Archeological site at Ganga Maya Cave in Pilbara region in WA believed  to be 45,000 years old.

Significant finding: Digging in the Ganga Maya Cave in the Pilbara.

An archeological dig has revealed artefacts of early occupation so old they rival the dates of those found at sites of the earliest human settlement in Australia.

The discovery of the artefacts of animal bone and charcoal at the Ganga Maya Cave (named by traditional owners meaning  'house on the hill') in the Pilbara region of Western Australia are the subject of a scientific paper not yet submitted to archaeological journals.

The items analysed through carbon-dating techniques indicate first use of the cave from more than 45,000 years ago.

The cave, close to an active iron ore mine, is of even more significance because it is believed to have been settled continuously and right through the  Ice Age up until about 1700 years ago.

Kate Morse, Director of Archaeology at Fremantle heritage consultancy Big Island Research remains cautious about making claims for the site’s significance because so far only a one-metre square area, 139 cms deep, has been excavated. 

Asked if the cave could be the site of the earliest human settlement, she said: “We have only got the one date and I would prefer to get other dates before I make those kind of claims. It is certainly a very old site.

“I think it is an area that people have travelled into to start exploring Australia. They have come from SE Asia across the water and arrived in northern Australia and made their way around the coast following river systems inland.”

Dr Morse said that she had only this week been told of other older sites in the Kimberley and Northern Territory where work was ongoing.

“The work has been concentrated in the Pilbara because of the development that is going on there."

She added: “It’s a very exciting find. The archaeological sequence is great because a lot of sites have been patchily occupied and ours is occupied on and off but repeatedly including during the Ice Age 18-22,000 years ago and it looks like people were visiting the site then.

“We have found charcoal, stone artefacts and animal bone. We have analysed the bone to see if it is food remains or animals that have died in the cave. We think we have got some material that is burnt so it suggests it has possibly been used for food."

The discovery has, however, caused some division within the community with one elder, Eddy McPhee, saying he believes the mining company, Atlas, and Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) representing Njamal traditional owners were planning to destroy sacred sites and accompanying Dreaming tracks.

"More research needs to be done by an independent archaeologist and Njamal traditional owners to protect the area. The mining company are going to destroy Ganga Maya Cave and surrounding areas, which has more caves and a water hole close by which has a significant cultural connection to the area. Mining has to stop,” Mr McPhee said.

But Big Island says it has worked closely with the traditional owners and YMAC  on the project and says it has been well supported by Atlas. It says further excavation is planned in the near future.

Yamatji said in a statement that 50-metre buffer zones protect the cave and that no disturbance can take place and that further meetings were planned to discuss how the site should be protected and managed in the future.

Atlas managing director Ken Brinsden said in a statement that the Ganga Maya Cave was not impacted in any way by the mining operations.

"The excavation is part of Atlas’ intention to establish all the facts in respect to the Ganga Maya. This process, which is being funded by Atlas, is ongoing," it said.

Other contenders for earliest site

Devil’s Lair: Limestone cave south-west Western Australia – 41-46,000 years old

Lake Mungo: Dry lake basin, Willandra Billabong Creek, western NSW 43,000 

Nauwalabila: Rock shelter Arnhem Land 200 kms East of Darwin – 40,000

Malakunanja: Rock shelter 45 kms north of above, east of Darwin – 45,000

Source Journal of Archaeological Science