New dates refine Australian timeline
Nyiyaparli Traditional Owners from the Pilbara region of Western Australia recently announced the dates for the oldest occupation ever found in the area.
Oldest known occupation in the Pilbara
The Nyiyaparli Heritage Sub-Committee and Karlka Nyiyaparli Aboriginal Corporation working with archaeologists from the heritage company Archae-aus evaluated a rock shelter in the area as part of a larger survey. The samples of charcoal retrieved along with artefacts were analysed using carbon-dating techniques and returned a date that amazed the archaeologists – the layer of occupation was 41,230 calendar years old (ka).
The charcoal was discovered in a layer 27cm below the current surface of the rock shelter, along with associated stone tools. As the evaluation of the site was confined to a 1m x 1m test pit, there was no sign of a hearth but this may well be uncovered during future excavations in 2013.
What is more remarkable is that stone tools were discovered below the charcoal level, meaning even earlier occupation of the site. However, optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) needs to be carried out in order to obtain dates for the layers containing these artefacts.
An area rich in Aboriginal heritage
The site is named after the nearby creek – Kakuthungutanta – that lies in the Chichester Range to the north of the Fortescue Marsh. The area is within mining leases held by Fortescue Metals Group (FMG).
FMG has been working closely with the traditional owners, the Nyiyaparli People, through their legal representative Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation to identify and protect significant heritage sites in the region since 2006.
FMG’s Chief Executive Nev Power said that these results were remarkable and demonstrated just how long Aboriginal people have occupied Australia. He added that, “This is an extremely significant discovery that will be protected in line with Fortescue’s commitment to heritage management,”.
Previously, the earliest recorded date in this area of the Pilbara was 8,280ka, found at another rock shelter currently named CB10-117. This latest date is older than the only two comparable dates for the entire Pilbara region, those being Juukan 1 (37,440ka) and Djadjiling (40,911ka). This new evidence pushes back occupation of the area and is significant, not only to here, but to the country as a whole. On mainland Australia, conservative estimates place human arrival on the continent at between 43–45 ka, (although some researchers argue for a date of up to 60ka), so would place this site at the very beginning of human colonisation of the region.
Building a more complete picture
It is only through this type of archaeological work being carried out that enough dating evidence can be gathered in order to build a more complete picture of arrival and subsequent dispersal of people across the continent.
Lead excavator Adam Dias noted that “the results are extremely exciting coming from an area of the Chichester Range known to be rich in Aboriginal archaeological sites. “
Dias went on to say that “thousands of sites have been recorded to the north of the Fortescue marsh which is thought to have been a focal point for Pilbara occupation”.
Archae-aus has surveyed more than 430 square kilometres and identified and recorded more than 1,800 sites, including 45 rock shelters since partnering with FMG in 2006.The majority of these sites are open ground artefact scatters representing the range of activities from major camps through to single use sites, where an individual or small group of hunters may have stopped briefly to make some tools and butcher an animal.
Along with the 45 rock shelters the team have also recorded walled niches, stacked stones and scarred trees, but as yet no rock-art has been recorded..
Dating has so far only been possible from rock shelters and ranges from 600 years ago through to this recent discovery at 41+ka.
This is the only Pleistocene date recovered on this particular project and in general, these dates are extremely rare in Australia due to factors such as the sheer size of the country and conditions not tending to allow for preservation.
Important to protect Aboriginal heritage
Nyiyaparli elder and Heritage Sub-Committee member David Stock said of the rockshelter, “We feel proud that this evidence of our ancestors has been found and are happy it will be protected. This kind of work shows Australians that our heritage is very important and that it can be protected”.
These sentiments were echoed by fellow Sub-Committee member Gordon Yuline who added “We have to keep the caves to show the young people how the old people used to live. It is very important we protect these places and we are able to go there and teach the young ones.”
Archae-aus Managing Director Fiona Hook noted that the shelter site would be protected by a buffer zone and that Nyiyaparli Traditional Owners had requested further research be carried out at the site.
Chief Executive Officer of Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, Simon Hawkins said, “Archaeological findings such as this reinforce the importance of robust, participative cultural heritage management regimes in native title agreements to protect places of high significance.”
Source: Archae-aus Pty ltd
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