Early Sites in Temperate Australia

Southwestern Australia

It has been a surprise and extremely early human occupation has been found in both the southwest and southeast of the continent. The southwest of Western Australia boasts two sites between 40,000 and 30,000 years old, and in the southeast thee are sites of similar antiquity both in the Willandra Lakes region and near Sydney, if we can credit the age of the Cranebrook artefacts discussed below. The presence of 40,000-year-old sites in the temperate southern half of Australia fits well with an earlier entry date in the north, as evidenced by the 50,000-year-old Kakadu sites. However, if, like Bowdler, one does not accept the Kakadu thermoluminescence (TL) dates, the old problem remains of the gradient of antiquity running the wrong way, that is, from south to north.


The Upper Swan River site near Perth has the distinction of having its age of about 38,000 years of accepted by almost all leading archaeologists, even the hypersceptical Sandra Bowdler. It is an extensive, open-air camp site on an ancient floodplain bordering the upper Swan River between Perth and Walyunga. The site was found by an archaeological consultant, bob Pearce, when he was driving past on the way to his holiday cottage. He had noticed men digging and could see that it was a clay deposit. In his own words, 'As I am interested in geology I just stopped to have a look. I spotted a couple of flakes by the roadside. It was the kind of rubble that most people would walk over and think nothing more about.' What Pearce found were stone tools in situ in the clay at a depth of 10 to 90 centimetres. Some of the flakes were made of a distinctive chert containing fossils. This chert has only been found in Devil's Lair and other deposits older than 4600 years, and came from an offshore source that was later submerged by the rising sea. Identical fossiliferous chert has now been turned up by drilling into the sea bed offshore, and is found on a number of other Western Australian archaeological sites.  

Aboriginal children

Pearce alerted the manager of Midland Brick company, who immediately halted work in that part of their clay pit. A small excavation was carried out by Pearce, and samples of charcoal associated with the tools were sent to Sydney University radiocarbon laboratory for dating, which was generously paid for by the company. The great age of the occupation was at first not suspected because the tools did not look particularly old and the deposit was not very deep. It was not until the first charcoal sample was processed a year later that its great antiquity was discovered. Meanwhile, the government of Western Australia had given permission for the clay pit to go ahead and the site to be destroyed. Mike Barbetti, who runs the Sydney laboratory, acted with commendable speed. Phone calls alerted the authorities in Perth, and fortunately it emerged that the site, although released for destruction, was still intact. There was a collective sigh of relief that "Australia had not inadvertently destroyed its oldest human occupation site yet discovered. It was a near miss, and a lesson for the future that permission must not be given to destroy sites, if it is is suspected for any reason that they are of great antiquity, until they have been properly dated.

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Further archaeological excavation of the Upper Swan site in 1981 produced many more artefacts. further dates confirmed the age as 38,000 years or older. This is close to the limit of radiocarbon dating, but several samples were dated and gave very consistent and convincing results. About 900 artefacts have now been recovered from the site. Most are made of a deeply patinated dolerite. some chips (leas than 15 millimetres long) account for 75 percent of the finds, and thee are only thirty-seven tools showing retouch or use-wear. The small size of the tools is similar to other Western Australian Pleistocene sites such as Devil's Lair. The artefacts include small scrapers made of quartz and quartzite, and pebble fragments showing wear and their edges. The presence of chips, cores and conjoins (sets of flaked stone which can be refitted together) suggests that this was a roof-manufacturing site and that it was relatively undisturbed. The site is now in the Register of the National Estate and is under the control of the local Aboriginal community.

Devil's Lair

Devil's Lair is another of the earliest firmly dated sites in Australia, going back more than 30,000 years. This cave, in the extreme southwest, lies 20 kilometres north of Cape Leeuwin and 5 kilometres inland; it would have been not much more than 25 kilometres from the sea, even when the sea level was at its lowest. Devil's Lair is a single, dimly lit chamber with an earth floor of about 75 square metres largely covered with a layer of flowstone ( a stone 'sheet' that sometimes forms on the floors of limestone caves) up to 20 centimetres thick. The name 'Devil's Lair' derives from the large quantity of remains of the Tasmanian devil found in the upper levels of the deposit.

Early Aboriginal rock art, Nullagine area, Western Australia

In 1955 palaeontologist Earnest Lundelius excavated in the cave in search of a sequence of prehistoric fauna. As limestone caves provide excellent preservation conditions for bone, they are regular hunting grounds for palaecontrologists, and so other collectors followed him. One collector mentioned that there were possible artefacts in the cave, and a human incisor tooth was found. A salvage excavation was organised by Dortch and Merrilees in 1970 to tidy up the disturbed material left by earlier excavators., line the pit with plastic and then back-fill it to prevent further slumping of the deposit. The presence of artefacts in the deposit was confirmed, and six more seasons of investigation of the site and surrounding region followed. The Devil's Lair deposit is extremely rich in bone: the density of animals ranges from 70 to 2040 individuals per cubic metre. Some of the faunal remains in these bone beds were the prey not of owls or predators such as the Tasmanian devil, but of humans.

The case for humans as important predators rests on the unusually wide range of species present; artificial modification, including charring, of many bones; occurrence of some bones in undisturbed hearths; and the presence of items that must have been carried there by people, such as freshwater shells and even occasional marine shellfish. The people seem to have exploited most small- to medium-sized animals, including wallabies, possums, bandicoots, native rats and mice, snakes, lizards, frogs, bats and birds, including emu eggs. Apart from the absence of dingo bones and the presence of Tasmanian devil bones, the fauna represented is not very different from that of the present day.

Aboriginal vintage postcard, Western Australia

Excavation revealed a deposit over 3 metres deep, accumulated over 37,000 years. The lowest levels that contain artefacts are dated to about 33,000 years ago, and include a dozen pieces of limestone claimed to be artefacts, four small flakes of a stone foreign to the cave, one bone artefact and several bones of extinct marsupial species such as the giant kangaroos, Protemnodon and Sthenurus. Some of the bones are fractured, and two are claimed by Dortch to be probable artefacts. If his claims are substantiated, this would be among the best evidence yet found in Austalia that human did prey on megafauna. Between about 28,000 and 6000 years ago, occupation features, such as hearths, show that repeated, if intermittent, use was made of Devil's Lair. Most of the occupation was sealed below a layer of flowstone, formed 12,000 years ago. (Sceptics such as Allen and Bowdler give 28,000 BP as the date of earliest occupation, because it is the earliest date 'which clearly derives from materials clearly associated with unquestionable cultural materials'.)

The whole assemblage at Devil's Lair belongs to the early phase of Australian prehistory, although the artefacts are much smaller than those of many other Pleistocene sites. The early phase industries from both Miriwun and Devil's Lair contain small adze flakes and a variety of very small retouched tools made on flakes. It may be, therefore, that early phase tools tend to be smaller in western than eastern Australia, but much more evidence is needed before we can be sure, and regrettably few excavated tool kits have been analysed and published. The comparatively small size of the Devil's Lair tools may also result from the fracturing properties of the raw materials used: quartz and a distinctive chert. The nearest known source is 120 kilometres to the east, but it is far more likely that it came from the now-drowned continental shelf. Only about 170 stone and 100 bone tools were recovered from the area excavated at Devil's Lair. The stone tools are made from chert, quartz and limestone. some undoubted limestone artefacts occur, but sometimes it is difficult to decide whether pieces of limestone that resemble choppers or rough cores are indeed artefacts, since most of them have been eroded by ground water. Most of the stone artefacts are retouched flakes. Several are scrapers, perhaps intended to be hafted as adzes. Other tools have notched or toothed margins, but most lack a distinctive form. 

Bone Artefacts

Even more important than the stone tools at Devil's Lair are those made of bone, since bone and bone tools are preserved in so few Pleistocene sites. Those from Devil's Lair are among Australia's oldest bone tools: the earliest is estimated to b 29,500 years old. A relatively large number and variety of types were preserved. The most common were split pointed bones, 1 to 15 centimetres long. Bone points are the next most common, some made from macropod shin bones and ground to a point, probably by abrasion and whittling. A few tiny points have been found, which may have been used to pierce holes in animal skins to be sewn together. One is only 14 millimetres long and its point has been polished by use. another 12,000-year-old bone artefact may be a pendant or bodkin. The broad end is perforated, and the edge of the hole has been smoothed by friction on the side next to the broad end. This shows that a piece of string or sinew has been passed through the hole, and suggests that the object was used as a bodkin or suspended as an ornament.

Ice Age Ornaments

One of the most exciting finds from Devil's Lair was three 12 000-to 15 000-year-old bone beads, the first indication in Australia that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers used such ornaments. The beads were made on short sections of naturally perforated long bones, and x-ray has shown that the perforation does extend right through. Experimental work has shown how such bone beads may have been manufactured. A fresh kangaroo long bone is cut deeply around its shaft with a sharp flake, then snapped in half. The process is repeated about 2 centimetres from the broken edge and snapped again. The two ends of the bead are rounded by abrading with a piece of limestone, and the narrow cavity cleaned out with a sliver of wood or bone. The Devil's Lair beads and Mandu Mandu Creek shell necklace are unique in Aboriginal culture, indicating that life in early Australia was not merely a struggle for survival, but gave time to devote to manufacturing non-utilitarian items (insert plate 5 below).

Other finds at Devil's Lair may also testify to the creativity and manual dexterity of its Pleistocene occupants. A perforated fragment of soft marl, definitely foreign to the locality, was found in a horizon about 14 000 years old. This may have been an ornamental pendant (insert image below). The perforation, which may be artificial or natural, could also have served to polish the tips or shafts of wooden spears or bone points. It resembles a bird's head, and the base of the 'neck' appears to have been fractured, so it may have originally been longer.

Finally, three pieces of limestone have been found, in 12 000- and 20 000-year-old horizons, which Dortch describes as 'engraved stone plaques'. One flat surface of each 'plaque' is covered with faint straight lines, which could have been produced by a sharp, pointed tool of stone, bone or wood. Dortch argues that the lines must have been made by humans, but Robert Bednarik maintains they are not 'anthropic' marks (intentional, non-utilitarian marks made by human agency) but natural 'taphonomic' markings, caused by the process of taphonomy - the modifications experienced by materials since they become part of what is thought to form the archaeological record.

The East Coast

It was not until the development of radiocarbon dating in 1950 that it became possible to determine the absolute age of prehistoric sits. 'during the 1950s that it became possible to determine the absolute age of prehistoric sites. During the 1950s, several sites in Australia were excavated and dated, but none of these went back into the glacial period. Although it was widely argued that Aboriginal settlement of the continent must go back to times of low sea level in the ice age, there was still no firm evidence for the Pleistocene colonisation of Australia.

It was therefore a great landmark in Australian prehistory when, in 1962, the national Physical laboratory announced a 16 000-year-old date for the lower levels of Kenniff Cave in southern Queensland. The circumstances of the announcement were characteristically Australian. John Mulvaney and his digging team were sitting round their campfire outside the cave, drinking billy tea and listening on their radio transceiver to the Royal flying doctor Service at Charleville. A telegram for the team from Melbourne was read out over the air, breaking the news of the Pleistocene age of the site. Mulvaney suspected a transmission error, with one zero was confirmed by a second telegram.

Kenniff Cave

Kenniff Cave lies 700 metres above sea level, near the crest of the Great Dividing Range, in a rugged region of sandstone cliffs and gorges, timbered hills and grassy plains. The cave, which would have provided an excellent shelter against wet or cold, lies in a sheltered valley called Lethbridge Pocket, above Meteor Creek. It is a roomy cave with a low entrance, but it averages about 3 metres of headroom inside (plate 12). Aboriginal paintings decorate the walls. Subjects are mainly stencils of hands and feet, and  items of equipment such as boomerangs, a shield and a hafted axe. Red, white, yellow and black pigments are used; the colour was blown from the mouth around the object held against the wall. The art had been recorded by a local amateur field worker and senior radio operator of the royal flying Doctor Base. Reg Orr, through whom Mulvaney first heard of the site. In fact, Kenniff Cave was already well known locally because of the bushranging Kenniff brothers, who stabled their horses inside and by whose name it had become known.

Excavation revealed occupation deposits going down 3.3 metres. bone and other organic remains were not preserved, but stone artefacts were abundant. About 65 cubic metres of sand and ash were excavated, yielding more than 800 artefacts and almost 22 000 waste flakes or manufacturing debris. Kenniff Cave produced an early industry consisting entirely of scrapers and a later industry in which new, specialised small tools were added to the scraper industry. The older industry contained retouched tools made on flakes or large cores, which are generally termed scapers (figure 1.1). Their precise function has not been established, but it is generally thought that they were used for planing or incising wooden objects, in other words they were tools for making tools. High-backed 'core-scrapers' and 'concave or nosed scrapers' are far more numerous in the earlier than later industry, and horsehoof cores are confined to the earlier horizons.

On the basis of further radiocarbon dates, the earliest occupation of Kenniff Cave is now known to have occurred about 19 000 years ago. for 11 000 years, there was no significant change in tool size, type or manufacturing technique. Then, about 5000 years ago, the number of scraper s began to diminish and new, small, finely worked tools were added to the existing tool kit. The most striking features of all these new tools were their small size and the probability that they wee all composite tools that would be hafted into a handle. In the case of the long juan knives, specimens exist in museums in which the stone knife is hafted in a handle of animal skin, fur, bark, and hair twine. The importance of the Kenniff Cave cultural sequence is threefold. firstly, it has an unusually wide range of artefacts and contains a small but representative sample of most of the major Australian prehistoric tools types, including all the small composite tools. Secondly, occupation extended over an extremely long time, from the present back into the Pleistocene. Thirdly, and most importantly, it was the site that provided the basis for the recognition of an earlier and a later technological phase in Australian prehistory. Mulvaney's broad concept of two-part sequence has stood the test of time, although new discoveries have inevitably led to some modification of the original hypothesis. Once the Pleistocene barrier had been broken, the search was on, and other early sites were found. some were chance discoveries, but others were found because archaeologists now knew where to look.

Burrill Lake rock-Shelter

The first Pleistocene site found in southeastern Australia was the Burrill Lake Shelter, which was excavated in 1967-68. This huge sandstone rock-shelter is the largest known on the south coast of New South Wales. It is now signposted and open to the public, and there is also a replica of the stratigraphy of the site in the Australian Museum in Sydney. Facing east in a narrow, thickly wooded valley, it is sheltered both from onshore winds and the prevailing southerlies. The shelter floor is only 3 metres above modern sea level and lies about 180 metres from the edge of Burrill Lake. This is a coastal estuarine lagoon, usually open to the se through a narrow channel. The site has fresh water nearby, together with all the food resources of woodland, estuary and ocean shore. 

Ron Lampert's excavation revealed that occupation began some 20 000 years ago. The discovery that humans had reached the southeast coast by that time revolutionised archaeologists' thinking about the early settlement of Australia. If people were so far south during the last glacial phase, a considerably earlier date had to be envisaged for the entry into the north of the continent. The cultural sequence at Burrill Lake had two major components: an older and a younger industry, similar but not identical to those found at Kenniff Cage. As at Kenniff, there was little technological change over 15 000 years, until about 5000 to 5500 years ago, when new small tool types were added to the tool kit.

Bass Point

Not far north of Burrill Lake near Shllharbour is the open site of Bass Point, excavated by Bowdler. The hill on which the site is located drops sharply away on the seaward side, so it would have been a camp site with a good vantage point. The offshore profile is unusually steep in the region of Bass Point and Burrill Lake, so that even at times of low sea level they would have been no more than 30 kilometres inland. it was, nevertheless, a great surprise to discover that sporadic occupation on the site went back about 17 000 years. The early stone tool industry lasted from about 17000 to 3500 years ago. In the upper, younger levels, there is midden debris including shellfish and the bones of fish, seals, birds and land mammals. by that time the sea had risen, the hill had become a headland and people wee fishing and collecting shellfish locally. 

Bass Point is significant as the only open Pleistocene site yet found on the southeast coast, and one of only two Pleistocene open sites on the whole east coast, the other being Wallen Wallen Creek in southern Queensland.

Wallen Wallen Creek

Discoveries of ancient camps are generally made by chance, and one lucky find of this sort was the discovery of an ancient 'transit camp'. This was used sporadically by Aborigines for over 20 000 years on the west coast of North Stradbroke Island, in Queensland, about 6 kilometres south of Dunwich. While a postgraduate student of the University of Queensland, Robert Neal found shells, animal bones, flaked stone artefacts and charcoal in a 2.5-metre deep deposit at Wallen Wallen Creek, at the foot of a high sand dune about 400 metres inland from the present coastline. Geomorphic interpretation by Errol Stock of Griffith University indicated that the site was formed at the base of a large, well-vegetated sand hill near a water source. Twenty thousand years ago sea level was some 150 metres lower, and what is now Stradbroke Island was part of the mainland, with the coast between 12 and 20 kilometres to the east. The site was then a temporary camping place on the main access route between the sea coast and the river valley and mountains to the west. As the polar ice caps began to melt about 17 000 years ago, the sea gradually rose until it established at its present level some 6500 years ago, transforming what was once a high coastal dunefield into an offshore island. other, even older prehistoric sites in the area may now live deep beneath the waters of Moreton Bay.

In recent times., Aborigines were eating shellfish, fish and a few dugong there. The quantity of artefacts increases markedly in the upper layer, indicating a major rise in human occupation of the offshore islands of Moreton Bay during the past few thousand years; this evidence accords with that from numerous shell middens on other sand islands such as Fraser and Moreton, excavated by archaeologists. 

Cranebrook Terrace

some of the potentially oldest Aboriginal artefacts yet found in Australia came from gravels beside the Nepean river, at the foot of the blue Mountains some 50 kilometres west of Sydney. Their discoverer was a Catholic priest, Father Eugene Stockton, who became interested in the archaeology of the blue Mountains region when at the seminary in Springwood. He first noticed a few apparent stone artefacts in the Canebrook gravel pits in the 1960s, and obtained radiocarbon dates in excess of 31 000 years on logs buried within the gravels. However, doubts were cast on whether the stones were really artefacts or naturifacts (made by natural agencies other than by human hand), and whether the dated wood was firmly associated with the artefacts.

It was not until 1987 that further evidence was gathered and published which indicates that at least one of the stones discovered in the Cranebrook gravel pits are artefacts, fashioned more than 40 000 years ago. The artefacts were found in gravel pits on a terrace between the Nepean river and the village of Cranebrook just north of Penrith. Here a series of different sediments lie one on top of the other. The uppermost is 6 to 9 metres of orange, sandy clay dating between about 40 000 and 45 000 years old, which in places has been stripped off by river activity and replaced with younger (10 000- to 13 000-year-old) but texturally similar overburden. This gravel-free overburden lies on top of a 5- to 7-metre thick gravel layer with an undulating surface.

Stone artefacts have been found in the gravel layer, which was formed at a time when the river was much larger and more active than the present Nepean River. The absolute time of deposition of the gravels is believed to be between about 47 000 and 43 000 years ago, on the basis of eleven radiocarbon dates of huge logs within the gravels, and two thermoluminescence (TL) dates. Logs in the gravels were identified as Casuarina, Eucalyptus and Callistemon (bottlebrush), and pollen analysis indicated that the environment of that period was woodland and mixed grassland similar to the present day.

Seven stone artefacts have been found well within the gravel, one right beside one of the dated logs. They resemble pebble choppers, steep-edged scrapers and other scrapers and core tools, typical in form and size of the old Australian core tool and scraper tradition. They are made of a wide variety of raw material: chert, rhyolite, dacite, quyartzite, ignimbrite and siliceous mudstone. One or two are weathered and may have been rolled along downstream in the river bed before being deposited, but my impression of the others was that they were remarkably fresh and undamaged. The only problem is whether their association with the dated logs is real or only apparent, and some archaeologists prefer to put this site in the 'not proven' category.

A nearby rock-shelter, Shaws Creek KII, has been excavated by Stockton, revealing occupation from 15 000 years ago to the present, and the 2-metre deep excavation has not yet reached bedrock. One particularly noteworthy find associated with a radiocarbon date of 14 700 BP was a chert tool resembling an adze or chisel, apparently bearing traces of resin. If correct, this is the first firm evidence that stone tools such as adzes were fixed into a handle during the Pleistocene period

Lake George

At Lake George on the southern Tablelands, some 100 kilometres inland, a completely different type of evidence has been suggested to show that humans were there more than 100 000 years ago. The evidence comes from a core drilled out of the lake sediments by Gurdip Singh.

Microscopic pollen grains and charcoal particles in the upper 8.6 metres of the core - covering the past 350 000 years - have been analysed and provide the longest continuous record of vegetation and fire history in Australia. The base of the 72-metre core is estimated to represent the years between 4.2 and 7 million years ago. The sediments extend down still further, to an estimated 134 metres, which means that the formation of the Lake George basin must be reckoned to date to 20 million years ago. The sediments indicat4e alternating lake-full to lake-dry conditions over the past 750 000 years, reflecting the effects of changes from eight glacial to eight interglacial periods.

Pollen analysis (palynology) is used to establish the kinds of plants that grew in an area in the past. Because the pollen grains of different plants have different forms, it is possible to identify the plants from which they came. It is not easy, however, to find out how many plants are represented, since different plants produce different quantities of pollen. yet presence and absence of particular species can be determined, together with an approximate idea of relative frequencies. The sequence shows that in zone F there was a huge increase in the amount of charcoal in the sediment, indicating a much higher incidence of fires than before, together with reduction in the number of fire-incidence of fires than before, together with a reduction in the number of fire-sensitive species and the first expansion of fire-tolerant Eucalyptus-dominated vegetation. This change in vegetation has continued to the present day. One key question is, what sparked it off? Singh suggested that it was humans with their fire-sticks, and that nothing except human agency can explain the sudden change to a fire-tolerant vegetation dominated by eucalyptus. Aborigines used fire not only for cooking, but also as a hunting weapon, igniting the bush both to drive out game and to make fresh new grass spring up to abstract browsing animals. This increase in the use of fire would account both for the change in vegetation and the great increase in charcoal remains washed or blown into the lake sediments at this period. 

The other key question is, when did this change take place? The dating of the zone F section of the core was by extrapolation, and Singh believed it was during the last interglacial period about 120 000 years ago, but this has been disputed by Richard Wright, who argues convincingly for a date of about 60 000 years ago. This is a much more feasible time, fitting well with evidence from the Kakadu sites. In a gussy (plate 13) on what would have been the lake shore during the ice age, some small amorphous quartz flakes were found by Jones in 1980, in acolian sands radiometrically dated by Coventry to 22 000 to 26 000 BP. Further discoveries were made by Jones and Allen in 1983, in a perched sand dune site on top of Butmaroo Hill near the highest former eastern shore of the lake. They found 'stratified stone artifacts throughout the 1.5. of sand deposit which contained a micro-blade industry dated to 4 kyr (thousand years) in its uppermost 12-2- cm. and with its base believed on extrapolation from the six available radiocarbon dates to date back to at least 10 kyr'. This sand lay on a lag deposit of quartz and heavily metamorphosed volcanic rocks (resting that flakes had been deliberately detached). In the tailings of sand-mining operations around the site and on the lake floor, several large, heavily weathered artefacts of metamorphosed volcanics have been found. They consist of large flakes with rough lateral retouch, flaked cobbles and dome-shaped "horsehoof" cores (or core tools). There is strong presumptive evidence that these date from the terminal Pleistocene if not earlier.'

Birrigai Shelter

At the height of the last glaciation occasional hunting parties were camping on the northern fringes of the Australian Alps, according to evidence in the small montane Birrigai rock-shelter in tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in the Australian Capital Territory, south of Canberra. This granite shelter lies at 730 metres above sea level and would then have been above the tree line, but was apparently use3d occasionally to provide a dry roof over hunters' heads from 21 000 years ago onwards. Average annual temperature during the last glacial phase is estimated on palynological and geomorphological evidence to have been about 6 to 7 degrees Celsius lower than today. The glacial climate in the Canberra region then would have been rather like that on the top of Mount Kosciusko today - that is, snowbound in midwinter, but habitable, if rather cold and windy, in summer. Hunters probably came up in summer for hunting on what were then treeless plains, possibly carrying a high biomass of macropods, emus, plains turkeys and the like. They doubtless used Birrigai rock-shelter because of its superb weatherproof qualities. During my first season of excavation in November 19083, we had terrible cold, wet weather and it even snowed! the small 'lean-to' shelter is formed by one giant block resting on another and is open at both ends. This acts like a wind tunnel, but at the same time it was the driest place in the whole region. When blocked off the the west of the shelter with a tarpaulin, it became a snug camping place for up to a dozen people.

The 1.5 cubic metres of earth floor excavated produced only seventy stone artefacts, but these were relatively evenly spread from top to bottom in the deposit (plate 14). all artefacts were small (77 percent are less than 2 centimetres long), and the Pleistocene ones (flakes, chips, core fragments and bipolar pieces) are almost all of quartz. Microscopic analysis by Richard Fullager of residues left on the working edges revealed, in a level dated between 16 000 and 21 000 BP, a residue of plant material, suggesting plant processing on one retouched quartz flake (Birrigai's largest tool at 5 centimetres long), and step-scarring and a residue of bone collagen on another piece of quartz, interpreted as a possible bone scraping tool. Charcoal from a definite hearth feature gave a date of 16 000 BP. The combination of hearth stones and a depression suggests that this was a 'ground oven' used as a food preparation cooking fire, as opposed to a warming, sleeping on other type of fire. Associated with the hearth were a piece of red ochre and a quartz core fragment with blood and skin collagen on the edge, suggesting butchering of animal carcasses. Another quartz bipolar tool has blood on it, not on the working edge but on the side, in the exact spot where a stonemason who mis-aimed 10 000 years ago would have hit his thumb!

The antiquity of the occupation at Brirrigai has been accepted by authorities such as Rhys Jones, who visited the excavation and later described its 'stratified stone tools at the base dated securely to 21 kyr', but Bowdler and Veth are sceptical of the 21 000 BP date, evidently because of the small number of artefacts and shallow deposit. However, an 18 000 BP date lends support to the earlier one, and other Pleistocene sites such as Nurrabullgin and Fern Cave have equally few artefacts and shallow deposits because of extremely low sedimentation rates. Moreover, the Birrigai evidence showing colonisation of the mountain valleys just prior to the last glacial maximum no longer seems so remarkable, when we now know that people in Tasmania were hunting wallabies within sight of glaciers right through the peak of the glacial period - see next Web page:

An Ice Age - Walk to Tasmania

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