FACT SHEETS

What lies beneath — submerged sites could help tell the story of Australia’s first people

02.07.20 by By Zoë Taylor

The story of Australia’s first people begins many tens of thousands of years ago.

Archaeological evidence suggests people arrived on the Australian continent up to 65,000 years ago. And many Aboriginal communities across Northern Australia have strong oral histories of ancestral beings arriving from the north.

We are working with communities to understand which island-hopping routes people took to reach Sahul, how they used marine technology, and the remarkable and rapid rates at which people adapted and survived in a harsh new environment.

An international team from Flinders University, The University of Western Australia, James Cook University, Airborne Research Australia, and the University of York (UK) partnered with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to locate and investigate the submerged cultural sites. Image credit Sam Wright Photography
2 million
square kilometres of continental shelf surrounding Australia was flooded
100s of stone tools
made by Aboriginal people were discovered

 

There are many knowledge gaps to fill.

One of the many challenges in pulling together the pieces of this ancient puzzle is the fact that early settlement was likely to have occurred on and around the coast — and the land that might hold vital clues to how people lived is now submerged and hundreds of kilometres off the present shoreline.

“For decades we have speculated about what archaeological sites might be preserved on the seabed,” says CABAH Deputy Director Professor Sean Ulm, of James Cook University.

Now, the first underwater Aboriginal archaeological sites have been discovered off northwest Australia, opening up what’s being described as the next great frontier in Australian archaeology.

Hundreds of stone tools, made by Aboriginal people, were discovered at two submerged sites in the Dampier Archipelago, off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia, following a four-year collaboration between researchers and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.

“These finds are the first confirmed evidence that Aboriginal archaeological places exist on the seabed even after thousands of years of flooding by sea-level rise,” says Professor Ulm, co-author of the study published in PLOS ONE.

The submerged cultural landscapes represent what is known today as Sea Country to many Indigenous Australians, who have a deep cultural, spiritual, and historical connection to these underwater environments.

“These finds profoundly challenge a lot of our understandings about the deep history of Australia,” Professor Ulm explains.

Searching for submerged sites. Image credit Sam Wright Photography
Professor Sean Ulm, CABAH Deputy Director

“What other sites might be preserved on the two million square kilometres of land around the Australian coast that used to be dry land up until 10,000 years ago? What can those submerged landscapes tell us about how Indigenous people lived?”

An international team of archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots and scientific divers from Flinders University, The University of Western Australia, James Cook University, Airborne Research Australia, and the University of York (UK) partnered with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to locate and investigate the submerged cultural sites.

Navigation charts, geology maps, and known archaeological sites located on the land were used to narrow down prospective areas before surveying the seabed using laser scanners mounted on a small plane and high-resolution sonar towed behind boats.

The dive team mapped 269 artefacts at Cape Bruguieres in shallow water at depths down to 2.4 metres below the current sea level. Radiocarbon dating and analysis of sea level changes show the site is at least 7,000 years old.

The second site, at Flying Foam Passage, includes an underwater freshwater spring 14 metres below sea level. This site is estimated to be at least 8,500 years old. Both sites may be much older as the dates represent minimum ages only; they may be even more ancient.

Watch: our explainer video …

Image credit Sam Wright Photography

“It has been exciting to hear what the researchers and specialist scientists have been able to recover using their advanced technology and skills,” says Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation chief executive officer Peter Jeffries.

“Further exploration could unearth similar cultural relics and help us better understand the life of the people who were so connected to these areas of lands which are now underwater.”

“It has been exciting to hear what the researchers and specialist scientists have been able to recover using their advanced technology and skills,” says Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation chief executive officer Peter Jeffries.

“Further exploration could unearth similar cultural relics and help us better understand the life of the people who were so connected to these areas of lands which are now underwater.”

In the past, dry land would have stretched up to 160km further than the current shoreline, and the area would have provided Aboriginal people with resources such as freshwater and marine food resources, the researchers say.

“Managing, investigating and understanding the archaeology of the Australian continental shelf in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners and custodians is one of the last frontiers in Australian archaeology,” says Associate Professor Jonathan Benjamin from Flinders University.

“Our results represent the first step in a journey of discovery to explore the potential of archaeology on the continental shelves which can fill a major gap in the human history of the continent,” he adds.

“The study provides a proof-of-concept for future collaborative work with Indigenous communities around the Australian coast to identify, investigate and protect underwater cultural heritage places,” adds Professor Ulm.

“We are confident that many other submerged sites will be found in the years to come. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past.”

Watch: learn more about the research …

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