Rising sea levels in the Torres Strait have led to the discovery of an indigenous burial site and a murder mystery that archaeologists say predates settlement in Australia.
- Rising sea levels and exceptionally high tides have uncovered an ancestral burial site
- Kaurareg elders and researchers excavated the site in May, uncovering the complete skeleton of an Aboriginal woman
- Archaeologists await carbon dating tests to determine age of burial site
As an unusually high tide moved away from the shores of Muralug Island in January, it unearthed skeletal remains, the age of which archaeologists are trying to confirm through carbon dating.
Muralug, or Prince of Wales Island, is the ancestral home of Enid Tom, an elder of the Kaurareg people.
“This is the first time for us that a burial site has appeared, but there will be many more of course,” Ms Tom said.
An archaeological team, led by Michael Westaway of the University of Queensland, began excavating the Long Beach site in May.
Over two days, they carefully unearthed the complete skeleton of a First Nations woman in her twenties.
Dr Westaway said there was evidence that she had been killed.
“This young lady had a pretty terrible trauma in her lower abdomen, in her lumbar vertebrae,” he said.
“We believe she was pierced in the stomach.”
Dr Westaway said the woman was carefully placed in the grave with her left hand placed over the apparent site of the injury.
“She wasn’t someone who was just murdered and abandoned. She was someone who was killed and then carefully buried by the people who cared for her,” he said.
The ABC does not publish photographs of skeletal remains out of respect for the Kaurareg people.
‘Thank you, I’m safe’
For Ms Tom, this discovery means the Kaurareg people can learn more about their history and protect the woman’s remains and spirit from rising waters.
She said it was important to stay with her ancestor throughout the excavation process.
“I talked to her the whole time, I was speaking a language and telling her we were going to put her somewhere safe,” Ms Tom said.
She described a kookaburra watching from a nearby tree on the dunes, while a swarm of butterflies flew towards the burial site.
“The kookaburra is a sacred bird to us and as soon as we started digging it up the kookaburra just sat there and just stared at us and wouldn’t leave,” she said.
“[The butterflies] swooped down on her, went up as a group and then back down, so for us it was very spiritual.
“I believe it was her saying, ‘Thank you, I know I’m safe now’.”
After the excavation, the skeleton was laid out on bark, then wrapped and transported to a safe burial place, away from the rising tide.
“There was a really reverent procession where the women led her back into the closed forest and the rangers had prepared a new grave for her,” Dr Westaway said.
Researchers are still awaiting carbon dating results, but are confident the skeleton predates European settlement in Australia.
“She was buried about a meter to a meter and a half deep, so I suspect she was buried some time ago,” Dr Westaway said.
“She had no evidence of modern European dental disease…but we won’t know until we get the carbon dates back, which are probably a few months away.”
Dr Westaway said isotopes of a tooth donated to the archaeological team by Kaurareg elders would also shed light on the woman’s movements and lifestyle.
“It will also give us enough information to obtain carbon dating to provide a more reliable estimate of its antiquity,” he said.
“Because the bone was so well preserved, I believe we will be able to recover ancient DNA from this young woman and examine her connection to the community there today.”
Using ground-penetrating radar near the exposed burial site, the archaeological team found four other potential burials in the immediate area.
Ms Tom said she now fears other burial sites could be disturbed by the elements of Muralug.
“It’s the largest island in the Torres Strait and there are lots of beaches,” she said.
“Our people have traveled around the island in different seasons in search of different foods, so there are a lot of beach campsites where people are believed to have died.”
Coastal erosion and climate change
Coastal erosion and seawater flooding have long been a problem in the Torres Strait, but have taken on a new urgency.
In its preliminary report, the UQ team noted record sea levels seen at Thursday Island in February and a rise of 10 centimeters since monitoring began in 2015.
The report pointed to “a combination of high tides and/or extreme events, plus a rise in sea level that causes further erosion…that allows waves to reach higher and more easterly areas. inland”.
Queensland’s Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Craig Crawford, said climate change posed a major threat to sites of cultural significance in the Torres Strait.
‘Anyone who has been there will see how low many of these islands are and just a rise of a meter or a meter and a half in the tide can have a significant impact,’ Mr Crawford said.
He said a grant from the Department of the Environment had been given to Kaurareg Land and Sea Rangers to identify and protect other beach erosion sites in the area.
“We need to make sure that we can protect these sites and know where they are, but it also needs to be done in a very culturally appropriate way,” he said.