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The Kimberley region of Western Australia is one of the largest and most diverse rock art provenances in the world, with a complex stylistic sequence spanning at least 16 ka, culminating in the modern art-making of the Wunumbal people. The Gunu Site Complex, in the remote Mitchell River region of the northwest Kimberley, is one of many local expressions of the Kimberley rock art sequence. Here we report excavations at two sites in this complex: Gunu Rock, a sand sheet adjacent to rock art panels; and Gunu Cave, a floor deposit within an extensive rockshelter. Excavations at Gunu Rock provide evidence for two phases of occupation, the first from 7–8 to 2.7 ka, and the second from 1064 cal BP. Excavations at Gunu Rock provide evidence for occupation from the end of the second phase to the recent past. Stone for tools in the early phase were procured from a variety of sources, but quartz crystal reduction dominated the second occupation phase. Small quartz crystals were reduced by freehand percussion to provide small flake tools and blanks for manufacturing small points called nguni by the Wunambal people today. Quartz crystals were prominent in historic ritual practices associated with the Wanjina belief system. Complex methods of making bifacially-thinned and pressure flaked quartzite projectile points emerged after 2.7 ka. Ochre pigments were common in both occupation phases, but evidence for occupation contemporaneous with the putative age of the oldest rock art styles was not discovered in the excavations. Our results show that developing a complete understanding of rock art production and local occupation patterns requires paired excavations inside and outside of the rockshelters that dominate the Kimberley.
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