A team of archaeologists from several Australian universities, together with the Mirrar Aboriginal people, excavated the Madjedbebe rock shelter in Kakadu, near Jabiru in Australia’s Northern Territory. It came up with some surprising findings. They demonstrate that the earliest inhabitants were an innovative people who, amongst other developments, produced “the world’s oldest known edge-ground hatchets.”

“We found evidence for the mixing of ochre with reflective powders made from ground mica to make a vibrant paint. Currently the oldest known rock art in the world is dated to 40,000 years ago in Sulawesi (a possible stepping stone to Australia). But the abundant ground ochre and use of mica indicates that artistic expression took place in the region much earlier.

We also found new forms of stone tools such as edge ground hatchet heads (and even the grinding stones used to sharpen them), useful in cutting bark and wood, shaping wooden tools and extracting difficult to obtain foods from trees.”

Radio carbon dating is limited to samples younger than 50,000 years ago, so the team had to rely on Optically Stimulated Luminescence to help us find the ages of the lower part of the site.

Optically Stimulated Luminescence methods estimate the time elapsed since sand grains were last exposed to sunlight. “Australian archaeologists have been wary of OSL methods because often in the past OSL involved sand grains measured together in a little group, resulting in ages that were not very accurate.”

To get more accurate measurements the team measured thousands of sand grains individually, rather than in a group.

They also used another laboratory  some samples to make sure their results were reliable. “The result is that we have a convincing age for the settlement of Madjedbebe, and Australia, of 65,000 years ago.” [July 20, 2017 The Conversation]

The old narratives are misleading

Not only has the old story of only 40,000 years of First Nations settlement been demolished.

So has the old story we were told at school that the Aboriginal people were hunters and gatherers who made little impact upon the land.

Bruce Pascoe, who is of Bunurong/Tasmanian heritage, in his “Dark Emu” first published in 2014, takes issue with this narrative.

He researched the journals and diaries of the very earliest European explorers and colonists.

What he found was most informative.  “…as I read these early journals I came across repeated references to people building dams and wells, planting, irrigating and harvesting seed, preserving the surplus and storing it in houses, sheds or secure vessels, creating elaborate cemeteries and manipulating the landscape – none of which fitted the definition of hunter-gatherer.”

The evidence of this society which existed at first contact with European colonists was quickly eliminated. ““The archaeologist, Peter White, in his Agriculture: Was Australia a Bystander? argues that de-population by disease and the arrival of sheep, which walked ahead of their shepherds, helped eliminate evidence of agriculture and its domesticates.”

The eradication of villages, the murder of the occupants of the land, meant that all traces of what had been were quickly eliminated. “It is no wonder that after 1860 most people saw no evidence of any prior complex civilization.”

Pascoe gives an example of colonial forgetting from Victoria. ““In Sunbury Victoria, in 1836 settlers…observed that people had worked their gardens so well and for so long that large earthern mounds were created during the process – but so little consideration was given to this land management that only a few years later Europeans couldn’t say who or what had created these prominent terraces.”

We now know that the lie of Terra Nullius was a convenient creation of the colonists, but we have yet to fully appreciate the depth and complexity of the First Nations civilization which colonization destroyed.