Pottery find reshapes understanding of Australia’s First Nations people

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

What’s believed to be the first evidence of pottery making by Australia’s First Nations people has been unearthed in far north Queensland.

In a paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews today,  Traditional Owners and researchers report on “the oldest securely dated pottery discovered in Australia,” located at Jiigurru (Lizard Island Group) on the Great Barrier Reef in northeastern Australia.

The findings consist of small “sherds,” the name given to broken pieces of ceramic material found on an archaeological site.

The archaeologists say this significant finding challenges notions that Aboriginal Australian communities were unaware of pottery manufacture before European settlement: “…instead suggesting a rich history of long-distance cultural exchanges and technological innovation long before British arrival.”

Sherds small
Sherds from the dig site believed to be 2-3000 years old

The ceramics were discovered in an archaeological excavation on Jiigurru conducted by Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) in partnership with the Dingaal and Ngurrumungu Aboriginal communities.

More sherds (CABAH)

Archaeologists excavated the 2.4-metre-deep midden over a two-year period to discover evidence of occupation, such as the remains of shellfish and fish collected and eaten by people on the island. Less than a metre below the surface, the team found dozens of pottery sherds dating between 2000 and 3000 years old—the oldest pottery ever discovered in Australia.

The site provides evidence of human habitation for about 6,000 years, revealing Jiigurru as the earliest known offshore island occupied on the northern Great Barrier Reef.

CABAH Chief Investigator Professor Sean Ulm from James Cook University told Cosmos the pottery “was locally produced using clays and tempers sourced from Jiigurru.

Connections across the coral Sea (CABAH)

“Given the small size of the pottery assemblage, it’s really hard to say much more.

“In the paper we concluded that manufacture could have been the result of paddle and anvil or coil manufacturing.

Exploring First Nations settlements

Despite the difficulty in identifying the sherds, Ulm says they are probably small pots.

“The thin-walled sherds could indicate that the vessels [are] plain globular pots, with either everted rim or outcurving rim, which usually thicken at the rim/neck/shoulder and gradually thin toward the base.

“However, as the sample size is quite small and the pieces highly fragmented, this would need further investigation to confirm.”

“We estimate the orifice of one is a little more than 20 cm, however, given the rim sherd comprises less than 3% of the total rim, this is only an approximation.”

The dig site at Jiigurru (Lizard Island Group) on the Great Barrier Reef in northeastern Australia. (CABAH)

The researchers say the discovery reveals that the Aboriginal communities in North Queensland had connections with the pottery-making communities of New Guinea.

“It is unlikely that people completely independently learned how to manufacture pottery,” says Ulm.

“The geological analysis of the pottery shows that it was made on local materials and not bought in from elsewhere.

“The pottery is also thin-walled, which takes considerable skill for these low-fired vessels.

“We conclude that the knowledge to manufacture pottery was transferred between groups. The closest pottery-making communities immediately before and overlapping with the time the Jiigurru pottery is manufactured, were in southern Papua New Guinea.

“The Jiigurru pottery appears at a time when there is significant movement of people and ideas around the Coral Sea.

“In the paper we concluded that: ‘Whether late Lapita and post-Lapita in age, or singularly post-Lapita in age, the Jiigurru pottery is, nevertheless, clearly associated with Lapita cultural influences diffusing down the Queensland coast through exchange networks, with both continuity in ceramic technology (low-fired earthenware) and characteristic manufacture from local materials’.”

Except for more recent pottery in Torres Strait, there aren’t any other examples of ancient Australian Indigenous pottery.

“This low-fired pottery does break down over time, however, it is often well-preserved in archaeological sites – like this excavated shell midden,” says Ulm.

“We suggest that the fundamental reason there is not much evidence is that we have not looked for it and have not found it … yet!”

CABAH Chief Investigator Professor Ian McNiven from Monash University said the evidence points to deep connections across the Coral Sea, facilitated by advanced canoe voyaging technology and open-sea navigation skills, contradicting the outdated notion of Indigenous isolation.

“These findings not only open a new chapter in Australian, Melanesian, and Pacific archaeology but also challenge colonialist stereotypes by highlighting the complexity and innovation of Aboriginal communities,” McNiven says.

“The discovery adds a new layer to our understanding of Jiigurru and Indigenous Australians’ role in the broader network of maritime exchange and cultural interaction across the Coral Sea.”

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The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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