The discovery of globally significant artifacts in Australia has ignited the world’s imagination about what life was like 65,000 years ago.
Previously it was thought the continent was inhabited by megafauna — huge kangaroos that towered over humans and wombats the size of rhinos — but items found in an archaeological site in the Northern Territory show humans may have lived alongside these massive animals for at least 20,000 years.
One of the researchers who helped find and date the items, Professor Zenobia Jacobs of the University of Wollongong said the findings published in the journal Nature this week were of global significance.
Here’s what you need to know.
WHAT WAS ACTUALLY DISCOVERED
Researchers found more than 10,000 artefacts buried in what they call the basal (or first occupation) layer under a rock shelter called Madjedbebe near Kakadu National Park.
Scientists used optically stimulated luminescene technology to estimate these items were 65,000 years old.
Artefacts included stone axes, seed grinding tools and stone points that may have been used as spear tips. They also found ochre traditionally used to paint bodies and rock art, although it is not known how old these were.
“The site contains the oldest ground-edge stone axe technology in the world, the oldest known seed grinding tools in Australia and evidence of finely made stone points which may have served as spear tips”, lead researcher University of Queensland Professor Chris Clarkson said.
This layer was meticulously uncovered during three digs starting in 2012 by archaeologists and university students using trowels and brushes. They excavated to a depth of four metres and across quite a large 20 square metre site.
In total more than 100,000 artefacts were found around the site in all the layers.
Researchers also found fireplaces and burials in some of the upper levels.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Previous to this, some archaeologists argued Aboriginal people had only been in Australia for 47,000 years, although others believed habitation was closer to 60,000 years.
Professor Jacobs told news.com.au the new discovery set a new minimum age for evidence of human habitation of Australia, although debate would probably still continue.
“It’s not over, there will be a new debate,” she said.
While Aboriginal habitation had now been shown to be far longer than 47,000 years, researchers would search for other sites to lend weight to the new data.
Scientists will now be looking for other sites 55,000 years and older to “fill the gap” between that and the Madjedbebe site.
Within the Madjedbebe site itself, Prof Jacobs said other artefacts were found dating to 30,000, 20,000 and 10,000 years ago.
“So the occupation is pretty continual,” Prof Jacobs said.
To this day, Prof Jacobs said Aboriginal people still visited the site and told stories.
“They are very proud that it’s got such a deep history for them,” she said.
GLOBAL AND LOCAL SIGNIFICANCE
Prof Jacobs said the discovery provided more insight into when humans started to leave Africa and our understanding of global human evolution.
It helps to draw a picture of where humans came from, when they got to places and who they interacted with.
But for Aboriginal people in Australia it provides evidence of a deep rooted connection with the country, and Prof Jacobs hopes other Australians can take note of that.
“It is very significant and we should be very respectful of that heritage and culture and value it,” she said.
“When you look at the artefacts they are very sophisticated.
“They include the world’s oldest hatchets and they used ochre and even reflective paint to create a glitter effect (on their artworks).”
Aboriginal Australians had a largely hunter gatherer culture so there is little evidence of farming or metal working. But they are often described as the oldest continuous culture in the world and this finding adds weight to that.
The site also introduces new questions about what their role was in the extinction of megafauna.
Some have claimed the Aboriginal people came to Australia and killed the giant animals almost instantaneously, but the Madjedbebe site may show the two groups lived together for as long as 20,000 years before megafauna died out.
Prof Jacobs said the Aboriginals may not have been the “hunters and conquerors” they were previously made out to be.
More research is needed as there is no direct evidence of megafauna in northern Australia, and information is required into what the climate was like at the time and what animals roamed in the area.
Researchers believe the site will lead to other discoveries in the future.
Prof Jacobs said she was very proud to be part of such an important finding and to have the opportunity to learn about the importance of cultural identity for Aboriginals in Australia.
“It has given me a deep appreciation of the custodians of this country,” she said. “I take immense pride in it and it’s been an immense privilege.”