Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Oldest Ornament Found in Kimberleys

Australia’s oldest-known piece of indigenous jewellery has been unearthed in the Kimberley region of northern Australia. The ornament, a pointed kangaroo bone worn through the nose, has been dated at more than 46,000 years old and debunks a theory that bone tools were not used in Australia for thousands of years.

Dr Michelle Langley of the Australian National University said this was the earliest hard evidence that Australia’s first inhabitants were using bone to make tools and ornaments. “We know people had bone tools in Africa at least 75,000 years ago. People were leaving Africa around the same time and arrived in Australia some 60,000 years ago,” Langley said.

“Until very recently the earliest bone tools we had found in Australia dated to about 20,000 years ago, so there has been a 40,000-year gap.

“Some people believed that the knowledge of bone toolmaking was lost on the journey between Africa and Australia. With this find, we now know they were making bone tools soon after arriving in Australia.”

The bone was dug up at Carpenter’s Gap, a large rock shelter in Windjana Gorge National Park. “It’s a shaped point made on kangaroo leg bone, and at each end we can see traces of red ochre,” Langley said. “This artefact was found below a deposit dated to 46,000 years ago, so it is older than that date.”

Indigenous Australians have used kangaroo leg bones throughout history for a variety of activities, such as leatherwork, basketry, ceremonial tasks and body decoration. “The bone we found is most consistent with those used for facial decoration,” she said.

“All across Australia both men and women would wear a bone point through their nose identical to this one. Children in some communities were known to have had their nose pierced quite young, while in others only certain individuals were allowed to adorn themselves in this fashion.”

Langley said the location and nature of this artefact made it a rare and remarkable discovery. “Organic-based items like this don’t survive in the north Australian archaeological record very often, so it’s a very unusual find,” she said.

The research has been published in Quaternary Science Reviews.