Among the most enduring mysteries of humanity’s past are the puzzle pieces archaeologists continue to find, which aid in constructing a clear picture of ancient human dwellings across the continents, and how early those settlements may have existed.
The vast and remote interior of Australia’s outback has yielded such clues about the movement and activities of our early ancestors. However, a recent discovery may turn back the clocks on when human settlement in this region may have occurred.
According to archaeologist Giles Hamm of South Australia’s La Trobe University, a chance discovery by a hiker may have provided evidence of a settlement that predates known human dwellings in Australia by nearly 10,000 years.
The discovery came while Clifford Coulthard, an elder of Australia’s indigenous Adnyamathanha of the Flinder’s Ranges, was exploring a series of gorges. As any hiker well knows, eventually “nature calls”, prompting brief sidetracks from the intended course. It was during Coulthard’s search for such a secluded spot that he came upon an arid rock shelter, where he found more than just a bit of privacy: strewn about the area were the apparent remains of an ancient human settlement.
The site, known as Warratyi, is now believed to represent the earliest Australian settlement ever discovered, indicating human habitation as early as 49,000 years ago.
In addition to predating existing human settlements by nearly 10,000 years, the Warratyi site is believed to help answer a number of questions that have remained about megafauna and their eventual demise in the region.
Among the items recovered at the rock shelter were more than 4000 individual artifacts, ranging from sharpened bone weapons, to various tools which appear to be decorated with red ochre, indicating what could be the earliest known use of the substance. Ochre is still used by some cultures in modern times for body paint in ceremonial and other cultural uses.
Plant matter and a variety of animal bones were also discovered, which included the remains of extinct species like the Diprotodon, otherwise known as the giant wombat. The discovery of bones belonging to these animals at the Warratyi site also lacked evidence of consumption by scavengers, which further suggests that they were indeed hunted and killed by the early humans who lived at the site.
As noted in a research paper about the site and the discoveries made there, Hamm and his team say that, “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.”
Similar discoveries made in other parts of the world have led some researchers to the controversial conclusion that human settlements may predate current estimates by several thousands of years. In America, the Clovis culture is the earliest recognized prehistoric Paleo-Indian culture, dating as far back as 11,500 years. However, sites that include Monte Verde in Chile and, more recently, the Topper Site in Allendale County, South Carolina, offer evidence that is suggestive of pre-Clovis settlements that may go back thousands of years earlier.
Surveys and chance discoveries around the world continue to broaden our knowledge of ancient humans, their migration paths, and their appearance in different locales. With Australia’s Warratyi site, we see the latest in an ever-deepening history of our early ancestors, and the narrative that unfolds about their lifestyle, and what affects they had on their environment in ancient times.