Plants and Animals

Australia's Arid Interior Was Occupied Ten Thousand Years Earlier Than Suspected

Fire, paints, and tools have been found at a cave in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, some dated to 49,000 years ago – 10,000 years earlier than expected. There is even a tantalizing hint that these early inhabitants preyed on two of the extinct megafauna, the cause of whose demise is much debated.

Although the first people reached Australia roughly 50,000 years ago, we have found little evidence of humans living inland for 10,000 years thereafter. Anthropologists concluded Indigenous Australians kept to the coast for ten millennia. Now that belief has been tipped on its head with the dating of various artifacts from the Warratyi rock shelter in the northern end of the Flinders Ranges. The findings are published in Nature.

Giles Hamm of La Trobe University, Australia, who led the findings, told IFLScience that he was exploring gorges in the area in search of likely sites of human habitation when he found rock engravings. This prompted a search of the surrounding area. The blackened roof of a rock shelter told him fires had been lit beneath. When Hamm and his colleagues put probes into the soil beneath the overhang, they found ash and charcoal layers to a depth of a meter (3.3 feet), indicating the site had been inhabited over a very long period of time.

Despite this, Hamm was amazed when carbon dating of some of the items he found suggested they were almost 50,000 years old. Dates in that range were confirmed by applying single-grain optical stimulated luminescence to quartz grains among the charcoal.

According to Hamm, the site is so rich in signs of human occupation that, even after digging up less than a tenth of it, we already have a good idea of how intensively it was used. After infrequent occupation for several thousand years, the Warratyi site was used more often between 40,000-35,000 years ago. After this, occupation dropped off until around the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, when the world started warming, 18,000 years ago.

The Flinders Ranges does not look like an easy place to inhabit today, and it was drier and cooler when humans first reached there. Giles Hamm

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