Man stumbles on 49,000-year-old aboriginal shelter whilst having a call of nature

By Doug Williams
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Man stumbles on 49,000-year-old aboriginal shelter whilst having a call of nature

Doug Williams
 
Warratyi rock shelter. ABC News/Giles Hamm
Warratyi rock shelter. ABC News/Giles Hamm
 
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A recent archaeological site in arid Australia has unearthed new information about the spread of human habitation around Australia almost 50 thousand years ago.  The site, known as the Warratyi rock shelter, is situated high up on the side of a hill in Adnyamathanha country at the northern end of the Flinders Ranges, 350 miles north of the modern city of Adelaide.

Clifford Coulthard, from the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, stumbled upon the shelter whilst undertaking a survey of the area with Giles Hamm of La Trobe University.  Coulthard stepped out to take a leak and walked up a narrow rocky gorge where he found a spring surrounded by fantastic rock art that led to the shelter.  Calling Giles Hamm, the two men noticed that the roof of the wide, roomy rock shelter had been blackened by smoke, indicating that humans had utilized this as a dwelling in the past.

The discovery led to the shelter being excavated from 2011 to 2014 with the reports showing that this is the oldest occupied site in the arid inland region of Australia.  Looking out from the dig, one can see a landscape containing deep gorges that would have held water in Paleolithic times when this shelter was occupied.  The landscape would have looked quite different to modern Australia, and the land would have been teeming with animals.   Research has concluded that this dwelling was occupied for around 40,000 years and was finally abandoned around 10,000 years ago.

Digging through the various strata, the archaeologists found a treasure trove of tools, animal bones, charcoal, ash, egg shells, plant material, and ceremonial paints.  Careful analysis of the various rock levels clearly shows that the shelter was occupied around 50,000 years ago.  It is difficult to accurately date artifacts from arid areas but the scientists used carbon dating to ascertain the age of charcoal found on the hearth and eggshells.  They then used a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to date grains of quartz that had been buried.  This technique gives scientists an idea of when the grains of quartz were last exposed to sunlight and warmth.  As both dating techniques gave the same dates, scientists are confident that they have an accurate timeline for the occupation of the cave.

Scientists think that people arrived in Australia by island-hopping from southern Asia and that they colonized the coastal area of the continent for thousands of years before venturing inland.  The general belief was that the interior of Australia was deemed to be hostile to ancient man, but the discovery of this shelter, which is at least 10,000 years older than any other in the interior, underlines the fact that ancient Aboriginals spread much more quickly from the coastal areas.

This means that these intrepid adventurers who ventured far from the safe haven of the coastal belt developed a sophisticated culture, with hand tools being used, along with white and red ochre for decoration.

It is believed that the red and white ochre found was used as paint for their rock art as well as for their bodies.  This ochre is not found in any of the local rocks and had to have been carried to the shelter.

The tools located include handheld axes and bone awls for joining skins.  The knives and other tools found indicate that the people lived a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, killing animals and collecting edible plant material.   The rock that was used to manufacture the tools also changed over time with the earliest tools being made from quartz with later tools made from chert and silcrete.  These changes were also reflected in the type of tools being made, with one hafted tool dated to 33,000 to 40,000 years old, the oldest example of this type of tool in Australia and Southeast Asia.

The archaeologists found thousands of bones from the remains of at least 16 different species of mammal and 1 species of reptile.  Supporting the theory that these people hunted was the discovery of bones of the Diprotodon optatum, a prehistoric wombat-like marsupial, about the size of the modern-day rhino.  It is impossible for the bones of this creature to have naturally occurred in the shelter as it was too high up the rock wall for the animal to have climbed there by itself.  In addition, the bones did not display evidence of having been chewed by carnivores, thus lending credence to the theory that it was hunted and the body taken up to the shelter for food.

Another fascinating find was egg shells from Genyornis newtoni, a prehistoric flightless bird.  This proves that the earliest humans ate and interacted with the local fauna for a long time before the fauna died out.  Archaeologists have long surmised that early humans had, in some way, impacted the lives of Australia’s fauna and may have caused the extinction of some species, BBC News reported.

The scientists are at pains to point out that the shelter seems to have been used sporadically.  The original scientific report in Nature states, “Human occupation was repeated but ephemeral in nature, indicating that Aboriginal people may have used Warratyi both as a refuge at a time when the surrounding lowlands and open plains were too arid to exploit and as a temporary campsite when environmental conditions became more stable regionally.

It is an incredibly lucky strike that a man looking for somewhere to go to the toilet led to the discovery of such an important archaeological treasure.  Not only has it changed our ideas on the migration of the Aboriginal people, but it has also changed how we view these people and their technological advancement.  Future work at this important site is bound to turn up further facts about this island nation’s first peoples.

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