Barrow Island lithic scatters: A unique record of occupation patterns on the North West Shelf before insularisation

Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation, Peter M. Veth, Kane Ditchfield, Fiona Hook

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A key inquiry in Pleistocene human coastal adaptations asks whether coastlines were productive littoral patches that were consistently utilized over time or did fluctuating sea levels make them marginally productive patches that only supplemented terrestrially oriented foraging. Investigating this issue is challenging because rising glacio-eustatic sea levels submerged most evidence of Pleistocene coastal occupation. We address the question directly by integrating this analysis of open-air lithic assemblages with previously reported cave excavations on Barrow and adjacent islands in Western Australia. Well-dated, stratified cave deposits bracket occupation of Barrow Island from c. 50 ka to 7 ka, when rising sea levels severed pedestrian access to the mainland. Consequently, the open-air sites are a solely Pleistocene to Early Holocene record of land-use when the extensive North West Shelf was as a vast coastal plain. These assemblages offer evidence of human interaction with Pleistocene sea-level change that were undetectable from cave deposits alone. While local calcarenite dominates cave lithic assemblages, it is rare among surface artifacts that are predominately lithologies that originate either on the mainland, or from now-drowned sources. The distribution of surface materials is statistically patterned across the island reflecting broader land-use patterns across the coastal plain. Expedient flake and core tools made mostly of igneous material are prevalent on sites in the north, whereas curated food processing and fabrication tools, and sedimentary lithologies, are more common in the south. While this study bolsters findings from the cave excavations that early Aboriginal people regularly moved across the coastal plain targeting coastal resources, it sheds light on their access to inland resources and suggests they were linked to the continental mainland by mobility, social networks, and exchange. Additionally, this research links contemporary Aboriginal communities from northwest Australia to the continental islands of the North West Shelf. The Barrow Island Archaeology project received support from the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation, involving Thalanyji Knowledge Holders and elders: Glenys Hayes, Anne Hayes, Robyn Davison, and Jane Hyland.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108547
Number of pages21
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Early online date1 Mar 2024
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2024


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