Barrow Island Archaeology Project: a deep history
What was our continent like 50,000 years ago and how did the Aboriginal people settle this land?
The Barrow Island Archaeology Project, located 50 kilometres northwest off the Pilbara coast, was led by Peter Veth, Professor of Archaeology, Centre for Rock Art Research and Management (CRARM). Its goals were to understand:
- how Australia was settled by Aboriginal people potentially 50,000 years ago; and
- what life was like for Indigenous people in the deep past, and the nature of their coastal societies.
In conducting their research, the team looked for evidence of how maritime resources were used when Aboriginal people settled Australia as a maritime society and what art and skills-systems were in place.
The research is ground breaking though working on Barrow Island presented its own challenges. It is one of the first conservation estates of Western Australia, hosts oil and gas companies including Chevron Australia, is regulated by the Department of Parks and Wildlife and is covered by the Aboriginal Heritage Act and federal Instruments. Taking into consideration each of the stakeholders interests meant their support was critical to the success of the project.
The deep history of Aboriginal heritage matters to Australia as part of our iconography, our landscape and our national identity.
Professor Peter Veth
In addition, the UWA project team were the first to be granted permission to conduct a long-term heritage research project on Barrow Island funded by the Australian Research Council.
In respecting the conditions of the island and its significance, the team were required to operate remotely in a total quarantine environment which included: strict guidelines around accommodation, excavation and survey work. Food had to be brought in (and scraps taken out) via agreed routes, no naked flames allowed and no water or soap suds to touch the ground. The strong support received from Indigenous stakeholders, industry partners including Chevron and the Occupational Safety and Health team at UWA made the research possible and ultimately contributed to its success.
Celebrated amongst their findings were ancient occupational sites that were discovered in deep, massive labyrinth caves. This represents some of the earliest evidence of Aboriginal occupation of Australia, dating to approximately 50,000 years ago.
Other occupational sites were discovered across the island, which speak to the past North West Shelf of Australia, which is now drowned. In addition, there is evidence of a 19th labour industry involving Aboriginal people from the Kimberley and Ashburton in the early pearling.
The high quality data provided to stakeholders allows better informed management of industry and heritage values on the island in the future.
Archaeologists in similar landscapes world-wide can also benefit from the novel approaches undertaken by Peter and his team in ensuring that multi- stakeholder interests were met alongside the need for preservation and respect for culture.
The project ran for three years and was funded by a Competitive Discovery Grant and Outstanding Researcher Award and supported by The University of Western Australia.
The Barrow Island Archaeological Project has produced excellent scientific outcomes. The highly significant results are of enormous importance to Aboriginal people as well as Australia at large in understanding our continent’s deep cultural heritage.
Environment and climate science will benefit from the unique climatic records of Northern Australia.
The discovery of some of the earliest human use of maritime resources east of Wallacea will help scientists better understand the dispersal of modern peoples around the world.
From a policy framework point of view, this research has demonstrated how multi-stakeholder support for research can lead to good planning and management outcomes for heritage conservation, within industrial landscapes.
The research to date has been published and was presented to the public during the Batavia Series at the Western Australian Maritime Museum, the Society of American Archaeologists and the Australian Archaeological Association. The high impact results around the current dating work will be released mid-year. The team are presently working with overseas universities as well as 6 national institutions to ensure accurate chronological dating.
It is little wonder that we remain fascinated with the unique historic events of our past. Thanks to ongoing research these windows into our deep time history can be celebrated as part of our national identity.