Ancient bone tools found in a Kimberley cave site in Western Australia are more than 35,000 years old and according to new research are among the oldest discovered in Australia.

A team of researchers from Griffith University, The University of Western Australia and The Australian National University analysed the eight bone tools from Riwi Cave in Mimbi country in collaboration with the local Mimbi community.

Four of the bone tools were found in layers dating from between 35,000 and 46,000 years ago indicating the artefacts are among the oldest uncovered in Australia.  

“We are grateful for the generosity of the Mimbi Community who gave us the opportunity to study this site.” 

Professor Jane Balme

Lead author Dr Michelle Langley, from Griffith University, said the cave likely sheltered the bone tools from the elements, preserving them for millennia.

“They were preserved because they were in the cave site of Riwi. If they had been in an open-air site just out, away from the cave, unprotected from the elements then there’s no way they would have survived.”

“Bone tools of this antiquity… the oldest one going back to about 46,000 years are extremely rare in Australia, particularly in the north where organic artefacts like these don’t tend to survive long periods of time.”

Professor Sue O’Connor from The Australian National University said, “until recently bone artefacts of this age were thought to be confined to the cold southern regions of Australia and Tasmania and to have been used in skin working to make clothing as protection against the cold. These new finds from the arid zone have changed our perspective,” 

Dr Langley added, “looking at the tools under the microscope we were able to determine that they were used for different functions, including as tips for projectile points, for basket making, or skin working tools, and possibly also a nose bone or nasal septum ornament.”

“Because tools of this age are so rare, they’re giving us more indications about how diverse the overall tool kits of First Australians was, going back 46,000 years, whereas before we could only look at the stone tools to tell us something about what their everyday lives were like.”

Archaeologist Jane Balme who helped to excavate the site along with Professor O’Connor and the Mimbi community said, “these tools show the importance of organic materials in the early technologies of First Nations people, and they provide a window into a greater diversity of activities undertaken by people than are revealed by stone artefacts alone”.

“We are grateful for the generosity of the Mimbi Community who gave us the opportunity to study this site,” Professor Balme said. 

Professor Michelle Langley’s full interview with NIRS

Bone tools found in Riwi Cave in the Kimberley, WA. Credit: Michelle Langley