University of Western Australia: Bone tools in the Kimberley among oldest in Australia

New research has reappraised the age of bone artefacts found in a well-known Kimberley cave site as being more than 35,000 years old, making them among the oldest bone tools found in Australia.

Published in the International Journal of Osteoachaeology, the team of scientists including from The University of Western Australia analysed eight bone artefacts from the Riwi Cave in Mimbi country in the south-central Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Four of the bone artefacts were found in layers dating to between 35,000 and 46,000 years ago, making them some of the oldest bone tools in Australia.

Previously, the oldest bone artefact from Carpenter’s Gap 1 in the Kimberley was found to have be older than 46,000 years.

The artefacts were used for a range of activities at the site, including the manufacture of plant fibre items, the processing of spinifex resin and fish or bird hunting.

“The tools show the importance of organic materials in the early technologies of First Nations people,”

UWA Professor Jane Balme
Professor Jane Balme from Archaeology at UWA worked with researchers from across Australia to identify the bone artefacts from the Riwi excavation.

Professor Balme said the tools showed the importance of organic materials in the early technologies of First Nations people.

“They provide a window into a greater diversity of activities undertaken by people than are revealed by stone artefacts alone,” Professor Balme said.

“We are grateful for the generosity of the Mimbi Community who gave us the opportunity to study this site.”

Dr Michelle Langley from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution and Forensics & Archaeology said the tools indicated that bone tools had been around for a very long time in the Indigenous Australian toolkit.

“We once thought that bone tools were not so important in the north of Australia and were only brought into the toolkit relatively recently,” Dr Langley said.

“These tools show that wasn’t the case – they were always made and used; we just hadn’t found them because they haven’t been surviving long-time periods in the hostile preservation conditions of northern Australia.”

Dr Langley said the bone artefacts were of different forms with different traces of use, indicating the variety of uses in which bone tools were used in this region in the deep past.

“They were used for activities which typically do not survive archaeologically,” she said.

“One indicates plant or skin working (making baskets or working skins) while another appears to have been used in digging up or working resin. Resin was used to glue together tool parts and to make hand holds for tools.”

Professor Sue O’Connor from The Australian National University said until recently bone artefacts of this age were thought to be confined to the cold southern regions of Australia and Tasmania, and to have been used in skin working to make clothing as protection against the cold.

“These new finds from the arid zone show have changed our perspective,” Professor O’Connor said.