Science

Bold study claims humans may have arrived in Australia 120,000 years ago

Bold study claims humans may h...
A bold new study suggests that Aboriginal Australians have lived on the southern continent for as long as 120,000 years – almost twice as long as previously thought
A bold new study suggests that Aboriginal Australians have lived on the southern continent for as long as 120,000 years – almost twice as long as previously thought
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A bold new study suggests that Aboriginal Australians have lived on the southern continent for as long as 120,000 years – almost twice as long as previously thought
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A bold new study suggests that Aboriginal Australians have lived on the southern continent for as long as 120,000 years – almost twice as long as previously thought

Australia's Aboriginal population is said to be the oldest continuing civilization on Earth – but just how old is that? It's currently believed that Aboriginal ancestors made their way to Australia as long as 65,000 years ago, but new evidence uncovered at a dig site in the continent's southeast may push the timeline back much further. If the site does turn out to be human-made, it suggests that people have been living in Australia for as long as 120,000 years.

The place of interest, known as the Moyjil site, is located in the city of Warrnambool, Victoria. Archaeologists have been investigating the area for over a decade, and the basis for these extraordinary claims is a mound of materials including sand, seashells and stones.

That might not sound like much, but the scientists suggest this is what's known as a midden – essentially, an ancient landfill. The remains of fish, crabs and shellfish have been found in the mound, which may be all that remains of long-eaten meals, while charcoal, blackened stones and other features may be all that's left of ancient fireplaces.

But the really intriguing part of the site is its age. If Moyjil does turn out to be a human site, it could force us to rewrite not just the history of Australian occupation but our understanding of human migration worldwide.

""What makes the site so significant is its great age," says John Sherwood, an author of the study. "Dating of the shells, burnt stones and surrounding cemented sands by a variety of methods has established that the deposit was formed about 120,000 years ago. That's about twice the presently accepted age of arrival of people on the Australian continent, based on archaeological evidence. A human site of this antiquity, at the southern edge of the continent, would be of international significance because of its implications for the movement of modern humans out of Africa."

But there are quite a few caveats to these claims. For one, there's every chance that the mounds aren't middens at all, but natural formations of some kind. Definitive proof of human occupation from that era, such as tools or bones, have yet to be found.

On top of that, it doesn't quite make sense within the current narrative. Genetic studies have shown that Aboriginal people only split off from other human populations about 75,000 years ago, after their ancestors migrated out of Africa, through Southeast Asia into Australia.

The oldest known definitive proof of humans on the continent are artifacts dated to 65,000 years ago, found in Kakadu National Park, along Australia's northern coast. This makes sense, given it's close to the islands the people were thought to have used to cross over.

But the Moyjil site is on the complete opposite side of the continent, and it's hard to believe humans appeared that far south, at a time when they were otherwise believed to be more or less restricted to Africa. Humans aren't thought to have even entered East Asia before about 100,000 years ago.

The researchers acknowledge the weight of the claims, and say they're working to continue examining the Moyjil site for further evidence of human occupation, and hope others will do the same.

"We recognize the need for a very high level of proof for the site's origin," says Sherwood. "Within our own research group the extent to which members believe the current evidence supports a theory of human agency ranges from 'weak' to 'strong.' But importantly, and despite these differences, we all agree that available evidence fails to prove conclusively that the site is of natural origin. What we need now is to attract the attention of other researchers with specialist techniques which may be able to conclusively resolve the question of whether or not humans created the deposit."

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria.

Source: Deakin University

8 comments
Nik
Humans have been around for at least 300,000 years, or maybe even 400,000 years. During that time, there will have been 3-4 glacial ages, so the evidence for the present theories on human migration, relates to the last glacial period. There is no reason that earlier migrations could not have spread out, and then retracted with the onset of each glacial age. The remnants of each migration could have held on for long periods, before finally succumbing to the effects of climate and habitat change, much like the Neanderthals.
piperTom
The article mentions "modern humans", but there is no reference to bones being found at the ancient site. One way to resolve the conflict with genetic evidence is to suppose some older, fire-using hominid came to Australia, but later died out like their relatives elsewhere.
Douglas E Knapp
There always seem to be this assumption that humans went somewhere one time and never left. It could easily be a lost tribe that lived there because some storm washed them up there but then they died out. Then a lot of time passed and someone else came by sand stuck it out.
TechGazer
Since it's just a midden, it doesn't even have to be from a human relative. Some other species could have left those remains. I can imagine a penguin variant that attracted mates by building a big mound of fish skeletons and whatever else they could collect, kicking up some sand to hold it together. Blackened stones and charcoal could have been from a natural fire, and simply caught the amorous penguin's attention. I'm not claiming that the find is not evidence of early human activity, just that it isn't strong proof. Stronger proof would be worked materials that required fingers, or human(ish) tooth marks on the bones. As piperTom said, the genetic record is a non-issue, since the midden-builders could have been a separate branch that died out.
flyerfly
Interesting how so many articles on this subject use the words "may", "maybe", "possibly" etc... and all time frames are rounded to the nearest 100k or million years...gives me a lot of confidence in the accuracy of the assumptions...
JagtygerII
If those people are correct that this is proof of human presence in Australia 120,000 years ago. It also means that humans were sailing on the ocean that long ago since even in the lowest sea level during the ice ages there was 90 miles of ocean ocean that they had to cross in order to go from Indonesia to Australia. A bit much for a family swim
Nobody
I remember when the Aboriginal Australians in the photo arrived. They were driving Toyotas.
VicCherikoff
There was published work by Singh and Geisler in 1985, which reported findings of carbon deposits in and around Lake George near Canberra (the political sty of Australia). They dated an increase in carbon deposits they postulated as only possible from human occupation some 120,000 years ago.