In 1994, excavations at Cuddie Springs, near Carinda, exposed numerous bones of now extinct animals called megafauna. (A plan of the claypan, 1994, appears at right.) These animals included a giant flightless bird called Genyornis newtoni, a large wombat-like creature as big as a rhinoceros called Diprotodon and a kangaroo called Sthenurus. The bones of a modern kangaroo are also found with the megafauna. The red kangaroo (Macropus rufus) is thought to be the last remaining megafauna, though they are smaller today than they were thousands of years ago.
Alongside the bones were considerable numbers of stone tools, charcoal and other indicators of human activities. The bones and stone tools found in the same horizons at Cuddie Springs are the only known evidence, from Australia, for the interaction and overlap (in time) of people and megafauna.
How do we investigate whether humans and megafauna interacted in any way? Did people hunt the megafauna? Detailed examination of all the available evidence, e.g. bones, stones and fossil pollen, is critical to our understanding of these events. Some of the results are presented here.
The fossil bone and stone tools have been preserved in a claypan in the middle of an ancient lake floor. The picture below shows the lake in full flood in 1995 after 1485 points of rain in three weeks. The claypan is indicated by an arrow. During the long history of people camping at Cuddie Springs, the lake, like today probably flooded only rarely, with the claypan being inundated on a more regular basis. During the present day, the claypan fills after local thunderstorms. We have had to postpone a number of field trips for this reason.
Many large and small animals became extinct during or before the Last Glacial Maximum between 18,000 and 22,000 years ago. The Last Glacial Maximum (or Ice Age) resulted in the environment being much drier and in some cases much colder than the present day.
It has been suggested that many of the animals, like the Diprotodon, disappeared because they were tied to water holes and were unable to migrate to better watered areas. They perished when the waterhole dried up during a local drought. Other people have suggested that Aboriginal people hunted megafauna to extinction. Unlike continents such as Africa or America, there were no large predators around at the time that the Diprotodon and other species disappeared. Animals like Thylacoleo, the marsupial lion and Megalania, the giant Goanna, were thought to have died out much earlier.
The first thing we had to do at Cuddie Springs was to determine whether the bones and stones were deposited during a period when people were interacting with megafauna.
A range of species of megafauna have been recovered from the Cuddie Springs claypan deposits. The picture below shows the range of megafauna that has been recorded for the Australian continent. The letter C beside any of the drawings indicates species found at Cuddie Springs. Animals that have been found in association with stone tools are indicated by an A. It would appear that only a few of these species were still present when people arrived at the lake for the first time.
Click on the image to see a larger version. (from Murray, 1984:622)
When excavating bones, it is often difficult to tell what type of animal it is unless teeth and skulls are found. With megafauna however, the bones are very distinctive and large and this makes identifications relatively easy, at least for Diprotodon and Genyornis (the giant emu-like bird). The picture at left shows the lower jaw of a Diprotodon (the teeth are just visible) and a stone tool which was probably used to butcher the same animal. The photo at right shows a Diprotodon, the same species represented by the jaw above.
When people are butchering large animals, they may sometimes leave cut or chop marks on the bones. Sometimes, the way a bone is broken may suggest that people were involved. In many cases, butchering of large animals may show no evidence of human activities, however at Cuddie Springs there is some evidence that people were butchering both extinct animals and animals that are present in the area today.
In Unit 2 at Cuddie Springs, the burnt bone of an extinct kangaroo called "Sthenurus" has been found. The bone has been broken and is part of a femur, the upper leg bone. Arrows indicate the area which is white (or calcined) from burning.
The tibia, or lower leg bone, of a red kangaroo has evidence of cutmarks near a break in the bone (see arrows). It was probably broken to extract marrow.
The age of the levels where the bones and stones are found has been determined by radiocarbon dating to be approximately 31,000 years old, and possibly as old as 40,000 years. What sort of stone tools were people using at this time and were they butchering the megafauna?
Stone tools from known butchering sites in America and Africa comprise hammerstones, for breaking bones and muscle attachments, and flaked stone for cutting and skinning the animal. Any flaked stone with a sharp edge would have been used and probably discarded as soon as the edge became blunt or clogged by fat and tissue. Some of the Cuddie Springs stones are shown above right and form an assemblage similar to those from known butchering locations on other continents.
To the right is a silcrete utilised flake found beneath a Genyornis limb bone. Traces of blood were found near the used edges. A silcrete hammerstone found with Diprotodon and Genyornis bones. Arrows indicate the location of bone residues.
While the stone tools that were found with the extinct animals resemble butchering tools from other ancient sites, this does not necessarily mean that they were used for this purpose. In an attempt to determine the 'functions' of the stone tools we examined them using a microscope. At high magnifications we could see blood and sometimes hair adjacent to the used edges. The four pictures below show both modern and ancient examples of residues from butchering activities.
A. Blood film on the surface of a stone flake
used to butcher a grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus).
B. Blood film on the surface of a stone artefact approximately 30,000 years old.
C. Low magnification view of a blood film on a stone artefact.
D. A hair on the same flaked stone as the blood depicted in A.
Stone tools and bones of extinct animals, found together, in the deposits of the Cuddie Springs claypan is now viewed as the only secure evidence in Australia for interaction between humans and megafauna. Careful examination of the bones for evidence of butchering suggests that people were butchering both extinct animals and animals that are still seen today (e.g. Red Kangaroo).
Were people hunting megafauna? This is a difficult question to answer because material like wood, which may have been used to make boomerangs and spears, has not survived. The evidence that remains for us to examine is in the form of stone, charcoal, bone and ochre. We now know that residues of butchering activities such as blood and hair does survive on the surface of stone, and DNA studies of these residues may help us identify which species of animal they came from.
People were butchering megafauna at Cuddie Springs during the lead up to the last Ice Age. The next question to answer is how people were targeting these animals as part of their resource base (which also included plant foods?). Was it a specialised hunting strategy or were megafauna hunted and killed on a chance encounter basis? Further investigations will be aimed at answering these questions.
Acknowledgments: We are indebted to the Brewarrina Local Aboriginal Land Council for their continued support for the Cuddie Springs project, in particular Essie Coffey and Garry Lord. The Australian Research Council, AIATSIS, National Geographic, UNSW and The Australian Museum provided funding for the project. Thankyou to the local landowners for facilitating access to the site and providing accommodation: Jan and Sue Currey, The Johnstone Family and Doug Green. Photographs: Georgia Britton. Illustrations: Drahos Zak.
Paper in preparation, June 1997:
Late Pleistocene Megafauna and Archaeology from Cuddie Springs, southeastern Australia.
Judith Field and John Dodson
The Cuddie Springs site in south eastern Australia provides the first evidence of an unequivocal association of megafauna with humans for this continent. Cuddie Springs has been known as a fossil megafauna locality for over a century, however its archaeological record has only recently been identified. Cuddie Springs is an open site, with the fossil deposits preserved in a claypan on the floor of an ancient ephemeral lake. Investigations reveal a stratified deposit of human occupation and fossil megafauna, suggesting a temporal overlap and an active association of megafauna with people in the lead up to the last Glacial Maximum, when conditions were more arid than the present day. Two distinct occupation phases have been identified and are correlated to the hydrology of the Cuddie Springs lake. When people first arrived at Cuddie Springs, sometime before 30,000 BP, the lake was similar to a waterhole, with five species of megafauna identified. After drying of the lake, human occupation of the claypan followed but with a broadening of the resource base to include a range of plant foods. Megafauna appear to be just one of a range of food resources exploited during this time. A return to ephemeral conditions resulted in only periodic occupation of the site with megafauna disappearing from the record around 28,000 BP. The timing of overlap and association of megafauna with human occupation is coincident with the earliest occupation sites in this region. The archaeological evidence from Cuddie Springs suggests an opportunistic exploitation of resources and no specialised strategies for hunting megafauna. Disappearance of megafauna is likely to be a consequence of climatic change during the lead up to the last Glacial Maximum and human activities may have compounded an extinction process well under way.