New research has reappraised the age of bone artefacts found in a famous Kimberley cave site as being more than 35,000 years old, making them among the oldest bone tools found in Australia.
Published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, the team of scientists from across Australia analysed eight bone artefacts from Riwi Cave in Mimbi country in south-central Kimberley, Western Australia.
Four of the bone artefacts were found in layers dating from between 35,000 and 46,000 years ago, making them some of the oldest bone tools in Australia. Previously, the oldest bone artefact from Carpenter’s Gap 1 in the Kimberley was found to be <46,000 years old.
The artefacts were used for a range of activities occurring at the site, including the manufacture of plant fibre items, the processing of spinifex resin, and fish or bird hunting.
Dr Michelle Langley from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution and Forensics & Archaeology, School of Environment and Science worked with Professor Jane Balme from The University of Western Australia and Professor Sue O’Connor from The Australian National University to identify the bone artefacts from the Riwi excavation.
“These tools indicate that bone tools have 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,” Dr Langley said.
“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 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 uses 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 in digging up or working resin. Resin was used to glue together tool parts and to make hand holds for tools.”
“Until recently bone artefacts of this age were thought to be confined to the cold southern regions of Australia and Tasmania and to have been used in skin working to make clothing as protection against the cold. These new finds from the arid zone show have changed our perspective,” Professor O’Connor said.
“These tools show the importance of organic materials in the early technologies of First Nations people, and they provide a window into a greater diversity of activities undertaken by people than are revealed by stone artefacts alone,” Professor Balme said. “We are grateful for the generosity of the Mimbi Community who gave us the opportunity to study this site.”
‘The research ‘Bone Artifacts from Riwi Cave, south-central Kimberley: Reappraisal of the timing and role of osseous artifacts in northern Australia’ has been published in International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.