Archaeology Places Humans in Australia 120,000-Years-Ago

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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

Sources

Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria – The Moyjil site, south-west Victoria, Australia: excavation of a Last Interglacial charcoal and burnt stone feature — is it a hearth?

SCIMEX – Australia’s Earliest Humans? The Case for Moyjil

The Guardian –  ‘A big jump’: People might have lived in Australia twice as long as we thought

University of Cambridge – Ancient ‘trace’ in Papuan genomes suggests previously unknown expansion out of Africa

Royal Society – Late Cainozoic History of Vegetation, Fire, Lake Levels and Climate, at Lake George, New South Wales, Australia

Monash University – Forest fires illuminate the past

Palaeo – The last glacial cycle from the humid tropics of northeastern Australia:
comparison of a terrestrial and a marine record

Journal of Quaternary Science – Redating the onset of burning at Lynch’s Crater
(North Queensland): implications for human
settlement in Australia

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About Author

Independent investigative journalist and science-minded researcher busy inquiring into human origins and the development of formative human cultures. Writer, speaker and author of 'The Into Africa Theory of Human Evolution'.

12 Comments

  1. Elaine Storch on

    I can remember seeing on an ABC program way back in the Eighties, a program on Australia. The presenter was being shown the Wandjina cave paintings and he asked the Aboriginal Ranger about them and he replied that they were so old they didn’t know about them. He said they called them “rubbish paintings”. At the time I thought it was an interesting comment.

    • I remember the sixties, when the reply to a similar question was ‘we don’t know, it was them fellas who lived here before us’

  2. Pingback: Response to ‘Dark Emu’ – And So It Goes…….

  3. Dave Townsend on

    I can accept that it is entirely possible that ancient people came through at that time. I’m a retired geophysicist and have always kept up an interest in ancient peoples… there is a midden at about 2.5ft down on the corner of my property in Maryborough Vic. with huge mussel shells and no suggestion of a lake or large watercourse nearby, for example.

  4. Laurie Peninton on

    Hi, I have found stone tools in New South Wales Australia which do not look like Aboriginal stone tools. Also, I have found the habitat of these unknown people. I have told many people about the above and the last being the National Geographic. They have all ignored me and if people want to know the truth, then you have research all claims to see if it is fact or not. So as, to know how the people of this world have advanced to the present day.

    • Hi Laurie,

      Thank you for reaching out, I think we spoke long ago. I would be happy to try and be helpful, perhaps you could shoot me an email with some of your favourite examples of artifacts and I will ask a friend to look at them as he is a professional paleontologist. bruce@ancientnews.net

      Best wishes

      Bruce

  5. Speculation. Genetic studies of indigenous Australians links them to Homo sapiens who left Africa < 100k years ago. If conclusive evidence of hominids @ 130k ya emerges then genetics and archaeology would tend toward non Aboriginal species eg Denisovans who interbred with Sapiens and thus formed the current genetic profile. That is, that a different genetic/cultural group predated Aboriginals. The wordIndigenous then would need clarification as Aboriginals are proven to have lived here for ~60k years which surely = being “Indigenous” even if a different homo species lived here for 60k before them.

    • Hello Michael,

      Let me quickly address this point:

      Genetic studies of indigenous Australians links them to Homo sapiens who left Africa < 100k years ago.

      All extant human population are closely genetically related, which should be no surprise to anyone. However, I think you would need to qualify your statement here because the oldest DNA from Africa is a mere 15,000 years old, making it difficult to talk about genetic evidence of anything happening in or near Africa anywhere near to 100kya.

      Best regards

      Bruce

  6. Interesting that they have a problem accepting people were there because of lack of bones … yet until recent times it was not uncommon for bodies to be laid on a mat platform on a tree to bleach and feed the birds. Ancestor worship was not a big deal for aborigines, as seen by the modern refusal to say a deceased person’s name. When they are gone, they are gone. There is no history of memorialising.

    • Hi Shirley,

      The environment and geology in Australia does not tend to favour human fossils, unlike the African rift valley. There is also the vast size of the continent and the little amount of effort to find human sites, thus far. These problems are further compounded by the distrust that Aboriginal people have when it comes to the scientific community (a result of colonial abuses of the recent past and ongoing disputes). There are actually quite a number of sites which provide evidence of human activity 120,000 years ago, I have spoken to scientists investigating these sites and we can expect some exciting papers in the future.

      Best wishes

      Bruce

  7. Peter Sallans on

    A reasonable interpretation of the data would be that other hominids preceded modern humans in Australia, just as they did in Europe, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc.. Australian Aboriginals show some DNA from Denesovians and another hominid, so there could have been some overlap between the arrival of modern humans maybe 60,000 years ago and other hominids who had arrived much earlier.

    The current evidence simply does not support the proposition that it is probable that humans have been in Australia for 120,000 years. That would require substantial evidence to redefine our understanding of the emergence of modern humans and then their expansion across the world. Current evidence still strongly supports the proposition that modern humans emerged in Africa and first travelled out of Africa less than 100,000 years ago.

    The assumption had previously been that the migrating humans who arrived in Australia picked up their hominid DNA along their journey from Africa, but with this evidence suggestive of hominids on the Australian continent 120,000 years ago it may be that the DNA sharing with other hominids occurred after the arrival of the modern humans.

    • Dear Peter,

      The current evidence simply does not support the proposition that it is probable that humans have been in Australia for 120,000 years. That would require substantial evidence to redefine our understanding of the emergence of modern humans and then their expansion across the world. Current evidence still strongly supports the proposition that modern humans emerged in Africa and first travelled out of Africa less than 100,000 years ago.

      There is an issue here in first deciding upon what exactly is a modern human, I tend to agree with the view that we really do not see fully anatomically and behaviorally modern humans until after 70,000 years ago. However, we certainly have Homo sapiens and early modern humans (one name used) widely spread across Eurasia as far back as those populations existed. The evidence placing them outside of Africa prior to 120,000 years ago is now overwhelming, with finds from the Levant, Greece, China and elsewhere.

      The genetic data is very clear, the expansion into Eurasia began after 60,000 years ago, and yet we have modern humans living in Oceania, Southeast & East Asia before that date. This is a fatal problem for recent out of Africa, and one that is gradually becoming more apparent to the interested public. There is simply no way to reconcile the presence of these people within the old paradigm.

      Best regards

      Bruce

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