The 8 km gravel road drive up through this canyon gives a totally
different perspective to the scenery in this rugged, isolated but
extremly beautiful corner of the country. The road you travel is the
same road cut through the valley in the 1950s to the place where oil
was first struck in Australia. A 250 metre (one hour) walk takes you
from the Shothole Canyon car park to the lip of the canyon, returning
along the same route. The trail up the side of the canyon is extremely
steep and very narrow in some places, climbing 120 metres along the
ridge. This unsealed road, originally named after some shotholes which
were used for blasting for seismographic experiments in the 1950s, has
given the canyon its name.
Humans at Cape Range
Cape Range harbours an ancient history of Aboriginal habitation,
providing a fascinating story of the life and culture of these first
inhabitants, as well as a unique human record of environmental and
The first European to set foot on Cape Range was Captain L.
Jacobzoon of the 'Mauritius' in 1618, but significant subsequent
settlement, primarily for pastoralism, didnot occur until the late 19th
century. The history of the previous 30,000 years of human habitation
is unfolding from painstaking study of artefacts, middens and rock
shelters, amongst which is one of the oldest reliably dated
archaeological site in northern Western Australia, at Mandu Mandu Creek
The lives of the earliest inhabitants of Cape Range were intimately
tied to the climate and coastline of the area. These people made use of
caves and rockshelters, leaving deposits stratified over time recording
shelter use and the resources which sustained human existence.
These deposits show the crucial role the sea and coastal resources
played in the economies of the Aboriginal people of Cape Range. Rock
shelters such as Mandu Mandu, which documents human habitation for at
least 32,000 years, contains evidence of the collection and use of
fish, shellfish and crabs throughout its occupational history. The
presence of emu and macropod bones shows that a diversity of
terrestrial resources was also used, probably as people traversed the
coastal plain from the sea to the foothills.
The present coastline is a little over 1 km from the range, but as
glaciation intensified during the last major ice age, the coastline at
Cape Range retreated westwards as sea levels fell as much as 150 metres
below present. During this period, which peaked approximately 20,000
years ago and brought extreme aridity to the peninsula, the coastline
was 10-12 km from the foothills.
It is evident from the contents of rockshelters that the use of the
then far hinterland of Cape Range was only occasional and probably
seasonal. The offshore reef system at Cape Range provided a resource
sufficient to support viable social groups on the coast, and use of the
hinterland become increasingly opportunistic. The change in proximity
of this resource and increased aridity is reflected at Mandu Mandu,
where there is no evidence of use of the rockshelter between 20,000 and
5,000 years ago. It was only reoccupied when the coastline was again
adjacent to the foothills of the peninsula. However rockshelters at
Pilgonaman and Yardie Creeks record ongoing Aboriginal occupation of
the peninsula throughout this period.
The importance of Cape Range in understanding the lives of coastal
Aboriginal Australians cannot be overstated. The peninsula is unique in
being the nearest point of the Australian continent to the edge of the
Continental Shelf. Consequently rockshelters and other sites were
always relatively close to the sea and used intermittently by coastal
communities even during the glacial maximum. Records of this aspect of
human settlement of Australia has elsewhere been drowned with the
post-glacial return of the sea over the broad coastal areas that formed
the coastal zone during the last glacial age.
The rockshelter deposits of Cape Range are also unique in providing
the earliest evidence for human decorative traditions in Australia,
through the apparent use and modification of conus and other shells as
ornamental beads. These artefacts and other evidence suggest that
development of culture in Australian Aboriginal communities has an
antiquity rivaling that known from Europe.
In addition to reflecting the climatic and sea level history of the
area, the record of human habitation adds to our understanding of other
environmental and biodiversity changes which the area has experienced.
Amongst these is evidence from midden sites that up to about 5,000
years ago, communities used a readily available supply of mangroves for
wood and other resources.
This suggests that mangroves were far more widespread along parts of
the western coast of the peninsula than at present. Similarly, the
presence of bones of the agile wallaby well outside its modern species
range suggests that this species was distributed in the past over a
greater range of ecological conditions than modern records indicate, or
that climatic and vegetation regimes on the peninsula were such that it
could inhabit the area. The area is now spoken for by the Yama