Despite being unearthed almost 25 years ago, Australia’s oldest-known piece of Indigenous jewelry is finally shining under the spotlight - and making history.
The 13cm-long kangaroo bone point was excavated in the Kimberly region of northern Australia between 1992-1993, by a team of Traditional Owners and archaeologists from The Australian National University (ANU) led by Professor Sue O’Connor. But it was only this year that the artefact was analysed and dated.
Researcher Dr Michelle Langley of the ANU School of Culture, History and Language said this is the earliest hard evidence that Australia’s first inhabitants were using bone to make tools and ornaments.
The artefact is the oldest sample of bone ornament used by modern humans (homo sapiens), only exceeded in age by a couple of raptor claws, which may have been used as ornaments by Neanderthals in Europe.
Dr Langley told NITV that archaeologists have found evidence that humans were making bone points for at least 75,000 years in Africa and Europe, but there was no proof of this in Australia.
“Before Prof. Sue O’Connor’s team found the point, we only had points in Australia that dated back 20,000 years. They all came from the south, from Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, a few from Perth, where the preservation conditions were good,” she says.
A flawed history
Archaeological evidence suggests that people got to Australia 50 to 60,000 years ago, but the bone tools dated back 20,000 only, leaving a 40,000 year gap.
“There was this interesting idea that they [Aboriginal people] had lost the knowledge of how to make bone technology with the stresses of [inhabiting] a new continent and they just re-invented it again. But with this discovery we know that they were making it for that whole period, it’s just that we hadn’t identified it yet,” Dr Langley explains.
“That really didn’t make sense, because why did you start making it and then stop making it and start making it again?”
The problem was in part, that archeologists hadn’t excavated the oldest sites enough.
Dr Langley explains that many locations in the north of Australia are subject to harsh weather conditions that deteriorate organic materials, such as bone, so only stone tools remained intact.
“It’s a combination of different factors, but when you … go from wet to dry, things aren’t going to survive.
Many of the sites are sandstone, and things survive better in limestone rock shelters because the deposits are more alkaline. They’re usually down south. Things in the open won’t survive due to exposure to the elements and bush fires.”
Luckily, not all is lost.
“Carpenter’s Gap is a good site because it’s a rock shelter and there’s a big boulder at the front that traps the sediment. All of the sediment and the rubbish that people left behind were being protected from the weather. That’s allowed for a whole lot of things to survive for a long period of time.”
Presence of evidence, lack of know-how
But the idea that First Australians had no bone technology stemmed from a contemporary lack of interest and expertise in ancient bone tools amongst the local scientific community.
Dr Langely recently returned from undertaking PhD studies in bone tools at Oxford University. She told NITV that in Australia, most scientists focused on studying stone tools.
“For a long time people thought that the bone wasn’t preserving as well, and wasn’t as interesting. People were more interested in stone artefacts here,” she says.
Prof Sue O’Connor, who led the original team that researched the Carpenter’s Gap site in the 90s, gave Dr Langley the bone point she had been keeping for over two decades. She was astounded by the discovery.
“I was surprised that it had gone unnoticed for such a long period of time.”
The 2 year project was aimed at excavating the oldest evidence of human occupation in the Kimberly region, where the earliest evidence of rock art (over 40,000 years old) is found.
Prof O’Connor explains that because there’s been very little work done in the oldest sites, archaeologists have just made “assumptions of how people lived just by looking at stone artefacts ... and basing narratives on little or no evidence”.
“You can re-write the pre-history by making one new find”.
When Prof O’Connor’s team first found bone material at the site, they initially thought it was food refuse. Then they found five bone points.
Dr Langley says there’s still a lot of material to go through. “One day excavating is three days in the lab,” she explains.
“Originally, I thought the point was going to be most likely for making either leather clothing or basketry, but when we went to the Australian Museum in Sydney, and compared it with bone points found more recently, and [learned] what they were for, I found that the microscopic traces and residue more closely matched a nose ornament.”
Knowledge handed down by Traditional Owners and photographic records confirm nose ornaments and piercings were widely used in Australia.
“Some people told us kangaroo bone ornaments were worn by people who had gained specific knowledge, like Elders, but in other places men, women and children could wear them as a general bodily ornament, considered to make you look attractive. In the Kimberly region, we got some indication that everyone was allowed to wear them,” Dr Langley explains.
Working together with Traditional Owners on country
Natalie Davey is a Bunuba Ranger who has taken part in various archaeological excavations in the Kimberly – including the one in the 90s, when the bone ornament was found.
Natalie recalls the excavation project involved many locals.
“Personally, it’s been an amazing experience. It brings home that connection to country and ultimately to continue learning, sharing and developing skills and technique, both traditional and mainstream, to look after our Muwayi (country, Bunuba language).
She told NITV Prof O’Connor has a good reputation engaging residents and Indigenous rangers.
“They understand cultural protocol. They don’t waltz in to find their data,” she says.
Natalie explains the ANU team is always accompanied and guided by Traditional Owners. Elders believe working in this way is very positive, and helps shed light into part of their history and culture.
The methods she’s learned from the archeologists include how to work with layers, how to date, how to find evidence of ancestors, and how to maintain the sites. To her these techniques are vital, as they inform “a new way of looking at country”.
“We always know of it through our oral traditions, but these are positive other ways that we could observe and record our history.
“Mainstream data is important. It’s an eye opener into the evolution of technology. It’s proof, as some of the knowledge has been lost.”
Natalie Davey says she was excited to find out about the antiquity and significance of the bone ornament.
“It’s an amazing thing to come across. It’s a really wonderful thing to get that connection back to our ancestors – who they were and how they lived!”
Prof O’Connor laments that many of the Elders that took part in the excavation 20 years ago are no longer with us today to celebrate the finding.
“They were happy for archeology to take place at the site and were fascinated by the work," she says.
“They were interested in the information and continuity of traditional practices. They would look at these things [the artefacts] and see how they might have been made or used.”
Given the recent finding, Prof O’Connor’s team and Dr Langley will soon return to the Kimberly to continue excavating.
Dr Langely believes her discovery will help foster a growing interest in researching bone technology.
“It shows the importance of looking into the bones, what was considered to be less interesting traditionally in Australia. These things can be sitting there this whole time and by looking at them properly you can find something important.”