A bunch of charred leftovers from 65,000 years ago is showing researchers what some of the very first people in Australia ate for dinner.
A team of archaeologists and local Aboriginal elders have recently recovered charcoal debris from ancient cooking hearths at the Madjedbebe archaeological site in the Mirarr country of northern Australia.
Using a remarkably simple method, the team immersed the samples in water, causing the light charcoal pieces to float and separate easily from the heavier sandy sediment. The charcoal was then analyzed using high-powered light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy to discern what plant species the matter once belonged to.
Reported in the journal Nature Communications, this method identified at least 10 plant foods, including a number of plums-like fruits and “wild pears", pandanus nuts, two types of palm stem, and three types of roots and tuber vegetables, including an aquatic-growing species.
Much of what we know about ancient diets is from animal bones as they don’t biodegrade. Perhaps that is why we always imagine “cavemen” as meat-eating carnivores roasting a giant sloth leg over a fire. However, long before the advent of agriculture, humans relied on fruit, veg, and plant life.
"The First Australians had a great deal of botanical knowledge and this was one of the things that allowed them to adapt to and thrive in this new environment,” Anna Florin, an archaeobotanist from the University of Queensland in Australia, said in a statement.
"They were able to guarantee access to carbohydrates, fat and even protein by applying this knowledge, as well as technological innovation and labor, to the gathering and processing of Australian plant foods."
The first Aboriginal Australians arrived at least 65,000 years ago after sailing through the islands of Southeast Asia to the prehistoric supercontinent of Sahul, which included what is now mainland Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea. Madjedbebe contains some of the oldest archaeological evidence in Australia, so this might be one of the very first settlements on the continent.
The area also contains many world firsts too, including the oldest edge ground stone axes in the world, the earliest grindstone technology outside Africa, the early shaping of stone spearheads, and the first recorded use of reflective pigments in the world.
Madjedbebe might not be widely known outside Australasia, but it played an incredibly important role in the story of humans. Unfortunately, the area's significance does not ensure it's safe from the perils of 21st-century industry, such as mining and infrastructure development.
"Madjedbebe continues to provide startling insights into the complex and dynamic lifestyle of the earliest Australian Aboriginal people," said excavation director Professor Chris Clarkson of the University of Queensland.
"The site is an important cultural place to Mirarr people today who strive to protect their heritage from numerous threats, including mining," added Florin.