Archaeologists solve 50,000 year old underwater mystery

Professor Peter Veth and an international research team have found definite evidence of some of the oldest Aboriginal occupation in Australia, some 50,000 years ago, and that people lived off both marine and land resources.  Veth (University of Western Australia) and his team uncovered the evidence archaeologists have been seeking for decades in a cave on Barrow Island – which was a hill on the edge of the Australian arid coast 50,000 years ago.

“This evidence challenges global theories about Palaeolithic hunter gathers.  Most, if not all, the original coastal sites occupied 50,000 years ago after huge sea travels to Australia are now underwater.  It’s the first definite evidence that we have found” Veth said.

The international research team, which included local Traditional Owners, found that 50,000 years ago, people using Boodie Cave on Barrow Island were eating shellfish, hunting hare wallabies and euros, and making artefacts such as water carriers and necklaces from shell.  Use of the cave continued even as the sea retreated further to be as much as 20km west of Boodie Cave by the height of the last ice age, around 25,000 years ago. People returned to Boodie Cave once sea levels began to rise again after around 22,000 years ago.  Barrow Island was abandoned 6800 years ago, once the island became isolated too far from the Australian mainland, when sea levels stabilised at their current levels.

“Throughout these changes to the coastline, Aboriginal people continued to live off the resources of the sea and hunt arid land animals”, says Professor Veth.  “Until now, it has always been assumed that Australia’s coastal resources were quite impoverished.  Our research suggests that the coastal resources of the North West Shelf, and possibly right around Australia, were far more capable of supporting Aboriginal populations that we thought”.

The importance of the sea in Aboriginal life is seen in the fact that Aboriginal hunters still carried shellfish with them when they went on hunting forays to the cave 22,000 years ago, when Barrow Island was 20km from the coast.

“The other significant find in our research is the level of adaptation of early Aboriginal settlers using the cave” says co-researcher Professor Sean Ulm from James Cook University.  “All around the world it has been assumed that humans living 50,000 years ago had very simple economies, and that these Palaeolithic hunters and gatherers were rather incompetent in terms of their abilities to adapt to new and difficult environments.  What our research demonstrates is that the first Aboriginal settlers to Australia not only had very well developed maritime skills, but they very quickly and competently added arid zone hunting into their economy”.

“Our Aboriginal collaborative partners have always said that their ancestors had excellent knowledge of both the sea and the desert” says Professor Veth.  “Our research demonstrates how successful this Aboriginal knowledge has been in adapting to different environments”.

So why was Boodie Cave, and Barrow Island as a whole, abandoned at 6800 years ago?  By this date, the hill on the edge of the vast Australian coastal plain had become the island we know today.  The island was too small to support a permanent Aboriginal population.  Like all peoples, Aboriginal Australians did not (and do not) live purely on their food resources.  People need social and cultural interaction, and marriage systems require people to be able to marry outside their kinship group.  So once Barrow Island became a distant island, people moved to the mainland, where they could continue their complex coastal desert economy, and meet their social and cultural obligations.

Barrow Island, and Boodie Cave, are highly significant to the local Aboriginal community.

Watch the video here.


Professor Peter Veth (UWA Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art)

Professor Sean Ulm (Deputy Director ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University)

Annie Ross (Australian Archaeological Association Media Officer)