Australian archaeologists uncovered what they believe to be the world's southernmost site of early human life, a 40,000-year-old tribal meeting ground, an Aboriginal leader said Wednesday.

The site appeared to be the last place of refuge for Aboriginal tribes from the cannon fire of Australia's first white settlers, said Michael Mansell of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center.

The find came during an archaeological survey ahead of road construction near Tasmania's Derwent River. Soil dating established the age of the artifacts found there.

"When the archaeological report came out it showed that (life there) had gone back longer than any other recorded place anywhere else in Tasmania, dating back to 40,000 years," Mansell said. Up to three million artifacts, including stone tools, shellfish fragments and food scraps, were believed to be buried in the area, which was apparently a meeting ground for three local tribes. They died out after white settlers arrived in the late 18th century.

"They (settlers) hunted people here to this place and shot them just so they could get the land," said Mansell. "Many others were imprisoned until they died."

"In terms of culture and history this region now represents Tasmania's Valley of the Kings," he added, referring to the UNESCO world heritage-listed Egyptian tombs on the west bank of the Nile. The survey was finished last week and chief archaeologist Rob Paton said he was surprised at the age of the items found. "We haven't even done a reading on the bottom sample yet, I was expecting 17,000 (years) for the base of the trench and about 4,000-5,000 (years) for the top," Paton told state radio.

Paton said luminescence readings, measuring the age of the artifacts based on how much exposure they received to sunlight, were "nice and statistically tight."

"That suggests to me that they're probably correct, giving us a top reading of 28,000 (years old) and certainly seeming to go back another 10,000 (years) at least beyond that," he said.

The readings indicated that "we do have the oldest, most southern site anywhere in the world," he said, making it "an important site for anyone and quite exciting for us."

Aborigines, Australia's original inhabitants, were believed to have numbered around one million at the time of white settlement. There now number just 470,000, out of a national population of 21 million, and are Australia's most impoverished minority.