The Madjedbebe dig: Because of the global importance of the Kakadu site, the team used all the latest archaeological technology to deliver the best results.
Ground penetrating radar a-la Time Team was used to survey the area before digging. As digging proceeded, laser scanning (Time Scanners) was used to create accurate three dimensional maps recording the placement of artefacts for later study.
A variety of dating techniques were used including OSL, Optically-Stimulated Luminescence. This allows the last time quartz sediment was exposed to light to be dated, a useful technique if you are trying to date artefacts or human remains surrounded by sand.
The results of the team’s work was published in Nature in July, attracting world wide headlines. They showed an earliest occupation date range of 65,000 years plus or minus 5,000 years. Further, that date was associated with artifacts including the earliest known global example of a ground edge axe indicating a sophisticated and well established life style.
Within weeks, on 9 August 2017, updated results were published in Nature from Lida Ajer, a Sumatran Pleistocene cave with a rich rainforest fauna associated with fossil human teeth. These indicated an early modern human presence in Sumatra of 73,000 to 63,000 years ago, effectively the same date range as Madjedbebe.
What do these and other discoveries mean? I think that we can summarise the results this way, recognizing that new evidence is emerging all the time?
The date for the emergence of modern homo sapiens is being pushed back all the time, with modern homo sapiens widespread across Africa before a 100,000 out-of-Africa migration date. That date itself is looking increasingly uncertain to my mind.
The number of identified hominid species continues to increase, with modern humans living alongside them in the same time space, and indeed the same geographical space in some cases, for extended periods.
The DNA evidence shows interbreeding between hominid species, casting doubt on the old idea of straight line evolution in which modern humans simply supplanted other hominid species such as the Neanderthals. Rather, there may have been parallel and overlapping evolutionary paths. We carry our complex past in our DNA!
As the time span of Aboriginal history increases, so does the range of environmental changes to which the Aboriginal peoples were subjected to. We cannot understand Aboriginal history unless we understand those environmental changes.
There is therefore a growing need for a full and understandable environmental history of this continent accessible to all.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017.