Skip to main content
Flinders Ranges

Cutting-edge nuclear techniques help prove Australia's oldest Aboriginal site

An unassuming rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges has been revealed as the oldest known evidence of Aboriginal Australian settlement, thanks in part to advanced nuclear techniques, technology and scientists.

Warratyi Rock Shelter
The Warratyi Rock Shelter in the Flinders Ranges                                                                  Credit: Giles Hamm

Dr Vladimir Levchenko of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) co-authored a paper published today in Nature, marking a ‘mammoth’ discovery of Australian pre-history. 

ANSTO’s Dr Levchenko performed carbon dating research using two separate nuclear instruments at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights Campus over the period between 2014 and 2016.

“I was involved as a radiocarbon specialist, and used two nuclear instruments over more than two years – the ANTARES and STAR accelerators,” explains Dr Levchenko.

“The role of ANSTO and nuclear science extended to analysing shells, charcoal, tools and bones and megafauna, which showed two things.

“Firstly we showed that the site is up to 49,000 years old – the earliest occupied site we have come across in Australia, at least so far.

“Secondly we proved through dating the megafauna bones, examining the marks on them, and the fact they were collocated, that humans and megafauna interacted.

“We also rechecked and in some cases redid research that was undertaken in other laboratories – to ensure the veracity of the important findings.”

The samples were carefully unearthed from their ancient home in the Flinders Ranges, and sent some 1,500 kilometres and 49,000 years into the future at Sydney’s Lucas Heights.

Two accelerators were used to combine their benefits – STAR with its dedicated radio carbon beamline, and ANTARES, ANSTO’s largest accelerator, which can accelerate virtually any naturally occurring isotope.

“The finding pushed radiocarbon dating technique to its best capability,” said ANSTO’s Leader of the Centre for Accelerator Science, Professor David Cohen.

“Evidence now suggests Aboriginal Australians settled in the Flinders Ranges some 49,000 years, and radiocarbon dating techniques at ANSTO are reliable to around 55,000 – 60,000 years.”

ANSTO often contributes to studies that help determine the age of vitally of important artefacts with non-destructive methods, to reveals the true extent of the world’s oldest culture while preserving artefacts.

“Nuclear techniques are applied to analyse and date rock art, tools, ochres and bones, shedding light on the lives of the first people in Australia,” said Professor Cohen.

The research was undertaken in collaboration with representatives of the Adnyamathanha people of the Northern Flinders Ranges. Clifford Coulthard, a member of the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, who found the site with Giles Hamm, is a co-author on the paper with Vincent Coulthard, Sophia Wilton and Duncan Johnston.

ANSTO Media contact: Phil McCall 0438 619 987