Abstract

Elucidating the material culture of early people in arid Australia and the nature of their environmental interactions is essential for understanding the adaptability of populations and the potential causes of megafaunal extinctions 50–40 thousand years ago (ka). Humans colonized the continent by 50 ka1,2, but an apparent lack of cultural innovations compared to people in Europe and Africa3,4 has been deemed a barrier to early settlement in the extensive arid zone2,3. Here we present evidence from Warratyi rock shelter in the southern interior that shows that humans occupied arid Australia by around 49 ka, 10 thousand years (kyr) earlier than previously reported2. The site preserves the only reliably dated, stratified evidence of extinct Australian megafauna5,6, including the giant marsupial Diprotodon optatum, alongside artefacts more than 46 kyr old. We also report on the earliest-known use of ochre in Australia and Southeast Asia (at or before 49–46 ka), gypsum pigment (40–33 ka), bone tools (40–38 ka), hafted tools (38–35 ka), and backed artefacts (30–24 ka), each up to 10 kyr older than any other known occurrence7,8. Thus, our evidence shows that people not only settled in the arid interior within a few millennia of entering the continent9, but also developed key technologies much earlier than previously recorded for Australia and Southeast Asia8.

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Acknowledgements

The fieldwork was undertaken with the approval of Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) and the South Australian Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation. We thank for their contributions: A. Coulthard who participated in the fieldwork; R. Frank for his support both in the field and with drawing site maps; field assistants L. Foley and S. Adams; R. Cosgrove provided faunal advice; G. Robertson assisted with residue laboratory work; C. Brown assisted with graphic design, N. Bonney provided botanical advice; M. Raven and J. Webb carried out analyses of ochres; G. Medlin provided faunal advice; B. Barker provided botanical advice; P. Toms provided access to single grain OSL dating assessment; F. Williams for assistance in fieldwork and sample collection for optical dating; A. Couzens, W. Handley and G. Gully for their assistance with micro-CT imaging and photography of megafaunal specimens; and P. Veth, P. Hiscock, B. Cundy, W. Shawcross, S. Webb, J. Magee and D. Witter for critical feedback on the manuscript. This research was supported by Alinta Energy who provided financial support for fieldwork carried out in May 2013. L.A. and G.P. were supported by Australian Research Council Future Fellowship Grants FT130100195 and FT130101728, respectively. V.L. and Centre for Accelerator Science at ANSTO, acknowledge the support of the Australian Government through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). FWS is who - they did the drawing of the lithics and ought to be here.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria 3083, Australia

    • Giles Hamm
    •  & Elizabeth C. Foley
  2. Geomorphic Consultant Gladesville, Sydney 2111, New South Wales, Australia

    • Peter Mitchell
  3. School of Physical Sciences, the Environment Institute and the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia

    • Lee J. Arnold
  4. School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia 5001, Australia

    • Gavin J. Prideaux
    •  & Trevor H. Worthy
  5. Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, School of Physical Sciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia

    • Daniele Questiaux
    •  & Nigel A. Spooner
  6. Defence Science and Technology Group, Edinburgh, Adelaide, South Australia 5111, Australia

    • Nigel A. Spooner
  7. Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Lucas Heights, Sydney, New South Wales 2234, Australia

    • Vladimir A. Levchenko
  8. In the Groove Analysis Pty Ltd, Indooroopilly, Brisbane, Queensland 4068, Australia

    • Birgitta Stephenson
  9. School of Social Sciences, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Birgitta Stephenson
  10. Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, Port Augusta, South Australia 5700, Australia

    • Vincent Coulthard
    • , Clifford Coulthard
    • , Sophia Wilton
    •  & Duncan Johnston

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Contributions

G.H. conceived the project, supervised fieldwork, undertook data collection and analysis. L.A. provided chronological assessment for sediments and undertook the Bayesian age modelling. G.P. and T.W. identified megafaunal remains. D.Q. prepared chronological samples. N.S. advised on the results of chronological assessments. V.L. assisted with radiocarbon dating issues. E.F. provided fieldwork support and assisted in the analysis of stone artefact material. B.S. analysed and reported on stone artefact residues. V.C. and C.C. provided cultural advice and logistical support. C.C., S.W. and D.J assisted with fieldwork. G.H., P.M., L.A., G.P. and T.W. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Giles Hamm.

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