Researchers have discovered some of the earliest evidence for Aboriginal occupation in Australia, providing valuable insight into how these early pioneers survived. The team found artifacts dating to 50,000 years ago in a cave located on what is now Barrow Island, off the Western Australian coast.
The cave contains some of the most detailed and intact records of how the first Aboriginal people on the Australian continent survived. The site contains evidence of charcoal, animal remains, and even worked artifacts such as shells that likely would have been used as knives and jewelry.
“This site contains cultural materials clearly associated with dates in the order of 50,000 years,” explains Professor Peter Veth, who co-authored the study published in Quaternary Science Reviews, in a statement. “This pushes back the age of occupation from the previous and more conservative limit of 47,000 years ago. Even older dates are entirely plausible.”
The discovery provides the earliest date for Aboriginal people exploiting the marine environment and represents some of the earliest solid evidence of their colonization. The findings reveal that people continuously lived in the cave system for tens of thousands of years, providing an astonishing cross section for much of the deep Aboriginal history.
“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,” says Professor Peter Veth. “It was abandoned by about 7,000 years ago when rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland.”
During the majority of time the island was inhabited, it was still part of mainland Australia, however sea levels fluctuated. This means the cave alternated between being close to the coast and further away. Amazingly, this oscillation is reflected in the changing proportion of mussel shells found in the cave.
When the sea level was higher, the people living there relied more heavily on the shellfish and other ocean creatures, such as marine mammals, turtles, and fish. But when the sea levels dropped, the researchers found a corresponding drop in the number of mussel shells, presumably as it was more of an effort to transport them from the coast. Instead, they turned to the wallaby and wallaroo living in the desert plains surrounding the outcrop.
The site provides a unique window into how these early human settlers adapted to their changing landscape.