The Warratyi rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges, 550km north of Adelaide, is an impressive place.
The South Australian cave is a natural geological feature and it stands out from the surrounding ridges. It’s located in a strategic position, elevated high above the local landscape, giving it a commanding view of the gorge below.
It provides good protection from extremes of heat and cold, and Aboriginal people would no doubt have been naturally attracted to the place through the country’s history.
From the evidence we have found so far, published in Nature this month, it appears they came back repeatedly to use the site over many generations from as early as 49,000 years ago. It would have been a place of local cultural significance given the visual appearance of the cave itself.
The search for early life
This wasn’t the first site to be examined in our search for evidence of early human existence in Australia’s central region.
I had investigated a number of open sites (near the edges of creeks) in the Southern Flinders Ranges but couldn’t really get a well-stratified sequence or intact deposit good enough for excavation purposes.
I had also recorded a series of ancient rock engraving sites in the Northern Flinders Ranges, which is what actually led us to Warratyi.
Warratyi is special because it has this amazing, intact, well-layered structure with so much archaeological evidence in only a metre of deposit. It is an archaeologist’s dream to find such a site.
A rich find
We have now recovered more than 4,300 stone artefacts, 3kgs of animal bone, emu egg shell material, red ochre, white gypsum pigment, lots of plant remains and charcoal.
The deposit had lots of features such as bands of hearths (ancient fire places) around the walls of the excavation trenches, so visually we knew that the site was well occupied.
This evidence tells us that people were hunting local wildlife such as the Yellow Footed Rock Wallaby that lives in colonies around the local area, high along the ridge tops.