Archaeologists have uncovered a treasure trove of ancient artefacts — including evidence of a kangaroo cook-up — inside a remote cave in the far north-west of Australia. The site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region is being leased by mining giant BHP Billiton, but of late a different kind of digging has been going on.
|An archaeological dig is underway in this cave, located about 10km from BHP Billiton’s Mining Area C iron ore mine
in the West Australian Pilbara region [Credit: ABC]
A team of scientists from Scarp Archaeology and BHP, led by Michael Slack, has already uncovered hundreds of ancient artefacts from the small cave in the Hamersley Ranges. “The guys have just uncovered an ancient campfire that, given the depth below the surface and the relationship with the stones around it, we think is potentially around 20,000 years old,” Dr Slack said.
The remnants of the ancient camp fire consist of about 20cm of fine white ash and contains pieces of charcoal which will be sent off for radiocarbon dating. “To make it even better, they found flake stone artefacts right next to the charcoal,” he said. “So we’ll get a really good association between people and the campfire itself, and we’ll have a really clear idea of how old it is.”
It was possible the stone tools were used to cut the meat for the fire, as remnants of kangaroo bone were also found. “We’ll have to have a look at them under the microscope, but they are the pieces that people were using in the site,” Dr Slack said. “A family sitting around a campfire having a meal probably.”
Millennia uncovered centimetres at a time
Using garden trowels, the scientists are painstakingly digging centimetre by centimetre, through thousands of years of history.
|Examples of ancient stone tools uncovered on an archaeological dig in the Hamersley Ranges [Credit: ABC]|
“You only have to look at the ground in this cave and you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of little chips of stone, and these were all coming off stone artefacts that were used as tools,” Dr Slack said. “Some of them just look really pretty, others you can see have lots of evidence of wear on the side. This little cave has hundreds of them on the surface which is very rare for the Pilbara.”
“Quite often the caves have nothing … but they are lying around. We looked at a bunch of caves out here and as soon as we got to this one we thought, ‘wow we really want to come and do some archaeology here’ — it’s going to be really rich and there’s the potential there to tell a good story about what the Aboriginal people were doing here over possibly the last 40,000 years.”
Banjima man and traditional owner Garren Smith, who is working with the archaeologists, said stories about the site have been passed down over time. “It’s good that they are doing this and getting the records, having a look at how old things are,” Mr Smith said. “A lot of other young fellas and older people come out. A lot of stories have been passed on to us and now they’re just finding out about it.”
Mining survey unearthed precious history
The site was discovered a decade ago by a survey party made up of Aboriginal traditional owners working with BHP Billiton as part of their mine compliance requirements. Years later scientists returned to do a test dig in a 1m-square patch, and in the process uncovered a cache of stone tools, some of which are up to 32,000 years old, making it one of the oldest sites in the region.
|Scarp Archaeologist Stephanie Vick documents a find at an archaeological dig in the Pilbara [Credit: ABC]|
“The artefacts span what’s known as the last glacial maximum, or what most people know as the last ice age, between 18000 years ago and 28,000 years ago,” Dr Slack said. “It’s one of those jobs where you never know what the next hour or minute is going to find for you. It might be nothing, but every time you put a little trowel in the ground and touch something, it could be something really exciting,” he says.
Dr Slack, who is also president of the Australian Archaeological Association, said there are around 600 archaeologists working around Australia. Fittingly, the Pilbara excavation coincides with National Archaeology Week, and is just one of many sites of archaeological interest around the country.
“There’s a growing number of these sorts of sites in Australia because there’s been a lot more research that’s been going on over the last 10 years in particular,” he says. But in terms of the size in Australia and the number of places that we know to be over 10,000 years, we are still only looking at dozens of places in the continent, in the period of up to 65,000-70,000 years [old]. So they are really significant places to study and understand.”