ARCHAEOLOGISTS are meticulously searching Warrnambool's coastline for evidence of Aboriginal culture that could link shells to proof of Australia's earliest known human occupation.
A team of archaeologists and representatives from Aboriginal groups have worked at Moyjil, also known as Point Ritchie, at the western side of the Hopkins River mouth for the past two weeks.
Their focus has been on two possible fireplaces within 100 metres of a midden site that dates back 120,000 years.
Uncertainty surrounds whether shells at the midden were placed by Pacific gulls or humans.
If the researchers were to confirm the presence of fireplaces connected to the midden, it could nearly double the earliest evidence of humans in Australia and re-write human history.
But that day is a long way off according to Monash University's Indigenous archaeology professor Ian McNiven, a self-described "skeptical" member of the team.
"We're still not so sure," Dr McNiven said. "We have found some blackened stones, certainly charcoal, those two things are consistent with evidence of a human fireplace. But we'd also like to see more evidence of the structure of a fireplace."
The archaeologists have removed a block from each of the sites that leading US expert professor Paul Goldberg will examine under a microscope for structures resembling fireplaces.
"He looks at it grain by grain," Dr McNiven said.
"If it is 120,000 years ago, that is a huge story. So the bar is set very high and we are making things pretty hard for ourselves to cross that bar. But we have to get it right."
The archaeologists have documented every section of the site that they have removed, digging about half a metre into the fossil dune sands in two weeks.
"You only get one go at it," Dr McNiven said of the excavation process.
But they have also kept a section of the possible fireplaces intact for future researchers.
"You always leave something behind for future generations that might have much better techniques than what we have," Dr McNiven said.
Warrnambool-based Deakin University professor John Sherwood convened the researchers and said their interest indicated "the importance of the question the site raises".
"We have thought long and hard about the implications we were claiming, it doubled the age of occupation of Aboriginal people if we're correct. And we had to rethink when humans left Africa," Dr Sherwood said.
"We need a very high standard of proof."
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