Swallowed by rising sea levels, ancient Aboriginal underwater sites discovered
Scientists have discovered Australia’s first ever ancient Aboriginal underwater archaeological sites, settled on the sea bed for thousands of years.
- Australia’s first underwater Aboriginal heritage sites have been confirmed off WA’s Pilbara coast
- Australia’s coastline was two million square kilometres larger before sea levels rose after the last ice age
- The submerged landscapes represent what is known today as Sea Country by many Indigenous Australians
Hidden relics, including hundreds of stone tools and grinding stones, have been found at two sites off Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region, close to the Burrup Peninsula which is renowned for its ancient rock engravings.
"For me, this is the find of a lifetime," said lead archaeologist Associate Professor Jonathan Benjamin from Flinders University.
"I’m absolutely thrilled that we went out looking for something that we didn’t know if we could find or not.
"But we have actually, really succeeded."
Coastline swallowed by the sea
Australia’s landmass used to be much larger, almost a third bigger, before sea levels rose and drowned the landscape between 7,000 and 18,000 years ago after the last ice age.
The sea level has risen 130 metres during that time, shrinking the country’s land mass by two million square kilometres and handing it to the sea.
The Australian Archaeological Association described the research, titled The Deep History of Sea Country, as "highly significant".
"I think it is a significant advance in understanding the huge cultural landscapes around the coast of Australia," association spokesman Professor Peter Veth said.
He said the confirmation that the sites exist would likely lead to further research in other locations.
"I would not be surprised if traditional owner corporations and researchers look at some of their sea countries throughout areas like the northern Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay, and possibly the south-west [of WA] to try and match up some of those oral traditions and histories people have of the sea encroaching," he said.
Australia’s oldest underwater archaeology
The discoveries of 269 artefacts at Cape Bruguieres and an 8,500-year-old underwater freshwater spring at Flying Foam Passage off Dampier were published today in the open access scientific journal PLOS One.
It followed a three-year investigation by teams from Flinders University, University of Western Australia, James Cook University, Airborne Research Australia, and University of York in the United Kingdom.
The research was conducted with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, representing five groups who are traditional custodians or Ngurra-ra Ngarli for the Burrup Peninsula.
Scientists hope the discoveries and future finds will help shed more light on Aboriginal ways of life thousands of years ago.
PHD student Chelsea Wiseman described it as a new frontier for Australian archaeology.
"This tells us things about the peopling of Australia, how people have been living on coastlines for thousands of years.
"It tells us about resource use and migration across Australia."
Unlike shipwrecks, no automatic protection
Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act was only updated last year to automatically include sunken aircraft and shipwrecks older than 75 years.
But it does not automatically protect ancient Aboriginal sites, Dr Benjamin said.
"That’s probably because these are the first ancient Aboriginal sites to be found on Australia’s seabed. Until now there has only been the potential for discovery of sites like this," he said.
The site was also today placed on the WA Aboriginal Heritage List, and the Federal Government said underwater cultural sites, including Indigenous sites, fell under the state’s jurisdiction.
A spokesman for Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley did not say whether the Government would consider updating the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act to also afford automatic protection to Aboriginal underwater sites.
"More detailed assessment would be required to determine this, including consideration by the Australian Heritage Council and decision by the minister."
Find could impact on industry
Those protections may be tested in the future, as industry seeks to expand in the region.
Gas giant Woodside is planning to link its Scarborough field with its processing facility on the Burrup Peninsula with a 434-kilometre pipeline to cut through the Dampier Archipelago.
The sites do not fall within the proposed dredging area, but scientists have raised concerns about the potential for other, yet undiscovered, underwater Aboriginal sites in the zone.
WA’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended approval of the pipeline in January on the condition a cultural management plan was developed in conjunction with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.
The matter is currently before the Government’s Appeals Convenor.
Woodside expects to make a final investment decision on the proposal next year.
It congratulated the research team and traditional custodians on the "ground-breaking" discovery, and said it was reviewing the report and will work with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and scientists to understand the emerging information and new findings.
"We note that this is new and emerging research that has been conducted outside Woodside’s area of operation and proposed development," the company said in a statement.
Woodside said it was also providing support for further research into rock art dating and submerged heritage.
Murujuga say ‘protection is vital’
Traditional owners expect the find with add weight to their push for a World Heritage Listing of the Murujuga cultural area on the Burrup Peninsula, home to a globally significant collection of more than a million ancient rock engravings.
Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation chief executive officer Peter Jeffries said the discovery was a source of pride for the organisation, its members, and other traditional owners.
He was keen to see the sites, and others like it, protected.
"I will be talking to Woodside with regards to their Scarborough development," he said.
"It’s been scientifically proven to be there [the underwater archaeological site] and the age that we are talking about, between 7,500 and 8,000 years ago, is significant.
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July 2, 2020 at 06:06AM