Archaeology: Discovery of ancient Australian artefacts reveal Aboriginal cultural sites


The first underwater Aboriginal archaeological sites have been discovered off northwest Australia dating back thousands of years ago when the current seabed was dry land. The discoveries were made through a series of archaeological and geophysical surveys in the Dampier Archipelago.

The Aboriginal artefacts discovered off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia represent Australia’s oldest known underwater archaeology.

An international team of archaeologists found hundreds of stone tools made by Aboriginal peoples, including grinding stones.

The ancient underwater sites provide fascinating new evidence of Aboriginal ways of life from when the seabed was dry land, due to lower sea levels, thousands of years ago.

The submerged cultural landscapes represent what is known today as Sea Country to many Indigenous Australians, who have a deep cultural, spiritual and historical connection to these underwater environments.

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Radiocarbon dating and analysis of sea-level changes show the site is at least 7,000 years old.

The second site at Flying Foam Passage includes an underwater freshwater spring 46ft (14m) below sea level.

This site is estimated to be at least 8,500 years old.

Both sites may be much older as the dates represent minimum ages only; they may be even more ancient.

The team of archaeologists and geoscientists employed predictive modelling and various underwater and remote sensing techniques, including scientific diving methods, to confirm the location of sites and the presence of artefacts.

Chelsea Wiseman from Flinders University who has been working on the DHSC project as part of PhD research, said: “At one point there would have been dry land stretching out 160 km from the current shoreline.

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“That land would have been owned and lived on by generations of Aboriginal people.

“Our discovery demonstrates that underwater archaeological material has survived sea-level rise, and although these sites are located in relatively shallow water, there will likely be more in deeper water offshore.”

Dr Michael O’Leary, a marine geomorphologist at The University of Western Australia, added: “These territories that are now underwater harboured favourable environments for Indigenous settlements including freshwater, ecological diversity and opportunities to exploit marine resources which would have supported relatively high population densities.”

The discovery of these sites emphasises the need for stronger federal legislation to protect and manage underwater heritage across 2 million square km of landscapes that were once above sea level in Australia, and hold major insights into human history.

“Managing, investigating and understanding the archaeology of the Australian continental shelf in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners and custodians is one of the last frontiers in Australian archeology” said Associate Professor Benjamin.

“Our results represent the first step in a journey of discovery to explore the potential of archeology on the continental shelves which can fill a major gap in the human history of the continent” he said.

In Murujuga this adds substantial additional evidence to support the deep time history of human activities accompanying rock art production in this important National Heritage Listed Place.





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