Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago



The time of arrival of people in Australia is an unresolved question. It is relevant to debates about when modern humans first dispersed out of Africa and when their descendants incorporated genetic material from Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly other hominins. Humans have also been implicated in the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. Here we report the results of new excavations conducted at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in northern Australia. Artefacts in primary depositional context are concentrated in three dense bands, with the stratigraphic integrity of the deposit demonstrated by artefact refits and by optical dating and other analyses of the sediments. Human occupation began around 65,000 years ago, with a distinctive stone tool assemblage including grinding stones, ground ochres, reflective additives and ground-edge hatchet heads. This evidence sets a new minimum age for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.

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Figure 1: Site location and stratigraphy.
Figure 2: Artefacts from the 2012 and 2015 excavations.
Figure 3: Bayesian model of the single-grain OSL ages.


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The authors are grateful to the custodians of Madjedbebe, the Mirarr Senior Traditional Owners (Y. Margarula and M. Nango) and our research partners (Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation) for permission to carry out this research and publish this paper. We are also grateful to J. O’Brien and D. Vadiveloo for assistance in the field. This research was funded through Australian Research Council grants and fellowships to C.C., B.M., L.W., R.F., M.Sm. (DP110102864), B.M. (FT140100101), Z.J. (DP1092843, FT150100138), R.G.R. (FL130100116), T.Ma. (DE150101597) and L.J.A. (FT130100195), and through Australian Postgraduate Awards to X.C., E.H., S.A.F. and K.L. B.M. was also supported by a DAAD Fellowship (A/14/01370), a UW-UQ Trans-Pacific Fellowship, and UW Royalty Research Fellowship (65-4630). S.A.F. was also supported by an AINSE Postgraduate Research Award (11877) and a Wenner Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant (Gr.9260). Radiocarbon analyses were partly funded by Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering grants 13/003 and 15/001 to C.C., X.C., S.A.F. and K.N. We acknowledge financial support from the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) for the Centre for Accelerator Science at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. A L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship to Z.J. supported the re-dating of the original sediment samples. Part of this work was undertaken on the powder diffraction beamline at the Australian Synchrotron. We thank E. Grey, R. MacPhail, S. Mentzer, C. Miller, M. Svob, and X. Villagran for assistance with geoarchaeological analysis, T. Lachlan and Y. Jafari for help with OSL dating and related illustrations, and C. Matheson and J. Field for assistance with residue analysis.

Author information




C.C., B.M., R.F., L.W. and M.Sm. obtained funding and conducted the excavation. Z.J. performed the OSL dating and Bayesian modelling. L.J.A. conducted the blind OSL dating study. Q.H. conducted 14C dating. C.C. and B.M. analysed the stone artefacts. J.M. performed the refitting. B.M. and K.L. conducted geoarchaeological investigations. T.Ma. performed vertebrate faunal identification. D.C. analysed the ground ochre assemblage. R.F. and E.H. analysed the stone artefact usewear and residues. S.A.F., X.C. and A.F. analysed the archaeobotanical assemblage. K.C. performed microscopy on ART9 mica. K.N. made the map in Fig. 1 and performed analysis of marine transgression for the study region. J.H. conducted the pXRF analyses. J.H. and H.E.A.B. collected and analysed the pigment samples using synchrotron powder XRD. J.S. summarized palaeoclimate data for northern Australia. L.L., M.Sa., M.P., G.P. and T.Mu. performed isotopic and sediment analyses. C.P. performed skeletal analysis and assisted with in-field excavation processing. C.C., Z.J., B.M. and R.G.R. wrote the main text with specialist contributions from other authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Chris Clarkson or Zenobia Jacobs.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks R. Dennell, C. Marean, E. J. Rhodes and J.-L. Schwenninger for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Madjedbebe rock shelter.

a, Section drawing of the southwest profile wall, showing major stratigraphic divisions and sediment descriptions, and the location of the 1973, 1989, 2012 and 2015 excavation trenches. Light grey dots show plotted artefacts. b, Photograph of the site during the 2015 excavation. c, Detail of the site ground surface during ground penetrating radar survey, before the 2012 excavation.

Extended Data Figure 2 Plot of artefact densities and assemblage composition as a function of depth below ground surface.

a, Plot of density of artefacts found during the 2012 and 2015 excavation seasons in squares from the C and B rows. Artefacts are shown by type (axe flake, ochred slab, axe or axe fragment, grinding stone, ground ochre, and flake or core) superimposed on the southwest profile wall (Extended Data Fig. 1). Phases represent the three dense artefact bands (see text and Supplementary Information). b, Plot of artefact density and raw material type with depth, based on plotted artefacts and residue found in the 7-mm sieves for square B6. c, Plot of technological changes with depth, based on plotted artefacts and residue found in the 7-mm sieves for square B6.

Extended Data Figure 3 Grinding stones, residues and usewear of specimens collected from phase 2 at Madjedbebe.

af, Specimen UPGS36 (from 2012 spit 44) and residues from processing of red pigment. a, Ground surface. Scale bar, 2 cm. b, Plan view. c, Ground surface at low magnification (location 1 in a) showing levelled grains. df, Red pigment residues at high magnification. d, Location 2 in a. Scale bar, 0.5 mm. e, f, Location 2 in a. Scale bars, 0.02 mm. gk, Specimen GS39 (from 2012 spit 37) and usewear, used for processing of seeds. g, Ground surface. Scale bar, 4 cm. h, Plan view. i, Ground surface at low magnification (location 1 in g) showing levelled and rounded grains. j, Bright use-polish with striations (arrows, location 2 in g). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. k, Bright, reticulated use-polish (location 3 in g). Scale bar, 0.05 mm. l, Specimen GS73 (from 2015 spit 52): bright, undulating use-polish, with red pigment residues in the lowest regions of the grains (circle, location 1 in s). Scale bar, 0.05 mm. mr, Specimen GS79 (from 2015 spit 54) used for the manufacture and sharpening of stone hatchets. m, Plan view. Scale bar, 5 cm. n, Ground surface. o, Side view. p, Angled view, upper surface is ground, note the flake margins. q, Location 2 in p showing flake scars. r, Ground surface at low magnification (location 1 in n) showing levelled grains and deep striations (arrows). sv, Fragment of GS73 with deep partial grooves: s, Ground surface. Scale bar, 5 cm. t, Side view. u, Plan view. v, Ground surface at low magnification, note the deep striations and red surface staining (location 2 in u).

Extended Data Figure 4 Dolerite edge-ground hatchet heads showing plan and end views.

Main scale bars are 5 cm. Vertical double-ended arrows indicate the haft zones. a, EGH7 from unit C1/35 (base of phase 3) with shouldered or stemmed design for a haft. Two upper insets show (left; scale bar, 2 mm) striations from grinding and (right; scale bar, 0.2 mm) polish from use. The lower insets show (left; scale bar, 0.2 mm) wear from haft movement and (right; scale bar, 0.01 mm) detail of the polish (smooth white zones) and possible resin (red smears with black spots). b, EGH1 from unit C1/33 (phase 4) with large flake scarring and cracks within the haft zone. c, EGH8 from unit C1/38 (base of phase 3) with a slight waist design for a haft. d, EGH6 from C1/33 (phase 3) with grooved design for a haft and red stain from mixing pigment (ellipse). The upper inset (scale bar, 2 mm) shows traces of use (vertical arrows) and grinding (horizontal arrows). The lower inset (scale bar, 0.2 mm), from inside the groove, shows polish from haft movement.

Extended Data Figure 5 Hearth SF56 with grindstones and carbonized Pandanus drupe from a hearth in spit C2/41.

a, Photograph of hearth pit SF56 in C4/35 (phase 3) showing in situ grinding stones in a hearth with elevated magnetic susceptibility readings, and a probable cache of ground ochre, grindstones and hatchet heads against the back wall. b, d, Scanning electron microscope images of modern reference specimen 2639, Pandanus spiralis drupe (13× and 90× magnifications, respectively). c, e, Photographs of archaeological specimen C2/41(1), Pandanus sp. drupe. Note the seed locule, vascular bundles and flaring ground tissue apparent on both modern reference and archaeological specimens.

Extended Data Figure 6 Summary of Madjedbebe silcrete artefact refitting analysis.

a, Selection of refitting and conjoining artefacts; scale bar intervals, 10 mm. b, Histogram showing the distribution of vertical distances between refitting artefact fragments. The median vertical refit distance is 0.10 m, with a median absolute deviation of 0.13 m. c, Histogram showing the distribution of straight-line distances between refitted artefact fragments. The median straight-line refit distance is 0.44 m, with a median absolute deviation of 0.47 m. d, Plan view showing the refitted artefacts at the locations where they were found at the time of excavation. Blue lines connect refitted pieces. Annotations on the axes show the excavation grid coordinates. e, Polar plot of horizontal orientations of the vector between pairs of refitted pieces. The Rayleigh test result indicates a significantly non-random distribution. For most refits, both artefacts in the refit pair were recovered from the same horizontal plane. f, Section view showing the refitted artefacts at the locations where they were found at the time of excavation. Blue lines connect refitted pieces. g, Plot of artefact mass by depth in square B6: each point represents one artefact, the blue line is a robust locally weighted regression, and the grey band is the 95% confidence region for the LOWESS regression line.

Extended Data Figure 7 Summary of Madjedbebe geoarchaeological analysis.

a, Particle size distributions of bulk samples extracted from the southwest wall of square D3 (left) and constrained cluster analysis dendrogram (right). Blue horizontal lines indicate the artefact discard phases, calibrated for squares C3 and D3. b, Distributions of key geoarchaeological variables measured on bulk samples extracted from the southwest wall of square D3. Magnetic susceptibility units are 10−7 m3 kg−1; VPDB is Vienna Pee Dee Belemnite, an international reference standard for δ13C analysis. c, Scanning electron microscope images of sand grains from 1.35 m (top) and 3.20 m (bottom) depth below surface (bs). d, Photograph of the northeast section of the 2012 excavation area. Labels in white circles indicate locations of micromorphology samples. e, Micromorphology sample NE1 from the midden deposit showing shell fragment (red arrow), charcoal (green arrow) and root fragment (blue arrow). f, Micromorphology sample NE2 from the lower midden deposits showing linked-capped grains (red arrow), silt (blue arrow) and voids (green arrow). g, Micromorphology sample NE3 from below the midden showing weathered charcoal fragment with clay infill (red arrow). h, Micromorphology sample NE4 showing an extensively weathered charcoal fragment. i, Micromorphology sample NE5 showing grain with silty coating (red arrow), grain with clay coating (blue arrow) and grain with no coating (green arrow). j, Micromorphology sample from the C2/36 hearth feature showing a well-preserved charcoal fragment. k, Micromorphology sample from the southwest section of square D3 (2.18–2.25 m depth below surface) showing linked-capped grains (red arrows), similar to sample NE2. l, Micromorphology sample from the southwest section of square D3 (2.22–2.29 m depth below surface) showing packing voids (green arrow) and a polymineral grain with linked-capping joining it with smaller grains (red arrows).

Extended Data Figure 8 Site plan, OSL sample locations and ages.

a, Two-dimensional site plan of excavated squares, showing the locations of the OSL sample series. Grey-shaded squares represent squares from which charcoal samples were collected for 14C dating. b, Three-dimensional site plan, showing both horizontal and vertical positions of the OSL sample series. Samples shown in the same colour were taken from section walls with the same orientation. cf, Photographs of the sedimentary deposit for each of the walls from which OSL samples were collected, together with the OSL ages (uncertainties at 68.2% confidence level) and the lowest dense artefact band (phase 2) demarcated by the stippled lines. c, Southwest wall of square B5. d, Southwest wall of square B6. e, Northeast wall of square E2. f, Northwest wall of square C4. g, Comparison of 14C and OSL ages (uncertainties at 95.4% confidence level) obtained in this study from the upper 2 m of deposit.

Extended Data Figure 9 OSL data for individual sand-sized grains of quartz.

ak, Radial plots of single-grain De values for each sample within the lowest dense artefact band (phase 2). a, SW4C; b, SW3C; c, NW14; d, SW13A; e, SW2C; f, NW13; g, SW11A; h, NW12; i, NW11; j, SW10A; k, NW9B. l, Radial plot of De values for single grains of sample NE1, collected from the shell midden at the top of the sequence. The grey bands in each plot are centred on the weighted mean De determined for each dose population using the central age model, after the rejection of outliers (shown as open triangles). m, OSL decay curves for a representative sample of grains from SW13A that span the range of observed luminescence sensitivities (that is, their relative brightness). The inset plot shows the same curves on a normalized y axis. n, Corresponding dose response curves for the grains shown in m.

Extended Data Figure 10 Verification of previous luminescence ages and inter-laboratory comparison.

a, Schematic diagram of square B4 (modified after ref. 13) showing the relative positions of four samples for which ages have been reported previously13,15,16 and that were re-measured and evaluated in this study. be, Radial plots of single-grain De values measured in this study for these four samples. b, KTL165; c, KTL164; d, KTL158; e, KTL162. The grey bands in each plot are centred on the weighted mean De determined for each dose population using the central age model, after the rejection of outliers (shown as open triangles). f, Previously published De values, total dose rates and ages, together with the revised dose rates and ages (values in parentheses; see Supplementary Information for explanation) and the new single-grain OSL De values (based on the data shown in be) and ages obtained in this study. gj, Radial plots of single-grain De values for the four samples measured independently in two laboratories (University of Wollongong, UOW; University of Adelaide, UA). g, Sample 1 (SW13A); h, Sample 2 (SW11A); i, Sample 3 (SW7A); j, Sample 4 (SW5A). Filled circles and open triangles are De values obtained at UA and UOW, respectively. The grey bands in each plot are centred on the weighted mean De determined using the central age model for each dose population measured at UA. k, Comparison of weighted mean De and overdispersion (OD) values for the same samples measured at UA and UOW (‘A’) using a preheat combination of 260 °C for 10 s (PH1) and 220 °C for 0 s (PH2), and at UOW (‘B’) using a preheat combination of 220 °C for 10 s (PH1) and 160 °C for 5 s (PH2). l, High-resolution gamma-ray spectrometry results obtained at UA and the beta and gamma dose rates and OSL ages calculated from these data, compared to the beta and gamma dose rates and OSL ages obtained independently at UOW (using preheat combination ‘A’ for De determination).

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Supplementary Information

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Clarkson, C., Jacobs, Z., Marwick, B. et al. Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago. Nature 547, 306–310 (2017).

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