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Archaeologists Uncover 20,000-Year-Old Kangaroo Cook Out

The site in Pilbara is one of many helping to define human movements in Australia

(Flickr/Julie Burgher)
smithsonian.com

As the days begin to warm, people are emerging from their homes to gather and engage in an age-old tradition: cook outs. As Laura Geggel at LiveScience reports, archaeologists recently unearthed an ancient example of the practice. In a remote rock shelter in Western Australia, researchers found the remains of a campfire and kangaroo feast that likely took place 20,000 years ago.

The site is located in Pilbara in the Hamersley Ranges, an area currently leased by the mining company BHP Billiton. According to Karen Michelmore at the Australia Broadcasting Company, a group of BHP surveyors, including aboriginal land owners, found the small cave around a decade ago while surveying the site prior to mining. A test pit dug several years later uncovered stone tools, including some dating back 32,000 years, which are among the oldest artifacts found in the region.

The site is now being excavated by scientists with BHP and Scarp Archaeology, headed by Michael Slack, one of the leading experts on ancient indigenous sites in the region. So far, the team has uncovered hundreds of stone tools as well as the remnants of a campfire with associated kangaroo bones.

Since the charcoal can be radiocarbon dated, it can give the researchers a date for when the ‘roo feast took place. Researchers have sent samples for analysis, but based on its positioning and surrounding stones, Michelmore reports, Slack estimates the remains are at least 20,000 years old.

The team will also analyze the stone tools for signs that they were used to cut the kangaroo meat. “We’ll have to have a look at them under the microscope, but they are the pieces that people were using in the site,” Slack tells Michelmore. “A family sitting around a campfire having a meal probably.”

The Hamersley rock shelter is not the only significant site in the Pilbara region. Over the last seven years, Slack and his team have surveyed or excavated 200 rock shelters in the area, reworking what archaeologists know about Australia's human settlement, the ABC's Susan Standen and Lisa Morrison reported last year.

“We know that Aboriginal people got to the inland Pilbara around 40,000 years ago but we don't know what happened to them after that," Slack tells ABC.

There are still many lingering questions, including how and why people moved from the relatively hospitable coasts into the more challenging interior. “I think the Pilbara is one of those areas that has the ability to answer that question,” says Slack. “[This work] has dramatic impact in terms of our understanding of the settlement and the antiquity of occupation of Aboriginal people in Australia.”

Human history in Australia is still debated. A study published just last summer, suggested a rock shelter in Kakadu National Park, in Northern Australia, was occupied 65,000 years ago—much earlier than previously thought. The site of the kangaroo feast is not nearly that old, with most of the artifacts spanning the last Ice Age, between 18,000 and 28,000 years ago. However, as Slack tells Michelmore, new discoveries are made all the time.

“It’s one of those jobs where you never know what the next hour or minute is going to find for you,” he says. “It might be nothing, but every time you put a little trowel in the ground and touch something, it could be something really exciting."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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