Shell middens and a potential ancient hearth add to growing evidence of a much deeper human occupation period in Australasia (prehistoric Sahul).
A meticulously detailed 11 years research program has concluded that there is compelling evidence for a human presence 120,000 years at Moyjil, Point Richie, on the far south coast of Victoria.
Excavation in basal calcrete at Moyjil containing burnt stones and charcoal. Image credit – Ian J. McNiven
In the past, scientific research suggestive of human habitation in Australia up to 120,000 years ago had been considered and then rejected. Several habitation sites have produced discoveries pointing to a much earlier than expected period, but the controversy led to more conservative dating. The new finding should cause a rethinking of all relevant archaeological sites.
The new research findings have been presented to the Royal Society of Victoria by a group of highly respected academics including Prof Jim Bowler, famous for his discovery of the oldest well-dated human remains on the continent, Mungo Lady and Mungo Man (42,000 years old).
The Collaborative efforts included Archaeologist Professor Ian McNiven along with a number of his professional colleagues including; David Price, John Sherwood and Stephen Carey.
Analysis of a shell midden, already suspected to be 70 – 80 thousand years old, was carried out along with additional discoveries including charcoal and burnt stones with all the hallmarks of being an ancient aboriginal type cooking hearth.
Thermal luminescence dating techniques used on the blackened stones provided ages in the range of 100-130 thousand years, consistent with independent stratigraphic evidence and contemporaneous with the age of the surface in which they lie.
It is important to note that the scientists consider the distribution of the fire-darkened stones to be inconsistent with wildfire effects. Included were two hearth-like features closely adding further indications of potential human action at the site.
This dating at 120,000 years may sound astonishing but consider here that there has been growing evidence of a much earlier habitation period, including the discovery of tools at Madjedbebe, Arnhem Land (northern Australia) which produced dates of 65 – 80 thousand years.
“In summary, although no single line of evidence precludes natural fire, taken collectively the case for exclusion is strong. Humans are obviously capable of these processes, of carrying fuel to a cliffed shoreline and repetitive burning at the same place,” the team explains.
While the article released by the team expresses some level of confusion over why there is no evidence of these mysterious earlier inhabitants of the region, it should be said that such evidence exists seemingly unknown to them.
“The prospect, however, of humans in that locality at 120 ka [years ago], although consistent with evidence presents more questions than answers. Who were they? Why here and not elsewhere? Why no legacy of any toolkit, no traces of food let alone human remains? In the absence of bones, stone flakes or any independent trace of people, the notion of occupation at 120 ka currently remains difficult to credit.”
The inter-glacial period starting 130,000 years ago would have enabled population movement south from equatorial Asia. Later cooling events 72,000 years ago would have likely initiated northward bound contraction of populations.
Two largely overlooked environmental studies had previously detected strong evidence of firestick farming used to deforest land at two sites almost 130,000 years ago. The first site is at Lake George, New South Wales and the second at the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland. The controversial early dating for a human presence suggested in both these studies was largely ignored. The depth of aboriginal inhabitation has long been a thorny political issue in modern Australia.
“However, marine shells, stones in unexplained depositional context and fire resemblance to hearth, successively diminish the possibility of a natural explanation. That absence leaves the currently unlikely option of human agency as the most likely alternative.”
The new research was undertaken collaboratively with Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and Kuuyang Maar Aboriginal Corporation.
“For some, an acceptance of human presence in Australia 120,000 years as a possibility may now tentatively advance to one of probability. For most, the question of Australia’s occupation at that time remains highly contentious. Different people will attach different levels of significance to the various lines of evidence presented here,” the researchers conclude.
Jim Bowler understands the controversy, having been embroiled in one over the Lake Mungo remains, he also recognises that there will be many scientists seeking to dismiss his team’s tentative findings.
Bowler explains that the site, “It presents the probability of people here on coastal Victoria 120,000 years ago. If correct, that would double the time of human occupation. That is a big jump to make. It will not be widely accepted until the evidence is definitive. Aware of that limitation, we have put this current evidence to the public. Each may make up their own minds.”
It is possible that the team is unaware of a genetic study carried out by Drs Luca Pagani and Toomas Kivisild from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2016. The Cambridge team found a “genetic signature” in present-day Papuans that suggested over 2% of their genome originates from an even earlier, and otherwise extinct, population present in the Oceanian region 120,000 years ago.
Jim Bowler is now 88-years-old and recognises that the Moygil research may be his swansong from an illustrious scientific career, hopefully, he will live to see this deeper occupation validated, which I am certain it will be now that archaeology and genetics are pointing in the same direction.
“If it was 60,000 years, readers would have no doubt it was people. But 120,000 is a different problem! For my part, I am convinced. However, I respect the scepticism of others, at least until the next stage of examination is complete. And I shall not be there for that event. At my age and stage, it is already past time to bow out. This work of the past 11 years awaits long-time judgement. You be the jury!”
Bruce Fenton, author of The Forgotten Exodus: The Into Africa Theory of Human Evolution