Shell Beads from Mandu Mandu Creek Rock-Shelter, Cape Range Peninsula, Western Australia, Dated before 30,000 B.P

Article excerpt

A site dated well back into the Pleistocene in Western Australia yields modified shells, seen as a further evidence of the attributes of modern humans from an early Australian context.

Recent reviews (Mellars 1989; Marshack 1990) have highlighted the continuing debate over the biological and behavioural origins of modern human populations. Research in Australasia has demonstrated that anatomically modern humans were present by 30,000 b.p. (Wolpoff et at. 1984; Webb 1989), although the region was first colonized at least 40-50,000 b.p. and possibly much earlier (Pearce & Barbetti 1981; Groube et al. 1986; Allen et al. 1988; Jones 1989; Roberts et al. 1990). This paper reports the recent discovery of shell beads, dated c. 32,000 b.p., from an archaeological site on the Cape Range peninsula, Western Australia. These artefacts are the earliest ornamental material yet recovered from the Australasian Region and provide important new evidence for the development of sophisticated behavioural patterns by early Australian populations.


Cape Range peninsula forms a finger of land, once known as Madman's Corner, which stretches into the Indian Ocean on the western extremity of the Australian arid zone. The back-bone of the peninsula is formed by Cape Range, an extremely rugged and largely inaccessible limestone range dissected by numerous intermittently flowing creeks. Its western coast is bordered by Ningaloo Reef, and on its eastern margin are the shallow and sheltered waters of Exmouth Gulf. Of major significance to archaeological research in this area is the proximity of the edge of the continental shelf to the modern shoreline. At a distance of only 10 km, the western margin of Cape Range peninsula is the nearest point on the Australian continent to the edge of the continental shelf. In 1985, excavations in Mandu Mandu Creek rock-shelter, a small limestone cave in the western foothills of Cape Range, yielded archaeological evidence of intermittent human occupation of the coastal margin of Cape Range peninsula, from 25,000 b.p. to at least 430 b.p., by people exploiting a variety of coastal resources including fish, crab and at least three species of marine mollusc (Morse 1988). This was the first unequivocal Australian evidence for the Pleistocene exploitation of marine resources (Jones 1989; Morse 1988).

Two stratigraphic units, distinguished by colour, texture and content and separated by a marked disconformity, were identified in this excavation. The upper late Holocene unit contains the great majority of archaeological material. A basal carbonate radiocarbon determination of 25,200|+ or -~250 b.p. (SUA-2354) and a date of 20,040|+ or -~440 b.p. |SUA 2614) on baler shell (Melo sp.) bracket the lower unit. Archaeological material, including stone artefacts, marine and terrestrial bone and marine shell, while sparse in the Pleistocene unit, comprised a comparable faunal range to that found in the Holocene unit. There are no archaeologically sterile layers in the deposit at Mandu Mandu Creek rock-shelter and sediment analysis suggests that there is a strong correlation between the intensity of human use and the rate of sediment accumulation at this site (cf. Hughes & Lampert 1982). The Pleistocene unit consists of lenses of red to yellowish-red, fine to very fine quartz-calcarenite sands and coarse silts with abundant carbonate nodules. All archaeological material in the lower unit is encrusted in a red carbonate cement and there is no evidence for post-depositional bioturbation. The disconformity between the two stratigraphic units is considered to represent a hiatus in occupation, when use of this rock-shelter ceased as the arid conditions of the last glacial period intensified, and it was not re-occupied until late Holocene times. Midden sites on the nearby coast indicate, however, that people had re-occupied the area by at least 7000 years ago (Kendrick & Morse 1982; 1990). The 1989 excavation

In 1989 two further 1-m square pits, Squares C1 and E2, were excavated at Mandu Mandu Creek rock-shelter and a similar stratigraphic and archaeological sequence to that outlined above was identified (FIGURE 2; Morse in press a). …