Charred Leftovers Show What Food Australians Ate 65,000 Years Ago
Contaminants of different plant food aged between 65,000 and 53,000 years ago have been discovered in North Australia by researchers.
The remains, which are preserved as pieces of charcoal, were found in debris from ancient cooking hearths at Madjedbebe—a sandstone rock shelter thought to be Australia’s oldest Aboriginal site.
According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, the scientists, with the help of local Aboriginal elders, were able to identify 10 different plant foods by analyzing the preserved charcoal. These included various fruits and nuts, palm stems and “roots and tubers.”
“We were able to recover small pieces of charcoal from the earliest layer occupation at Madjedbebe. These pieces represent the rubbish from people cooking and sharing meals at Madjedbebe, 65,000 to 53,000 years ago,” Anna Florin, an author of the study from the University of Queensland, Australia, told BBC. “They only preserved through chance.
These specific food scraps came into contact with ancient cooking fires and turned into charcoal. They represent the earliest evidence for the use of plant foods outside of Africa and the Middle East.”
“Identification is done by comparison of the ancient remains to modern reference material under very high-powered microscopy,” Florin said. “The modern reference material was collected on Mirarr Country in western Arnhem Land. Elders and co-authors May Nango and Djaykuk Djandjomerr identified the plants that might have been used in this area 65,000 years ago.”
The authors say the findings demonstrate that Australia’s earliest known human population consumed a range of plant foods, including those that required processing.
“By working with Nango and Djandjomerr, the team was also able to explain how the plants were likely used at Madjedbebe,” Florin said in a statement. “Many of these plant foods required processing to make them edible and this evidence was complemented by grinding stone technology also used during the early occupation at the site.”
“The First Australians had a great deal of botanical knowledge and this was one of the things that allowed them to adapt to and thrive in this new environment,” she said. “They were able to guarantee access to carbohydrates, fat and even protein by applying this knowledge, as well as technological innovation and labor, to the gathering and processing of Australian plant foods.”
The researchers say that the latest finds predate existing evidence for such practices in Sahul—an ancient continent which once comprised of Australia, New Guinea, Tasmania and the Indonesian island of Seram—by more than 20,000 years.
Some experts have suggested that the early movements of humans through the islands of Southeast Asia into Sahul were facilitated by access to high-calorie foods.
“These results suggest that dietary breadth underpinned the success of early modern human populations in this region, with the expenditure of labor on the processing of plants guaranteeing reliable access to nutrients in new environments,” the authors wrote in the study.
“It was once thought that humans moved quickly and easily through Island Southeast Asia, eating a buffet of easy-to-catch marine resources,” Florin told BBC. “However, as this and other archaeological evidence is beginning to show, human populations in this region were deploying skillful foraging strategies to survive and move into new environments. The voyage of early modern humans through Island Southeast Asia and into Australia and New Guinea is one of the great journeys in human history.”
The ancient plant foods are just one of several significant discoveries that have been made at Madjedbebe. For example, the site contains evidence of the earliest grindstone technology outside of Africa and the first recorded use of reflective pigments anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the site is significant because it has pushed back the known timing of human movement into Australia.
“Madjedbebe continues to provide startling insights into the complex and dynamic lifestyle of the earliest Australian Aboriginal people,” Chris Clarkson, another author of the study from the University of Queensland, said in a statement.