Plants and Animals of the North-West: some case studies from 50,000 years of archaeology

A talk presented to the Northern Suburbs Branch AUGUST 2020

As an introduction, Pete briefly reviewed the two postulated options for migration into Australia – via Sulawesi and New Guinea (the northern route), or across the Sahul Shelf from Timor (the southern route) – keeping in mind that 50-65,000 years ago Australia and New Guinea were joined and Australia’s Northwest coastline was much closer to Timor and Roti.

Because the early migrations involved sea crossings or walking along shorelines it is not surprising that many of the artefacts found on various islands on both routes show the owners were marine specialists. This is evidenced by harpoon mounts that have been dated as 43,000 BP (Before Present) and bone fish hooks, 10-40,000 years old.

Pete then told us about the Barrow Island Archaeology Project which involved the excavation of Boodie Cave on Barrow Island.

Inside Boodie Cave. (Image: P.Veth)

At the time of the last glacial maxima, about 18,000 years ago, the Montebello Islands and Barrow Island were part of the extended Australian land mass – the former being very flat, while the latter had much greater relief due to a much earlier tectonic event which caused the land to fold and arch upwards. The islands became isolated from the mainland and each other about 7,000 years ago.

The excavation was conducted over three years and involved researchers from UWA, the Eastern States and USA.

Boodie Cave entrance visible to the right of the vegetation

The narrow, collapsed entrance to the cave is 20m above sea level and the cave itself extends for about 100m and is 10m high at its highest point. Pits were dug to a depth of 3.0 to 3.5m and, as expected, did not show any signs of human habitation in the first 10-15cm (equivalent to approximately 7,000 years of sediment accumulation since abandonment). However below this there was evidence of continual use back to 51,000 BP.

Pete described the human inhabitants as coastal desert people and illustrated this with an extensive list of bones and shells whose natural habitat ranged from arid land through mangroves and reefs to open marine.

The number of terrestrial species in each sampled tranche ranged from 7 to over 25 and included mammals, reptiles and fish. Marine species, including shellfish and crustaceans, ranged between 4 and 40 species. [Refer to the tables at page 2 & 3 of this report for some of the vertebrate and invertebrate species recovered.]

Peter Veth pointing out the remains of a 7,000 year old “seafood basket” ( Image: P.Veth)

Shellfish, particularly mangrove species, were prominent throughout the section, most likely because they were easily transportable. Just before the island was cut off from the mainland there was a peak in marine species and shellfish in what Pete called the original “seafood basket”, comprising the remains of turtle, porpoise, crocodile, shark, large fish, 20 species of shellfish, crab, sea urchin as well as freshwater shellfish.

Coincidently, as the area above sea level shrank, terrestrial animals would have been easier to track and kill as illustrated by a parallel increase in the remains of macropods, lizards and snakes.

Although no rock art was found in the cave, beads made from tusk shell, dated as 12,000 years old were found. These were very similar to those still being made along the Northwest coast in the twentieth century.

12,000 year old tusk shell beads that once formed a necklace (Image: P. Veth)

Pete rounded out his extremely interesting presentation with illustrations of rock art depicting flora and fauna of the Pilbara and Kimberley regions. This will be covered in a separate report.

Don Poynton


Page 2. Marine invertebrate Fauna (mangrove, rocky or sandy)
Page 3. Vertebrate fauna & habitat (arid, mangrove, marine/reef)