Signs of Indigenous Australia ritual performed 12,000 years ago

Researchers in partnership with the GunaiKurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) unearthed evidence of rituals dating back 12,000 years ago in caves in southeastern Australia.

The archaeological find, published today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, is from the time that the last Ice Age ended. It reveals insights into the heritage, going back 500 generations, of one of the planet’s oldest living cultures.

Excavations revealed the site at Cloggs Cave in the foothills of the Australian Alps – about 300km east of Melbourne.

Archaeologists uncovered two small fireplaces, each with a single shaped stick embedded in them. The sticks are stems of she-oak, or Casuarina – a pine native to Australia. Chemical analysis shows that the sticks had been smeared with human or animal fat, and date to between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago.

Stick in small fireplace in a cave
Ritual stick in Cloggs Cave. Supplied.

The link to modern practices came from nineteenth century ethnographers who documented such fireplaces and ritual practices of GunaiKurnai medicine men and women, who are known as mulla-mullung.

In the ritual, something belonging to a sick person is fastened to the end of a throwing stick smeared in human or kangaroo fat. The stick is then stuck in the ground and a fire lit beneath it. Mulla-mullung chant the name of the sick person. Once the stick falls, the ritual is complete.

“For these artefacts to survive is just amazing,” says GunaiKurnai elder Uncle Russell Mullett. “They’re telling us a story. They’ve been waiting here all this time for us to learn from them.”

“[It’s] a reminder that we are a living culture still connected to our ancient past. It’s a unique opportunity to be able to read the memoirs of our ancestors and share that with our community.”

The connection of these archaeological finds with recent GunaiKurnai practices demonstrates 12,000 years of knowledge-transfer says Bruno David from the Indigenous Studies Centre at Melbourne’s Monash University.

“Nowhere else on Earth has archaeological evidence of a very specific cultural practice previously been tracked so far back in time.”

“Today, GLaWAC and Monash University are showing what a true Traditional Owner-led partnership should look like. It’s only when you combine the Western scientific techniques with our traditional knowledge that the whole story can start to unfold,” Uncle Russell Mullett adds.

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