A team of scientists from the University of Western Australia and Curtin University has examined charcoal from ancient rock shelters to learn about the earliest uses of firewood in Australia.
University of Western Australia researcher Chae Byrne and her colleagues found evidence for wattle and other acacias in charcoal from ancient campfires at Karnatukul (Serpents Glen) in Katjarra (Carnarvon Ranges), the land of the Martu, the Australian Western Desert.
“Wattle was critical to the lives of the Martu and essential to the habitability of the arid landscape of the sandplains and rocky ridges of the Western Desert — and it still is,” Byrne said.
“Then and now, wattle has been used as firewood, to make tools, as food and as medicine.”
The researchers confirmed that early Indigenous explorers settled in this arid part of Australia, even during changes in climate which saw widespread drought and desertification as sea levels dropped when the polar ice sheets grew.
They also found that wattle and other acacias have been a constant, dependable resources, crucial to the habitability of an otherwise arid and harsh environment.
They worked closely with Traditional Owners of the region, who shared their knowledge about the many uses for wattle and other plants.
“I have walked in Country with Traditional Owners who have been kind enough to share their knowledge surrounding the many uses for the vegetation which surround us,” Byrne said.
“They have taught me that there is a purpose and significance for every type of tree and bush; an ancient grocer and pharmacy which has provided and prospered for tens of thousands of years.”
The scientists also sampled trees growing in the region today, which could then be compared to ancient charcoal fragments.
“Looking at plant remains is particularly useful in studying Australian Indigenous heritage, given the persistent importance of natural resources like trees and the rarity of other cultural remains in the deep time record,” Byrne said.
“There’s so much we can learn from charcoal, not just about the people that produced it but also in environmental science and climate change.”
A paper on the findings was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
Chae Byrne et al. 2021. The dependable deep time Acacia: Anthracological analysis from Australia’s oldest Western Desert site. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 40, part A: 103187; doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.103187