Por: Megan Gannon
Australia has a deep human history stretching back 65,000 years, but many of its oldest archaeological sites are now underwater. In an encouraging sign that Aboriginal artifacts and landscapes may actually be preserved offshore, archaeologists have discovered a 7,000-year-old site submerged along Australia's continental shelf, the first of its kind. Their discovery is outlined today in the journal PLoS One. At the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, when glaciers melted and sea level rose, waters inundated one-third of Australia’s habitable land. As part of a project called Deep History of Sea Country, Jonathan Benjamin, a professor of maritime archaeology at Flinders University in Adelaide, led a team that searched for submerged sites off Murujuga (also known as the Dampier Archipelago), a dry and rocky coastal region in northwestern Australia.
This area has a wealth of inland archaeological sites, including more than one million examples of rock art. About 18,000 years ago, the shoreline of Murujuga would have extended another 100 miles further than the current coast. But Benjamin and his colleagues had little to go on when they began to search the offshore territory.
"We were going into an area completely cold in terms of the probability of discovery," Benjamin says. "So we just figured if we could throw every bit of technology and a lot of smart people at the problem, after three years, we should come up with something."
At first, the team used LiDAR-mounted airplanes and sonar-equipped boats to scan the shallow seas around Murujuga for places that might have the right conditions for preservation of artifacts. (They ruled out areas where the seabed is covered in lots of shifting sand, for example.) Last year, divers suited up in scuba gear to survey the identified targets. The first few sites delivered no finds. Then came Cape Bruguieres Channel.
Chelsea Wiseman, a doctoral student at Flinders University, recalls swimming through turquoise water when her colleague, John McCarthy, grabbed her fin and showed her an igneous rock stone tool. "The first one he handed me was just unmistakably a lithic artifact," Wiseman says. "Then we found four or five others."
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