Article

Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago

  • Nature volume 547, pages 306310 (20 July 2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nature22968
  • Download Citation
Received:
Accepted:
Published:

Abstract

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.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:

    $199

    Subscribe

Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.

References

  1. 1.

    et al. The Simons Genome Diversity Project: 300 genomes from 142 diverse populations. Nature 538, 201–206 (2016)

  2. 2.

    et al. A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia. Nature 538, 207–214 (2016)

  3. 3.

    et al. Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia. Nature 538, 238–242 (2016)

  4. 4.

    et al. Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature 468, 1053–1060 (2010)

  5. 5.

    , , , & The date of interbreeding between Neandertals and modern humans. PLoS Genet. 8, e1002947 (2012)

  6. 6.

    et al. Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia. Nature 514, 445–449 (2014)

  7. 7.

    et al. Ancient gene flow from early modern humans into Eastern Neanderthals. Nature 530, 429–433 (2016)

  8. 8.

    et al. Humans, megafauna and environmental change in tropical Australia. J. Quat. Sci 28, 439–452 (2013)

  9. 9.

    et al. Climate change not to blame for late Quaternary megafauna extinctions in Australia. Nat. Commun. 7, 10511 (2016)

  10. 10.

    et al. What caused extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna of Sahul? Proc. R. Soc. B 283, 20152399 (2016)

  11. 11.

    et al. Humans rather than climate the primary cause of Pleistocene megafaunal extinction in Australia. Nat. Commun. 8, 14142 (2017)

  12. 12.

    et al. Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia. Nature 539, 280–283 (2016)

  13. 13.

    , & Thermoluminescence dating of a 50,000-year-old human occupation site in northern Australia. Nature 345, 153–156 (1990)

  14. 14.

    et al. The human colonisation of Australia: optical dates of 53,000 and 60,000 years bracket human arrival at Deaf Adder Gorge, Northern Territory. Quat. Sci. Rev. 13, 575–583 (1994)

  15. 15.

    & Luminescence dating of sediments: new light on the human colonisation of Australia. Aust. Aborig. Stud. 1994, 2–17 (1994)

  16. 16.

    et al. Single-aliquot and single-grain optical dating confirm thermoluminescence age estimates at Malakunanja II rockshelter in northern Australia. Anc. TL 16, 19–24 (1998)

  17. 17.

    et al. Early human occupation at Devil’s Lair, southwestern Australia 50,000 years ago. Quat. Res. 55, 3–13 (2001)

  18. 18.

    et al. New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature 421, 837–840 (2003)

  19. 19.

    & Dating the colonization of Sahul (Pleistocene Australia–New Guinea): a review of recent research. J. Archaeol. Sci. 31, 835–853 (2004)

  20. 20.

    & Both half right: updating the evidence for dating first human arrivals in Sahul. Aust. Archaeol. 79, 86–108 (2014)

  21. 21.

    & The process, biotic impact, and global implications of the human colonization of Sahul about 47,000 years ago. J. Archaeol. Sci. 56, 73–84 (2015)

  22. 22.

    et al. The archaeology, chronology and stratigraphy of Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II): a site in northern Australia with early occupation. J. Hum. Evol. 83, 46–64 (2015)

  23. 23.

    et al. Early human occupation of a maritime desert, Barrow Island, north-west Australia. Quat. Sci. Rev. 168, 19–29 (2017)

  24. 24.

    & Alligator Rivers Environmental Fact Finding Study: Report of the Archaeological Survey (Australian Government, Canberra, 1973)

  25. 25.

    , & Stratigraphy and statistics at Malakunanja II: reply to Hiscock. Archaeol. Ocean. 25, 125–129 (1990)

  26. 26.

    How old are the artefacts at Malakunanja II? Archaeol. Ocean. 25, 122–124 (1990)

  27. 27.

    50,000 year-old site in Australia—is it really that old? Aust. Archaeol. 31, 93 (1990)

  28. 28.

    & When did humans first arrive in greater Australia and why is it important to know? Evol. Anthropol. 6, 132–146 (1998)

  29. 29.

    Dating the human colonization of Australia: radiocarbon and luminescence revolutions. Proc. Br. Acad. 99, 37–65 (1999)

  30. 30.

    & in Humanity from African Naissance to Coming Millennia: Colloquia in Human Biology and Palaeoanthropology (eds , , & ) 239–248 (Firenze Univ. Press & Witwatersrand Univ. Press, 2001)

  31. 31.

    , , & Movement of lithics by trampling: an experiment in the Madjedbebe sediments, northern Australia. J. Archaeol. Sci. 79, 73–85 (2017)

  32. 32.

    et al. Radiocarbon dating of “old” charcoal using a wet oxidation, stepped-combustion procedure. Radiocarbon 41, 127–140 (1999)

  33. 33.

    et al. The efficiency of charcoal decontamination for radiocarbon dating by three pre-treatments — ABOX, ABA and hypy. Quat. Geochronol. 22, 25–32 (2014)

  34. 34.

    , & Optical dating of sediments. Nature 313, 105–107 (1985)

  35. 35.

    & Advances in optically stimulated luminescence dating of individual grains of quartz from archeological deposits. Evol. Anthropol. 16, 210–223 (2007)

  36. 36.

    et al. Optical dating in archaeology: thirty years in retrospect and grand challenges for the future. J. Archaeol. Sci. 56, 41–60 (2015)

  37. 37.

    et al. Earliest evidence for ground-edge axes: 35,400±410 cal BP from Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land. Aust. Archaeol. 71, 66–69 (2010)

  38. 38.

    , , & World’s earliest ground-edge axe production coincides with human colonisation of Australia. Aust. Archaeol. 82, 2–11 (2016)

  39. 39.

    et al. Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature 532, 366–369 (2016)

  40. 40.

    et al. Genomic analysis of Andamanese provides insights into ancient human migration into Asia and adaptation. Nat. Genet. 48, 1066–1070 (2016)

  41. 41.

    et al. Progress in radiocarbon target preparation at the Antares AMS Centre. Radiocarbon 43, 275–282 (2001)

  42. 42.

    et al. The ANTARES AMS facility at ANSTO. Nucl. Instrum. Methods Phys. Res. B 223–224, 109–115 (2004)

  43. 43.

    et al. SHCal13 Southern Hemisphere calibration, 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1889–1903 (2013)

  44. 44.

    & Recent and planned developments of the program OxCal. Radiocarbon 55, 720–730 (2013)

  45. 45.

    et al. Towards an accurate and precise chronology for the colonization of Australia: the example of Riwi, Kimberley, Western Australia. PLoS ONE 11, e0160123 (2016)

  46. 46.

    & Assessment of beta dose-rate using a GM multicounter system. Int. J. Rad. Appl. Instrum. D 14, 187–191 (1988)

  47. 47.

    & An improved single grain OSL chronology for the sedimentary deposits from Diepkloof Rockshelter, Western Cape, South Africa. J. Archaeol. Sci. 63, 175–192 (2015)

  48. 48.

    & Cosmic ray contributions to dose rates for luminescence and ESR dating: large depths and long-term time variations. Radiat. Meas. 23, 497–500 (1994)

  49. 49.

    , & Comparison of 14C and luminescence chronologies at Puritjarra rock shelter, central Australia. Quat. Sci. Rev. 16, 299–320 (1997)

  50. 50.

    Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 51, 337–360 (2009)

  51. 51.

    et al. Bayesian methods applied to the interpretation of multiple OSL dates: high precision sediment ages from Old Scatness Broch excavations, Shetland Isles. Quat. Sci. Rev. 22, 1231–1244 (2003)

  52. 52.

    & Statistical aspects of equivalent dose and error calculation and display in OSL dating: an overview and some recommendations. Quat. Geochronol. 11, 1–27 (2012)

  53. 53.

    Dealing with outliers and offsets in radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon 51, 1023–1045 (2009)

  54. 54.

    An experiment in water-sieving. Anatol. Stud. 21, 59–64 (1971)

  55. 55.

    Plants and people in Ancient Anatolia. Biblic. Archaeol. 58, 68–81 (1995)

  56. 56.

    , & IAWA list of microscopic features for hardwood identification. IAWA Bull. 10, 219–332 (1989)

  57. 57.

    , , & IAWA list of microscopic features for softwood identification. IAWA J. 25, 1–70 (2004)

  58. 58.

    & Reconstructing woodland vegetation and its exploitation by past societies, based on the analysis and interpretation of archaeological wood charcoal macro-remains. Environ. Archaeol. 10, 1–18 (2005)

  59. 59.

    et al. Human adaptation and plant use in highland New Guinea 49,000 to 44,000 years ago. Science 330, 78–81 (2010)

  60. 60.

    in Tropical Archaeobotany: Applications and New Developments (ed. ) 51–64 (Routledge, 1994)

  61. 61.

    Archaeological Parenchyma (Archetype Publications, 2000)

  62. 62.

    , , & Colour Signature Analysis: Using objective colour quantification techniques towards refitting lithic assemblages. 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (2015)

  63. 63.

    Prepared Core Technology at Kudu Koppie, South Africa and the Modern Human Behaviour Debate. MA thesis, Univ. Calgary (2008)

  64. 64.

    et al. Using soil magnetic properties to determine the onset of Pleistocene human settlement at Gledswood Shelter 1, northern Australia. Geoarchaeology 31, 211–228 (2016)

  65. 65.

    , , & A multi-proxy study of anthropogenic sedimentation and human occupation of Gledswood Shelter 1: exploring an interior sandstone rockshelter in Northern Australia. Archaeol. Anthropol. Sci. (2016)

  66. 66.

    Taphonomy or paint recipe? In situ portable X-ray fluorescence analysis of two anthropomorphic motifs from the Woronora plateau, New South Wales. Aust. Archaeol. 75, 78–94 (2012)

  67. 67.

    et al. Evidence for Pleistocene seed grinding at Lake Mungo, south-eastern Australia. Archaeol. Oceania 50, 3–19 (2015)

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Affiliations

  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

Authors

  1. Search for Chris Clarkson in:

  2. Search for Zenobia Jacobs in:

  3. Search for Ben Marwick in:

  4. Search for Richard Fullagar in:

  5. Search for Lynley Wallis in:

  6. Search for Mike Smith in:

  7. Search for Richard G. Roberts in:

  8. Search for Elspeth Hayes in:

  9. Search for Kelsey Lowe in:

  10. Search for Xavier Carah in:

  11. Search for S. Anna Florin in:

  12. Search for Jessica McNeil in:

  13. Search for Delyth Cox in:

  14. Search for Lee J. Arnold in:

  15. Search for Quan Hua in:

  16. Search for Jillian Huntley in:

  17. Search for Helen E. A. Brand in:

  18. Search for Tiina Manne in:

  19. Search for Andrew Fairbairn in:

  20. Search for James Shulmeister in:

  21. Search for Lindsey Lyle in:

  22. Search for Makiah Salinas in:

  23. Search for Mara Page in:

  24. Search for Kate Connell in:

  25. Search for Gayoung Park in:

  26. Search for Kasih Norman in:

  27. Search for Tessa Murphy in:

  28. Search for Colin Pardoe in:

Contributions

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.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

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

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.