Ancient Australians May Have Used the Great Barrier Reef to Survive Even Earlier Than We Thought

The deepest cultural material was found nearly two meters below the surface, in levels we radiocarbon dated to around 6,500 years ago.

by Sean Ulm, Ian J. McNiven, Kenneth McLean and The Conversation
Great Barrier Reef from above, Queensland, Australia.
Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Moment/Getty Images

Pottery was largely unknown in Australia before the recent past, despite well-known pottery traditions in nearby Papua New Guinea and the islands of the western Pacific. The absence of ancient Indigenous pottery in Australia has long puzzled researchers.

Over the past 400 years, pottery from southeast Asia appeared across northern Australia, associated with the activities of Makassan people from Sulawesi (this activity was mainly trepanging or collecting sea cucumbers). Older pottery in Australia is only known from the Torres Strait adjacent to the Papua New Guinea coast, where a few dozen pottery fragments have been reported, mostly dating to around 1700 years ago.

Why has no evidence been found of early pottery use by Aboriginal people? Various explanations have been proposed, including suggesting that archaeologists simply weren’t looking hard enough. Well, now, we’ve found some.

In new research, we report the oldest securely dated ceramics found in Australia from archaeological excavations on Jiigurru (in the Lizard Island group) on the northern Great Barrier Reef located 600km south of Torres Strait. Our analysis shows that pottery was made locally more than 1800 years ago.

Finding pottery at Jiigurru

The Blue Lagoon in Australia was the site of an archeological discovery.


Back in 2006, several pieces of pottery were found in Blue Lagoon on Jiigurru, 33km off mainland Cape York Peninsula.

Finding pottery at Jiigurru raised some big questions. How old was it? Was it made by local Aboriginal communities? Or was it traded in from elsewhere? If so, where did it come from? Was it from a European shipwreck? Or was it made by the famous Lapita people who colonized the islands of the southwest Pacific?

Our team excavated several more pieces of pottery from Blue Lagoon in 2009, 2010, and 2012.

Preliminary analyses showed most of the pottery was made from local materials. However, despite a lot of work, our efforts to determine the age of this pottery were inconclusive, and we were no closer to working out how old it was or who made it.

In 2013, we went back to Jiigurru to excavate a shell midden on a headland near where the Blue Lagoon pottery was found. A shell midden represents a place where people lived, containing food remains (shells, bones), charcoal from campfires, and stone tools left behind.

Radiocarbon dating shows people started camping at this place some 4,000 years ago, making it the oldest site then known as Jiigurru. But no pottery was found.

A broader search

By 2016 the team had reached a dead end in investigating the few pieces of pottery we had. Instead, working in partnership with Traditional Owners, we turned the research program to the extraordinary Indigenous history of the whole of Jiigurru and began surveying all the islands.

In 2017, we began excavating a large shell midden at Jiigurru during the surveys.

To our amazement, around 40cm below the surface we began to find pieces of pottery among the shells in the excavation. We knew this was a big deal. We carefully bagged each piece of pottery and mapped where each sherd came from, and kept digging.

The pottery stopped at about 80cm depth, with 82 pieces of pottery in total. Most are very small, with an average length of just 18 millimetres. The pottery assemblage includes rim and neck pieces and some of the pottery is decorated with pigment and incised lines.

The oldest pottery

But we had another surprise waiting for us.

The deepest cultural material was found nearly two meters below the surface, in levels we radiocarbon dated to around 6,500 years ago. This is the earliest evidence of offshore island use on the northern Great Barrier Reef.

The reef shells eaten and discarded in these lowest levels had been buried so quickly that they still have color on their surfaces. Archaeological sites of this depth and age are uncommon anywhere around the Australian coast.

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal and shells found close to the pottery shows that it is between 2,950 and 1,815 years old, making it the earliest securely dated pottery ever found in Australia. Analysis of the clays and tempers shows that all of the pottery was likely made on Jiigurru.

What does it tell us that we didn’t already know?

The findings are clear evidence that Aboriginal people made and used pottery thousands of years ago.

The archaeological evidence does not point to outsiders bringing pottery directly to Jiigurru. Instead, the evidence shows that Cape York First Nations communities were intimately engaged in ancient maritime networks, connecting them with peoples, knowledges and technologies across the Coral Sea region, including the knowledge of how to make pottery.

They were not isolated or geographically constrained as once conceived.

The results also demonstrate that Aboriginal communities had sophisticated watercraft and navigational skills in using their Sea Country estates more than 6,000 years ago.

What else don’t we know?

The Jiigurru pottery gives us new insight into Australia’s history and the international reach of First Nations communities thousands of years before the British invasion in 1788.

Very little research has been conducted anywhere on eastern Cape York Peninsula. We think it is very unlikely that Jiigurru holds the only secrets to our country’s people past. What other cultural and historical surprises await to be found?

This article was originally published on The Conversation by Sean Ulm at James Cook University, Ian J. McNiven at Monash University and Kenneth McLean at Indigenous Knowledge. Read the original article here.

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