Kate McIlwain

When did humans first arrive in Australia?

Dr Zenobia Jacobs, a Senior Research Fellow from UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has recently added the prestigious L’Oréal Australia ‘For Women in Science’ Fellowship for 2009 to her growing list of international accolades.

Dr Jacobs is one of three young Australian scientists to be awarded the fellowship which recognises scientific excellence and intellectual merit. The Fellows were chosen from 111 applicants by a group of eminent scientists. The program is part of L’Oréal’s global support for women in science.

The research that will be funded by the $20,000 fellowship will help to solve an archaeological question of global importance with an Australian focus - when did humans first arrive in Australia? To find out, Dr Jacobs will be using optically stimulated luminescence dating techniques which work by finding out how long ago certain minerals were last exposed to daylight.

The answer is critical to understanding the length of time that Aboriginal people have been in Australia and the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa.

Dr Jacobs is originally from South Africa and most of her work so far has involved Africa’s Middle Stone Age, so the L’Oréal Fellowship will provide her first foray into Australian archaeology. She will be able to develop networks with the Australian archaeological community.

She hopes the Fellowship will generate significant media exposure of archaeological science activities to the Australian public and renew their interest in the history of this continent and the cultural heritage of Australia’s indigenous hunter-gatherers.

The origins of pyrotechnology

Dr Jacobs has participated in a number of major international research teams. Recently she reported in the journal Science that early modern humans in her home country of South Africa had mastered the use of fire to improve the stone-tool manufacturing process more than 70,000 years ago.

As part of an international team, Dr Jacobs and UOW’s Dr Michael Meyer were responsible for dating the archaeological deposits containing the stone tools.

“Our findings certainly shed further light on the notion of complex cognition early in the prehistory of our own species,” Dr Jacobs said.

She said that modern humans living 72,000 years ago -- and perhaps as early as 164,000 years – at Pinnacle Point in coastal South Africa, were early engineers who used carefully controlled fire-places in a complex process to heat stone in order to change its properties and improve its took-making capabilities.

The process of heat-treating the tools involves a long chain of technological tasks that the researchers argue requires complex cognition, and probably language, to learn and teach.

“UOW researchers, using the world-class single-grain optically stimulated luminescence dating facilities in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, continue to play a leading role in providing the chronological basis for unravelling when we started to behave in a way that is regarded as ‘modern’,” Dr Jacobs said.

The other two 2009 L’Oréal Fellows are Tamara Davis, University of Queensland, Brisbane/University of Copenhagen; and Marnie Blewitt, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne.

Read about other research by Dr Jacobs:

Please note, photo on homepage by Timothy Burgess.