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16 September 2007
Sydney's history goes back 30,000 years

A cache of charcoal, stone tools and artefacts unearthed to make way for a high-rise apartment block has been found to be 30,000 years old, more than doubling the accepted age of Aboriginal settlement in Sydney (Australia). The discovery was the result of a dig originally set up to search for signs of convict era occupation. It is the oldest evidence yet found of humans occupying what is now metropolitan Sydney.
     Aboriginal burial sites at Lake Mungo have been dated at 40,000 years. The archaeologist who led the dig, Jo McDonald, said the previous oldest evidence of human habitation around Sydney had been found in the Blue Mountains (14,700 years), at Kurnell (12,500), and near the old Tempe House on the Cooks River (10,700). "We have always thought that humans arrived much earlier in Sydney, having made their way down the coast from northern Australia and moving inland up major rivers. But most of that earlier occupation evidence was drowned on the coastal plain when the sea level rose to its current height around 7000 years ago."
     The sandy site in Sydney may have once been part of a crescent-shaped beach on the Parramatta River. Possibly 800 metres long and 100 metres wide, the sand body was deposited by the river when the sea level was higher around 120,000 years ago. The archaeologists dug in three spots - "We found lots and lots of stone artefacts, around 20,000 of them," said Dr McDonald. "There were lots of spear points, axes, and quite a few anvils and grinding stones."
     The finds indicate the Aboriginal inhabitants used some of these tools to crush water plants to make starch-based meal. There were also stones Aborigines had placed in their beach camp fires to retain the heat of the flames. Rounded cobbles and pebbles made of yellow volcanic stone, not natural to the Parramatta area, were typical of tools used more than 5000 years ago. "People carried around large pieces of the stone because they had good flaking properties, and they could rely on these when they were in unfamiliar territory," said Dr McDonald. If a new tool was needed, the Aborigines simply fashioned it on the spot from one of the stones.
     But the most extraordinary discovery was charcoal, possibly from ancient campfires, found about a metre beneath the surface, and very close to some artefacts. Radiocarbon dating showed that the tiny fragments were 30,735 years old, give or take 400 years. Four other charcoal samples, recovered from shallower depths, gave increasingly younger ages, with the uppermost dated at 3270 years, plus or minus 35 years. The age pattern suggested Aborigines had been routinely camping on the site for at least 300 centuries. "It's proof of the perseverance of Aboriginal culture."

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald (15 September 2007)

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