By GEOFF SPENCER
Associated Press Writer
Sept 21, 1996
WOLLONGONG, Australia (AP) -- Archaeologists have found rock art they believe is the oldest in the world and artifacts that suggest human beings lived in Australia far earlier than previously thought.
The team from the Australian Museum and University of Wollongong said their discoveries at a remote site in Australia's tropical northwest challenge widely held theories about the history of human life.
The group found thousands of dot-like indentations engraved on a group of monoliths that may be 75,000 years old. Stone tools and other findings suggest Australia was inhabited by humans up to 176,000 years ago. Until now, scientists theorized that Australia was first inhabited 60,000 years ago by humans who came via Asia. And the oldest reliably dated rock art has been 32,000-year-old cave paintings at Chauvet in France.
The findings at least "double the age which we previously thought people had come into Australia. That is enormously significant," said museum archaeologist Richard Fullagar.
Many scientists theorize that Homo sapiens did not emerge from Africa until about 100,000 years ago. The findings, which must be confirmed by further analysis, suggest some form of human was capable of crossing large bodies of water thousands of years earlier.
The group's analysis "also gives a date for the rock art between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago, which is the oldest rock art anywhere in the world. It opens up a whole plethora of questions," Fullagar said.
The findings are to be published in the British archaeological journal "Antiquity" in December.
Four years ago, local aborigines first showed archaeologists the site among sculptured rock outcrops at Jinmium in the Kimberley region, 280 miles southwest of Darwin.
The naturally positioned rocks were apparently chosen to mark boundaries and trails to caves and tunnels.They may have had the same significance to their decorators as the manmade monoliths of Stonehenge had for prehistoric man in Britain, Fullagar said.
Stone tools, tiny stone chips and other artifacts have been found at the base of the monoliths in soil sediments accumulated over thousands of generations by seasonal floods and winds.
Thermoluminescene tests dated soil samples at between 116,000 and 176,000 years old and similar tests dated the monoliths. More laboratory work is being done at two Australian universities.
The discovery site is being kept a secret so it remains undisturbed, though it is still frequented by aborigines, whose traditional beliefs say the rocky outcrops are the remnants of ancient beings who turned to stone.
The dot-like engravings don't resemble anything that aborigines in recent times have designed, said museum research scientist Paul Tacon. Many are abstract, though at least one pattern seems to be the outline of a kangaroo.
"Aborigines don't do this anymore. That reinforces our belief that these are extremely old artworks," Tacon said. "We'll never know exactly what they mean."
Team member and archaeologist Leslie Head suggested that the first people could have arrived around 140,000 years ago when an ice age lowered sea levels and narrowed the gap between Australia and Indonesia.
"I have no problem contemplating a 100,000- to 200,000-year occupation of Australia," Kim Ackerman of the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Original file name: .CNI - Early Man in Australia
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