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Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia, where the recently discovered ancient Aboriginal underwater sites are located               Source: DHSC / PLOS ONE

First Ice Age Underwater Aboriginal Sites Found Off Australia

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For the first time, scientists in Australia have discovered ancient archaeological underwater Aboriginal sites and artifacts, but a new gas pipe line threatens to destroy similar undiscovered sites.

Underwater scientists working off the coast of Western Australia’s (WA) remote Pilbara region , close to the ancient rock engravings of the Burrup Peninsula, have discovered two ancient underwater Aboriginal sites containing large numbers of until-now lost artifacts, including hundreds of stone tools.

The results of a multidisciplinary three-year investigation by teams from Flinders University , University of Western Australia , James Cook University , Airborne Research Australia , and the University of York in the United Kingdom are presented in a new paper titled “The Deep History of Sea Country,” published today in the Journal PLOS One . The research project was conducted in conjunction with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, five indigenous groups who together represent the traditional custodians or Ngurra-ra Ngarli for the Burrup Peninsula. The Australian Archaeological Association described the research, as “highly significant”.

Location maps of the study area and sites referenced in text. 1) Cape Bruguieres Island; (2) North Gidley Island; (3) Flying Foam Passage; (4) Dolphin Island; (5) Angel Island; (6) Legendre Island; (7) Malus Island; (8) Goodwyn Island; (9) Enderby Island. (Image: PLOS ONE)

Location maps of the study area and sites referenced in text. 1) Cape Bruguieres Island; (2) North Gidley Island; (3) Flying Foam Passage; (4) Dolphin Island; (5) Angel Island; (6) Legendre Island; (7) Malus Island; (8) Goodwyn Island; (9) Enderby Island. (Image: PLOS ONE )

First Underwater Aboriginal Sites Are The Find Of A Lifetime

Vast swathes of WA's Pilbara coast line were submerged between 7,000 and 18,000 years ago, after the last ice age receded, causing sea levels to rise across the globe. The newly discovered underwater Aboriginal sites are part of what is known today as “Sea Country” by members of the five indigenous Australian groups, who maintain an equilibrium with nature on the peninsula.

According to a report on ABC.News, the team of scientists who discovered “269 artifacts” underwater at Cape Bruguieres was led by archaeologist and Associate Professor Jonathan Benjamin from Flinders University. Dr Benjamin said it was the “find of a lifetime,” and that he was personally “thrilled” that his team had “gone out looking for something that they didn't know if they could find, or not,” but he concluded that they have “actually, really succeeded.”

Aerial view of Cape Bruguieres Channel at high tide (Photo: J. Leach); (below) divers record artefacts in the channel (Photos: S. Wright, J. Benjamin, and M. Fowler). (Image: DHSC / PLOS ONE)

Aerial view of Cape Bruguieres Channel at high tide (Photo: J. Leach); (below) divers record artefacts in the channel (Photos: S. Wright, J. Benjamin, and M. Fowler). (Image: DHSC / PLOS ONE )

Mapping Pre-Ice Age Underwater Archaeology

Before sea levels rose after the last Ice Age Australia's landmass was almost three times larger, and the scientists say in their paper that the sea has risen “130 meters, shrinking the country's land mass by two million square kilometers, and handing it to the sea.”

Laying out what this discovery means, PHD student Chelsea Wiseman said it informs archaeologists about the peopling of Australia and how the various cultures survived on this coastline for thousands of years.

Dr Benjamin also pointed out that while Australia's Underwater Cultural Heritage Act was updated last year to automatically include sunken aircraft and shipwrecks older than 75 years, it doesn’t automatically protect ancient underwater Aboriginal sites. By way of explanation, Dr Benjamin speculates that these are “the first ancient Aboriginal sites to be found on Australia's seabed ” and until now there has only been the potential for discovery of sites like this, he said.

Artifacts located at the investigation site (Image: PLOS ONE)

Artifacts located at the investigation site (Image: PLOS ONE )

Underwater Aboriginal Sites Vs Lots of Gas Pipeline Dollars

Cynics might think the “real” reason that the updated Australian Heritage Laws don’t specifically protect archaeological underwater Aboriginal sites is because they often lie on resource rich landscapes and transport channels for these valuable resources. This thinking was covered in the ABC news report, cited above, in which ABC stated those protections “may be tested in the future, as industry seeks to expand in the region.”

Controversially, in January this year, WA’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended approval of a new subsea pipeline on the condition a cultural management plan was developed with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. And an earlier ABC report covered the story about gas giant Woodside which is planning to link its Scarborough field with its processing facility on the Burrup Peninsula with a “434-kilometer pipeline to cut through the Dampier Archipelago.”

While the newly discovered archaeology rich underwater Aboriginal sites do not actually fall within the proposed dredging area for the new pipeline, scientists have raised concerns about the destruction of yet undiscovered underwater sites of this kind. Woodside, the gas giant, is expected to make its final investment decision next year. Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation chief executive officer Peter Jeffries, told ABC that the new underwater Aboriginal site discovery was “a source of pride” for the members of the organization, and that he was keen to see the sites, and others like it, “protected.”

Top image: Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia, where the recently discovered ancient Aboriginal underwater sites are located               Source: DHSC / PLOS ONE

By Ashley Cowie

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