Ancient secrets uncovered

A STUNNING archaeological discovery at Brighton could change scientific understanding of human occupation.


Chief archaeologist on the Brighton bypass project Rob Paton next to some test holes with fellow archaeologists Kathryn Rogers and Aaron Everett.

Chief archaeologist on the Brighton bypass project Rob Paton next to some test holes with fellow archaeologists Kathryn Rogers and Aaron Everett.

The discovery of artifacts that could be among the oldes  in the world has prompted the State Government to consider adding a multi-million-dollar bridge to its Brighton bypass plans.

In a new development set to rock the scientific world, the artefacts found in the path of the proposed bypass could be twice as old as previously thought.

The discovery of the remains, that preliminary estimates show could be at least 40,000 years old, would give the scientific world a unique glimpse of a previously unknown period of human occupation this far south on the planet.

The remains found in the contentious Jordan River valley section of the $176 million bypass have forced the Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources back to the drawing board this week.

Plans have been redrawn to include a 70m elevated bridge span over the site, costing an extra $10 million to $15 million.

With a University of Melbourne report expected to be finalised this week, principal archaeologist Rob Paton has estimated the findings of stone tools and evidence of everyday life could be anywhere up to 40,000 years old. The previous estimate was about 18,000.

It has been estimated that anywhere up to three million artefacts could be uncovered in the 600m by 60m riverbank area.

The estimate places settlement of the area at about the time of Mungo Man, a discovery that challenged human evolutionary theory.

In 1974, scientists discovered the skeletal remains of a man near Lake Mungo in south-western NSW dated about 40,000 years old.

Previously, the oldest researched human DNA came from a Croatian Neanderthal who died about 28,000 years ago.

Mungo Man brought about a complete rethink on mainstream evolutionary theory, referred to as the “Out of Africa” theory that all humans were descended from modern homo sapiens who left Africa about 100,000 years ago.

“If the ages for the site prove to be correct, this is the oldest site in Tasmania and among the oldest in Australia,” Mr Paton told the Mercury.

“Moreover, it would be the oldest most southern site on the planet, giving us a glimpse into an unknown part of world history and the spread of homo sapiens across the Earth.

“Our readings of the sediments also seem to be telling us that the part of the levee that contains the archaeological material is mostly undisturbed.

“This is almost unheard of from an open-air site, anywhere in the world.

“Most events of this kind come from cave deposits that often reflect only a very small and specialized part of the lives of people.

“Our work so far certainly indicates this is a scientifically important and exciting site. It will be an important place for interpreting the deep history of Tasmania, but also of archaeology on a worldwide scale.”

Department secretary Norm McIlfatrick has said the Government will do all it can to protect the significant site.

“If it is 28,000 years old or 40,000 years old, it doesn’t matter, this is a significant find and we will be protecting it,” Mr McIlfatrick said.

“We believe we can take a management plan to Environment Minister Michelle O’Byrne that protects this levee and allows this important bypass to go ahead.

“We are not going to be draconian here, we want to see this protected.”

The new management plan that will include the extended bridge span is also expected to include a covenant to protect and conserve the area.

To test the potential importance of the site, Mr Paton was engaged as archaeological director to work alongside heritage officers Aaron Everett, Bob Hughes and Leigh Maynard, geomorphologist Dr Tim Stone and archaeologist Cornelia de Rochefort.

The method used to date the river levee site is known as optically stimulated luminescence, OSL.

Mr Paton said while this was a complex form of dating, it told researchers the last time sunlight fell on the sandy deposits before they were covered, encasing the stone artifacts.


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