Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago

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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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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


  1. School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Chris Clarkson
    • , Kelsey Lowe
    • , Xavier Carah
    • , S. Anna Florin
    • , Jessica McNeil
    • , Delyth Cox
    • , Tiina Manne
    • , Andrew Fairbairn
    • , Kate Connell
    •  & Kasih Norman
  2. Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • Zenobia Jacobs
    •  & Richard G. Roberts
  3. Centre for Archaeological Science, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • Zenobia Jacobs
    • , Ben Marwick
    • , Richard Fullagar
    • , Richard G. Roberts
    •  & Elspeth Hayes
  4. Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Ben Marwick
    • , Lindsey Lyle
    • , Makiah Salinas
    • , Mara Page
    • , Gayoung Park
    •  & Tessa Murphy
  5. Nulungu Research Institute, University of Notre Dame, Broome, Western Australia 6725, Australia

    • Lynley Wallis
  6. Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Mike Smith
  7. Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02143, USA

    • Jessica McNeil
  8. 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
  9. Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Lucas Heights, New South Wales 2234, Australia

    • Quan Hua
  10. Place, Evolution, Rock Art, Heritage Unit, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland 4222, Australia

    • Jillian Huntley
  11. Australian Synchrotron, 800 Blackburn Road, Clayton, Victoria 3168, Australia

    • Helen E. A. Brand
  12. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • James Shulmeister
  13. Archaeology and Natural History, School of Culture, History and Language, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Colin Pardoe


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Chris Clarkson or Zenobia Jacobs.

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.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Information Sections 1-10, Supplementary Tables 1-22 and additional references.


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