For most of Australia’s human history, sea levels were much lower than they are today and there was extra dry land where people lived. Archaeologists are still struggling to gather enough evidence before reaching the final conclusions about the location of the submerged lands. But in a study published in Plus One today, we reported the first submerged ancient aboriginal archeological sites found on the beach in the waters of Western Australia.
Landscapes underwater: For the past four years, a team of Deep History of Degree History of Archaeologists, Rock Art Specialists, Geologists, Geologists, Expert Pilots, and Scientific Divers, funded by the Australian Research Council, has been working with the Murujuga Indigenous Corporation off the coast. We studied charts, geological maps, and archaeological sites located on land before surveying beaches planted behind small planes and high-resolution gold boats.
In the final stages of the study, our team of scientific divers conducted underwater archaeological surveys for physical examination, recording, and sampling of the seashore. We have discovered two underwater archaeological sites in the Dampier Islands. First, Cape Bruguieres has millions of rock patterns – including mullers and crushed rock – at a depth of 2.4 meters off the coast.
At the second site, the Flying Foam Passage, we found human activity related to a freshwater fountain submerged 14 meters below sea level, which includes at least a certain stone-cutting tool made from locally stimulating material. Environmental data and radiocarbon dates show that these sites were, of course, more than 1,000,000 years old when they were submerged by the rising sea. Our study shows that archaeological sites in the coastal areas of Australia have been home to items of ancient peoples that have remained untouched for thousands of years.
The great flood: When people first arrived in Australia 5,000 years ago, the sea level was about 60 meters lower than it is today. Although sea levels fluctuate, the global climate continues to decline as it cools. When the world sank in the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped 130 meters below the current level.
Underwater archaeology matters: The submerged stone tools discovered at Murujuga give us a glimpse into what we know about the past. Our knowledge of ancient times in Australia comes from archaeological sites land and indigenous oral history. However, the first people to come to the coast of Australia were coastal people who traveled by boat across the island of Eastern Indonesia. The place of peopling in early Australia is now underwater. To fully understand the key questions of human history, as ancient as it is, researchers must go to both archeology and marine science.
Protecting a priceless submerged heritage: Submerged archaeological sites are in danger of erosion and destruction as a result of development activities such as oil and gas installations, pipelines, port development, dredging, looting dumping, and industrialized fishing. The protection of more than 100-year-old underwater cultural sites is enshrined in law by UNESCO’s Convention on the Conservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001).
In Australia, federal laws protecting the underwater cultural heritage of Commonwealth waters have recently been reviewed and re-enacted in July 2019 by the Historical Shipwars Act (1976) as the Australian Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018). This new law has failed to automatically protect all types of sites and it protects indigenous submerged heritage sites. For example, all ships older than 75 years old have been given automatic protection against wrecked and sunken aircraft found in the waters of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Other types of sites, regardless of age and including Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander sites may be protected but only with the approval of the Minister. States and territories have the opportunity to protect submerged indigenous heritage sites based on existing laws, but regulators have only regularly managed the submerged traditions of recent historical periods.
We need policymakers to reconsider the way we preserve the submerged cultural heritage in Australia while ensuring that our ancient indigenous sites can be preserved underwater. We are sure that many more submerged sites will be found in the next few years. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past, so they need our protection now.