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27 December 2005

Naracoorte Caves

The Naracoorte caves are a world heritage area because they have got some very important old animal bones there.

LIZ REED: This is the ultimate crime scene. The problem here, if you're talking about cold case, this is ice cold because everyone's been dead for 300,000 years. It's the ultimate mystery story, this. We've have got a whole big bunch of bones in a cave and it's the whodunit. It's the how did it all get here; what happened; who were the key players?

SIMON ROYAL: Liz Reed is the face of the new breed of palaeontologists. Her work has been likened to a forensic investigator and here, deep underground, the clues to one of the most pressing international questions in science at the moment.

LIZ REED: Why did all of these large marsupials that we have in Australia die out? And that is, if you like, a $64,000 question.

SIMON ROYAL: Likenesses of these large extinct creatures have been recreated above the ground based on tens of thousands of bones found below here over the past 35 years.

STEVE BORNE: When they found that there was, a lot of the Australian megafauna had been described from fossils but only fragments of jaws and teeth, and here, for the very first time, there was complete skulls and skeletons found.

SIMON ROYAL: It's not what they look like but what wiped them out that has scientists arguing. Some say it was climate change; others blamed the arrival of man. Let's hope this hot debate can be settled at this unique fossil deposit.

LIZA REED: We haven't really got a fine point on exactly when people arrived and how long they coexisted and if they actually hunted. No-one's ever found a diprotodon skull with a spear point in his head and I probably would argue never will.

SIMON ROYAL: The animals wound up in the caves after falling into deep pits.

STEVE BORNE: Here we can see evidence of animals actually surviving the fall into the cave and stumbling around into the dark, where you can see stalactites broken off quite close to the roof here.

SIMON ROYAL: Over time new caves opened and closed, trapping wildlife and effectively creating a series of time capsules spanning half a million years, and it's a process still happening today that has created what is widely acknowledged as one of the world's most important fossil sites.

STEVE BORNE: This is the only place that any of the scientists could think of, with a continuous fossil record, standing the last 500,000 years of Earth history.

LIZA REED: I kind of like to think of the caves as nature's history books. It's just that we don't know the language to read those books. Science is that language and we're starting to learn how to read the language of these bones and sediments, and they tell us what's happened.

story notes

 cold case
A cold case is a crime that has remained unsolved for a long time.

A whodunit is a crime mystery.

A palaeontologist is a scientist who studies fossils and bones of dead animals to learn about what life was like on earth thousands, and even millions, of years ago.

 forensic investigator
A forensic investigator is someone who investigates crimes by looking closely at the scene of the crime.

Marsupials are animals that carry their babies around in pouches while they develop properly, like this wallaby.
Many native Australian animals are marsupials such as kangaroos and koalas.

 $64,000 question
The $64,000 question is a saying that means the most important question.
It comes from a quiz show called ‘The $64,000 question’ made in the 1950s in the USA. People had to answer questions worth more and more money, until the final, most important question, where they won $64,000.

A likeness is an image or a representation - something that looks like something else. They’ve made models of very large extinct animals, animals that don’t exist anymore.


Mega means great or huge and fauna means animals, so megafauna are literally very large animals.

Fossils are old remains or traces of animals.

 wiped them out
To wipe something out is to completely destroy it.
Example: Disease has wiped out many forg species.
For examples you can listen to of the phrasal verb wipe out, follow the link.
more information: wipe out

The diprotodon (Diprotodon australis) was the largest marsupial that ever lived, weighing over two tonnes.

 wound up
To wind up is to finish in a place.
Example: He wound up on the streets after losing his job.
For examples you can listen to of the phrasal verb wind up, follow the link.
more information: wind up

Stalactities are the icicle-shaped deposits that hang from the roof of caves.
The ones that form on the cave floor are called stalagmites.

The caves are found near Naracoorte in South Australia.