Wattle has had a cultural use spanning 50,000 years, a study analysing ancient campfires in Australia’s Western Desert has found.

The practice of archaeobotany was used by researchers to analyse charcoal preserved in the oldest archaeological site on Martu Country.

The research, led by Chae Byrne from the University of Western Australia alongside Martu traditional owners, found Australia’s floral emblem has been integral to Indigenous survival for tools, food and medicine for more than 50,000 years.

By examining desert rock shelters in Katjarra (the Carnarvon Ranges) and Karnatukul (Serpents Glen), Byrne found the earliest uses of firewood in the region, confirming wattle had been a constant, dependable source in a harsh environment.

“Wattle was critical to the lives of the Martu and essential to the habitability of the arid landscape of the sand plains and rocky ridges of the Western Desert – and it still is,” Byrne said.

“We have all grown up looking at the coat of arms and seeing green and gold – it’s so iconic in Australia. But this gives us a deeper meaning … wattle expands through time, it’s a central part of our nation.”

More than 100 species of wattle have been used by Aboriginal communities for firewood, to make tools, as food and as medicine.

Archaeologists examine desert rock shelters in Karnatukul (Serpents Glen) in Katjarra (the Carnarvon Ranges) in the Western Desert, Australia
Archaeologists examine desert rock shelters in Karnatukul (Serpents Glen) in Katjarra (the Carnarvon Ranges) in the Western Desert. Photograph: Chae Byrne, University of Western Australia

But the study was the first to confirm early Indigenous explorers settled and prospered in the arid part of the Western Desert during harsh changes in climate which saw widespread drought and desertification when polar ice sheets grew.

Byrne said preserving areas where wattle was growing was vital to traditional owners’ survival in the region through the extreme climate fluctuations.

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“Really significantly during arid times wattle was used at the site … showing the area was a really significant place for resources during times of scarcity,” Byrne said.

“Wattle seeds during fire and [the seeds] are able to be kept and preserved. It can also be picked off the tree and dried out.”

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Seeds of wattle have been widely used as a popular food source, collected and ground into a paste or cooked into a damper – as have gum and young roots.

Wattle has also been demonstrated to treat aches, pains and infections, most commonly through infusion and smoke treatment.

Archaeologist studies a rock shelter in the Western Desert
A researcher studies a rock shelter in the Western Desert. Photograph: Chae Byrne, University of Western Australia

“There is a purpose and significance for every type of tree and bush; an ancient grocer and pharmacy which has provided and prospered for tens of thousands of years,” Byrne said.

The research was one of the first times archaeobotany – the practice of using plants in archaeological studies – has been used to examine Australian deserts.

In certain conditions, delicate fragments of plant remains can be preserved and survive in the natural environment for thousands of years.

By sampling trees currently growing in the region, researchers were able to compare the specimens to ancient charcoal fragments discovered from campfires in the archaeological sites.

“Looking at plant remains is particularly useful in studying Australian Indigenous heritage, given the persistent importance of natural resources like trees and the rarity of other cultural remains in the deep time record,” Byrne said.

“It shows how they moved through the landscape, how they followed certain areas like watercourses, and then by looking at scattered remains – all that charcoal represents lots of different uses over time and we can reconstruct those environments.

“There’s so much we can learn from charcoal, not just about the people that produced it but also in environmental science and climate change.”