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Kimberley cave reveals ancient bone tools

Victoria Laurie, April 21, 2021 9:23PM The Australian

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Ancient bone tools found in Riwi Cave in the Kimberley, that are changing long-held scientific beliefs about indigenous culture. media_cameraAncient bone tools found in Riwi Cave in the Kimberley, that are changing long-held scientific beliefs about indigenous culture.


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Aboriginal people in north Australia were making sharp tools from kangaroo leg bones as far back as 46,000 years ago, based on dating of bone tools found in limestone caves in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

New research has shown the age of bone artefacts* found in the cave site as being more than 35,000 years old, and in some cases up to 46,000 years old, ranking them among the oldest bone tools found in Australia.

Traditional owner Rosemary Nuggett said she and her relatives helped a team of researchers retrieve eight bone artefacts from the Riwi Cave in Mimbi country between Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek. “They’re pretty old and part of our heritage.”

Analysis of the artefacts revealed her ancestors were fashioning* bone tools earlier than thought and adding them to their tool­kit. Artefacts believed to be of similar age were found inside the Juukan Caves further south in the Pilbara, before the site was destroyed by mining company Rio Tinto last year.

media_cameraJuukan Gorge, WA, one of the earliest known sites occupied by Aboriginal people in Australia, photographed on May 15, 2020 after the destruction by Rio Tinto of the site to expand an iron ore mine. Picture: AFP/PKKP Aboriginal Corporation

A previous finding at Carpenter’s Gap in the Kimberley was also older than 46,000 years.

However, most bone artefacts were thought to be confined to the cold southern regions of mainland Australia and Tasmania, where sharpened bones were used to skin animals for clothing against the cold.

Michelle Langley, from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, said it was originally thought bone tools were “not so important in the north of Australia and were only brought into the toolkit relatively recently”.

“These tools show that wasn’t the case,” Dr Langley said.

“We hadn’t found them because they haven’t been surviving long time periods in hostile* preservation conditions of northern Australia.”

Published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology*, the study is illustrated with pointed kangaroo thigh bones used for hunting, the manufacture of plant fibre items and collecting of resins from termite mounds.

Jane Balme, from the ­University of Western Australia, said the tools showed the ­importance of organic* materials in early technologies of First Nations people.


  • artefacts: human-made historical objects
  • fashioning: crafting, shaping
  • hostile: harsh
  • osteoarchaeology: scientific study of ancient bones
  • organic: made from living or once-living things, such as plants and animals rather than rock


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  1. In what state is the Kimberley?
  2. What are the tools made from?
  3. How old are the tools?
  4. What happened to Juukan Caves?
  5. What does Jane say the tools show us?


1. What is Important?
What do you think are the three most important things that kids can learn from this story?

Write them down. Next to each one, write sentences explaining why this is so important.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History, Science

2. Extension
Scientists believe the tools may have been used to collect resin from termite mounds. Do you know what resin is? What do you think the resin might have been used for by the ancient Aboriginal people? List as many specific uses that you can think of.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History, Science

Punctuation Thief
Pick a paragraph from the article, or about 3 sentences together if that’s easier, and rewrite it without the punctuation. At the bottom of the page write a list of all the punctuation you stole and in the order you stole it. For example; C , . C .

Then swap your book with another person and see if they can work out where the punctuation needs to go back to.

Make it easier: Underline where you stole the punctuation from but don’t put the list at the bottom in order.

Make it harder:

Don’t put the punctuation in order at the bottom.

Underline where you took the punctuation from, but don’t tell them what pieces you took.

Just tell them how many pieces you took, but not what they are.

Don’t give them any clues!

Extra Reading in history