Bone tools from the Kimberley among oldest in Australia

The rugged Kimberley region of Western Australia is home to vast tracts of land – a savannah landscape of ranges and plains, pockmarked with caves. A new study of bone tools found in one such Kimberley cave has revealed they are among the oldest in the country and carry marks that hint at their ancient uses.

The tools were found in layers dated to between 35,000 and 46,000 years ago in Riwi Cave, about 90 kilometres south-east of Fitzroy Crossing. This means their antiquity rivals the previous record holder for oldest bone artefact, a tool found at Carpenter’s Gap 1 (also in the Kimberley) that was dated to under 46,000 years old. A re-analysis of the tools by a team of archaeologists from Griffith University, the University of Western Australia, and the Australian National University, is published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

“We once thought that bone tools were not so important in the north of Australia and were only brought into the toolkit relatively recently,” says co-author Dr Michelle Langley, from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.

“These tools show that wasn’t the case – they were always made and used, we just hadn’t found them because they haven’t been surviving long time periods in the hostile preservation conditions of northern Australia.”

850 kimberley spinifex resin credit sue oconnor11
Resin lump discovered at the Riwi Cave site. Credit: Sue O’Connor

The secrets of the Kimberley bone tools’ use are inscribed onto them in patterns of wear and tear. By examining marks and breakages, the team inferred they were used for a range of activities, including the manufacture of plant fibre items, the processing of spinifex resin, and fish or bird hunting.

“They were used for activities which typically do not survive archaeologically,” says Dr Langley.

“One indicates plant or skin working (making baskets or working skins) while another appears to have been used in digging up or working resin. Resin was used to glue together tool parts and to make hand holds for tools.”

The tools are rewriting the archaeology of ancient Australia. Co-author Professor Sue O’Connor, from ANU, says: “Until recently bone artefacts of this age were thought to be confined to the cold southern regions of Australia and Tasmania and to have been used in skin working to make clothing as protection against the cold.

“These new finds from the arid zone have changed our perspective.”

The team were granted access to the site by the Gooniyandi people of the Mimbi Community, the traditional custodians of the area.

This new evidence of the tools’ significant age demonstrates the deep history and powerful continuity of First Nations cultures in Australia. Says Langley: “looking archaeologically, many of the tools that we’re seeing just a few hundred years ago were [also] being used thousands of years ago, when people first arrived on the continent.”

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