60,000 Years Plus

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Words || Neenah R. Gray

Note: Whilst reading this article, take into consideration the geographic positioning of each of these sites. If Mungo Man dates back to 40,000 years ago, how long would it have taken Aboriginal People to inhabit the whole of Australia from Top End, down to Victoria and eventually Tasmania? 

In an Australian classroom, the generic dating of Aboriginal Australia predates 60,000 years ago. This is only spoken about, and not supported with the archaeological evidence Australia has to offer. I personally would argue that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived a symbiotic life on the Australian continent for longer than this proposed date, hunting megafauna and perhaps even witnessing the slow separation of what is recognised as Gondwana in prehistory. The lack of consultation and recognition of such archaeological evidence has played a significant role in the dismissal of Aboriginal history and humanity that this vast nation has been home to. The following archaeological sites below are older than the proposed 40,000 years and show extensive evidence of habitation, hunting and farming long before colonisation. 

Kakadu National Park, NT, Madjedbebe

Kakadu National Park, on the traditional lands of the Mirarr people of Arnhem Land, saw the excavation of 11,000 artefacts that date between 65,000 – 80,000 years old. These findings were first published in a Nature article and are thorough proof that Aboriginal Australia co-existed with megafauna and played a significant role in human dispersion across the world’s continents. Associate Professor Chris Clarkson from the University of Queensland states these dates assume Aboriginal People were hunting megafauna for 20,000 – 25,000 years more than what was originally proposed by archaeologists. The artefacts were found in the national park in what is known as Madjedbebe rock shelter and have been through several controversial excavations since the 1970’s. With concluding evidence and data to support Aboriginal occupation of up to 80,000 years, Professor Clarkson hopes that this recent study can put all the controversy around dating to rest. 

Of the 11,000 artefacts, 10,000 were uncovered in a cave, in the layer known as the zone of the first occupation. These artefacts include the oldest unbroken ground-edge stone axes in the world and the oldest known seed-grinding tools in Australia. These tools, alongside bones of megafauna show the interaction between Aboriginal People and what we need to recognise as The Living Dreamtime. The narrations that keep Indigenous knowledge systems intact prove to be much more than stories when they derive from a time in which the Indigenous Peoples of Australia were living alongside such giant creatures.  

Madjedbebe site custodian May Nango & excavation leader Chris Clarkson in the pit. Image: Dominic O’Brien/Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation

Willandra Lakes, NSW, Lake Mungo:

In the lake system of Willandra Lakes, two of the earliest anatomically modern human remains were uncovered by geologist Jim Bowler. Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, date to approximately 40,000 – 42,000 years old and had both been ritually buried. Mungo Man in particular had been placed on his back, his hands crossed in his lap and his body sprinkled with red ochre. There is continuity even into today’s traditional burial practices as the presence of ochre and body positioning is highly important, amongst other things such as eucalyptus leaves and tree bark. The remains of Mungo Lady proved to be highly extraordinary. Evidence shows that her remains were burnt prior to her burial, thus proving to be the world’s oldest cremation and ritual burial.  To date, the skeletons of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady are the oldest human remains found in Australia. The site of Willandra Lakes continues to be guided by traditional owners of the Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngyimpaa people. Guided by the traditional owners, excavations of the lake system still occur today under the supervision of Nicola Stern, from La Trobe University. The site of Lake Mungo provides a powerful perspective into the ongoing cultural and spiritual connections Aboriginal People hold between them, and the land around them. Archaeological sites show the significance of the cultural continuity Aboriginal People have sustained for over 40,000 years.  

Skeletal remains of Mungo Man, which are approximately 40,000 years ago & were found in 1974 at Lake Mungo, New South Wales, Australia.

Flinders Ranges, SA, Warratyi Rock Shelter:

Excavations at Warratyi Rock Shelter in the Flinders ranges, 550km from the capital city of Adelaide, contain the first reliably dated evidence of human interaction with megafauna. La Trobe University Professor Giles Hamm, alongside local Adnyamathanha elder, Clifford Coulthard, were surveying the gorges when they uncovered the site. Over the course of 9 years, 4,300 artefacts have been uncovered together with 200 bone fragments from 16 mammals and 1 reptile. The dating of the artefacts and fossil finds prove humans occupied this part of South Australia from 49,000 – 46,000 years ago. Some of the fossil finds appeared to be bones from the extinct giant wombat-like Diprotodon, and hunting tools, proving that Aboriginal People were hunting these monster-like creatures upon arrival into the continent. Cuddie Springs in New South Wales is the only other recorded site in Australia where megafauna bones and hunting tools have been found together. This ties into an overall debate here in Australia determining the most significant factor of megafauna extinction: human hunting or climate change? 

Co-authors Clifford Coulthard & Sophia Wilton with Christine Coulthard of the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (Supplied: Glies Hamm)

Warrnambool, VIC, Moyjil

Over the course of 11 years, the site of Moyjil has become the most extensive archaeological site in Australia, moving dates of occupation back to 120,000 years ago. An analysis of a shell midden that was already suspected to be between 70,000 – 80,000 years old, had been carried out in addition to uncovering charcoal and burnt stones indicative of an Aboriginal type cooking hearth. Thermoluminescence dating techniques were used to conclude a range of 100,000 – 130,000 years old, consistent with stratigraphic evidence. Such a proposed dating has entitled this site as potentially one of the last interglacial features of Aboriginal Australia. The official publications were a collaborative work between Jim Bowler, who we know from excavations at Lake Mungo in the late 1960’s and other credited peoples such as Dr. John Sherwood. They were able to date the shells, burnt stones and surrounding cemented sands, establishing this significant interglacial date of 120,000 years old. With a consistent date such as 120,000 years, this doubles the generic proposed date of occupation of Aboriginal Australia and should be at the forefront of all historical discussions regarding Indigenous occupation. 

One of the digs at the Moyjil site at Point Ritchie, near Warrnambool. Photo: Ian McNiven

Together, these sites show the extensive occupation Aboriginal Australia has had and will continue to have over this vast continent. The ceremonial elements, hunting practices and ingenuity uncovered at all four of these sites are indicative of the ongoing cultural legacy of the world’s oldest living tradition. Here is proof of the living legacy that flows through the veins of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People today. All of these sites show that The Living Dreamtime was something our ancestors walked through themselves, encountering giant wombat-like, and emu-like creatures. 

Archaeological excavations in Australia are sadly underrepresented, and need to be more present in the education system, to show that Indigenous Peoples were not just ‘hunter-gatherers,’ but a People group that held a symbiotic relationship to the land, that worked and farmed great fields and hunted some of the biggest animals of this continents past.