Secrets unearthed at Boodie Cave: humankind just got a little older


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Boodie Cave on Barrow Island is yielding an ancient secret of global significance: resourceful, well-fed humans were living in its limestone chambers more than 50,000 years ago, several thousand years earlier than archaeologists had ­estimated.

Secrets unearthed at Boodie Cave: humankind just got a little older
UWA researcher and PhD student Kane Ditchfield excavating Boodie Cave, 
on Barrow Island off Western Australia [Credit: Ingrid Ward]

The startling evidence has been unearthed in surgically excavated pits on Barrow, Western Australia’s second largest island, 50km off the Pilbara coast.

Thousands of tiny artefacts lie in sediment dated to 50,000 years old in an Oxford University laboratory, where 200 single sand grains were measured by optically stimulated luminescence.

There are even older OSL dates of 53,000 years from grains mixed in with fragments of a shellfish meal.

“There’s no question that we’ve broken through the 50,000-year barrier,” says an ecstatic Peter Veth, lead archaeologist and Kimberley Foundation chair in rock art from the University of Western Australia.

“People talked about it, and dates of 47,000 for Aboriginal ­occupation have been well ­accepted, but there was no hard data before.

“As probably the oldest secure dates for Aboriginal occupation of this continent, they benchmark 50,000 years as the earliest bona fide date of that occupation.

Secrets unearthed at Boodie Cave: humankind just got a little older
Boodie Cave midden on Barrow Island showing discarded kangaroo jaw bones,
 turtle shell, stone artefacts, baler shell scoops and heating stones 
[Credit: Peter Veth]

“There are no reliable dates older than this from Southeast Asia, but with the right techniques the evidence will have to be there, because people travelled from ­Africa through those land bridges to get here.”

Barrow Island was once part of the original coastal plain of northwest Australia, now drowned.

For three years, teams from UWA, the University of Queensland, James Cook University and Sacramento University have dug pits in the cave floor, unearthing evidence that early Australians lived off marine and terrestrial life along the limestone ridges until sea levels rose and ­Barrow became an ­island 7500 years ago.

And they dined well in a stunningly productive landscape, Veth says.

“You take off the sterile soil surface and then, bang, what you’re seeing in layers below are (the ­remains of) turtle, oyster, crocodile, porpoise, sea urchin and freshwater mussel. It’s like a seafood basket, only 50 times richer. “There are also the bones of marsupial carnivores and kangaroos — these people were eating better than we do.”

Helping the excavation teams wet-sieve the sediment were ­Department of Parks and Wildlife officers who regulate Barrow’s ­nature reserve and support staff from resource giant Chevron, which operates the $75 billion Gorgon LNG project on another part of the island.

Secrets unearthed at Boodie Cave: humankind just got a little older
A decorated baler shell [Credit: Alistair Paterson]

Several traditional owners also helped, such as Eden Bobby from the Kuruma Marthudunera Aboriginal Corporation. “It was a priv­ilege to see first-hand how archaeologists use scientific techniques to understand how the old people of this land lived tens of thousands of years ago,’’ he said.

Most intriguing are material clues to a resourceful people who harvested food and traded items over possibly hundreds of kilo­metres. “Heating stones” were nestled among ancient turtle ­remains, large quartzite pebbles carried back from inland gorges to act as cooking agents.

Baler shells show signs of being shaped into spoons or incised with mysterious markings.

Veth will present his initial findings at an international conference in Fremantle on Tuesday, before submitting a peer review paper to an international journal.

Ian McNiven, professor of indig­enous archaeology at Monash University in Melbourne, says the Barrow Island excavations “are quite a moment in the archaeological history of our country, and for Aboriginal people’’.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he says. “You’re talking about a world-class archaeologist who has assembled the dream team to work on it.”

Secrets unearthed at Boodie Cave: humankind just got a little older
Barrow Island [Credit: The Australian]

“One of the big questions of Australian archaeology is ‘When did Aboriginal people get here?’

“To jump over that 50,000-year mark, with the reliable results of Peter and his team, will attract a lot of international interest in this find.”

So when exactly did the First Australians make landfall?

“That’s the big question,” McNiven says. “We’re now able to say it’s at least 50-53,000 years ago. It’s getting earlier and earlier all the time.”

Author: Victoria Laurie | Source: The Australian [November 28, 2015]



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