Newly unearthed artefacts from the northern Flinders Ranges could radically shift our understanding of when the middle of the Australian continent became inhabited by humans, and just how advanced the technology of those inhabitants was.
“I was completely surprised,” archaeologist Giles Hamm tells The Adelaide Review of his team’s discovery of artefacts. This trove of ancient objects included complex tools, bones of a Diprotodon optatum (an extinct wombat-like mega fauna) and ancient egg shells in what is now known as the Warratyi Rock Shelter in the Flinders Ranges/Adnyamathanha country. “We never expected to find things dating back that far,” Hamm says.
Hamm had already conducted research in the region and found artefacts believed to date back 10 to 15,000 years on other sites. This discovery, which was published today in the leading scientific journal Nature, shows that humans inhabited and colonised Australia’s arid interior far earlier than had been believed.
Key points of the archaeological milestone are the discovery of the earliest hafted tools (meaning tools composed of two or more parts) in Australia or South-East Asia, the earliest bone tools and earliest use of ochre and gypsum pigments in Australia.
One of the bone tools discovered
Individually, these discoveries are remarkable on their own, but taken together, they begin to paint a complex picture of the people who inhabited the territory 40,000 years ago, and contain larger implications for our understanding of human migration and tool-making, Hamm says.
“In terms of people inhabiting marginal environments across the world, this is a very good example of people getting somewhere, the environment changes, the climate changes and suddenly they have to adapt really quickly,” he says. “They have to sort of develop innovative tools and new technologies as a result.”
An artist’s impression of the Diprotodon optatum
Hamm says that across Australia, particularly in Western Australian archaeological sites, there is more evidence showing activity more than 50,000 years ago. “We haven’t quite pushed beyond that just yet,” he says.
The Warratyi Rock Shelter is a conspicuously rare archaeological find. Due to the geological formation of the cave, it would have been a perfect shelter for ancient people moving through the region, and possesses many layers of sediment that have ensconced thousands of artefacts. Hamm is keen to continue research at the site, as well as the items they have recovered from it.
Giles Hamm at the South Australian Museum’s new exhibit based on his team’s research
“We not only want to work more looking at the residues on artefacts. We’ve only sampled 22 artefacts,” he says. “There’s more than 4300 artefacts so we’ll be looking at that. We want to look at the opening site and look for more evidence of megafauna, and we actually want to go deeper maybe in some parts of the shelter. We may even be able to push the date back even further if we find artefacts below that level.”
The Warratyi dig site
The discovery of the Warratyi Rock Shelter was a somewhat fortuitous affair for Hamm and Clifford Coulthard, a member of the Adnyamathanha people and Adnyamathanha Land Association. As Hamm tells it, the pair was conducting some reconnaissance research in the region, when they stopped on the side of the road for a toilet break.
“Cliff said, ‘I’ve got to go to the toilet’, so we stopped, he got out of the car, and said ‘I’ll just go up this creek, brother.’ Off he goes up the creek, and then I’m slowly walking around looking and saying, ‘Oh, there’s artefacts everywhere,’ and he comes back saying ‘Brother! There’s a spring here, it’s amazing! We went up and found this spring with all these rock engravings right around it, so we focussed on that area and that area led us to Warratyi.”
Clifford Coulthard at the South Australian Museum’s exhibition
Coulthard, who had worked previously with Hamm on dig sites in the Southern Flinders, says he was just as surprised as Hamm at the results from Warratyi, and looks forward to continue working on the site with the Adnyamathanha people.
“We also got some of the Adnyamathanha young people involved,” he says, “We’ll all continue, I think.”
Given the ongoing discussions around a proposed Nuclear Waste Facility site near the Flinders Ranges, Coulthard says he is worried what impact such works might have on archaeological sites in the future.
“We’re now a bit scared of the waste,” he says. “We’re quite safe in the actual ranges because of the earth tremors, but if it comes too close it might affect sites like Emu Warrityal. Maybe the South Australian Government should think about it, quite seriously.”
Exterior view of the Warrityal Rock Shelter
More than anything though, Coulthard is proud that this research could vindicate the cultural knowledge of the Adnyamathanha people.
“When I worked with the old people in the ‘70s, these more traditional elders, knowledgeable people, they said to us, ‘We’ve been here a long time.’ They didn’t know dates and things, but now I think back on their words and think, ‘Yeah, it is a long time, isn’t it?’”
Artefacts from the projects, including bone tools, and a segment of Diprotodon bone are now on display at the South Australian Museum.
Photos: supplied by South Australian Museum