50,000 years ago people went to sea

In a stunning discovery, a team of archaeologists in Australia has found extensive remains of a sophisticated human community living 50,000 years ago. The remains were found in a rock shelter in the continent’s arid southern interior. Packed with a range of tools, decorative pigments, and animal bones, the shelter is a wide, roomy space located in the Flinders Ranges, which are the ancestral lands of the Adnyamathanha. The find overturns previous hypotheses of how humans colonized Australia, and it also proves that they interacted with now-extinct megafauna that ranged across the continent.

Dubbed the Warratyi site, the rock shelter sits above a landscape criss-crossed with deep gorges that would have flowed with water when Paleolithic humans lived here. From extensive excavations conducted last year, the archaeologists estimate that people occupied Warratyi on and off for 40,000 years, finally abandoning the site just 10,000 years ago.

By analyzing layers of earth in the shelter, the scientists were able to construct a timeline of settlement in the space. They used carbon dating on nuggets of hearth charcoal and eggshells to discover that the shelter was first occupied about 50,000 years ago. They also used a dating technique called optically simulated luminescence (OSL) on buried grains of quartz. This technique determines when those quartz grains last saw sunlight and heat. Both techniques returned similar dates, adding to the researchers’ confidence in their findings.

This makes Warratyi the oldest evidence of human occupation in the arid Australian interior, long believed too hostile for ancient people who had few tools. But these findings make it clear that the ancestors of Australia’s indigenous people were, in fact, seasoned explorers who could survive in difficult conditions.

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