupation in Australia. Archaeology
Boodie cave on Barrow Island, was used as a hunting shelter from as early as 50,000 years ago. Image: Peter Veth/James Cook University.

Australia's earliest known site of human occupation of the Australian coast has been discovered in a remote cave in Western Australia. This has pushed back the start date of Indigenous occupation to more than 50,000 years ago.

Archaeologists, led by Peter Veth of the University of Western Australia, found evidence of inhabitation on Barrow Island in the country's north west - discovering charcoal, animal remains and ancient artefacts that confirmed hunter-gatherer occupation.

New date for Indigenous occupation in Australia. Barrow Island. Pilbara.
Archaeologists found Barrow Island provided rich records of ancient artefacts. Image: James Cook University.

The Boodie cave on Barrow Island, located 60 kilometres off the Pilbara coast, was cut off from the mainland roughly 7,000 years ago due to rising sea levels. However, the cave had been used as a hunting shelter from as early as 50,000 years ago, before becoming a residential base for groups of families from 10,000 years ago.

Lead archaeologist Peter Veth states that this has pushed back the age of occupation from the previous and more conservative limit of 47,000 years ago. Even older dates are entirely plausible.

The site contained the longest record of dietary fauna in Australia. Barrow Island provided rich records of ancient artefacts, gathering and hunting of marine and arid animals, and environmental signatures which show the use of a now-drowned coastal desert landscape. The represents the first evidence of Australians living on the coastline, and the first Australians.

Peter Veth explains that the cave was used predominately as a hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago before becoming a residential base for family groups after 10,000 years ago. It was abandoned by about 7,000 years ago when rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland.

From this earliest evidence of coastal living in Australia, the early colonists of the now-submerged North West Shelf then adapted to the new marsupial animals and arid zone plants of the extensive maritime deserts of North West Australia.

This research, assisted by the University of Queensland, the University of Adelaide, the University of Waikato and Oxford University, among others, has been published in the Quarternary Science Review

Early human occupation of a maritime desert, Barrow Island, North-West Australia
Peter Veth et al
Volume 168, 15 July 2017, Pages 19–29.

The team worked with four different international dating laboratories and was supported by the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal corporation and Kuruma Marthudunera Aboriginal corporation.


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