Australia’s oldest ornament found in the Kimberleys

By Sofia Charalambous 21 November 2016
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
A piece of kangaroo bone discovered in remote north-western Australia 20 years ago is the oldest-known piece of Indigenous Australian jewellery, according to new research.

A FRAGMENT OF bone discovered in the Kimberley region of northern Australia has been found to be a piece of nose jewellery and dated at over 46,000 years old, making it Australia’s oldest ornament.

A new study from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra has revealed that the kangaroo bone discovered over 20 years ago predates any other bone tool found in Australia by around 25,000.

Dr Michelle Langley, the lead researcher from ANU, said this was significant because “it’s both the oldest bone tool found in Australia and the oldest example of personal ornamentation in Australia.”

Previously, the oldest bone tools found in Australia were dated at around 20,000 years old. Humans arrived in Australia around 60,000 years ago, which meant they wouldn’t have started using bone tools until approximately 40,000 years after settling in Australia.

“This finding seemed odd to us,” Michelle said. “We know people were making bone tools from at least 75,000 years ago in Africa, so researchers suggested that perhaps this technological knowledge was ‘lost’ in the stresses of colonising a new continent.”

australia's oldest bone ornament

Michelle Langley, who led the latest research into the ancient bone ornament. The study is published in the journal Quartenary Science Reviews. (Image: ANU)

However, this new discovery shows that Indigenous Australians were actually making and using bone tools relatively soon after they arrived here, within a few thousand years of entering Australia. This indicates they had not lost the knowledge of making tools from bone.

The bone fragment was discovered over 20 years ago, but was analysed by Michelle this year. By studying the artefact and looking at the microscopic marks found on it, she was able to compare the bone point to other tools discovered over the last 200 years to determine its function. The examination revealed that the bone point was most similar to those worn as nose-bones, which are ornaments worn through the nasal septum.

“We identified traces of red ochre on the artefact, which suggested that someone wearing red body paint wore this ornament. This supports the notion that the ornament was worn as a body adornment,” Michelle explained.

Professor Sean Ulm from James Cook University in Cairns, who was not involved in the study, agreed this was an important find.

“When paired with the recent discovery of a 49,000-year-old site in the Flinders Ranges, these findings show that the Aboriginal people who colonised Australia had a full suite of technological abilities that they deployed in different ways as they encountered new challenges across the continent,” he said.

Michelle has now been awarded a grant from the Australian Research Council, which she will use to work with Indigenous communities across the country to study tools made from animal bone, tooth and claw.

“By studying these artefacts, we’ll be able to learn more about how Australia was colonised by its First Peoples, how these people interacted with this new environment and all its unique fauna and how they dealt with changing climates over the past 60,000 years,” Michelle said.

“Most of Australia’s prehistory has been written on the back of stone artefacts, so studying the bone technology will give us a much more comprehensive understanding of Australia and its people.”