Australia ancient settlement discovery rewrites history of human migration

20 Jul 2017

Northern Australia from orbit. Image: Harvepino/Shutterstock

A discovery made by a team of archaeologists in Australia has turned our understanding of ancient human migration on its head.

As the years progress, our growing theories of human migration by our ancient ancestors continue to suggest earlier settlement with each discovery.

Now, once again, an international team of researchers has uncovered an incredible find in Australia, which suggests that the first humans arrived there around 10,000 years earlier than was previously thought.

In a paper published to Nature, the researchers revealed that they had dated artefacts in Madjedbebe, Northern Australia to 65,000 years ago, despite previous theories suggesting anywhere between 47,000 and 60,000 years.

Challenges previous theories

This discovery is historically significant for the giant land mass as it calls into question the previous idea that humans caused the extinction of unique megafauna, such as giant kangaroos, wombats and tortoises, more than 45,000 years ago.

“These dates confirm that people arrived so far before that they wouldn’t be the central cause of the death of megafauna,” said the paper’s co-author and University of Washington anthropology professor, Ben Marwick.

“It shifts the idea of humans charging into the landscape and killing off the megafauna. It moves toward a vision of humans moving in and coexisting, which is quite a different view of human evolution.”

With it is commonly believed that humans migrated from Africa to Asia 80,000 years ago, the existence of humans on Australia 65,000 years ago suggests that Homo sapiens coexisted with another early human, Homo floresiensis.

This new discovery also means that humans settled in Australia around 20,000 years before they entered Europe.

A whole new world

Among the major finds at the site were ochre ‘crayons’ along with other pigments, as well as what are believed to be the world’s oldest edge-ground hatchets.

Indicating the birth of modern farming, the people who lived in this area also ground seeds and processed plants, which would have been used alongside the hatchets to cut bark or food from trees.

Detailed soil analysis also revealed that during this time, vegetation in the area was stable, as Northern Australia was much wetter and colder than it is today.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic