Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Mapping the path of human progress

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.

New discoveries reshaping our knowledge of the deep human past just keep rolling.

The Madjedbebe rockshelter can be found in Kakadu near Jabiru in the Northern Territory. In 1989, a small excavation at the site suggested human occupation at 60,000-50,000 years ago, but the numbers were disputed.. The site was therefore further excavated in 2012 and 2015.

The team used the latest technology as seen on the increasingly popular TV programs that have done so much to turn archaeology into a glamour profession.

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. 


Johnb said...

Quote:- 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.
And the inter breeding the DNA evidence shows us did occur must have meant change. The offspring were different to the parents and some how we seem willing to accept the first part but not the second, I can understand why but it does tend to make for bad science. A further thought from the map relates to sea level variation over time. If the First Australians could transit the sea crossings all the way to Sahel then the existence of a dry land corridor to form Sahel would be irrelevant to the original settlement of what became Australia when sea levels changed again. Sea level changes may have their importance in preventing subsequent migration and occupation rather than affecting the original. In more recent times it would appear that other barriers were more important as neither Indonesian traders who made seasonal trading voyages or the Dutch who sailed West until they 'hit' the WA coast to then turn to sail North made any attempt to colonise or settle.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good evening, John. In regard to your first point, the word hybrid comes to mind. We still don't know how the bits fitted together and may never know that What we do know, is that there were a lot more bits than we realised!

On sea levels, my understanding is that there was always a sea level gap even at the lowest sea levels - the Wallace Line - so the trip must have involved sea crossings. If you think about the later settlement of the Pacific Islands, Sahul was just a hop, step and jump away. So why, then, didn't later settlers come to Australia? Some may, of course: I don't properly understand the DNA material on the linkage with Southern India. However, my hypothesis is this.

If we look as the later Dutch and Macassan cases, there was simply no imperative for settlement. The Dutch East India Company was interested in profit, and there was nothing on the West Coast they wanted to trade. I am a little surprised they didn't establish a base, there were a lot of ships on that route, but there wasn't a military threat to their shipping. The Macassans came for a particular purpose. There was no reason to stay.

I think that another key reason for such little connection was the shift in what was now South East Asia from hunter gathering to a farming culture. Northern Australia is suited to hunter gathering but not really to intensive farming.

Johnb said...

Yes Bill, Fremantle or similar would have seemed a logical place for the nation who established the colony at Cape of Good Hope for a similar purpose. However I suspect that the Dutch, good mercantilist that they are, saw no profit in it. We must never forget that the British colonosiation came with an imported workforce, a facility not available to the Dutch.

Johnb said...

My humble apologies Jim.

Jim Belshaw said...

No wuwwies, John. I knew who you were talking too!