Scientists rewrite Australian pre-history

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Scientists were still trying to come to grips last night with claims by a group of Australian scientists to have discovered the world's oldest rock art, together with evidence that humans have inhabited Australia for up to 100,000 years longer than was earlier believed.

While a number of other scientists expressed scepticism, the Australian team of three men and one woman stuck by their claim that their discoveries will force a rewriting of pre-history. Their research is to be published in December in Antiquity, the British archaeological journal, and was disclosed at the weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The scientists made their discoveries at Jinmium, one of the remotest places in the Australian outback. There, among the parched scrub, they found large rock faces embedded with more than 6,000 engraved circles. The team dated the engravings at between 58,000 and 75,000 years old. But their most controversial claim centres on artefacts and ochre that they found embedded in sediment beneath the ground next to the rock engravings. Using atechnique known as thermoluminescence, the scientists concluded that the ochre could be 116,000 years old and the artefacts up to 176,000 years old.

If the latest claims are correct, it means that humans first occupied Australia some 76,000 years before the time when Homo sapiens is thought to have emerged from Africa, about 100,000 years ago.