I would like to solve it, it's up there with the Mahogany Ship - it's something you want to solve in your lifetime.Dr John Sherwood
THE key to potentially unlocking the Moyjil mystery has been stuck in lockdown.
Samples of possible 120,000-year-old man-made fireplaces extracted from the mouth of Warrnambool's Hopkins River have been in limbo in a lab due to COVID-19.
They were supposed to be shipped to the United States where world-leading geoarchaeologist Professor Paul Goldberg was set to examine them under a microscope and determine whether they did in fact have a human origin.
If proven, it would rewrite the history of human habitation on the planet as it would demonstrate Australia's Indigenous people were living among mega fauna about 60,000 years earlier than the currently accepted date of arrival of people on the continent.
The puzzle was set to be solved last year, then COVID-19 hit.
Warrnambool researcher Associate Professor John Sherwood, who has been researching Moyjil since the 1980s, said it was frustrating to be so close to the answer he'd been seeking for more than 30 years.
"Dr Paul Goldberg from Boston, who is a world authority on fireplaces, came out to Warrnambool to excavate two hearth-like features in October 2019," Dr Sherwood said.
"He got an undisturbed core of each possible fireplace, which will be impregnated with resin so it's all preserved and will cut it in sections and form his observations.
"If Paul says this is a human fireplace no-one will disagree."
The 'painstaking' process of excavating each feature took two weeks.
The samples were wrapped up in plaster of Paris and sent to Monash University's Melbourne lab to be shipped to America.
"Then COVID-19 hit and they're still there," Dr Sherwood said.
"I thought by now we would have the answer - yes or no - from Paul but all university research is shut, the labs are not available.
"Frustratingly now we're just waiting, we've lost a whole year trying to get the last answer to our question."
Dr Sherwood has been following the footsteps of late geologist Mr Edmund Gill, who first recognised the scientific significance of Moyjil in the 1980s.
They worked together for six years before Mr Gill passed away in 1986.
"I learnt so much from that man, he was the first one with local historian Jim Henry to look into Moyjil," Dr Sherwood said.
"We started working on it and just before he died he organised a conference with leading geologists who all agreed it was an old site and probably human.
"I've been carrying on that legacy for 30 years.
"I would like to solve it, it's up there with the Mahogany Ship - it's something you want to solve in your lifetime."
We've lost a whole year trying to get the last answer to our question.Dr John Sherwood
What Dr Sherwood can assert with confidence is that Aboriginals had been settled at the Moyjil headland for at least 30,000 years.
"The evidence for older occupation is not conclusive and the archaeological community is saying the claim is so important so the bar is very high for absolute proof.
"There's clear evidence here of people being at the site before the eruption of the Tower Hill volcano, evidence which is non-controversial," he said.
"What is controversial is this new evidence suggesting human occupation of 120,000 years, that doubles the known period of human occupation of people in Australia.
"The current accepted oldest sites are around 60,000 years.
"Can Paul find a human fingerprint in the fireplace? That's what he's looking for.
"We don't know the whole story yet, we're quite convinced about that."
The project has been overseen by the region's Traditional Owners, Eastern Maar, Gunditjmirring and Kuuyang Maar.
"Traditional Owners have been very supportive of the research, though they don't see my fascination with dates.
"Everything I find just confirms what they know, that they've been here since the Dreamtime."
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