Tools, pigments, and other artifacts could place humans in the Australian interior 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, say scientists.

In a remarkable discovery, a team of archaeologists in Australia has found extensive remains of a sophisticated human community living 50,000 years ago. The remains were found in a rock shelter in the continent’s arid southern interior.

Researchers excavating a rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges have unearthed ancient artefacts dating from up to 49,000 years ago – just 1,000 years or so after humans arrived in Australia – including burnt eggshells and stone tools. A bone from a now-extinct creature known as a Diprotodon optatum – a huge wombat-like marsupial – was also retrieved, offering the clearest evidence yet that humans interacted with such creatures.

Excavations at Warratyi rock-shelter indicate that it took only a few millennia for Australia’s early colonists to forge a distinctive Aboriginal culture that continued to develop over the next 40,000 years, Hamm’s team sais in a study published on  Nov. 2 in Nature.

“Archaeological finds at Warratyi are surprisingly old and significant, especially coming from an excavation of only a meter of sediment,” Hamm says.

These new discoveries are “remarkable and atypical” for Australia, says archaeologist Peter Hiscock of the University of Sydney. But the finds’ ages and significance for understanding Aboriginal culture will be debated, he predicts.

This makes Warratyi the oldest evidence of human occupation in the arid Australian interior, long believed too hostile for ancient people who had few tools. But these findings make it clear that the ancestors of Australia’s indigenous people were, in fact, seasoned explorers who could survive in difficult conditions.

However, one of the traditional owners of the area, Clifford Coulthard, who is a co-author of the study, said the findings weren’t really a surprise to him.

“Our old people know we’ve been here a long time,” he said.

The authors of the study said it finally settles the question of whether humans and megafauna overlapped chronologically.

“The idea there was no interaction between humans and megafauna has really been put to bed by the Warratyi evidence,” said Lee Arnold from Adelaide University, one of the authors.

Until now, the oldest human sites in Australia’s huge, arid interior dated to no more than 44,000 years ago in the continent’s northwest. Lake Mungo, now a dry lake bed in southeastern Australia, has yielded artifacts from about 50,000 years ago. Unlike artifacts at Wattaryi that represent human activity over a long time span, it’s not known if Lake Mungo finds come from a group that made an isolated foray into the region before dying out within a few generations.

Hamm’s group unearthed evidence of an intermittent human presence at Warratyi that lasted from around 49,000 to 10,000 years ago. People were largely absent between around 35,000 and 17,000 years ago, when the climate became substantially colder and drier, Hamm says.