SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- A piece of flint the size of a small cell phone and hundreds of tiny sharp "knives" unearthed deep in a rock shelter in Australia date back at least 35,000 years, archaeologists said Monday.
While the archaeologists hailed the find as one of the oldest inhabited sites uncovered so far in Australia, one local Aboriginal elder saw it as vindication of what his people have said all along -- that they have inhabited this land for tens of thousands of years.
"I'm ecstatic, I'm over the moon, because it's now indisputable," Slim Parker, an elder of the Martidja Banyjima people, told The Associated Press by telephone from Western Australia. "This area of land, in regard to our culture and customs and beliefs, is of great significance to us. We have songs and stories relating to that area as a sustaining resource that has provided for and cared for our people for thousands of years."
The tools, along with seeds, bark and other plant material, were found nearly two meters (6.5 feet) beneath the floor of a rock shelter on the edges of an iron ore mine site in Australia's remote northwest, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) northeast of Perth, the capital of Western Australia.
The excavation was carried out between October and February by archaeologists from Australian Cultural Heritage Management who were hired by the local Aborigines to find and preserve heritage sites within the mine area run by resource giant Rio Tinto.
Archaeologist Neale Draper said the tools included at least one "beautifully made" piece of flint from which sharp knifelike shards were knocked off, hundreds of tiny knives, and pieces of grindstones. He hopes that testing of the knives will reveal residue that could indicate what the people ate.
"Very old sites are rare, and this is one of the oldest" in this region, Draper said by telephone from Adelaide in south Australia.
He said the oldest sites found so far in that part of Australia "have been about 20,000 years or just over."
"All of a sudden we're at 35,000. We're filling in a picture of who the first Australians were and what they were doing where they were really, really early," Draper said.
He said the team has sent other materials for carbon sampling -- including a piece of charcoal -- that were found in the dirt layers below the tools.
"These could be another 5,000 to 10,000 years old, and that would be really exciting," Draper said, adding that a dozen other shelters in the area would also be excavated.
Australian's Aborigines have been called the world's oldest continuous culture; some archaeological sites elsewhere in Australia date an Aboriginal presence to at least 40,000 years ago.
They are now an impoverished minority of 450,000 within Australia's population of 21 million. They have been battling to reclaim their traditional lands since the early 1990s, when the country's highest court cleared the way for so-called native title claims.
Rio Tinto, which had been expanding its Hope Downs mine, halted all work when the rock shelter was discovered, company spokesman Gervase Greene said.
He said the company will amend construction plans to preserve the shelter.