The Search for Aboriginal History Off the Coast of Australia | Travel


Feb. 3, 2021, 11:38 a.m.

When one-third of the Australian continent was submerged, ancestors of the world’s oldest residing cultures have been there to see it. Lands that when have been broad open to exploration and residential to many individuals flooded as the ocean crept inland following the final ice age, some 10,000 years in the past. Traces of human occupation vanished underwater. Aboriginal folks residing at the farthest reaches of Australia’s historical shoreline would have steadily retreated; these residing inland would have witnessed the sea reworking their nation. In Murujuga—as soon as an inside rocky mountain vary and now a coastal archipelago and peninsula in Western Australia—historical folks recorded the sea change in stone by artworks depicting newly arrived marine life and different animals, now extinct.

Today, Murujuga stands as one of the largest collections of historical rock artwork in the world. The million-plus engravings, which date again greater than 40,000 years, are accompanied by proof of human occupation scattered alongside the present-day coast, an archaeological report like no different. “That says something for how significant this particular site is,” says Peter Jeffries, CEO of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), which represents the 5 language teams in the space, and has about 1,200 members, although the neighborhood is larger than that.

There’s pleasure anew in Murujuga. Two extra historical archaeological websites have been discovered—underwater—in 2019, and reported in 2020. They date again to 7,000 and eight,500 years in the past, when water inundated the dry land the place they sat. They are the first submerged websites of Aboriginal cultural heritage discovered on Australia’s exceptionally broad continental shelf.

The Burrup Peninsula in Australia incorporates one of the largest collections of rock artwork in the world. The engravings discovered there date again greater than 40,000 years.

(Greg Wood/AFP through Getty Images)

Archaeologists consider that these underwater websites are simply the first of many; there could possibly be tens of millions extra artifacts on the market on the seabed. Around two million sq. kilometers of land round Australia was misplaced to rising seas after the final ice age, about the identical space as modern-day Mexico. The scientific pondering echoes Indigenous lore: that these now-submerged landscapes, typically referred to as sea nation, maintain some of Australia’s oldest histories.

And so, the ocean beckons. Excited by the potential of uncovering historical pasts, researchers and conventional custodians in Australia and past are stepping offshore to delve deeper into Indigenous histories, in search of websites that in all probability would have been destroyed or eroded in the event that they lay on dry land. “You mustn’t stop at the shoreline,” says archaeologist Jonathan Benjamin, who steered the venture in Murujuga. But when venturing into unknown waters, the search begins near shore.


Murujuga—translated as “hip bone sticking out”—is a spot few Australians have visited, and most may not even learn about. On the far northwest coast of Australia, the purple, rocky Burrup Peninsula juts into the sea from the port city of Dampier. Together with the surrounding islands of the Dampier archipelago and the waters in between, that is Murujuga nation, because it’s identified in the native Ngarluma-Yaburara language.

With its magnificent rock artwork assortment and a shoreline marked with remnants of long-ago business—quarries for making stone instruments, stone traps for catching fish, and mounded shell middens—Murujuga is clearly enticing to curious archaeologists. If you had to decide on someplace in Australia to step offshore, this might be it, says Benjamin, who had his sights set on the nation’s continental shelf when he took his place at Flinders University in Australia in 2014. The archipelago, Benjamin says, is full of nooks and crannies, bays and straights, inlets and sea caves—all with mild waters that might defend artifacts hiding beneath the floor. If archaeologists have been to search out something underwater, it might be right here.

Map knowledge by OpenStreetMap through ArcGIS


In 2017, Benjamin launched the venture, which entailed a number of subject expeditions over three years. Jeffries matched the analysis group’s fervor together with his persistence. His folks have all the time identified there could be relics of their ancestors hiding out on the seabed, he says; it was only a matter of time till they have been discovered.

“Where the land is currently located is not where we always lived,” Jeffries says, echoing the tales informed by elders. Looking west from Murujuga towards the Indian Ocean some 20,000 years in the past, the shoreline would have been far out of sight, roughly 160 kilometers from the place it rests right now, and almost definitely dwelling to some of Australia’s first inhabitants.

As far as data go, the earliest proof of Aboriginal occupation in Australia dates again 65,000 years with stone instruments discovered at a rock shelter on the tip of the Northern Territory—an nearly 3,000-kilometer drive from Murujuga—a component of the nation that was as soon as related to its northern neighbor, New Guinea, forming a prehistoric landmass. But, of course, as with every archaeological web site, the rock shelter represents only a fraction of the nation’s Indigenous historical past. There’s rather more to the story, and it seemingly rests offshore. If discovered, such websites might permit archaeologists to retrace Aboriginal peoples’ earliest steps throughout the continent, whereas additionally offering tangible proof for Aboriginal folks to make use of in defending the submerged lands the place their ancestors as soon as walked.

The search for ancestral lands in Murujuga started with the researchers searching for permission from Murujuga’s conventional custodians. With their permission, Benjamin’s group studied the shoreline after which ventured into the sea to look for promising underwater landmarks for their dive group to research—an previous riverbed, a valley, a shoreline.

The crew snorkeled in entrance of stone quarries and fish traps dotted throughout the intertidal zone, and diving archaeologists surveyed the generally rocky, normally silty, slopes under. They imagined the seabed as dry, consulted satellite tv for pc photos and nautical charts, and stuffed in the gaps of current maps. Broad strips of the underwater panorama have been imaged with airborne lasers, whereas the finer options of the seabed have been captured with sonar, its high-frequency sound pulses bouncing between the researchers’ boats and the seafloor.

coastal Australia
Australia’s lengthy, shallow continental shelf makes looking for archaeological options extra possible than looking in coastal areas which might be slim and steep.

(The Deep History of Sea Country Project)

These remote-sensing applied sciences have been helpful in Murujuga, however the group knew they wanted greater than expertise to hone their search. So additionally they requested native divers, skippers, and fishers—individuals who know the ins and outs of the archipelago—about particular geographic options in the space. Murujuga’s conventional custodians identified essential websites, too. “Those casual chats can lead to a collection of hard data at some point,” serving to to tell the subsequent steps in a venture, Benjamin says.

In reality, one of the two websites the place the group discovered stone artifacts was in a channel fishers knew as a great fishing spot, referred to as Flying Foam Passage. Fish congregate there as a result of of what’s colloquially generally known as a wonky gap—a spot the place a freshwater spring full of vitamins seeps out of the seabed, attracting scores of fish. To archaeologists, a submerged spring might point out the stays of an historical river or a billabong the place folks might as soon as have congregated and maybe left their mark. Sonar recognized a sunken hole in the seabed, roughly half a kilometer offshore, so the divers went to research. They weren’t upset.

On their remaining day of diving at Flying Foam Passage, the group discovered a single stone software close to the wonky gap. The artifact was nestled in the rocky seabed up to now offshore and in currents so weak that it couldn’t have washed in from elsewhere. Its sharp edges had additionally not been flattened or broken, which could have occurred had the software tumbled offshore. But it hadn’t. By reconstructing previous sea ranges at its precise place, the researchers deduced that the sea swallowed this artifact 8,500 years in the past or extra.

Project chief Jonathan Benjamin and graduate scholar Chelsea Wiseman have been half of a group that scoured the seabed in areas as soon as dry in search of artifacts.

(Sam Wright/The Deep History of Sea Country Project)

If that weren’t sufficient, a large assortment of barnacle-encrusted stone artifacts, 269 in whole, was additionally discovered close by, in Cape Bruguieres Channel, on the archipelago’s northern aspect. Like the Flying Foam Passage software, the researchers famous that the stones retained sharp edges, plus they have been strewn throughout the seabed, not swept in by tidal currents. The artifacts are additionally distinctly completely different in form and measurement to others discovered beforehand on land, indicating they have been crafted at an earlier time.


While the stone artifacts found underwater at Murujuga are a primary for Australia, archaeologists elsewhere have been exploring drowned landscapes for a long time now, in search of deeper histories.

Plotting the rise and fall of sea ranges throughout geological ages to determine archaeological websites on historical shorelines was a technique utilized over 20 years in the past on the different aspect of the Pacific Ocean, in the bays of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off British Columbia. Many coastal websites located on Haida Gwaii’s modern-day shores or farther upslope have been recognized in the course of. But to go additional again in time, into the late Pleistocene, archaeologists knew they have to enterprise deep underwater utilizing sonar and remote-controlled submersibles. In 1999, Daryl Fedje, an archaeologist with Parks Canada at the time and now at the Hakai Institute, and his colleagues scooped up a ten,000-year-old stone software simply 10 centimeters lengthy from a drowned coastal plain now 53 meters under sea degree. Like Murujuga’s conventional custodians, the archipelago’s Indigenous folks, the Haida, weren’t shocked by this discover; it was merely a bodily mark of their enduring presence on the islands.

Archaeologists assume that future finds alongside the continent’s watery fringes might enrich our understanding of human occupation of the Americas additional nonetheless and add to research of human migration. Knowing the actions of folks round Haida Gwaii, and alongside the size of North America’s Pacific coast, can supply extra proof that the first folks adopted the shoreline or took to the seas as they migrated south from Beringia, the ice-age landmass that related North America to Russia. It might clarify how people reached Chile round 14,500 years in the past—some analysis even suggests it was as early as 18,000 years in the past—earlier than the finish of the final ice age. Archaeological websites preserved in the subtidal zone might additionally reveal extra about the wealthy maritime customs of these first seafaring or coast-dwelling cultures.

Todd Braje, an archaeologist at San Diego State University is main the seaward search round California’s Channel Islands. Nearly 100 websites with nice antiquity have been discovered round the islands’ present coastlines, one as historical as 13,000 years previous, however earlier histories stay shielded by the sea.

Much like the group in Murujuga, Braje and his fellow archaeologists and marine geologists are tracing submerged landforms throughout the seafloor, aided by improved remote-sensing applied sciences that may delineate options of the seabed even when buried in sediment.

scuba diver
Around 8,000 years in the past, this sea-logged spot was dry.

(The Deep History of Sea Country Project)

To Braje, the stories from Murujuga are thrilling as a result of they reveal that cautious predictive modeling of historic sea ranges throughout submerged landscapes can lead researchers to underwater archaeological websites. However, Braje says, the technical challenges develop as archaeologists plunge deeper and farther offshore in lots of promising areas. The continental shelf alongside North America’s west coast is slim and steep in contrast with Australia’s broad, flat underwater plain—to not point out North America having damaging wave forces and tectonic fault traces which will have erased complete swaths of the continent’s long-sought-after coastal archaeological report.


Unlike the bodily calamities that destroy materials stays, oral histories of Indigenous communities have remained comparatively intact and wealthy in info. Australia’s historical residing cultures have their very own views of deep time, preserved in oral histories handed down by generations and reflecting an unwavering and deeply religious connection to their nation, land and sea. Histories recall fish traps submerged, rivers drowned, and landforms created by rising seas.

Following this thread by deep time to the current day signifies that for many conventional custodians in Australia, the significance of the submerged websites discovered at Murujuga lies not essentially in what the stone instruments signify of the previous, however moderately, in what the websites sign for the future. The discovery confirms that there are important cultural websites located on the huge, comparatively shallow lip that surrounds the sunbaked continent, and these may be discovered and recovered. It additionally affirms Aboriginal peoples’ modern connections to the sea, and underscores why sea nation must be protected.

Since the final ice age, sea ranges have risen 130 meters in Australia; researchers consider there are 1000’s extra underwater archaeological websites to search out.

(Sam Wright/The Deep History of Sea Country Project)

Damage to archaeological websites in Murujuga will not be a distant menace. Rock artwork websites have been destroyed earlier than by industrial improvement on the Burrup Peninsula, and mining firms proceed to function transport ports and processing vegetation regardless of their proximity to the distinctive artwork. The neighborhood and researchers fear that harm from fuel and particulate emissions will additional erode websites. Parts of Murujuga’s heritage at the moment are protected as a nationwide park—however it’s nonetheless uncovered to heavy air pollution. And in the previous, Peter Jeffries says that these heavy industries have dismissed the assertions of Murujuga conventional custodians that their cultural heritage could possibly be came upon to sea. Now, with the first artifacts discovered underwater in Murujuga, he hopes conventional custodians can leverage extra significant negotiations with business, to protect their heritage on land and defend sea nation, as effectively. Jeffries says the alternative additionally goes past Murujuga and extends to different conventional custodians round Australia’s coastlines: “This [discovery] is not only for us.”

As quickly because it was introduced, the information from Murujuga resounded round the nation, throughout to Cape York and all the way down to Tasmania, the island that hangs off the southeast nook of the continent. In Tasmania, Emma Lee shares Jeffries’s hope for a future the place sea nation is afforded the identical safety as the land.

Lee is a trawlwulwuy lady from tebrakunna nation on the northeast coast of Tasmania. She exudes optimism however says the submerged websites in Murujuga spotlight an issue for Indigenous peoples: policymakers view the land and sea as utterly separate entities.

“We don’t see a disconnect between oceans and lands because we know that country and family, our ancestors, are out there,” says Lee, who educated in archaeology and is a analysis fellow at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, specializing in Indigenous affairs, environmental coverage, and governance. To Aboriginal folks, nation is kin and it must be cared for, and for saltwater folks like Lee who reside on the coast, their stewardship stretches out into the sea.

Mapping submerged landforms may help Indigenous folks discover connections to nation which will have been misplaced or fractured since colonization, says Lee, who’s one of many holding onto her folks’s oral histories of the Bass Strait flooding, which separated Tasmania from mainland Australia some 11,000 years in the past: “[Those connections to sea country] were there and then they’ve disappeared; now they are revealed.”

All of which simply goes to indicate how nation has a life of its personal, Lee says. And it’s doable that Murujuga sea nation revealed itself to the world now to develop our understanding of what connection to nation means for Indigenous peoples—and to indicate that stepping offshore and into the deep has its rewards, each tangible and intangible.

This article is from Hakai Magazine, a web based publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read extra tales like this at

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