Rare bone artifact found in Australia might be ancient trash

March 16, 2021
Is it trash or treasure? Maybe both! (Flinders University)

Is it trash or treasure? Maybe both! (Flinders University)

The first bone point of its kind discovered in Australia's Lower Murray River since the 1970s is between 3,800 and 5,300 years old, according to research released Tuesday, though the find highlights the lack of prior research into bone tools and other non-stone artifacts in the country.

There has been "limited interest from researchers until relatively recently" in bone artifacts, coauthor Amy Roberts told The Academic Times. "So there is a lot we don't know about them."

Previous researchers have been more interested in stone than bone, in part because stone is more easily preserved, said Roberts, a professor of archaeology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. 

"In Australia, stone artifacts are ubiquitous, which has led to significant studies to understand technological and typological changes over time," she said. This paper, published March 16 in Australian Archaeology, lays groundwork for future research on bone artifacts.

Chris Wilson, a senior lecturer in archaeology and indigenous studies at Flinders University and the lead author of the study, found the bone artifact at Murrawong in 2008 during research in Ngarrindjeri Country for his dissertation. That excavation site was part of a suite of sites analyzing Holocene subsistence strategies. Wilson was not available for an interview by press time.

The bone point — broken at the tip, with wear on the sides — is similar to other bone points that were used as cloak pins or to otherwise pierce soft materials such as animal skins.

The bone point was found in a non-burial context, broken and with no evidence of what it was attached to. That could mean that it broke thousands of years ago and its owner threw it away. It's likely made from a wallaby or kangaroo foreleg — a common choice for tools due to their size and strength.

"Because the artifact is broken, we cannot be 100% sure about its interpretation," Roberts said. "But because the shape, size and usewear is consistent with that seen on spatulate-tipped unipoints, which commonly functioned in southeast Australia, we have inferred this to be a likely function."

She continued, "There have been so few excavations along the South Australian section of the Murray River — which spans a long distance — and so there are only a few sites with which we can compare findings."

The Murray River is Australia's longest river, flowing 1,570 miles across southeastern Australia.

The bone point was found in the fifth "excavation unit," between layer seven, where the researchers found V. ambiguus, a mussel radiocarbon dated between 4,961 and 5,303 years old; and layer 3, where they found an ear bone from a Murray cod, a large freshwater predatory fish, radiocarbon dated between 3,875 and 4,485 years old. The bone point's age is, thus, between 3,875 and 5,303 years old.

Murrawong is the traditional name of the site, which has previously been referred to by non-indigenous people as Glen Lossie; the specific excavation area was called the Glen Lossie Midden and Burial site. For this research — led by Ngarrindjeri archaeologist Wilson and funded by the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal Corp. — the archaeologists collaborated with Ngarrindjeri Elders, who requested that the site be referred to by its traditional name.

This research forms part of a larger project that Wilson is leading to investigate the archaeological record on Ngarrindjeri country.

Previous researchers have not adequately worked with the indigenous community to determine how these lands ought to be studied; in the paper, the current researchers note that there was a burial site at Murrawong, but the human remains had been removed. 

In contrast, Wilson wrote in his doctoral thesis that his own work "demonstrates new ways by which the Ngarrindjeri community, in collaboration with the academy and Ngarrindjeri researchers, is determining what type of research is required for our own Ruwe/Ruwar," a Ngarrindjeri concept referring to the land.

"It is a community-initiated project which is participatory, collaborative and beneficial for the Ngarrindjeri nation," Wilson said.

The paper, "Analysis and contextualisation of a Holocene bone point from Murrawong (Glen Lossie), Lower Murray River Gorge, South Australia," published March 16 in Australian Archaeology, was authored by Christopher Wilson, Flinders University and James Cook University; Amy Roberts, Craig Westella and Catherine Mortona, Flinders University; Michelle C. Langley and Lynley A. Wallis, Griffith University; Roger Luebbers, Luebbers and Associates; and Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal Corp.

Correction: A previously published version of this article misstated the age of the artifact. The error has been corrected.

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