Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Birrigai Shelter

This is a rock shelter formed by a large block of stone leaning against another. It provides shelter for up to 12 people, it is open at both ends so the wind howls through, which would make it a cold place, as it is high on the northern fringes of the Australian Alps in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. When one end is closed off, it becomes a warm refuge from the cold wind. At the height of the Ice Age, when it was apparently being used as a summer camp, at least for hunting trips, at 730 m above sea level it would have been above the tree line. Based on paleontological and geomorphologic evidence it has been estimated the average annual temperature would have been about 7o C lower than at present. The climate at this site, near Canberra, would have been similar to the top of Mt Kosciusko of the present. It would have been very cold in winter, but in summer it would be habitable.

It has been dated to about 21,000 years ago onwards. This date was questioned, but other dates in the area of 18 000 BP make it more acceptable.

1.5 cubic metres of the floor of the rock shelter were excavated, producing evenly spaced small stone tools. Maybe it was the travelling kit of long-distance hunters. The Pleistocene tools are all quartz, flakes, chips, core fragments and bipolar pieces.

Microscopic analysis of the residue on the working edges of tools from a level dated to 16,000-21,000 BP, revealed residue. On the largest tool from the site, 5 cm long, a retouched quartz flake, was found plant residue.  Another piece of quartz had step scarring and a residue of bone collagen, possibly a bone-scraping tool.

There is a definite hearth at the site, with a depression and hearth stones, so it was probably a ground oven rather than a warming-sleeping fire. Charcoal from this hearth dated to 16,000 BP. A piece of red ochre and a quartz core fragment were found near the hearth. The quartz core had blood and skin collagen on the edge, suggesting it was a butchering tool,

Another quartz bipolar has blood on it, but not on the working edge but on the side, just the spot where the user would have his thumb, and a missed blow would have hit it, 10 000 years ago, maybe evidence of a Neolithic industrial accident.


  1. Birrigai Rock Shelter, Tidbinbilla: A human history from 21,000 years ago
  2. Parks Conservation and Lands

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications, 2004
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 01/10/2010
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