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Shelter proof of oldest arid Aboriginals

AAP logoAAP 2/11/2016 Marnie Banger

Aboriginal Australians settled in arid parts of the country 49,000 years ago, a rock shelter in South Australia's Flinders Ranges has revealed.

Remnants of plants, ochre and bones, including one from a rhino-sized marsupial, are among 4300 artefacts uncovered at the site about 550 km north of Adelaide.

Some are up to 49,000 years old, research led by La Trobe University archeologist Giles Hamm and published in the journal Nature shows.

The artefacts show Australia's first peoples lived in the country's harsh interior 10,000 years earlier than previous findings had proved.

A sharpened bone point found at the site is the oldest bone tool found in Australia.

Mr Hamm said the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association's Cliff Coulthard helped him find the remote site.

"We looked up and there was a blackened wall and we knew that was obviously an indication of people firing inside the shelter," Mr Hamm said.

He said an early probe found charcoal a metre deep into the shelter's soil but his team had not initially realised just how far back the shelter dated.

"We only thought it might have been five or six thousand years old, because there's no way we thought that a metre of deposit would go back so far," he said.

"The first inkling we knew it was old, we got these emu egg shells back starting in the 20s, the 20-something thousand, and then it just kept getting older."

One bone found at the site belonged to the largest marsupial to have existed, the Diprotodon optatuma, a wombat-like creature the size of a rhino.

Gavin Prideaux from Flinders University's School of Biological Science said the finding proves humans were interacting with megafauna at the time and were likely eating them.

"None of us can imagine any way that a Diprotodon would have scaled the cliff up to that rock shelter, so it would have to have been brought up there by people," he said.

The University of Adelaide's Lee Arnold used radiocarbon and luminescence dating technologies to pinpoint the age of the shelter artefacts.

"The approach we've taken sets, in many ways, a kind of new benchmark for archaeological dating in terms of its comprehensiveness and the types of techniques that we've used," Dr Arnold said.

Adnyamathanha man Mr Coulthard, from the Flinders Ranges, said the long history of Warratyi shelter came as no surprise to his people.

"A lot of the old people said that our people were here a long time. They are still really interested," he said.

While it is widely accepted humans have been in Australia for at least 50,000 years, there has been debate over whether they could have lived in dry, far inland areas like the Flinders Ranges site.

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