Human Origins Recede in Australia

Article excerpt

People go way, way back Down Under. That, at least, is the contention of scientists who have uncovered preliminary evidence that humans lived in Australia far earlier than previously thought, sometime between about 116,000 and 176,000 years ago. What's more, the researchers report having found the oldest known artistic renderings, with an estimated age of 58,000 to 75,000 years.

Humans may have traveled over water from Southeast Asia to Australia when an ice age lowered sea levels and narrowed the gap between those land masses, prior to 135,000 years ago, assert archaeologist Richard L.K. Fullagar of the Australian Museum in Sydney and his colleagues. Fullagar's group presented its findings at a press conference last week in Sydney and is slated to publish them in the December Antiquity.

Until now, investigators had placed the earliest human occupation of Australia at around 60,000 years ago. The oldest art had been considered a set of 33,000-year-old cave paintings in France (SN: 1/28/95, p. 52).

"These [new dates] are surprisingly early for a human presence and the making of rock art in Australia," remarks Christopher Chippindale, an archaeologist at Cambridge University in England and the editor of Antiquity. "More work will need to be done to confirm the dates."

Fullagar and his coworkers have conducted excavations since 1992 at a northwestern Australian site called the Jinmium rock shelter. A massive stone wall there contains thousands of small, circular engravings arranged in rows.

The group dated sediment at the site with thermoluminescence, a technique in which soil samples are heated to measure the amount of radioactive energy they have accumulated over time.

Stone artifacts, including some with sharpened edges, and starch grains turned up in soil sandwiched between dates of approximately 116,000 and 176,000 years old. More stone implements and starch remains, as well as red ochre, appeared in sediment dated to 75,000 to 116,000 years old.

The excavations also uncovered a fragment of sandstone containing circular engravings like those on Jinmium's huge stone wall. This find dates to the period from 58,000 to 75,000 years ago, making it the oldest rock art in the world, Fullagar contends. …