Humans took up tools and settled into arid Australia much earlier than previously thought

The study has revealed that settlers used red ochre as a pigment between 49,000 and 46,000 years ago(Credit: Depositphotos/lucidwaters)

Australia's aboriginal people are believed to be the world's oldest continuing civilization, having crossed from Africa more than 50,000 years ago. It was thought, however, that around 10,000 years passed before they took up more sophisticated tools and settled into the country's harsh arid interior, but a new study has revealed they wasted very little time at all, developing technologies and venturing inland within just a few thousand years.

A team of researchers from The University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of Queensland examined evidence from a site called the Warratyi Rock Shelter in the desert of South Australia. It found the oldest traces of Aboriginal occupation in the region, dating back 49,000 years.

This came as a surprise to the researchers, because it had been thought that a lack of cultural innovations, compared to people in Europe and Africa, had prevented the settlers' movement into Australia's arid regions.

Along with evidence of the shelter's occupation 49,000 years ago, the team also discovered remains of tools and decorations. Using a novel technique called single-grain optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), the researchers were able to date objects found in the sediment and create a timeline detailing the history of the site.

This revealed that the settlers used red ochre as a pigment between 49,000 and 46,000 years ago, gypsum 40,000 to 33,000 years ago, worked bone tools 40,000 to 38,000 years ago and stone tools modified to accommodate a handle 30,000 to 24,000 years ago.

Another interesting finding was the discovery of a bone chunk, which was identified as belonging to the extinct Diprotodon optatum, the largest marsupial to have ever lived, along with an eggshell that appeared to be related to a giant extinct bird. This indicates that the humans were interacting with the megafauna at this early stage and may help inform our understanding of extinctions between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago.

"The Warratyi Rock Shelter is a remarkable discovery, showing aboriginal settlement of the Australian arid zone long before the last ice age and contemporaneous with iconic Australian megafauna, and revealing an innovative material culture, including the utilization of ochre pigments, much earlier than previously recorded for Australia and Southeast Asia," says the University of Adelaide's Professor Nigel Spooner.

The team's research was published in the journal Nature.

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