Evidence of human occupation of Australia by 65,000 years ago

27 July 2017

There is much excitement in Australian archaeology about the recent publication of the results of exhaustive OSL (optically stimulated luminescence) dating of sediments associated with various artefacts at celebrity archaeological site Madjedbebe (formally known as Malakunanja II), located in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.

OSL dating of artefacts excavated at the site in 1973 and particularly 1989 had suggested that occupation dated to between 50 and 60 ka (kilo annum, meaning thousand years). Concerns were raised, however, about the stability and disturbance of sediments at the site and the artefacts associated with these dates were not described in detail. 

A team led by Dr Chris Clarkson excavated a staggering twenty 1 x 1 m squares adjacent to the original excavations to a depth of 3.4 m. Their detailed analysis concluded that there was no size sorting or significant movement of artefactual material vertically through the deposit. The initial occupation occurs at a depth of 2.60 to 2.15 m and includes flaked stone, grounding stones and whole and fragmented ground axes, ground ochre and fragments of sheet mica. Most importantly, they argue that their detailed analysis of sediments focusing on OSL dating suggest a conservative date for this initial occupation of Madjedbebe of around 59.3 ka. 

The very early date of human occupation at Madjedbebe has wide reaching implications for understanding not only the occupation of Australia (and Sahul generally) but also the movement of anatomically modern humans out of Africa and across south Asia and the interaction of modern humans with Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo floresiensis. It also suggests that humans and the now extinct megafaunal species of marsupials cohabited for around 20 kyr.

Additionally, the results of the dating at Madjedbebe has all sorts of implications for our understanding of the archaeology of Pleistocene Australia. For example, why have so few sites been excavated that suggest such an early chronology for human colorization of the Sahul land mass? Does this simply reflect a lack of large scale excavations and OSL dating of suitable deposits? Is the site a relic of an ecological tethered initial colonising population that remained restricted to the region? Is it possible that humans simply did not cross over the arid zone of Australia? Alternatively, was the population so small outside of the tropical north that it left little archaeological trace? 

The article is currently only available through a paywall at the Nature website here. There are good reviews of the project at the ABC here and at the Guardian website here



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Archaeology News - Tower of human skulls excavated at Aztec site Templo Mayor

11 July 2017

Ongoing excavations at Templo Mayor (Great Temple), a now buried structure built by the Aztecs in their capital city Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City), have uncovered a large tower of at least 650 human skulls. The tower is thought to be the structure recorded by the invading Spanish conquistadores as the Huey Tzompantli. The skulls are mostly of men although the remains of women and children are also present. It has long been thought that the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples performed ritualistic human sacrifices as offerings to the sun although there has been some argument about the veracity of this claim.

The Guardian website included a brief article about the finds here and there is a nice review of the Templo Mayor site at the open online journal Omics International here.

Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters

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NAIDOC Week 2017

29 June 2017

NAIDOC Week runs from the 2nd to the 9th July. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. NAIDOC week is always held in the first week of July and is a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and achievements as well as an opportunity to educate the wider community about Aboriginal history. There will be many NAIDOC themed events going on next week and we encourage everyone to get involved. The NAIDOC website is a great place to start.

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Archaeology News - Age of Homo sapiens pushed back to 315,000 BP

29 June 2017

There is a lot of excitement in the world of physical anthropology at the moment with the publication of an study of the remains of at least five Homo sapiens in a site in Morocco called Jebel Irhoud. These remains are unusual because the fossils are older than 300,000, making these the oldest human remains yet found in the world. Making them especially interesting is the fact that they are not where anyone expected them to be (lets say, East Africa). The presence of Homo sapiens in north west Africa this early suggests that the species may have been distributed more widely more quickly than has usually been assumed. A review article can be found at Nature here although the full journal article  is behind a paywall. There is a good review article at The Guardian website here also.

Photograph: Credit: Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI-EVA, Leipzig

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