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Rock shelters reveal secrets of ancient human movement through the Pilbara to archaeologists

people in a cave measuring and digging
Scarp Archaeology's team digging in a rock shelter near Newman.

Supplied: Michael Slack

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Thousands of rock shelters in the Hamersley Ranges of north-west Western Australia are revealing new evidence of how Aboriginal people moved inland across the Pilbara in ancient times.

Over the past six years, archaeologist Michael Slack and his team at Scarp Archaeology have excavated more than 200 rock shelters in the Newman area in a close working relationship with local Indigenous traditional owners.

"We know that Aboriginal people got to the inland Pilbara around 40,000 years ago but we don't know what happened to them after that," Dr Slack said.

"There's a lot of blanks on the maps that we're trying to fill in.

Dr Slack said there was a lot of argument among experts about what wiped out megafauna.

"The Pilbara has the ability to possibly answer that question because we know people pre-date that extinction event," he said.

Migration across northern Australia

Dr Slack's research is shedding light on how and why Aboriginal people moved across vast areas of inland Australia.

"How did [Aboriginal people] get from the coast all the way into central Australia? I think the Pilbara is one of those areas that has the ability to answer that question," he said.

"You've got two fantastic river systems [the Fortescue and the Ashburton] that feed into the centre.

Putting it into the context of other research across the continent, Kakadu National Park contains evidence still being debated by archaeologists of potential occupation of 65,000 years ago.

2 men in front of a tree with survey equipment.
Surveying Newman rock shelters.

Supplied: Michael Slack

In comparison, rock shelters in Newman previously thought to be occupied around 20,000 years ago are now confirmed to be at least 40,000 years old.

"What's significant about a pre-20,000 year date is that at this time of around 40,000 to 30,000 [years ago] the climate is a lot similar to what it is today," Dr Slack said.

"The last ice age occurred between around 18,000 to 20,000 years ago and that's the next question that we're looking at."

Big questions of antiquity

The new Australian Research Centre-funded Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage will be looking at the big questions of antiquity over the next seven years.

Investigations will take place in areas of the west Pilbara and Western Desert, close to the Western Australia border.

"We are looking at new areas of the Pilbara where we might find more rock shelters and great evidence of older occupation and exciting artefacts," Dr Slack said.

"I think that's one of the beauties of doing archaeology — there's so little that's been done in this country.

"There's so few of us and such a massive country with such a long history of people that every time you go out and look for something you find something new, and something exciting is out there.

"I think everyone finds it really exciting that they are involved in the project.

"Some of the old [Indigenous] people say they already knew that.

photo of 2 men in a cave
Scarp archaeologists exploring caves near Newman, WA.

Supplied: Michael Slack

"What's really interesting is when the two things parallel each other so the archaeology can both inform and complement Dreamtime stories and connections to places."

"We do find sometimes that a story place ties in with one of the important old sites.

It's a kid's dream

a man lying down in a cave next to a laser level kit
Loving his work: Michael Slack surveying a Newman cave.

Supplied: Michael Slack

"There's a certain amount of the adventure in every archaeologist — it's the kids dream to go out and discover the past.

"I love the Pilbara, I love the landscape like everyone else that lives or works in the Pilbara."