80,000 years and counting


An archeological dig in Kakadu is changing the dates of human migration and evolution. 

The land which is called Australia today had our Aboriginal ancestors living here over 70,000 years ago. It may have been 80,000 years, it may have been 90,000 according to scientists.

An initial small dig at the Madjedbebe rock shelter at Kakadu in 1989 provided evidence of artefacts 60,000 years old. It also found bodies which halted the dig. The initial outcome of the dig had scientists excited but were reluctant to change their views on a small amount of evidence and has been the subject of speculation since. Australian students can remember the figure of Aboriginal occupation in Australia changing almost over night from 40,000 years to 60,000 years.

Recently on a much larger dig, perfectly preserved axes were found in Kakadu, aged 65,000 years old.

This new excavation is with the agreement of the Mirarr people, the traditional owners of Kakadu the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and the University of Queensland, building on the previous dig in the 1980’s.

“Now we know humans were living in northern Australia a minimum of 65,000 years ago…”  said Professor Clarkson, the lead archeologist on the research and excavation.

The Mirarr senior custodians oversee the dig and have allowed it to continue with an agreement to rebury where necessary and appropriate.

So how does this change what was previously known about human migration and evolution?

It is known by scientists that humans were in Africa 200,000 years ago and in Asia 80,000 years ago. However, previous scientist data placed Aboriginal people living in Australia around 50,000 years ago.

This new dig has concentrated on three layers of occupation in the soil.

The back corner of the rock shelter has provided the most perfect artefacts, the stone axes 65,000 years old. Ceremonial ochre pigments were dated at over 45,000 years old.

In 2012 and 2015, over 10,000 artefacts were found using the latest technology in lasers. Through this process, artefacts that were broken could be linked together again. It provided a new and exciting uncovering of the past.

It opens the books to the migration of people around the world. Aboriginal people in Australia have always indicated that we came from this land and not the other way around. Our stories reflect it but science has always countered this belief and supported the ‘out of Africa’ theory.

However now, we have evidence the oldest artwork, in Sulawesi at 40,000 years old, may have been here in Australia. Pigments in the rock shelter have been dated to 45,000 years old.

Megafauna have lived here 45,000 years ago. So it may not have been Aboriginal people who wiped them out as we lived side by side for centuries, over 20,000 years together.

It seems to confirm the oldest saying in the Aboriginal political voice.

Always was, always will be (Aboriginal land).


David Towney

founder Wiradjuri News