One of the biggest discoveries in Australian archaeology, like so many discoveries, happened on accident. Or rather it might be more accurate to say this discovery happened in pursuit of preventing an accident. Giles Hamm, a Ph.D. student at LaTrobe University and local Adnyamathanha aboriginal elder Clifford Coulthard were surveying gorges in the Flinders Range of southern Australia when they had to stop for a roadside pee break.
“Nature called and Cliff walked up this creek bed into this gorge and found this amazing spring surrounded by rock art,” Hamm tells Dani Cooper at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He also noticed a nearby rock shelter with a blackened roof, a sign of human habitation, about 65 feet above the spring. “A man getting out of the car to go to the toilet led to the discovery of one of the most important sites in Australian pre-history.”
They knew the rock shelter, which they named Warratyi, was significant. But it took nine years of excavation to find out just how important. It turns out humans inhabited the site around 49,000 years ago, pushing back the timeline of human colonization of the Australian interior by 10,000 years. The research appears in the journal Nature.
Marcus Strom at the Sydney Morning Herald reports that Hamm and his colleagues excavated 3.3 cubic meters of dirt, which contained 4,300 human artifacts and about 6.6 pounds of bones, 70 percent of which came from the yellow-footed rock wallaby. Using carbon dating, Giles built up a timeline of how often humans used the rock shelter over the course of 50,000 years. The research showed that usage spiked around 40,000 years ago, then diminished 35,000 years ago when the region became very arid. People returned about 17,000 years ago.
“What is different about it is it’s the southern-most oldest site in the continent,” Hamm says in a press release. “It shows that people are moving very quickly around the continent and in the interior part of the continent. If people are coming in at 50,000 (years ago), it means that people are moving in a whole range of directions perhaps. And we've got some new genetic evidence that might be also adding data to that question.”
But the age of the shelter is not the only surprise. Nicola Davis at The Guardian reports the team discovered bones from Diprotodon optatum, a huge, long-extinct wombat-like marsupial in the cave. It shows that humans likely hunted giant megafauna in the region, since it would have been almost impossible for the giant creature to climb up to the cave on its own. The discovery of red ochre and gypsum, used to color the skin and for ceremonies, as well as relatively sophisticated bone and stone tools upsets some ideas about the spread of those cultural items. “The old idea is that people might have come from the East, from the Levant, out of Africa, and these modern humans may have come with a package of innovative technologies,” Hamm tells Davis. “But the development of these fine stone tools, the bone technology, we think that happened as a local innovation, due to a local cultural evolution.”
Not everyone is convinced by the research. “The dates are deeply anomalous and either they stem from an analytical problem or else they reveal a revolutionary shift in the chronology for ancient Australia,” Peter Hiscock, professor of Australian archaeology at the University of Sydney tells Davis. “Further scientific study must explore which is the most reasonable explanation.”
Coulthard tells Strom the discovery wasn't a great surprise to him. "Our old people know we've been here a long time," he says.