It was 2011 and Clifford Coulthard, an elder of the indigenous Adnyamathanha people, and Giles Hamm, a consultant archaeologist, were out surveying the Flinders Ranges, a mountainous region in the southern Australian interior. Miles from anywhere, Coulthard searched for a suitable place to answer a call of nature. And what happened next was extraordinary.
Hamm later told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), “A man getting out of the car to go to the toilet led to the discovery of one of the most important sites in Australian pre-history.” He had indeed stumbled across an ancient cave in the craggy rocks. Moreover, what was later excavated there has important implications for the whole story of humans in Australia.
The Flinders Ranges in South Australia are in fact the largest series of mountains in the country, stretching with some interruptions for a total of 265 miles. They include various protected areas and national parks, which are popular with hikers and mountain bikers.
The mountains are home to a varied selection of wildlife including red and western grey kangaroos, yellow-footed rock-wallabies and large number of bird and reptile species. Other exotic Australian creatures to be found there include marsupials such as the planigale and the dunnart, pictured here.
Europeans first encountered the Flinders Ranges in 1802. That was when members of an exploratory team led by Englishman Captain Matthew Flinders scaled the peak of Mount Brown. Further exploration and the opening of sheep farms continued through the 19th century. Other commercial activities in the Flinders Ranges included copper and coal mining.
But the original human inhabitants of the Flinders Ranges, the Adnyamathanha people, have been there for many millennia longer than the late-arriving Europeans. Formerly, it was believed that their predecessors had occupied the land for around 39,000 years. But the cave that Coulthard and Hamm found in 2011 challenged that assumption.
The cave that Hamm and Coulthard found has come to be known as the Warratyi Cave. As Hamm told ABC, “Nature called, and Cliff walked up this creek bed into this gorge and found this amazing spring surrounded by rock art.”
It was the smoke-blackened roof of a cave, set in a cliff face about 65 feet above the creek, that attracted the men’s attention. “Immediately when we saw that we thought, ‘Wow, that’s people lighting fires inside that rock shelter. That’s human activity,’” Hamm later recalled.
At first, the two men had no real idea of how significant a find this cave might be. In contrast, Hamm remembered that he thought at the time that the cave might have been used by humans for perhaps 5,000 years. This initial estimate turned out to be way off the mark, however.
But in subsequent years, from 2011 to 2014, working alongside Adnyamathanha people, Hamm returned to the site to excavate it properly. This was the only way to find out for sure how long the original Australians had been using the location. And to achieve this, they carefully dug trenches to a depth of a little over three feet.
The team’s excavations uncovered some 4,300 artifacts and 200 pieces of bone. The bones came from 16 mammals and one reptile. As we will see later, the mammal bones were to be of particular significance. Other finds included emu eggs, bone needles and stone tools.
Now the researchers had material that they could use to date the site’s occupation by early Australian humans. This was accomplished by a variety of sophisticated techniques. These included stratigraphy, which is a method of calculating age in relation to the depth of artifacts, as well as carbon-dating of organic material and the measurement of luminescence to determine the age of quartz particles.
And the results of this dating were astounding. The cave had been in use by humans no less that 49,000 years ago. And that’s 10,000 years earlier than any other evidence found in Australia’s hostile interior had ever suggested. Up until then, the oldest known site of human habitation was at Central Australia’s Puritjarra, dating from 38,000 years ago.
Researchers believe that the first humans arrived across the sea, landing on the northern Australian coast about 50,000 years ago. Hitherto, it had been assumed that these new settlers stuck to the continent’s coastline and did not penetrate the interior for many thousands of years. But this new evidence from Warratyi strongly suggests that the original Australians in fact reached the interior quite soon after arriving.
And the artifacts found at the Warratyi Cave also revised previous ideas about the earliest Australians, particularly in relation to their mastering of technologies. Objects collected from the site include bone needles up to 40,000 years old, hafted axes from 38,000 years ago and stone tools with wooden handles from 24,000 years ago. All of these examples preceded previously known dates.
And the finds at Warratyi may also have an extremely important contribution to make to the debate about why Australia’s megafauna – gigantic animals – all became extinct. Until now, one of the main schools of thought about these extinctions is that they may have been caused by climate change.
But according to Flinders University professor Gavin Prideaux, speaking to ABC, “One good thing about this study … is there’s no doubt there are megafauna remains in the form of Diprotodon and a giant bird in that rock shelter in a well-dated, well-stratified context sometime between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago.”
And this led professor Prideaux to the conclusion that the new find “undermines one of the supposed pillars of support for climate change, not humans, causing the extinctions. Because [the site shows that] humans lived alongside these animals and hunted them.”
Professor Prideaux, who co-authored a paper with Hamm about the dig at Warratyi, published in Nature, asserted that their findings “smashed several paradigms about Indigenous Australians.” Paleoanthropologist Michael Westaway agreed, telling ABC, “There is a Eurocentric view that material culture in Australia is quite simplistic and backward, but this helps rewrite that story.”
So there you have it. One man’s need for a leak in the Australian outback led to a discovery that has recast the history of the earliest settlers in Australia. We can now say with some confidence that they reached the interior of the continent much earlier than previously thought, and that they had a more sophisticated grasp of technologies than we realized. But, sadly, it also looks increasingly likely that it was humans and not climate change that wiped out Australia’s extraordinary megafauna.