The archaeology, chronology and stratigraphy of Madjedbebe (Malakuananja II)

A site in northern Australia with early occupation

ARCAS CASE STUDY 1: Madjedbebe

Collaborations between the Traditional Land Owners, archaeologists and other scientists from the The University of Queensland, the University of Wollongong, Flinders University, University of Washington, the National Museum of Australia, and The University of Sydney have enabled the identification of the earliest cultural remains so far found in Australia. Cultural material in the form of flaked stone artefacts, grinding stones, ground haematite and ground-edge axe fragments were recovered from the earliest human occupation levels at Madjedbebe (MJB), the site formerly known as Malakunanja II, in northern Australia, are associated with sediments >50ka.

The archaeology, chronology and stratigraphy of Madjedbebe (Malakuananja II): A site in northern Australia with early occupation

  • Chris Clarkson, The University of Queensland
  • Mike Smith, National Museum of Australia
  • Ben Marwick, University of Washington
  • Richard Fullagar, University of Wollongong
  • Lynley A. Wallis, Flinders University
  • Patrick Faulkner, The University of Sydney
  • Tiina Manne, The University of Queensland
  • Elspeth Hayes, University of Wollongong
  • Richard G. Roberts, University of Wollongong
  • Zenobia Jacobs, University of Wollongong
  • Xavier Carah, The University of Queensland
  • Kelsey M. Lowe, The University of Queensland
  • Jacqueline Matthews, The University of Queensland
  • Anna Florin, The University of Queensland

Abstract

Published ages of >50 ka for occupation at Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II) in Australia’s north have kept the site prominent in discussions about the colonisation of Sahul. The site also contains one of the largest stone artefact assemblages in Sahul for this early period. However, the stone artefacts and other important archaeological components of the site have never been described in detail, leading to persistent doubts about its stratigraphic integrity. We report on our analysis of the stone artefacts and faunal and other materials recovered during the 1989 excavations, as well as the stratigraphy and depositional history recorded by the original excavators. We demonstrate that the technology and raw materials of the early assemblage are distinctive from those in the overlying layers. Silcrete and quartzite artefacts are common in the early assemblage, which also includes edge-ground axe fragments and ground haematite. The lower flaked stone assemblage is distinctive, comprising a mix of long convergent flakes, some radial flakes with faceted platforms, and many small thin silcrete flakes that we interpret as thinning flakes. Residue and use-wear analysis indicate occasional grinding of haematite and woodworking, as well as frequent abrading of platform edges on thinning flakes. We conclude that previous claims of extensive displacement of artefacts and post-depositional disturbance may have been overstated. The stone artefacts and stratigraphic details support previous claims for human occupation 50 to 60 ka and show that human occupation during this time differed from later periods. We discuss the implications of these new data for understanding the first human colonisation of Sahul.

The Arnhem Land plateau where MJB rockshelter resides

The Arnhem Land plateau where MJB rockshelter resides

Excavation under the MJB rockshelter in progress, June/July 2015

Excavation under the MJB rockshelter in progress, June/July 2015

Ben Marwick taking samples for micromorphology and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) at the base of the MJB 2016 excavated sequence.

Ben Marwick taking samples for micromorphology and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) at the base of the MJB 2016 excavated sequence.

The Mirrar Traditional Land Owners sharing their knowledge with the archaeologists, and archaeologists demonstrating sampling techniques.  L-R: Ebbe Hayes, Mark Djandjomerr, May Nango.

The Mirrar Traditional Land Owners sharing their knowledge with the archaeologists, and archaeologists demonstrating sampling techniques. L-R: Ebbe Hayes, Mark Djandjomerr, May Nango.

Large flakes from the base of the MJB cultural sequence.

Large flakes from the base of the MJB cultural sequence.

Associate Professor Chris Clarkson is an Australian archaeologists whose research is directed at understanding past human behaviour through the study of stone artefacts. His current research projects include the analysis of lithic technologies from archaeological sites around Australia, India, Africa and France, to further develop our understanding of Palaeolithic human behaviour, settlement and subsistence. Chris was born in Queensland, Australia, and  completed his undergraduate and Honours degrees in archaeology in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology (now the School of Social Science) at the University of Queensland in 1995. He completed his PhD at the School of Anthropology and Archaeology at the Australian National University in 2004 and then undertook a postdoctoral fellowship in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge. In 2005, Chris returned to the School of Social Science to begin a second Postdoctoral Fellowship. Currently, Chris is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Science, teaching introductory archaeology, ancient technologies, Honours and Australian archaeology. https://social-science.uq.edu.au/profile/1457/dr-chris-clarkson

Associate Professor Chris Clarkson is an Australian archaeologists whose research is directed at understanding past human behaviour through the study of stone artefacts. His current research projects include the analysis of lithic technologies from archaeological sites around Australia, India, Africa and France, to further develop our understanding of Palaeolithic human behaviour, settlement and subsistence. Chris was born in Queensland, Australia, and completed his undergraduate and Honours degrees in archaeology in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology (now the School of Social Science) at the University of Queensland in 1995. He completed his PhD at the School of Anthropology and Archaeology at the Australian National University in 2004 and then undertook a postdoctoral fellowship in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge. In 2005, Chris returned to the School of Social Science to begin a second Postdoctoral Fellowship. Currently, Chris is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Science, teaching introductory archaeology, ancient technologies, Honours and Australian archaeology. https://social-science.uq.edu.au/profile/1457/dr-chris-clarkson