Archaeology: Discovery of ancient Australian artefacts reveal Aboriginal cultural sites

The first underwater Aboriginal archaeological sites have been discovered off northwest Australia dating back thousands of years ago when the current seabed was dry land. The discoveries were made through a series of archaeological and geophysical surveys in the Dampier Archipelago.

The Aboriginal artefacts discovered off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia represent Australia’s oldest known underwater archaeology.

Today we announce the discovery of two underwater archeological sites that were once on dry land

Professor Jonathan Benjamin

An international team of archaeologists found hundreds of stone tools made by Aboriginal peoples, including grinding stones.

The ancient underwater sites provide fascinating new evidence of Aboriginal ways of life from when the seabed was dry land, due to lower sea levels, thousands of years ago.

The submerged cultural landscapes represent what is known today as Sea Country to many Indigenous Australians, who have a deep cultural, spiritual and historical connection to these underwater environments.

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Associate Professor Jonathan Benjamin who is the Maritime Archeology Program Coordinator at Flinders University’s College, said: “Today we announce the discovery of two underwater archaeological sites that were once on dry land.

“This is an exciting step for Australian archaeology as we integrate maritime and Indigenous archaeology and draw connections between land and sea.

“Australia is a massive continent but few people realise that more than 30 percent of its landmass was drowned by sea-level rise after the last ice age.

“This means a huge amount of the archaeological evidence documenting the lives of Aboriginal people is now underwater.”

“Now we finally have the first proof that at least some of this archaeological evidence survived the process of sea-level rise.

“The ancient coastal archaeology is not lost for good; we just haven’t found it yet.

“These new discoveries are a first step toward exploring the last real frontier of Australian archaeology.

The dive team mapped 269 artefacts at Cape Bruguieres in shallow water at depths down to 8ft (2.4m) below modern sea level.

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Radiocarbon dating and analysis of sea-level changes show the site is at least 7,000 years old.

The second site at Flying Foam Passage includes an underwater freshwater spring 46ft (14m) below sea level.

This site is estimated to be at least 8,500 years old.

Both sites may be much older as the dates represent minimum ages only; they may be even more ancient.

The team of archaeologists and geoscientists employed predictive modelling and various underwater and remote sensing techniques, including scientific diving methods, to confirm the location of sites and the presence of artefacts.

Chelsea Wiseman from Flinders University who has been working on the DHSC project as part of PhD research, said: “At one point there would have been dry land stretching out 160 km from the current shoreline.

“That land would have been owned and lived on by generations of Aboriginal people.

“Our discovery demonstrates that underwater archaeological material has survived sea-level rise, and although these sites are located in relatively shallow water, there will likely be more in deeper water offshore.”

Dr Michael O’Leary, a marine geomorphologist at The University of Western Australia, added: “These territories that are now underwater harboured favourable environments for Indigenous settlements including freshwater, ecological diversity and opportunities to exploit marine resources which would have supported relatively high population densities.”

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