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Earliest Evidence for Aboriginal Coastal Occupation

A team of international archaeologists has confirmed evidence from a remote cave in Australia’s north-west that pushes back human occupation of Australia to around 50,000 years ago. The discovery provides one of the earliest age brackets for the settlement of Australia, and also documents the longest record of dietary fauna, providing unprecedented insights into the lives of the earliest Australians.

Lead archaeologist Prof Peter Veth of The University of Western Australia said the findings, published in Quaternary Science Reviews, provided unique evidence for the early and successful adaptation of Aboriginal people to both the coastal and desert landscapes of Australia.

“This site contains cultural materials clearly associated with dates in the order of 50,000 years,” Veth said. “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 team focused on Barrow Island, a large limestone island located 60 km off the Pilbara coast of Western Australia. “The large cave on Barrow Island provided rich records of ancient artefacts, gathering and hunting of marine and arid animals, and environmental signatures which show the use of a now-drowned coastal desert landscape – if you like an Atlantis of the South,” Veth said. “We know about old desert sites from the Northern Hemisphere, but few have these extraordinary dietary records.”

Veth said the location provided the longest sequence of dietary remains from any Australian site. “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. It was abandoned by about 7000 years ago when rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland,” he said.

“Our current research at Barrow Island has provided the earliest evidence of coastal living in Australia. Remarkably, the early colonists of the now-submerged North-West Shelf did not turn their back on the sea or remain coastally tethered, but rapidly adapted to the new marsupial animals and arid zone plants of the extensive maritime deserts of north-west Australia.”