In geological time the current shape of Australia has only existed for a short time. For the first 40,000 years of the 65,000+ years of human history of the Australian continent, the land was 2 million square kilometres larger than it is now. Walking from southern Tasmania to northern New Guinea didn’t require the ability to walk on water as the lower sea levels revealed land that is now part of the ocean floor.
Submerged beneath the watery fringe of Australia’s coastline are records of the long relationship that Indigenous Australians have had with the continent. “Thousands of generations of people lived out their lives on land that’s now underwater,” Sean says. “So, to understand the real human history and diversity in Australia we need to find and interrogate the archaeology that’s left on the seabed.”
The Deep History of Sea Country project is a collaboration between archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots, scientific divers, and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. The project aims to locate the archaeological remnants of those thousands of generations that lived on the now submerged land that surrounds the Australian coastline.
Locating Indigenous heritage on the seabed is not a simple undertaking. “We have to locate areas that might have minimal sedimentation,” Sean says. “A lot of these features may well have marine growth on them, making it more difficult to identify.” To resolve these difficulties the research team combined the knowledge of sea country held by Traditional Owner groups with technology such as plane mounted lasers, sonar equipment, and scientific divers.
After years of work Sean and the team located approximately 270 stone artefacts on the seabed in two of their search sites. These findings are only the very beginning of the story. “It’s really proof of concept that if we can identify and locate these remains then the potential exists elsewhere,” Sean says.
“Indigenous people all over Australia made much bigger structures than just discarding stone artefact. We think the most likely sites to be found on the seabed are large intertidal fish traps made out of stone walls or shell mounds, rock art preserved on outcrops of rock, and also stone quarry sites where Aboriginal people have extracted raw materials for manufacturing stone tools.”
“In Australia there has been lots of underwater archaeology on shipwrecks and some sunken aircraft but very little attention paid to Indigenous heritage on the seabed.”
Distinguished Professor Sean Ulm