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First underwater Aboriginal sites have been discovered 

During the last Ice Age, sea levels were much lower than today, and the coastline of  Australia 160 kilometers farther offshore. As the ice melted and sea levels rose, about two million square kilometers of the continent was submerged, including places where Aboriginal Australians once lived.

A study led by Jonathan Benjamin of Flinders University has now documented the first confirmed underwater Aboriginal archaeological sites off the coast of Australia. 

“Managing, investigating and understanding the archaeology 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,” said Benjamin.

“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 are the result of extensive field research conducted from 2017 to 2019. The team used aerial and underwater remote sensing technologies to search for submerged archaeological sites, and deployed divers to directly investigate.

The search zeroed in on two specific areas off the Murujuga coast of northwest Australia: Cape Bruguieres Channel and Flying Foam Passage. These sites represent the first confirmed underwater archaeological sites found on Australia’s continental shelf.

In Cape Bruguieres Channel, divers identified 269 artefacts that date back at least 7,000 years. One particular artifact recovered from a freshwater spring in Flying Foam Passage dated back at least 8,500 years. 

The findings demonstrate the usefulness of the exploratory techniques used for the study. According to the experts, the research serves as a foundation for developing new strategies to identify submerged archaeological targets on the Australian continental shelf and elsewhere.

“Emphasis is also placed on the need for legislation to better protect and manage underwater cultural heritage on the 2 million square kilometers of drowned landscapes that were once available for occupation in Australia, and where a major part of its human history must lie waiting to be discovered.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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