Two people digging

Ancient campfires reveal a 50,000 year old grocer and pharmacy

For the first time in Australia, archaeobotany has been used by researchers from UWA to examine charcoal from ancient campfires in the Western Desert.

They found wattle and other Acacias which proves it was (and still is) used by Indigenous people for tools, food and medicine.

The iconic wattle isn’t just about sports uniforms and the coat of arms – new finds in the oldest archaeological site on the land of the Martu in the Western Desert shows how wattle has defined culture and been important to Australians for over 50,000 years.

The research, led by Chae Byrne from The University of Western Australia and the first of its kind in the region, examined charcoal from ancient campfires in desert rock shelters to learn about the earliest uses of firewood in Karnatukul (Serpents Glen) in Katjarra (the Carnarvon Ranges).

Fieldwork in Katjarra, in Australia’s Western Desert (credit: Chae Byrne, The University of Western Australia)

“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,” says Chae. “Then and now, wattle has been used as firewood, to make tools, as food and as medicine.”

The study confirms that early Indigenous explorers settled in this arid part of the country, even during changes in climate which saw widespread drought and desertification as sea levels dropped when the polar ice sheets grew.

For the first time, this study has proven that wattle and other acacias have been a constant, dependable resources, crucial to the habitability of an otherwise arid and harsh environment. It also speaks to the relationship between People and Country, who preserved and protected areas where wattle grew through extreme fluctuations in climate.

Chae and the research team 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,” says Chae.

“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 dig sites were in Karnatukul (Serpents Glen) and Katjarra (Carnarvon Ranges), though the precise locations can’t be disclosed publicly at the request of the Traditional Owners.

The researchers sampled trees growing in the region today, which could then be compared to ancient charcoal fragments from campfires in archaeological sites.

This is one of the first times that archaeobotany, or using plants in archaeological studies, has been used in Australia’s deserts.

“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,” says Chae.

“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.”

Chae was a finalist in Fresh Science, a national competition helping early career researchers find, and then share, their stories of discovery.