First Australians Arrived 65,000 years ago at Madjedbebe


The Madjedbebe site with excavation in progress. DOMINIC O’BRIEN / GUNDJEIHMI ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

We have covered the ongoing discussion of the peopling of Australia, or Sahul rather, since 2008, based upon both archaeological and genetic information, of which a hallmark 2016 genomic study of 400 Papua New Guineans suggested that modern Homo sapiens may have arrived in the region as late as 120,000 years ago. This groundbreaking study contrasted many old-school population scientists and archaeolologists who believed the first humans in Australia set foot on the continent anywhere from 20,000-40,000 years ago…

An edge-ground hatchet head being excavated. CHRIS CLARKSON / GUNDJEIHMI ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

Yesterday, this increasingly shaky timeline was pushed backed with another paper documented the peopling of Australia occurred at a later time, a new date of 65,000 years ago. The paper describes new but older evidence that modern Homo sapiens left behind in the Madjedbebe, formerly known as Malakunanja II, cave site.

Madjedbebe was discovered in the ’70’s, returned to in ’12 and ’15, where 20 new small pits were discovered. Thousands of stone tools and materials were used to make them. From grinding stones, hearths, ochre “crayons” and animal bones, such as a thylacine jaw covered in pigment. You can see one of them above, plus other pigments with reflective additives as well as evidence that suggests seed grinding, such as plant matter and specific stone tools used to process it. These are all attributed to modern Homo sapiens. 

Researcher Elspeth Hayes with Mark Djandjomerr and traditional owner May Nango extracting comparative samples at a cave adjacent Madjedbebe. DAVID VADIVELOO / GUNDJEIHMI ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

The team who discovered the new haul from Madjedbebe delicately documented not just the layers with artifacts, but the entire stratigraphy of each meter-square excavation minisite. Using both radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence methods, with additional methods used to date fragmentary charcoal samples from the ancient hearth, the date of these complex cultural artifacts are thought to be 65,000 years old +/- 4,000 years, a time that bolsters the case for humans being involved in that continent’s megafauna collapse.