Josie Pirie of Balclutha Primary School asks :-

Who was the first person to invent rubbish?

Dimitri Anson, anthropologist, and Otto Hyink, entomologist, at Otago Museum, responded.

While no one person invented rubbish, ancient rubbish dumps go back as early as 25,000 years ago in Papua New Guinea and in Africa. Known as middens these dumps are made up of shells and animal bones, leftovers of ancient meals and also often include discarded artifacts.

Shell middens are often located near water. For the archaeologist, middens are a rich source of information on how people used to live. From these archaeologists can identify the animals and other resources that were eaten and used. These old rubbish dumps provide a timeline of what people ate and the sorts of tools and artifacts that were used. Materials at the bottom of the midden are the oldest and those at the top the most recently discarded.

Shell middens of the Maori are quite common on New Zealand beaches, where they may appear as layers of shell amongst sand dunes. A diorama depicting the midden and some of the material excavated at the Shag River mouth may be viewed in the Tangata Whenua gallery of Otago Museum.

Of course rubbish has been around much longer than people. There are many animals that carefully dispose of waste materials - a good example being ant colonies, which typically also have middens. They keep their colonies very clean by removing all food waste and other colony debris to the colony’s rubbish dump. The ant fossil record goes back at least 100 million years, suggesting rubbish dumps have been around rather a lot longer than humans!