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Discovery of Australia's oldest pottery rewrites understanding of Aboriginal maritime history

Brendan Foster -

The discovery of the oldest pottery ever found in Australia at Jiigurru (Lizard Island Group) on the Great Barrier Reef has drastically altered First Nations maritime history.

Archaeologists from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) and Traditional Owners from the Dingaal and Ngurrumungu Aboriginal communities uncovered pottery sherds believed to be between 2000 and 3000 years old.

The findings to be published in Quaternary Science Reviews, disprove previous beliefs that First Nations communities were unaware of pottery manufacture before European settlement.

Geological analysis of the ceramics found the pottery was locally produced using clays and tempers sourced from Jiigurru.

The age of the pottery was during the same period when the Lapita people of southern Papua New Guinea were known to have produced ceramics.

Over two years, archaeologists excavated a 2.4-metre-deep midden on Jiigurru and found the remains of shellfish and fish collected and eaten by First Nations people which are more than 6000 years old.

This would make Jiigurru the earliest known offshore island occupied on the northern Great Barrier Reef. Jiigurru holds significant cultural importance for First Nations people as it served as a historical site for ceremony, initiation, gathering, and knowledge transmission.

Dingaal clan member and Walmbaar Aboriginal Corporation chairperson, Kenneth McLean said Traditional Owners of the region had never worked with archaeologists before.

"Where we work together on Country, sharing each other's story on Country, and not only sharing this story from our people, the old people, and from the archaeology side, scientifically, which is a good outcome that we can see," he said.

"We can look after the Country together."

Ngurrumungu Elder Brian Cobus said every bit of knowledge gained helped tell the story of Country.

"Research projects like this help us all to understand Country better and help us to understand how to look after Country," he said.

James Cook University professor and CABAH chief investigator Sean Ulm said the discovery revealed the First Nations communities in North Queensland had connections with the pottery-making communities of New Guinea.

"The discovery gives us insights into the sophisticated maritime capabilities of First Nations communities in this region, and these objects are crucial in understanding the cultural exchanges that occurred on Jiigurru thousands of years ago," he said.

"We think that the ancestors of contemporary Traditional Owners were engaged in a very widespread trading system.

"So they traded technology, goods and ideas, knew how to make pottery, and made it locally."

Fellow CABAH chief investigator and Monash University professor Ian McNiven said the findings contradicted the outdated notion of First Nations isolation as the evidence points to a history of complex trading across the Coral Sea.

This also included advanced canoe voyaging technology and open-sea navigation skills.

"These findings not only open a new chapter in Australian, Melanesian, and Pacific archaeology but also challenge colonialist stereotypes by highlighting the complexity and innovation of Aboriginal communities," professor McNiven said.

"The discovery adds a new layer to our understanding of Jiigurru and Indigenous Australians' role in the broader network of maritime exchange and cultural interaction across the Coral Sea."

Professor McNiven said Jiigurru marked the southern boundary of ancient international maritime networks that linked eastern north Queensland, southern New Guinea and the Torres Strait, forming the Coral Sea Cultural Interaction Sphere.

"These networks facilitated the exchange of objects and ideas between Australian and New Guinean coastal communities over the past 3000 years," he said.

"While some objects, like cone-shell body adornments and bamboo smoking pipes, indicate widespread sharing of culture and ideas, others, such as pottery, also suggest the sharing of technology."

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