Australian scientists discover ancient underwater Aboriginal sites

The first underwater Aboriginal sites have been discovered off Australia, dating back thousands of years.

Aboriginal artefacts discovered off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia represent Australia’s oldest known underwater archaeology, and will help with the understanding of the cultural and technology development of its first peoples, scientists have said.

The sites, at Cape Bruguieres and Flying Foam Passage, date back to when the current seabed was dry land and they were discovered through a series of surveys in the Dampier Archipelago.

An international team of archaeologists, including researchers from York University, teamed up with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to locate and investigate ancient artefacts at two underwater sites which have yielded hundreds of stone tools made by Aboriginal peoples, including grinding stones.

The sites, at Cape Bruguieres and Flying Foam Passage, date back to when the current seabed was dry land [Credit: PLOS ONE]

The submerged cultural landscapes represent what is known today as Sea Country to many Indigenous Australians, who have a deep cultural, spiritual and historical connection to these underwater environments.

Associate Professor Jonathan Benjamin, of Flinders University in Australia, said: “Today we announce the discovery of two underwater archaeological sites that were once on dry land.

“This is an exciting step for Australian archaeology as we integrate maritime and Indigenous archaeology and draw connections between land and sea.

“Australia is a massive continent but few people realise that more than 30 per cent of its land mass was drowned by sea-level rise after the last ice age. This means that a huge amount of the archaeological evidence documenting the lives of Aboriginal people is now underwater.”

He continued: “Now we finally have the first proof that at least some of this archaeological evidence survived the process of sea level rise.

“The ancient coastal archaeology is not lost for good; we just haven’t found it yet. These new discoveries are a first step toward exploring the last real frontier of Australian archaeology.”

The research team say that the discovery of the sites emphasises the need for stronger federal legislation to protect and manage underwater heritage across two million square kilometres of landscapes that were once above sea level in Australia, and hold major insights into human history.

Dr Benjamin added: “Managing, investigating and understanding the archaelogy of the Australian continental shelf in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners and custodians is one of the last frontiers in Australian archaeology.

“Our results represent the first step in a journey of discovery to explore the potential of archaeology on the continental shelves which can fill a major gap in the human history of the continent.”

The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.