Through Archaeology, our understanding of Indigenous History Continues to Grow

Too often it is forgotten just how long Indigenous people have lived on the Australian continent - over 60,000 years. First Nations peoples knowledge and culture continues strong through Dreamtime stories, art, dance, sacred sites and ancient tools and artefacts. Recently this year, an incredible archaeological discovery has been made. It is in the Kimberley that some of the oldest bone tools in Australia have been dug up. These bone tools have been dated back as far as 46,000 years ago. This proves some academics and scholars’ hypothesis and assumptions wrong about such equipment only existing in southern parts of Australia (Kruijff, 2021).

The ancient bone tools were found in Riwi Cave in Mimbi Country. Photo credit: Jane Balme. Courtesy of the Australian National University, 2021.

This year 8 bone tools were discovered in the Riwi Cave in the community of Mimbi, approximately 100km east of Fitzroy Crossing, WA. Up until now, archaeologists haven’t found tools dating back this far because most have not survived long time periods in the hostile conditions of Northern Australia. The only reason that these delicate bone tools were preserved is because they were located in an alkaline limestone range. These tools show a greater diversity in the organic materials that Indigenous people utilized, not just stone. The oldest bone was a kangaroo fibula which looks like it was used for weaving baskets. There are also indications that others appear to have been used for digging up and making resin (Kruijff, 2021).

The ancient bone tools. Courtesy of Australian National University, 2021.

There was also an earlier discovery made in 2019 where a team of archaeologists, led by the University of Western Australia and in partnership with Traditional Owners, found that the remote Drysdale River catchment has one of the earliest dated sites of Indigenous occupation in the North West of Australia, dating back 50,000 years. The archaeologists also discovered that the area around the site had incredible evidence of Aboriginal occupation during the cold, dry peak of the Ice Age 19,000 years ago. The Director of UWA’s Oceans Institute and lead author of the study, Professor Peter Veth explained to UWA Media that the site had previously been described as a dune feature revealing a break in Aboriginal occupation, however the team’s work:

“...changed that view. This is actually a sedimentary (flood) feature built up over 50,000 years and it shows early, intermediate and more recent occupation by Aboriginal people...There is also a significant body of rock art in the region which suggests repeated occupation and symbolic engagement with these ancestral lands over many thousands of years.”

Site where sedimentary layers were found in Drysdale River catchment, WA. Courtesy of The Australian, 2019.

In 2021, we focus upon healing Country as it is important to preserve not only the environmental integrity of Country but also the sacred sites and artefacts. It is through these tools that we can learn more about how Indigenous people lived as one with the land, keeping country happy and healthy. Too often the importance of these sacred sites and artefacts have been disregarded and destroyed through development. From cave art that is thousands of years old to sacred birthing trees many sites have been damaged. It is for this reason that it is so important that archaeologists work closely with Traditional Owners to ensure that they are following cultural protocol and not hurting sites in any way, shape or form.

There is so much to learn about Indigenous culture as an ancient culture of the world. There is over 60,000 years of history and culture etched into this country, and that is pretty incredible. It is so important that we both acknowledge this from an educational point of view and also work hard to protect the sacred sites, tools and artefacts that are discovered.