Early Human Occupation of Northern Australia: Archaeology and Thermoluminescence Dating of Jinmium Rock-Shelter, Northern Territory

By Fullagar, R. L. K.; Price, D. M. et al. | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Early Human Occupation of Northern Australia: Archaeology and Thermoluminescence Dating of Jinmium Rock-Shelter, Northern Territory


Fullagar, R. L. K., Price, D. M., Head, L. M., Antiquity


Recent debate on the Aboriginal colonization of the Australian continent has hinged on interpretations of both palaeoecological and archaeological evidence. Palaeoecological evidence has been interpreted to suggest human colonization before or coincident with the Last Interglacial about 125,000 years ago, oxygen isotope substage 5e (Singh & Geissler 1985; Kershaw et al. 1993; cf. White 1994). Discussion of the archaeological evidence has focussed on methods of dating, in particular luminescence and radiocarbon dating. A date of about 40,000 b.p. is favoured by those who prefer the radiocarbon chronology, while others argue that luminescence dating of several Australian sites suggests an initial colonization between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago (Roberts et al. 1990, cf. Hiscock 1990; Bowdler 1991; Roberts et al. 1993; Roberts & Jones 1994). In addition, Allen & Holdaway (1995) argue that frequency distributions of archaeological and geological radiocarbon dates suggest that human occupation is unlikely to be older than about 40,000 uncalibrated radiocarbon years (cf. Chappell et al. 1996).

This paper describes the stratigraphy and dating of sediments at Jinmium rock-shelter, an archaeological site (field code: Coornamu 1 or 'C1', NTMAG site number: 4767 0028) (129.2 [degrees] E, 15.4 [degrees] S) located within 50 km of the mouth of the Keep River, in the northwestern corner of the Northern Territory [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. We report stone artefacts found in sediments dated by thermoluminescence (TL) to greater than 116,000[+ or -]12,000 years. If that correctly dates the human presence in Australia, it almost doubles previous luminescence age estimates and is beyond any possible overlap with radiocarbon determinations. With recent genetic analyses and the suggested age and distribution of hominid fossils in southeast Asia, colonization at this time could have been by either modern or archaic humans. In this initial report, and because the issues are contentious, we focus on the evidence itself: excavations, artefacts and dating methods.

The study area

The excavated site lies on undulating sands which slope gently towards Coornamu swamp and Sandy Creek, to the east of the Kimberley region, between the Ord and Victoria Rivers [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The Ord River-Victoria River region is semi-arid, with a warm dry monsoonal climate characterized by a distinct wet season between December and April, and annual rainfall of 750-900 mm. Maximum daily temperatures range from about 30 [degrees] to 35 [degrees] C, and minima from 20 [degrees] to 25 [degrees] C (Stewart et al. 1970).

The Keep River area, within the Ord-Victoria geomorphic region, is part of the Bonaparte Basin, younger than and between the Kimberley Basin to the west and the Victoria Basin to the east (Whitehead & Fahey 1985). The area consists of estuarine deltaic plains, open woodlands over tall grass plains, rugged sandstone hills and low hill country. The Keep River and Sandy Creek are the two main stream systems in the area, both flowing north into the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf. Four main palaeozoic units include Lower Carboniferous dolomites (Burt Range Formation) and the Upper Carboniferous sandstone and conglomerate (Border Creek Formation) in which the Jinmium rock-shelter has formed. The Burt Range Formation has surface occurrences of cryptocrystalline silica suitable for flaking, including cherts, silcrete and chalcedony. Quartz and quartzite are suitable for flaking, and we have documented several prehistoric quarry locations [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].

The onset of European history begins in the 1880s with the establishment of cattle stations in the Kimberley region. Legune Station began as an outstation of Carlton Hill between 1909 and 1919. Stories documented by Shaw (1981; 1986) indicate that Legune was an important location for Aboriginal law and that relations to land were maintained throughout the pastoral period (see also Head 1994b).

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