Dig uncovers ancient desert dwellers

New archaeological evidence, published in October in the journal Australian Aboriginal Studies, reveals that Aboriginal people visited the Watarrka Plateau, south-west of Alice Springs, 13,000 years ago.

Archaeologists Dr June Ross from the University of New England and Dr Mike Smith from the National Museum of Australia were dropped by helicopter on the Watarrka Plateau as part of a survey of rock art in the Watarrka (Kings Canyon) National Park.

"The new finds were unexpected," said Dr Ross (who is pictured here at the Watarrka site). "We were carrying out a small excavation to establish the age of a rock art site, when we uncovered stone artefacts – small, multi-purpose tools – in an ancient buried sand plain."

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal in these sediments showed that Aboriginal people were using the area at the end of the last ice age.

"While the results from the excavation at Watarrka provide a small window into the past," Dr Ross explained, "we will have to uncover additional evidence before we can establish a clear picture of desert life over the past 13,000 years."

The excavation was part of an ongoing collaborative investigation – involving researchers at the University of New England, the National Museum of Australia, and the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service – of patterns of past human occupation within Central Australia. Chris Day, Chief District Ranger for Watarrka National Park, said Northern Territory Parks had "an ongoing commitment to supporting scientific research". "Knowledge about past human use of the deserts assists both ourselves and the traditional owners to make informed management decisions," he explained.

This collaborative research builds on the ground-breaking discoveries of Dr Smith (who was the first student to graduate with a PhD in prehistoric archaeology from UNE's Department of Archaeology) showing that people were living in the Central Australian arid zone 35,000 years ago.

"The finds at Watarrka are sparse but important," Dr Smith said. "They confirm early use of the relatively well-watered country in the George Gill Range, midway between the better known ice-age sites of Kulpi Mara and Puritjarra."

Both Dr Ross and Dr Smith thanked Aboriginal custodians at Lila for their permission and support for this work.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.