Australian Archaeology: the sleeping giant

Artwork by Nathan Kaseng Um


New findings in Australian Archaeology, what it means, and why it is important

A recently published article from the University of Queensland, titled ‘Human occupation of Northern Australia by 65,000 years ago’, provides crucial evidence for early human colonisation of Australia. Although research is still being conducted at the site of Madjedbebe, Kakadu National Park, the redating of the evidence lead by Dr Chris Clarkson suggests the colonisation of Australia predates preconceived theories by 18,000 years. Therefore, this new data questions the migration of humans out of Africa, and ultimately, what it means to be an Australian.

While Madjedbebe was excavated nearly 30 years ago, the data was widely disputed. Dr Clarkson and his colleagues returned to the site utilising new methodologies and nuanced technology to analyse the artefacts. To avoid contamination of the artefacts and to find a conclusive approximate date, not only were several dating techniques used but additionally, the vast archaeological team conducted multiple tests in separate laboratories. Although it is complicated to date these artefacts accurately, the average confidence ratios of 95% in conjunction with the meticulous methodology legitimises the dating of the bottom sedimentary layer at around 65,000 years old. Due to rising sea levels and Australia losing two-thirds of its land mass over the thousands of years, there is an large possibility that earlier sites have been lost, thus why the dates coming out of this excavation are pivotal in understanding the human journey.

In an interview with the ABC, Professor Hiscock of the University of Sydney contends that the artefacts found at the site undoubtedly display how quickly the First Australians were able to adapt to the new landscape and environment, indicating a high level of sophistication. From the moment of occupation, they created artwork and invented new technologies such as the ground-edge axes, which Hiscock states is older than anywhere yet found in the world. In Europe, this type of axe is seen by many as a precursor to the advanced modern human, yet in Australia where it appears thousands of years earlier, interpretations of the evidence still hold onto colonial perceptions of the indigenous population. However, when the First Australians left Africa is still unknown.

In conjunction with this, Australia Day and its implications have recently been more controversial than ever. Celebrating the day of Australia being ‘discovered’ in 1788 completely disregards a history that spans 65,000 years, a past we are still attempting to decipher. In the classic Australian song, Down Under by Men at Work, they present Australian culture as defined by beer and vegemite sandwiches, essentially colonial implementations. Dr Clarkson however recently argued that: “[the site] suggests there is a very, very deep continuity and connection between the people living in Kakadu today and probably those living there 65,000 years ago.” There is still a plethora of human behaviour that is not only incredibly rich in the past but is still proliferated in the present.

The latest genetic evidence implies humans migrated out of Africa around 72,000 years ago. Dr Westaway, a paleoanthropologist, argues that this new evidence in Australia only gives Homo Sapiens several thousand years to colonise Australia, thus raising issues with the current genetic analysis. It seems our understanding of the dispersal of the modern human and its origin is most likely flawed. The most stringent information from this discovery, aside from the incredible cultural implications, is that there is much more to discover. The impressive archaeological site of Madjedbebe is a symbol of the gaps in our knowledge regarding human origins on a global scale.

For the average Australian, these recent discoveries are an ever-developing narrative. It is a history still waiting to be uncovered. For an Australian archaeologist, it provides a glimpse into an undoubtedly large chasm of knowledge stored within the earth we stand on. On a global scale, it is a site that alters perspectives of the dispersion of Homo Sapiens out of Africa, but also displays how different groups of humans were coexisting. Madjebebe redefines archaeology within the Australian context, and furthermore, demonstrates it is imperative for Australians to understand Australia’s historical significance on a global scale.

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