F Rosa Rubicondior: Creationism in Crisis - When Earth Was Flooded, According To Creationist Mythology, Australian Aboriginal People Were Making Pots And Campfires And Sailing To Pacific Islands

Monday 15 April 2024

Creationism in Crisis - When Earth Was Flooded, According To Creationist Mythology, Australian Aboriginal People Were Making Pots And Campfires And Sailing To Pacific Islands

View across excavation to Blue Lagoon and reef flat.
Photograph: Ian J. McNiven.
Aboriginal people made pottery and sailed to distant offshore islands thousands of years before Europeans arrived

Sometimes you wonder whether creationists ever stop to think whether what they believe is rational, then you realise that most of them are from America where parochial ignorance and cultural chauvinism are the norm. They can believe, for example, that a global flood which left ancient cultures intact and their artifacts just where they left them, and which failed to lay down the predictable global layer of sediment full of jumbled fossils was still a global flood because er... Grand Canyon.

So, news that Australian archaeologists have unearthed potshards from 6,500 years ago in a shell midden which can be accurately dated (unlike potshards), will almost certainly pass unnoticed by the majority of American creationists.

But for those few who are interested in the truth, here is an article by Sean Ulm Sean Ulm, Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Indigenous and Environmental Histories and Futures, James Cook University, Ian J. McNiven, Professor of Indigenous Archaeology; Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity & Heritage, Monash University and Kenneth McLean, Director, Walmbaar Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Knowledge describing how they found this evidence. Their article is reprinted here under a Creative Commons license, reformatted for stylistic consistency:

Aboriginal people made pottery and sailed to distant offshore islands thousands of years before Europeans arrived
Blue Lagoon at Jiigurru (Lizard Island Group) where the first pieces of pottery were found.
Sean Ulm

Sean Ulm, James Cook University; Ian J. McNiven, Monash University, and Kenneth McLean, Indigenous Knowledge

Pottery was largely unknown in Australia before the recent past, despite well-known pottery traditions in nearby Papua New Guinea and the islands of the western Pacific. The absence of ancient Indigenous pottery in Australia has long puzzled researchers.

Over the past 400 years, pottery from southeast Asia appeared across northern Australia, associated with the activities of Makassan people from Sulawesi (this activity was mainly trepanging, or collecting sea cucumbers). Older pottery in Australia is only known from the Torres Strait adjacent to the Papua New Guinea coast, where a few dozen pottery fragments have been reported, mostly dating to around 1700 years ago.

Why has no evidence been found of early pottery use by Aboriginal people? Various explanations have been proposed, including suggesting that archaeologists simply weren’t looking hard enough. Well now, we’ve found some.

In new research, we report the oldest securely dated ceramics found in Australia from archaeological excavations on Jiigurru (in the Lizard Island group) on the northern Great Barrier Reef located 600km south of Torres Strait. Our analysis shows the pottery was made locally more than 1800 years ago.

Finding pottery at Jiigurru

Back in 2006, several pieces of pottery were found in Blue Lagoon on Jiigurru, 33km off mainland Cape York Peninsula.

Finding pottery at Jiigurru raised some big questions. How old was it? Was it made by local Aboriginal communities? Or was it traded in from elsewhere? If so, where did it come from? Was it from a European shipwreck? Or was it made by the famous Lapita people who colonised the islands of the southwest Pacific?

Our team excavated several more pieces of pottery from Blue Lagoon in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Preliminary analyses showed most of the pottery was made from local materials. However, despite a lot of work, our efforts to determine the age of this pottery were inconclusive and we were no closer to working out how old it is, or who made it.

In 2013 we went back to Jiigurru to excavate a shell midden on a headland near where the Blue Lagoon pottery was found. A shell midden represents a place where people lived, containing food remains (shells, bones), charcoal from campfires, and stone tools left behind.

Radiocarbon dating showed people started camping at this place some 4,000 years ago, making it the oldest site then known at Jiigurru. But no pottery was found.

A broader search

By 2016 the team had reached a dead end in investigating the few pieces of pottery we had. Instead, working in partnership with Traditional Owners, we turned the research program to the extraordinary Indigenous history of the whole of Jiigurru and began surveying all the islands.

A photo of a person digging in a very neat, square hole.
The excavation in progress.
Sean Ulm
In 2017 we began excavating a large shell midden at Jiigurru located during the surveys.

To our amazement, around 40cm below the surface we began to find pieces of pottery among the shells in the excavation. We knew this was a big deal. We carefully bagged each piece of pottery and mapped where each sherd came from, and kept digging.

The pottery stopped at about 80cm depth, with 82 pieces of pottery in total. Most are very small, with an average length of just 18 millimetres. The pottery assemblage includes rim and neck pieces and some of the pottery is decorated with pigment and incised lines.

A photo of an array of pottery fragments against a white background.
Some of the pottery pieces excavated at Jiigurru.
Steve Morton
The oldest pottery

But we had another surprise waiting for us.

The deepest cultural material was found nearly two metres below the surface, in levels we radiocarbon dated to around 6,500 years ago. This is the earliest evidence for offshore island use on the northern Great Barrier Reef.

The reef shells eaten and discarded in these lowest levels had been buried so quickly that they still have colour on their surfaces. Archaeological sites of this depth and age are uncommon anywhere around the Australian coast.

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal and shells found close to the pottery shows that it is between 2,950 and 1,815 years old, making it the earliest securely dated pottery ever found in Australia. Analysis of the clays and tempers shows that all of the pottery was likely made on Jiigurru.

A photo showing a device being lowered into a deep square pit. The dirt walls of the pit are fills with sea shells.
We lowered a laser scanner into the completed excavation pit to document the dense collection of shells found in the walls.

Ian J McNiven
What does it tell us that we didn’t already know?

The findings are clear evidence that Aboriginal people made and used pottery thousands of years ago.

The archaeological evidence does not point to outsiders bringing pottery directly to Jiigurru. Instead, the evidence shows that Cape York First Nations communities were intimately engaged in ancient maritime networks, connecting them with peoples, knowledges and technologies across the Coral Sea region, including the knowledge of how to make pottery.

A map showing Cape York and New Guinea, with important locations and connections marked.
Cultural interactions were common around the Coral Sea.
They were not isolated or geographically constrained, as once conceived.

The results also demonstrate that Aboriginal communities had sophisticated watercraft and navigational skills in using their Sea Country estates more than 6,000 years ago.
What else don’t we know?

The Jiigurru pottery gives us new insight into Australia’s history and the international reach of First Nations communities thousands of years before British invasion in 1788.

Very little research has been conducted anywhere on eastern Cape York Peninsula. We think it is very unlikely that Jiigurru holds the only secrets to our country’s peopled past. What other cultural and historical surprises await to be found? The Conversation Sean Ulm, Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Indigenous and Environmental Histories and Futures, James Cook University; Ian J. McNiven, Professor of Indigenous Archaeology; Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity & Heritage, Monash University, and Kenneth McLean, Director, Walmbaar Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Knowledge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Published by The Conversation.
Open access. (CC BY 4.0)
The archaeologists have also published their findings, open access, in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews:
  • We report the oldest securely dated ceramics found in Australia.
  • Earliest known offshore island occupation on the northern Great Barrier Reef.
  • Ceramic analysis suggests local raw material sources and manufacture.
  • Results demonstrate that Australia was intimately engaged in ancient maritime networks.

Aboriginal manufacture and use of pottery was unknown in Australia prior to European settlement, despite well-known ceramic-making traditions in southern Papua New Guinea, eastern Indonesia, and the western Pacific. The absence of ancient pottery manufacture in mainland Australia has long puzzled researchers given other documented deep time Aboriginal exchange networks across the continent and the close proximity of pottery-bearing Lapita and post-Lapita maritime communities in the western Pacific with ocean-going watercraft and sophisticated navigation abilities. We report the oldest securely dated ceramics found in Australia from archaeological excavations on Jiigurru (Lizard Island Group) on the Great Barrier Reef, northeast Australia. Comprehensive radiocarbon dating and Bayesian modelling constrains ceramic deposition to between 2950–2545 cal BP and 1970–1815 cal BP. This timing overlaps with late Lapita and post-Lapita ceramic traditions of southern Papua New Guinea. Geological characterisation of the sherds strongly suggests local manufacture as the vessels belong to three temper and clay groups locally sourced to northeast Australia, and most likely to Jiigurru. The oldest occupation layers date to 6510–5790 cal BP, making Jiigurru the earliest offshore island occupied on the northern Great Barrier Reef. The results demonstrate that northeast Australian First Nations communities had sophisticated canoe voyaging technology and open-sea navigational skills and were intimately engaged in ancient maritime networks, connecting them with peoples, knowledges, and technologies across the Coral Sea region.

1. Introduction

Pre-European manufacture and use of pottery by the Indigenous peoples of Australia (Aboriginal peoples across the mainland and Melanesian Torres Strait Islanders in the northeast) is unknown ethnographically. The apparent absence of pottery in Australia, as noted by early and more recent European observers, both reflected and was used to support, racist social evolutionary hierarchies characterising Aboriginal societies as lacking cultural complexity (Abbie, 1951; Franklin, 2020).

Southeast Asian pottery appears across a wide area of northern coastal Australia over the past 400 years associated with Makassan maritime industrial activities (Clayton, 2023; Macknight, 1976; Taçon et al., 2010; Urwin et al., 2023.1; Wesley et al., 2014) and is reported as far east as the Wellesley Islands in the southeast Gulf of Carpentaria (Oertle et al., 2014.1). Pre-European pottery of local Indigenous manufacture in Australia is only known in Torres Strait where 24 sherds have been reported. In western Torres Strait, locally made pottery largely dates to between 1700 and 1500 cal BP, with several sherds as old as 2600–2100 cal BP at Mask Cave (McNiven et al., 2006; Wright and Dickinson, 2009). In eastern Torres Strait, pottery appears to be of southern New Guinea origin and dates to 2200–1700 cal BP (Carter, 2001, 2002; see also Wright et al., 2019). The Torres Strait ceramics mostly post-date the end of the Lapita era (McNiven et al., 2006), although it is broadly accepted that the earliest sherds are likely associated with late Lapita which dates to 2600–2550 cal BP at Caution Bay (David et al., 2011; Shaw et al., 2022; Skelly et al., 2014.2:471; see Fig. 1 and Supplementary Table S11 and Fig. S5 for chronological details and updated age calibrations). As Skelly et al. (2014.2:471) note in relation to the c.2600 cal BP Mask Cave ceramic sherds, Lapita is the only ceramic tradition of this age known from this part of the Pacific.
Fig. 1. Top: Map of known Lapita cultural area showing the location of Jiigurru (Lizard Island Group) (after David et al., 2011). Dashed extension of the Lapita cultural area into Torres Strait and northeast Australia indicates possible Lapita distribution or influence (after Shaw et al., 2022). Bottom: Median onset ages for pre-nineteenth century ceramic sites in the Coral Sea region. Median calibrated ages have been rounded to nearest 50 years. Only sites with published radiocarbon chronologies are included (Supplementary Table S11).
The absence of Lapita sites along Australia's eastern seaboard has long perplexed Pacific and Melanesian archaeologists (Lilley, 2019.1), especially in the context of growing archaeological evidence of Lapita pottery traditions from neighbouring Papua New Guinea and its islands. The northeast Australian coastline appears to have been within reach of ceramic-making seafaring groups in Near Oceania (e.g. New Guinea and Solomon Islands) with sophisticated watercraft and navigation technologies (Dousset and Di Piazza, 2021; Irwin, 1992:143). Various explanations have been proposed for the absence of early ceramic use by Aboriginal Australians, ranging from incomplete archaeological sampling and failed settlement attempts, to the possibility of Pacific groups avoiding Australia altogether because it was already populated (despite examples of Lapita peoples co-habiting for centuries alongside existing local peoples in Near Oceania) (Clark and Bedford, 2008; Felgate, 2007; Green, 1978; McNiven et al., 2011.1; Spriggs, 1997).

1.1. The history of Lapita in Oceania

The islands of the western Pacific were peopled in the great Lapita voyages originating from the islands of eastern Papua New Guinea c.3300 cal BP (Denham et al., 2012; Kirch, 2017), demarcated in the archaeological record by distinctive ceramics and shell technologies, introduced plant species, and domesticates like dog, pig, and chicken. Within the space of a few centuries, Lapita peoples and their descendants had settled a vast area extending from Solomon Islands eastwards into Remote Oceania and Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, a distance exceeding 5000 km (Fig. 1). Lapita voyaging and settlement of the Pacific is one of humanity's great maritime settlement accomplishments, setting the stage for the subsequent Polynesian occupation of far-flung Hawaiʻi, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Aotearoa (New Zealand) (Bedford et al., 2019.2; Kirch, 2017; Sefton et al., 2022.1).

Until recently, mainland Papua New Guinea yielded no Lapita sites (e.g. Allen, 1972; Bulmer, 1978.1; Irwin, 1985; Vanderwal, 1973); although a single sherd had been found near Aitape, on the north coast (Terrell and Schechter, 2007.1). In contrast to Australia, later ceramic wares in mainland Papua New Guinea are common, and many communities continue to make and use pottery today (May and Tuckson, 1982). Just over a decade ago, extensive excavations undertaken at Caution Bay revealed well-stratified deposits containing large pottery assemblages dating to between 2900 and 2600–2550 cal BP, associated with Lapita (David et al., 2011, 2013, 2019.3, 2022.2; McNiven et al., 2011.1, 2012.1a, 2012.2b; Richards et al., 2016). These discoveries not only pushed back the known antiquity of pottery manufacture in mainland New Guinea by some 900 years, but they also expanded the distribution of Lapita much farther west. Additional pottery sherds attributed to Lapita have been recovered from archaeological sites in the Kouri Lowlands, c.300 km northwest of Caution Bay (see Skelly and David, 2017.1; Skelly et al., 2014.2, 2016.1), and the Massim islands off the southeast tip of mainland Papua New Guinea (Negishi and Ono, 2009.1; Shaw et al., 2020.1, 2022.3) (Fig. 1).

1.2. The discovery of pottery on Jiigurru

In 2006, pottery sherds were discovered on the surface of an intertidal lag deposit in the Jiigurru lagoon. All of these sherds were rounded and worn down by coastal processes (Lentfer et al., 2013.1; Tochilin et al., 2012.3). Attempts to date the sherds directly using luminescence techniques were inconclusive. Dickinson's (2014.3) initial analysis of the composition of the sherds and Tochilin et al.’s (2012.3) dating of zircon in the sherds suggested that most, if not all, the sherds were likely to have been locally manufactured.

Here we report on the discovery of a large, temporally constrained, assemblage of ceramic sherds recovered from the South Island Headland Midden (SIHM), a terrestrial deposit on Jiigurru, dating to the late Lapita/immediate post-Lapita period. This study emphasises the sedimentary history and chronological modelling of the site, while details about the mollusc, bone, urchin, stone and shell artefact assemblages will be presented elsewhere. Results further emphasise that northeast Australian First Nations people were not isolated or geographically constrained, as once conceived; rather people were deeply connected by way of movement between places and sharing of knowledges across the Coral Sea region.

2. Background: Jiigurru environmental, archaeological and ethnographic contexts

Prior to post-glacial sea-level rise, the islands of Jiigurru were conspicuous mountains on a broad coastal plain some 20 km west of the glacial low-stand coastline on the outer edge of the exposed continental shelf. With Late Pleistocene sea-level rise, Jiigurru would have been surrounded by water by at least 10,000 years ago. By the time Jiigurru was first occupied c.6500 years ago, it was c.30 km from the contemporary mainland coast (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. Visualisation of sea-level rise on Jiigurru (Lizard Island Group) since the Last Glacial Maximum. By at least −30 m (10,000 years ago), Jiigurru would have been surrounded by water. Islandisation may have occurred slightly earlier, allowing for several metres of post-glacial marine transgression sediments, reflected in this modern surface. Note that islands identified in (b) and (c) include topographic features from Holocene reef-growth. However, the general pattern reflects landforms created during the last interglacial period. Bathymetric data from Beaman (2017.2) (see also Supplementary Fig. S7).
The present-day northern Great Barrier Reef has a north-south trending line of granite continental islands comprising Jiigurru, North Direction Island, and South Direction Island. These islands are situated approximately 33 km off Cape Flattery on the mainland coast and 93 km northeast of Cooktown. The islands of Jiigurru surround a deep (c.10 m) lagoon, and comprise Lizard Island, the largest island at 10 km2 in area, Palfrey Island, South Island, Osprey Islet and Bird Islets. The most extensive reef development is from South Island across to Bird Islets and adjacent to Coconut Beach on the southeast windward margin of Jiigurru. Today the reef flat and reef crest adjacent to the South Island Headland Midden are broadly characterised by coral, calcified algae, and sparse coral, rubble, and algae on sand (Hamylton et al., 2014.4). These benthic habitats support diverse faunal communities such as reef fish, sharks, chiton, urchin and molluscan species including clams (e.g. Hippopus hippopus and Tridacna spp.), top shell (Rochia nilotica), conchs (Strombidae), cone snails (Conidae), and nerites (Neritidae). Terrestrial fauna are limited across the islands, with only small-bodied mammals (e.g. black flying fox [Pteropus alecto]), snakes and lizards (e.g. large yellow spotted monitor [Varanus panoptes]) reported. The bird population is more diverse, with a range of visiting and resident land and shore birds (Smith, 1987). There are permanent freshwater sources on Lizard Island, including one documented by Lieutenant James Cook in August 1770 on the northern extent of Watson's Bay (Beaglehole, 1962), but freshwater is also accessible from seasonal springs across the interior and around the rim of many islands in the group.

Jiigurru's vegetation is dominated by Themeda australis and Arundinella nepalensis grasslands, intermixed with small areas of closed forest types (e.g. semi-deciduous notophyll vine forest) as well as shrubby heath characterised by Thryptomene oligandra. Isolated sclerophyll woodlands feature Acacia crassicarpa, A. humifusa and Eucalyptus tessellaris. Permanently wet central low-lying areas are dominated by Pandanus species. The coastal and brackish regions are vegetated by diverse mangroves, dune and strand communities (Proske and Haberle, 2012.4; Lentfer et al., 2013.1). Jiigurru is positioned within the Tropical Aw climatic classification based on the Köppen scheme (Peel et al., 2007.2).

Geologically, Jiigurru (Lizard Island, along with Palfrey and South Islands) forms the Lizard Island Granite group comprising outcrops of leucocratic biotite-muscovite granite (Bultitude, 1993:46–55; Bultitude and Champion, 1992.1:28, 32, 35–36; Domagala et al., 1997.1; Garrad and Bultitude, 1999:272; Geological Survey of Queensland, 2015; Lucas and Keyser, 1965:8; Morgan, 1964:7) within the Cooktown Supersuite of granites that also take in Barrow Point on the adjacent mainland. The Cooktown Supersuite is one of a series of distinctive granite formations outcropping in Torres Strait and along eastern Cape York Peninsula and northern sections of the Great Barrier Reef (Bain and Draper, 1997.2).

Jiigurru is a place of high importance to the Traditional Owners from the Guugu Yimithirr nation and stories passed down from the Elders tell of the islands being a place of ceremony, initiation, gathering, deliberations, and a place for knowledge to be passed down to young men (Phillip Baru, Dingaal Elder, pers. comm., 2020). Trips to the islands for initiation were believed to have lasted for several months during the recent past. According to Phillip Baru (pers. comm., 2020), Dingaal families also travelled to Jiigurru to access foods such as wild yam, shellfish, fish, and turtle. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European mariners noted structures (‘huts’), canoes, hearths, and scatters of shell, fish and turtle remains on Jiigurru (Beaglehole, 1962; Macgillivray, 1852).

McNiven (2021.1, 2022.4) identifies Jiigurru as the southern extent of a series of nineteenth century ethnographically-known voyaging and exchange networks that indirectly connected coastal communities of eastern Cape York Peninsula and Torres Strait (Australia) and the southern mainland coast and adjacent islands of Papua New Guinea to form the Coral Sea Cultural Interaction Sphere (CSCIS) (Fig. 3). In addition to the two-way movement of objects, these exchange networks provided opportunities for the two-way movement and sharing of ideas by coastal communities between New Guinea and Australia. While use of certain ethnographic objects such as bamboo smoking pipes across the CSCIS reveal broad-scale sharing of ideas, restricted use of certain objects to either Cape York Peninsula and Torres Strait (e.g. shell-handled spearthrowers) or Torres Strait and New Guinea (e.g. dog-tooth necklaces) indicates shared knowledge did not always result in shared uptake of ideas and/or objects. Geographical differences in the distribution of ethnographic objects reveal the operation of social and cultural selection in object uptake. As such, object distributions may change through time as selection processes similarly change.
Fig. 3. Connections across the coral sea cultural interaction sphere (ESRI, 2022.5; after McNiven, 2021.1).
2.1. Archaeological research

Archaeological research commenced on Jiigurru in the 1970s when Beaton (1973.1) and Specht (1978.2) conducted surveys of Lizard Island and recorded numerous site types (e.g. middens, stone arrangements). More than a decade later, Mills (1992.2) completed an extensive survey of Lizard Island, recording 21 middens, four stone arrangements, and two art sites, and completed the first excavations on the island (Site 17 Freshwater Bay Midden; Site 18 Gecko Shelter). The Site 17 Freshwater Bay Midden (Lizard Island) was re-excavated in 2009 by Lentfer et al. (2013.1) and outcomes suggested the island was first occupied by 3656 cal BP, with an observed increase in the intensity of site use over the past ∼1500 years. In 2012, Ulm and McNiven, in partnership with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, established a new research program to consider the deep time history of Jiigurru more broadly. This project extended preliminary findings of ceramic earthenware sherds in the intertidal zone of Mangrove Beach by Matthew Felgate and Jim Specht (2006–2010) (Tochilin et al., 2012.3). Further excavations were undertaken at the Mangrove Beach Intertidal Site and new excavations were conducted at the nearby Site 3 Mangrove Beach Headland Midden (Ulm et al., 2019.4; Lambrides et al., 2020.3), the latter extending the known use of Jiigurru to the past 4000 years. Subsequent fieldwork included excavations on South Island (South Island Headland Midden, reported here), and extensive surveys of Lizard, Palfrey, South, and North Direction Islands, and the recording of stone arrangements (Fitzpatrick et al., 2018) and art sites (Arnold, 2020.4) (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Jiigurru (Lizard Island Group), showing the location of archaeological sites and places mentioned in text. The dotted line shows the extent of the reef platform (State of Queensland - Department of Resources, 2020).

Ulm, Sean; McNiven, Ian J.; Summerhayes, Glenn R., et al (2024)
Early Aboriginal pottery production and offshore island occupation on Jiigurru (Lizard Island group), Great Barrier Reef, Australia Quaternary Science Reviews 108624; DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2024.108624

Copyright: © 2024The authors.
Published by Elsevier B.V. Open access.
Reprinted under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0)
Since these shell deposits come well within the limit beyond which 14C dating ceases to be accurate, there can be little doubt that the potshards associated with them are of the same age, or maybe slightly older having possibly been in use for some time before being broken and discarded, so we can be confident that not only were there people making pots in Australia and sailing between islands, before, during and after creationism's mythical genocidal flood. Unless a creationist can come up with a rational explanation of why water deep enough to cover Mount Everest failed to cover Australia, there can be little doubt that there never was a genocidal flood about 4000 years ago - which would of course account for the total absence of any geological evidence for one, or any evidence that species world-wide went through such a narrow genetic bottleneck that few would have survived for more than a few generations.


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