New site reveals 50,000 years of Aboriginal occupation in Kimberley

21 Aug 2019 | 2 mins

A team of archaeologists led by The University of Western Australia, in partnership with 'traditional owners', has discovered that the remote Drysdale River catchment in Western Australia’s northern Kimberley region has one of the earliest and securely dated sites for Aboriginal occupation in the North West at 50,000 years ago.

Importantly, the site also has evidence for Aboriginal occupation during a cold and dry peak at the height of the Ice Age at 19,000 years ago when conditions were very different.

The single grain luminescence dating used is very accurate and the sequence from top to bottom of the site in good order. An early axe production industry, including rare forms, was recorded at the site.

Lead author Professor Peter Veth, Director of UWA’s Oceans Institute, said the site had previously been described as a dune feature showing a break in Aboriginal occupation.

“Our work changed that view. This is actually a sedimentary (flood) feature built up over 50,000 years and it shows early, intermediate and more recent occupation by Aboriginal people,” Professor Veth said.

“There is also a significant body of rock art in the region which suggests repeated occupation and symbolic engagement with these ancestral lands over many thousands of years.” 

The research, published today in Australian Archaeology was led by UWA’s Centre for Rock Art Research and Management. The work was conducted jointly with Kwini Traditional Owners and Rangers from Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation.  

James Gallagher (known as Birdie), Senior Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation Ranger, said it was a very important site for Kwini people and Balanggarra Corporation.

“The ranger team and Traditional Owners were a central part of this work and we are happy about the old dates and also the ones that show the descendants continued to use this land,” Mr Gallagher said.

“The art through our country shows those complex relationships between people and land right up until today.”

UWA’s Dr Sven Ouzman, who was also part of the research team, said it was important to value and protect old sites as well as recent ones.

“These records and traditional knowledge systems people have of these lands are testimony to hundreds of generations of connection,” Dr Ouzman said.

Professor Sean Ulm, Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage at James Cook University, said that the extraordinary find confirmed widespread occupation of the north Kimberley area 50,000 years ago.

“This research also highlights the urgent need to direct more archaeological research away from rock shelters to open sites, helping to redress a bias towards documenting Aboriginal activities undertaken in the deep past at rock shelter site types,” Professor Ulm said.

The research was funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage project Kimberley Visions: rock art provinces in northern Australia. Partner organisations include the Kimberley Foundation Australia, WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Dunkeld Pastoral and the Kimberley Land Council’s Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation.

The University of Melbourne, Monash University and University of Savoie Mont Blanc in France are also partner organisation in Kimberley Visions.

Professor Veth is the retiring Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art, Honorary Chair at Sydney University and an Associate Investigator of the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage.

Image caption: Minjiwarra: one of the earliest dated sites for human occupation in the Kimberley, Drysdale River.  

Media references

Professor Peter Veth, Director, UWA Oceans Institute, 0408 094 607
Simone Hewett, UWA Media and PR Adviser, (08) 6488 7975

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