First Aboriginal cultural sites discovered underwater 50,000 years later

Australia’s first Aboriginal cultural sites that were submerged under the sea after the last ice age have been discovered by a research team including scientists from The University of Western Australia. The research findings will be published in PLOS ONE.

The research was led by Flinders University, and also involved James Cook University, Airborne Research Australia, Aarhus Universitet and Moesgaard Museum (Denmark) and the University of York (United Kingdom) in partnership with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. Several UWA students were also involved.

The sites, which are located in the Dampier Archipelago, in North-West Australia, are more than 7,000 years old. At one of the sites in Cape Bruguieres, about 270 artefacts were discovered in shallow water to depths of 2.4 metres. The second site at Flying Foam Passage uncovered cultural material next to a freshwater spring, 14 metres below sea level.

Study co-author Professor Jo McDonald, Rio Tinto Chair of Rock Art Studies and Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management at UWA, said that the scientists uncovered the sites using remote-sensing techniques (drones, LiDAR, infrared imaging and sonar scanning) to create an image of the seafloor. Divers and snorkellers were also deployed to the sites.

“This is an amazing discovery and provides a fascinating glimpse of submerged cultural records across Murujuga,” Professor McDonald said.

“You have to remember that for 80 per cent of the 50,000 years that people have lived here, this was not a set of islands – but an inland desert range. The rock art tells that story, and these current findings show that evidence can survive under the sea for thousands of years.

“This highlights how much more there is still to learn about this culturally and scientifically significant archipelago.”

Professor McDonald said the researchers had also found hundreds of stone tools used by Aboriginal people at the adjacent land-based sites, including stone arrangements and rock art. Numerous inter-tidal features such as Aboriginal quarries and fish traps were also found.

“It provides us with greater understanding of ‘Sea Culture’ – the deep cultural, spiritual and historical connection Indigenous Australians have to their sea-scapes,” she said.

“These new discoveries are the first step to understanding the oldest evidence of the first inhabitants of Australia through underwater archaeology.”

The Deep History of Sea Country research project was made possible through funding from the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Project Scheme.

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