WHAT’S THE STORY?

A MAJOR archaeological find has overturned previously held beliefs about Australian Aborigines.

Already believed to be the oldest continuous civilisation in the world, the discovery suggests the Aboriginal people settled in Australia up to 18,000 years earlier than previously thought.

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The discovery means the Aborigines co-existed with giant mammals rather than driving them to extinction as was originally suggested.

“It puts to bed the whole idea that humans wiped them out,” said Dr Chris Clarkson, of the University of Queensland in Australia and lead author of the study.

“We’re talking 20,000 to 25,000 years of coexistence.”

The results of the dig at the Madjedbebe shelter, 300 miles east of Darwin, comes just after the release of a new map which details the massacres of Aborigines by European settlers.

Historians estimate that the total number of deaths in the years after British settlement in 1788 are in the tens of thousands.

“For many Australians, this kind of information will come as a shock,” said project author Professor Lyndall Ryan of Australia’s University of Newcastle.

So far the online map only covers Australia’s east coast with 150 massacre locations sited.

The university team are now documenting other massacres in the hope that the map will increase knowledge about the nation’s past.

WHEN DID THEY ARRIVE?

THE date of the arrival of the Aboriginal people in Australia has long been debated with previous estimates ranging from between 47,000 and 60,000 years ago. Clarkson said the new discovery had huge implications for everything from the extinction of megafauna to the out-of-Africa story and Aboriginal peoples’ own knowledge of how long they have been in this country.

The archaeologists say they have unearthed the world’s oldest stone axes and ochre crayons with the latter showing that “people were heavily into artistic activity”, according to Clarkson.

“We were gobsmacked by the richness of material that we were finding at the site: fireplaces intact, a ring of grind stones around it, and there were human burials in their graves,” he said.

“No one dreamed of a site so rich and so old in Australia.”

Peter Hiscock, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney said it was the earliest reliable date for human occupation in Australia.

“This is indeed a marvellous step forward in our exploration of the human past in Australia,” he said.

The find also has implications for human migration.

“People got here much earlier than we thought, which means of course they must also have left Africa much earlier to have travelled on their long journey through Asia and south-east Asia to Australia,” said Clarkson.

WHY IS THIS SO IMPORTANT?

MADJEDBEBE near Kakadu National Park was already recognised as holding the earliest evidence of humans in Australia following excavations in the 1970s.

However, a landmark agreement with the Mirarr people allowed further work which revealed more than 11,000 artefacts.

The unique agreement allowed the Mirarr to retain complete control over the artefacts and the digs. Clarkson said it was one of the strongest agreements ever negotiated in Australia between traditional owners and archaeology teams.

“Aboriginal involvement, Aboriginal permission, Aboriginal rights over the excavation itself are very important in this kind of endeavour,” he said.

“The fundamental aspects of technology, such as axes, grindstones and the production of ochre to produce art goes from the present right the way back.

“It suggests there is a very, very deep continuity and connection between the people living in Kakadu today and probably those living there 65,000 years ago.

“This site confirms, once more, that this is an incredibly important region — not only in Australia, but on the world stage, in terms of cultural heritage and understanding human origins,” Clarkson said.

“We found there was an incredible richness of evidence of wonderful human behaviour that we didn’t really have indications of from earlier excavations.”

HOW DID THEY DO IT?

TO discover the age of the artefacts, the archaeologists dated the sediment layer where they had lain undisturbed for thousands of years.

The team used a mix of radiocarbon dating and a technique called luminescence dating, This shows when grains of sand were last exposed to sunlight to allow archaeologists to establish the age of the sediment in which the artefacts were buried.

The lower layers were estimated to be around 65,000 years old.

This figure was confirmed by further independent testing at the University of Adelaide.

“There is a lot of independent strands of evidence pointing to there being limited disturbance of the artefacts over time,” said Professor Zenobia Jacobs of the University of Wollongong.

Hiscock said the new study published in Nature, a multidisciplinary scientific journal, had convinced him that it was the oldest site in Australia.

The artefacts indicated that the first Australians were able to adapt quickly to their new environment, he added.

“What we are seeing is from the moment people are arriving in Australia they are exploiting the landscape, they are creating artwork in their shelters, and they are inventing new kinds of technologies, such as ground-edge axes, which are older than anywhere else in the world.

“That level of sophistication is the reason why they were able to move from Africa to Australia.”