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Ancient food debris tells the story of 65,000 years

Ancient food debris tells the story of 65,000 years

May Nango, Dr Florin and Djaykuk Djandjomerr collecting plants in  Kakadu. Credit: Elspeth Hayes, with permission of the Gundjeihmi  Aboriginal Corporation.

Australia’s oldest known plant foods, eaten by early communities 65,000 years ago, have been discovered by researchers working at a remote rockshelter in the Kakadu region. Preserved as pieces of charcoal, the morsels were recovered from the debris of ancient cooking hearths at Madjedbebe, an archaeological site on Mirarr country in northern Australia.

University of Queensland archaeobotanist, Dr Anna Florin, says that a team of archaeologists and Traditional Owners identified 10 plant foods, including several types of fruits and nuts, underground storage organs (‘roots and tubers’), and palm stem.

‘By working with Elders and co-authors May Nango and Djaykuk Djandjomerr, we were also able to explain how the plants were used at Madjedbebe. This included multi-step cooking techniques still practiced today,’ Dr Florin says.

Madjedbebe is Australia's oldest documented site of human habitation. Dr Florin said the plant foods found not only gave insight into how the First Australians were living 65,000 years ago, but also allowed researchers to tell a localised story of climate change.

'We used the nutshell from one of these foods, anyakngarra (Pandanus spiralis), to look at past rainfall. What emerged was an amazing story detailing how communities living in the Kakadu region thrived in a changing environment over 65,000 years,' says Dr Florin.

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Justin O’Brien said, ‘The depth of knowledge being gained from Madjedbebe demonstrates the extraordinary value of the place and reaffirms the importance of its long-term protection.’

One of the most significant findings of the climate study was that Kakadu is currently experiencing its driest time in human history. ‘The region’s plants and animals are experiencing extreme hardships. Feral animals, loss of biodiversity and disruptions to cultural landscape management, including vegetation burning, all pose increased threats to the health and wellbeing of the landscape and its Traditional Owners,’ says Dr Florin.

The excavation at Madjedbebe was funded by an ARC Discovery Project led by researchers supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), administered by The University of Wollongong.


As well as holding Australia’s earliest food scraps, Madjedbebe rockshelter also contains evidence for the oldest edge ground stone axes in the world, the earliest grindstone technology outside Africa, the early shaping of stone spearheads, many kilograms of ground ochre, and the first recorded use of reflective pigments in the world.

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