Reporter: Genevieve Hussey
KERRY O'BRIEN: Aborigines and archaeologists have excavated an ancient artefact site in north-western Queensland, which they believe may be one of the oldest ever discovered in this country. The site was unearthed when the Queensland Government began construction of a bridge. The dig unearthed thousands of spear blades, axes, and tools. It may lead to findings that Aborigines must have penetrated the interior of Australia much earlier than is presently believed. Genevieve Hussey reports.
DR TOM LOY, SOCIAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND: Every time I went to the site and started digging, I just kept getting this feeling like people have been here for a very long time.
COLIN SALTMERE, TRADITIONAL OWNER: It's like the wider community keeping records of births and death and taxes and expenditure and all this sort of stuff - you get a receipt. Well, this is our receipt to say that we've been here a lot longer than what people anticipate.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: For thousands of years, the Aboriginal Injulandgee Dithannoi people have lived along the banks of the Georgina River near Camooweal in far-western Queensland.
RUBY SALTMERE, TRADITIONAL OWNER: It's a significant dreaming. So it's most important to traditional people. It was a scared meeting corroboree place. This is where they used to get us young girls to come over here and they'd paint us up with traditional paints and sing corroboree.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: It's an important spiritual place, tied to the dream time story of the rainbow serpent. Ancestors of present-day Aborigines left proof of their long occupation in the thousands of artefacts littered across the countryside.
SHIRLEY MACNAMARA, TRADITIONAL OWNER: Wherever you walk along the river, there's artefacts just wherever you walk.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: What have you got there?
SHIRLEY MACNAMARA: That's a little blade and the tip of that has actually broken.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Five years ago, when the Queensland Government began a new project to build a new bridge across the Georgina River and upgrade sections of the Barkly Highway, it faced a problem - what to do with the artefacts lying in the path of construction.
PAUL LUCAS, QUEENSLAND MINISTER FOR MAIN ROADS: Often you hear about Indigneous partnerships in terms of road building, but this is a concrete, definite example of why we have Indigenous partnerships and why it's important to involve traditional owners. I mean, they have found an amazing cultural find.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: 25,000 artefacts including scrapers, spear points, axes, wooden tools and eating implements were picked up and stored in a container nearby.
COLIN SALTMERE: That area in here is where your spear blade came out of. This piece of spinifex resin actually binds the implement to the tool, which is this stuff here, and that's your tool there.
DR TOM LOY: We've collected about 15 stone axes. They're big, they're thin, they've been flaked on both sides of the edges, and they've never been found anywhere else in Australia.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Twelve months ago, archaeologist Dr Tom Loy got involved when work was about to begin on a a new bridge over nearby Nowranie Creek, excavating the site chosen for the bridge pylons.
DR TOM LOY: I really didn't think there was going to be much under the surface because the assumption is that all of the archaeology of Australia is actually on the surface; very little of it is in stratified sites, deep stratified sites. I just kept being more and more amazed the deeper we got - we were still finding artefacts.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: These artefacts come from one of the few stratified or underground sites in Australia, and it may as ancient as the oldest sites in the Northern Territory - dated to 60,000 years ago. That would mean Aborigines penetrated the interior of Australia much earlier than is presently believed.
DR TOM LOY: We're still waiting for radio carbon dates and other kinds of methods of dating, but my suspicion is, based on the sediments, that it is very, very old indeed; that will show that Aboriginal people have been in the interior, not just up in Arnhem Land, been there for a very long time.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: While the two bridges have now been completed, continuing work on upgrading the highway is likely to uncover more artefacts and provide more employment.
PAUL LUCAS: Forty per cent of the labour on the project was by Indigenous workers, so it's more than just the cultural find, although that's tremendously important.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Work on the archaeological sites will also continue for years to come.
DR TOM LOY: We don't know how far it goes on either side of the pits. It could turn out to be a very, very large site, indeed.
GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: For the Aboriginal people who've taken part, the effort to preserve these artefacts is helping pass traditions down to the younger generation.
SHIRLEY MACNAMARA: Those artefacts and how we are involved with the collection of them and all of that, makes you realise exactly where your roots are and where you've come from.
RUBY SALTMERE: We bring them out here to help us work, eh, you know, to pick up the artefacts And yes, oh, they're pretty good at it. Yes, it's proof. It's important, though, that it has to be passed down.