Historical breakthrough

29 November 2016

Dr Vladimir Levchenko at ANSTO's Lucas Heights facility

Using nuclear instruments, ANSTO scientist Dr Vladimir Levchenko performed carbon dating research on material found at a site known as Warratyi, in the Flinders Rangers, to shed light on the extraordinary age of Aboriginal settlement.

Dr Levchenko performed carbon dating research at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights Campus over the period between 2014 and 2016.

“I was involved as a radiocarbon specialist, and used two nuclear instruments over more than two years – the ANTARES and STAR accelerators,” explains Dr Levchenko.

“The role of ANSTO and nuclear science extended to analysing shells, charcoal, tools and bones and megafauna, which showed two things.

“Firstly we showed that the site is up to 49,000 years old – the earliest occupied site we have come across in Australia, at least so far.

“Secondly we proved through dating the megafauna bones, examining the marks on them, and the fact they were collocated, that humans and megafauna interacted.

“We also rechecked and in some cases redid research that was undertaken in other laboratories – to ensure the veracity of the important findings.”

The samples were carefully unearthed from their ancient home in the Flinders Ranges, and sent some 1,500 kilometres and 49,000 years into the future at Sydney’s Lucas Heights. Two accelerators were used to combine their benefits – STAR with its dedicated radio carbon beamline, and ANTARES, ANSTO’s largest accelerator, which can accelerate virtually any naturally occurring isotope.

“The finding pushed radiocarbon dating technique to its best capability,” said ANSTO’s Leader of the Centre for Accelerator Science, Professor David Cohen.

“Evidence now suggests Aboriginal Australians settled in the Flinders Ranges some 49,000 years ago, and radiocarbon dating techniques at ANSTO are reliable to around 55,000 – 60,000 years.” ANSTO often contributes to studies that help determine the age of vitally important artefacts with non-destructive methods, to reveal the true extent of the world’s oldest culture while preserving artefacts.

“Nuclear techniques are applied to analyse and date rock art, tools, ochres and bones, shedding light on the lives of the first people in Australia,” said Professor Cohen.