Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal History of Australia

Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for at least 60,000 years, arriving by boat from south Asia by about that time. Very controversial dates from Jinmium in the Northern Territory place the early arrivals at the site by 116,000 +/- 12,000 years ago. These dates have been strongly disputed, 60,000 BP being the date generally accepted as the most likely time of the first arrival. The site has been re-dated using TL and the results suggest the site is actually no older than about 10,000 years.

It has been suggested that the first arrivals were coastal people, basing their economies on the sea and river mouths, originally spreading around the coast then up the rivers. If this is the case, the mouths of the rivers they would have been entering for the first time could have been hundreds of kilometres seawards of the present coastline. If this is the case, how long did they spend on the coast and river mouths before spreading to the earliest known sites on present-day dry land? The dates that have the first arrival in Australia around 60,000 years ago from occupation sites on present day land. Presumably the first landing would have been on part of the continental shelf that is now submerged, an unknown number of years earlier than the known dated sites. The Berndts have suggested the first arrival may have been about 75,000 BP or even earlier (Berndt & Berndt, 1988).

If the ancestral Aboriginal People were indeed coastal dwellers, what was the incentive to expand inland? In southwestern Tasmania the people lived almost exclusively on the coast for 30,000 years, based on the dating of the known sites, apparently rarely venturing into the thick rainforest. At the time of first European contact they were still living in a narrow coastal belt between the horizontal rainforest and the sea. While they lived well on the coast, with plentiful and easily available food, why would they want to move to a habitat that was more difficult and where food was less plentiful and required more time and energy to collect? When the continental shelf was exposed there would have been rivers, possibly with deltas, lakes and swamps, as well as the nearby sea, where they could get all the food they needed, and with very little effort.

The evidence of the possible occupation of the area around Lake George in New South Wales, a long way from the points of entry into Australia in the north, prior to 100,000 years ago has been rejected.

At the time of the arrival of Europeans in Australia it was declared an unoccupied land, as the Aboriginal People didn't practice agriculture, so the colonists could take over without even consulting the locals.

The Aboriginal People were believed by some of those Europeans to be at best, like children, who needed to be protected from themselves as well as everyone else. Others regarded them as sub-human, so there was no problem treating them as though they were animals, especially when colonisation got under way and colonists wanted to take over their hunting territory for raising cattle and sheep, or farming. They were mostly tolerated as long as they didn't try to stop pastoralists taking their land, when they got in the way, they were often treated like animals that ate the colonists' crops or killed their cattle for food.

It has since been realised that they did indeed farm the land, even the parts that were unusable by the colonists, and for a very long time. It has been called fire-stick farming. During their long period of occupation they developed a system of burning off limited areas at certain times of the year, that encouraged the grass growth that supported the animals they hunted. So while they lived by hunting, over large parts of the continent it was in effect managed hunting. In fact, they were possibly the first farmers.

It has been said of the Aboriginal People that 'they are unchanging people in an unchanging land', implying that they didn't adapt so were somehow less worthy than the very adaptable people who took over their country. One of the world's best known, and highest regarded anthropologists, Claude Levi-Strauss, called them 'intellectual aristocrats' among early peoples. Once overlooked features of Aboriginal culture include sophisticated religion, art and social organisation, an egalitarian system of justice and decision-making, complex far-reaching trading networks. And they adapted to and survived in the some of the world’s harshest environments for survival, which demonstrated that they did indeed adapt very well.

Another way the Aboriginal People, especially in the driest areas of the inland, adapted to the very arid conditions was neighbouring groups often allowed each other to hunt in their territory when their neighbour's territory was more affected by drought, which occurs at unpredictable times and for varying lengths of time.  

Archaeologists have also found that their stone tools have evolved over the time of their occupation. Like elsewhere in the world, the earliest known tools were heavy, simple tools, the later ones getting progressively smaller and finer, and eventually to more complex composite tools, that are mounted or hafted to a handle for better leverage. At the time of European colonisation most tools were of the composite, hafted type.

The Djanggawul, or Djanggau, Sisters, usually in conjunction with their brother, are 2 principal Fertility Mothers in north-eastern Arnhem Land. They are said to have crossed the sea from the northeast, resting for a while at Bralgu (after the Dreamtime it was said to be the Land of the Dead of the Dua moiety), an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, before following the path of the sun to the east coast of the Mainland.

Another dreamtime ancestor, Chivaree the seagull, paddled his canoe from the Torres Islands to Sandy Beach on the west coast of Cape York. Here his canoe turned into stone. Dreamtime stories from all across northern Australia have various ancestral beings coming to the northern Australian coast from the north, in Arnhem Land the Gunwinggu people tell of an ancestral mother, Waramurungdju (Waramurungundji), who came across the sea from the north-west in the direction of Indonesia to the northern coast of Australia. One feature all the Dreamtime origin stories have in common is the arrival from across the sea in canoes.

As with Homer's story of the Iliad, evidence being found by archaeologists, beginning with Heinrich Schliemann, backed up the oral history, previously thought to be totally mythical. Archaeological research in the Middle East has found some evidence for stories in the Old Testament. Now archaeologists have come to the same conclusion as told in the Dreamtime stories, the Aboriginal People arrived in canoes along the northern coast.

See Aboriginal Mythology

So it seems the Aboriginal oral history should be taken more seriously, at least as to the arrival in Australia, and possibly with regard to the supposedly mythical creatures that inhabited the continent at the time they arrived. There were still many of the marsupial megafauna, some like the marsupial lion and carnivorous kangaroos, Propleopus oscillans, that survived until the Late Pleistocene, after the arrival of the first ancestral Aboriginal People.

Archaeology has shown from digs in the Northern Territory that human history in Australia began sometime before 50,000 years ago. The Aboriginal People obviously could not have evolved in Australia, as the earliest human ancestors were present only in Africa, long after the 2 continents had split from Gondwana, so there was no land connection between the continents during the time of their evolution.

It is known that early people were present in Southeast Asia for more than a million years, so the only thing stopping some from crossing to Australia was the ocean barrier, so they needed to develop some sort of sea-going craft before they could begin the migration, probably by island-hopping as the Polynesians did many thousands of years later when they spread across the islands of the Pacific, probably from southern China. The closest Australia came to connecting to Asia by land was at the height of the Last Ice Age, but even then there was still a gap of about 90 km separating the 2 continents by the ocean.

Since the studies of Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19th century it has been know that there is a distinct, dramatic transition between the faunal types to the north of the zone called Wallacea, and that of the southern side. The oriental faunal region, to the North of Wallacea, the no man's (or no animal's) land is separated from the Australian faunal region to the south of Wallacea. The boundaries of the oriental region coincide with the edge of the Asian continental shelf, and the Australian region coincides with the edge of the Australian continental shelf. It was precisely this gap between the faunal regions where the land between the 2 continents didn't join, even at the height of the Ice Age.

At the time of lowest sea level, - 60 m, at the height of the Ice Age, there would have been a chain of islands parallel to, and visible from, Timor, on the northern side of Wallacea, about 90 km from the Australian islands. Once they reached the first island they could have island-hopped to the Australian mainland, though they probably didn't realise they had reached another continent when they arrived.

There would also have been broken tongues of land jutting out from north-western Australia and from Joseph Bonaparte Gulf on the east. Between the outer islands and the tongues of land there were stop-overs at Ashmore Reef, Cartier Islet and Maurice and Thoubadour Shoals.

The only other non-flying animals to reach Australia from the oriental faunal region were dingoes, which came across with the Aboriginal People, and rats and mice. The latter 2 could have travelled by rafts of tree trunks, etc. from the Asian area.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R.M. & C.H. Berndt, 1964, The world of the First Australians, Ure Smith, Sydney
  2. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing
  3. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008


  1. Australian Aboriginal People of Indian Origin?
  2. Humans in Australia as long as 78,000 years ago
  3. The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul
  4. The Pleistocene Peopling of Greater Australia: A Re-examination
  5. Aboriginal inventions
  6. Jared Diamond Talk
  7. Oldest evidence for deep-sea fishing found


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 15/11/2008


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