New research has reappraised the age of bone artefacts found in a well-known Kimberley cave site in WA as being more than 35,000 years old. This makes them among the oldest bone tools found in Australia.
The team of scientists, including experts from the University of Western Australia, analysed eight bone artefacts from the Riwi Cave in Mimbi country in the south-central Kimberley region.
Their research has now been published in the International Journal of Osteoachaeology. Osteoarchaeology is the scientific study of human skeletons excavated from archaeological sites.
Four of the bone artefacts were found in layers dating to between 35,000 and 46,000 years ago, making them some of the oldest bone tools in Australia.
Oldest bone artefact believed older than 46,000 years
Previously, the oldest bone artefact – from the site known as Carpenter’s Gap 1 in the Napier Range in the Kimberleys – was found to have be older than 46,000 years.
The artefacts reviewed for the latest research were used for a range of activities at the site, including the manufacture of plant-fibre items, the processing of spinifex resin, and fish or bird hunting.
“The tools show the importance of organic materials in the early technologies of First Nations people,” said Professor Jane Balme from the University of WA. She worked with researchers from across Australia to identify the bone artefacts from the Riwi excavation.
Window into a great diversity of activities undertaken
“They provide a window into a greater diversity of activities undertaken by people than are revealed by stone artefacts alone.
“We are grateful for the generosity of the Mimbi Community who gave us the opportunity to study this site.”
Dr Michelle Langley, from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution and Forensics & Archaeology, said the objects indicated that bone tools had been around for a very long time in the Indigenous Australian toolkit.
“We once thought that bone tools were not so important in the north of Australia and were only brought into the toolkit relatively recently,” she noted.
Tools hard to find because of the harsh environment
“These tools show that wasn’t the case – they were always made and used; we just hadn’t found them because they haven’t been surviving [for] long time periods in the hostile preservation conditions of northern Australia.”
Dr Langley said the bone artefacts were of different forms with different traces of use, indicating the variety of ways in which bone tools were used in this region in the deep past.
“They were used for activities which typically do not survive archaeologically,” she said.
“One indicates plant or skin working (making baskets or working skins), while another appears to have been used [for] digging up or working resin. Resin was used to glue together tool parts and to make hand-holds for tools.”