Sunday, August 06, 2017

RESEARCHERS HAVE FOUND EVIDECE THAT HUMANS ARRIVED IN AUSTRALIA ABOUT 65,000 YEARS AGO

A team of researchers, has found and dated artifacts in northern Australia that indicate humans arrived there about 65,000 years ago — more than 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. A paper published in the journal Nature describes dating techniques and artifact finds at Madjedbebe, a longtime site of archaeological research, that could inform other theories about the emergence of early humans and their coexistence with wildlife on the Australian continent.

The new date makes a difference, co-author and University of Washington associate professor of anthropology Ben Marwick said. Against the backdrop of theories that place humans in Australia anywhere between 47,000 and 60,000 years ago, the concept of earlier settlement calls into question the argument that humans caused the extinction of unique megafauna such as giant kangaroos, wombats and tortoises more than 45,000 years ago.

“Previously it was thought that humans arrived and hunted them out or disturbed their habits, leading to extinction, but these dates confirm that people arrived so far before that they wouldn’t be the central cause of the death of megafauna,” Marwick said. “It shifts the idea of humans charging into the landscape and killing off the megafauna. It moves toward a vision of humans moving in and coexisting, which is quite a different view of human evolution.”

Since 1973, digs at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in Australia’s Northern Territory, have unearthed more than 10,000 stone tools, ochres, plant remains and bones. Following the more recent excavations in 2012 and 2015, a University of Queensland-led research team, which included the UW, evaluated artifacts found in various layers of settlement using radiocarbon dating and optical stimulated luminescence (OSL).

The new research involved extensive cooperation with the local Aboriginal community, Marwick added. The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, representing the Mirarr people, joined much of the excavation and reviewed the findings, Marwick said. Researchers had both a memorandum of understanding and a contract with the community, which gave control to the Mirarr as senior custodians, oversight of the excavation and curation of the finds. The Mirarr were interested in supporting new research into the age of the site and in knowing more about the early human occupants, particularly given environmental threats posed by nearby modern-day mining activities.

Noteworthy among the artifacts found were ochre “crayons” and other pigments, what are believed to be the world’s oldest edge-ground hatchets, and evidence that these early humans ground seeds and processed plants. The pigments indicate the use of paint for symbolic and artistic expression, while the tools may have been used to cut bark or food from trees.

Labs in Australia used OSL to identify the age range, Marwick explained. Radiocarbon dating, which requires a certain level of carbon in a substance, can analyze organic materials up to about 45,000 or 50,000 years old. But OSL is used on minerals to date, say, the last time a sand grain was exposed to sunlight — helpful in determining when an artifact was buried — up to 100,000 years ago or more. That process measured thousands of sand grains individually so as to establish more precise ages.

The UW researchers worked in the geoarchaeology lab on the Seattle campus, testing sediment samples that Marwick helped excavate at Madjedbebe. One graduate student and six undergraduate students studied the properties of hundreds of dirt samples to try to picture the time in which the ancient Australian humans lived.

Using a scanning electron microscope, the students examined the composition of the sediment layers, the size of the grains of dirt and any microscopic plant matter. For another test, the students baked soil samples at various temperatures, then measured the mass of each sample, said UW doctoral student Gayoung Park, another author on the paper. Because organic matter turns into gases at high heat, a loss of mass indicated how much matter was in a given sample. This helped create a picture of the environments across the sedimentary layers of the site. The team found that when these human ancestors arrived, northern Australia was wetter and colder.

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