A MAN relieving himself in the remote outback discovered of one of the most important sites in Australian prehistory — when he accidentally stumbled on an ancient aboriginal site.
Giles Hamm, consultant archaeologist and doctoral student at La Trobe University, was surveying gorges in the northern Flinders Ranges with local Adnyamathanha elder Clifford Coulthard when “nature called”.
“Cliff walked up this creek bed into this gorge and found this amazing spring surrounded by rock art,” Mr Hamm said.
They then noticed a rock shelter with a blackened roof about 20 metres above the creek bed.
“We looked up and there was a blackened wall and we know that was obviously an indication of people firing inside the shelter,” he said.
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It wasn’t until later the pair realised how significant their find was.
“We only thought it might have been five or six thousand years old because there’s no way that a metre-deep deposit would go back so far.”
“The first inkling we knew it was old, we got these emu egg shells starting in the 20s, the 20-something thousand, and then it just kept getting older.”
Remnants of plants, ochre and bones, including one from a rhino-sized marsupial, are among 4300 artefacts uncovered at the site about 550km north of Adelaide.
A sharpened bone point found at the site is the oldest bone tool found in Australia.
The discovery of artefacts and bones in the rock shelter has revealed that humans started to settle inland Australia 10,000 years earlier than previously believed, scientists said.
“A man getting out of the car to go to the toilet led to the discovery of one of the most important sites in Australian prehistory,” Mr Hamm said.
People are thought to have arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago.
But the timing of their settlement in the arid interior, their use of tools and their interaction with ancient animals has been under debate.
The researchers said the discoveries in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, 450 kilometres (280 miles) from the state capital Adelaide, showed that humans occupied the site from 49,000 to 46,000 years ago.
“We present evidence from Warratyi rock shelter in the southern interior that shows that humans occupied arid Australia by around (49,000 years ago), (10,000 years) earlier than previously reported,” the report published in the journal Nature said.
The objects recovered from layers of sediment also represented the earliest-known use in Australia of technologies such as bone tools (40,000 to 38,000 years ago) and pigments like red ochre (49,000 to 46,000 years ago).
“It complements the work that has been done on Australia’s coasts. It fits in with this threshold of dates … between 45,000 and 50,000 (years ago),” Mr Hamm told reporters.
“What is different about it is it’s the southernmost oldest site in the continent … it shows that people are moving very quickly around the continent and in the interior part of the continent.
“If people are coming in at 50,000 (years ago), it means that people are moving in a whole range of directions perhaps. And we’ve got some new genetic evidence that might be also adding data to that question.”
The study — which also involved the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and Clifford Coulthard from the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association — recovered 4300 artefacts, 3kg (6.6 lbs) of bones, ochre and plant matter.
A recovered bone chunk was identified as coming from a Diprotodon optatum, the largest-known marsupial, while an eggshell was linked to a giant extinct bird, suggesting that humans were interacting with ancient animals, megafauna expert Gavin Prideaux from Flinders University said.
“Humans evidently lived alongside these animals and hunted them, so the idea that there wasn’t any interaction between people and these animals is put to bed now,” Prideaux added.
Adnyamathanha man Mr Coulthard, from the Flinders Rangers, said the long history of Warratyi shelter came as no surprise to his people.
“A lot of the old people said that our people were here a long time. They are still really interested,” he said.
— With AFP
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