Aboriginal people lived in Australia up to 18,000 years earlier than once thought, when now-extinct giant kangaroos and wombats roamed the land.
A team of archaeologists have uncovered a treasure trove of evidence confirming the colonisation of Australia at least 65,000 years ago, earlier than estimates of between 47,000 and 60,000 years.
The discovery has major global significance for the history of human evolution.
It was made at the Madjedbebe rock shelter in the Northern Territory on the traditional lands of the Mirarr people surrounded by the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.
The find sets a new minimum age for the movement of humans out of Africa and across south Asia, and the subsequent interactions of homo sapiens with Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Findings from the excavation have been published in scientific journal Nature.
Lead author Associate Professor Chris Clarkson says the new chronology places people in Australia more than 20,000 years before the continent-wide extinction of megafauna such as giant short-faced kangaroos and diprotodons, or giant wombats.
The rock shelter site contains the oldest ground-edge stone axe technology in the world, the oldest known seed grinding tools in Australia and evidence of finely-made stone points, which may have served as spear tips.
Hundreds of thousands of unearthed artefacts from the dig also reveal cultural continuity and huge quantities of ground ochre in a region known for its spectacular Aboriginal rock art.
“People who were camping here were really innovative, dynamic, artistic people,” Prof Clarkson said.
The site is located on indigenous land excluded from Kakadu National Park after the Jabiluka uranium mining lease, held by Rio Tinto’s Energy Resources of Australia, was granted in 1982.
Two decades ago traditional owners led an international campaign against proposed uranium mining at Jabiluka, and all work there has since halted and the site rehabilitated.
Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Justin O’Brien says the archaeological study confirms the sophistication of ancient Aboriginal tools and underscores the need for conservation of the Jabiluka area.
For the first time in Australia, a landmark agreement gives the Mirarr people full control over the excavation, including curatorial powers and the final say over what happens to the artefacts at the end of the dig.
Bininj elder Mark Djandjomerr has been camping at the site with his family since he was a child and says it’s of huge cultural importance to his people.
Mirra traditional owner May Nango is worried the area won’t be protected for future generations if any mining goes ahead.
“This country belongs to Mirarr… we’d like to stay forever,” she said.