Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Settlement How Long Did it Take to Settle the Continent?

According to Hiscock it has been believed sometimes that human movement across the inland took place gradually. It was suggested by Anne Ross that the Ancestral Aboriginal colonists settled the arid areas of the continent because of the success of their technology in semi-arid areas between the coastal point/points of landing and the arid areas further inland, so the technology could be adjusted slightly to be suitable for the harsher conditions of the deserts of the arid interior (Ross et al., 1992). She suggested that once the foragers became familiar with one type of landscape and developed economic and technological strategies to exploit it, they gradually acquired the behaviours they needed to occupy other environments. The harshest of the interior regions were occupied, according to this view, as a culmination of a series of settlement events.

It was hypothesised by Ross and others that the settlement of southern and central Australia was a gradual process, as they assumed that there were not many colonists and they were culturally and technologically unsophisticated. It was this idea that was the basis of the argument that humans found it to be difficult to cross water barriers in order to reach Australia, and when they arrived they were slow in increase the size of their population, adjust to new landscapes, and develop technological and social complexity (e.g. Bowdler, 1977; Jones, 1979; Beaton, 1983; Lourandos, 1983a, 1997). Norma McArthur constructed computer simulations of possible population growth from a founding population of only 6-14 adults to explore these views. The computer simulations revealed that such a small founding population would probably have died out after only a few generations, but there was no inevitable or predictable growth trend of the total population if they survived; population size in some simulations barely changed over 200-500 years while in others there were dramatic number increases. Consequentially, if colonisation began with a small founding group the dispersal of humans across Australia and population growth could have been either rapid or slow.

To assess the speed with which aboriginal settlement spread across Australia by the use of archaeological evidence is difficult. It was pointed out (Rindos & Webb, 1992) that is not possible to use radiometric estimates of age to develop precise statements about the time it took Aboriginal settlement to spread across the continent because of the low precision of the radiometric method. The evidence of early occupation of the continental interior of Australia is consistent with dispersion of settlement events being relatively rapid, which means it may have taken as little as a few thousand years. According to Hiscock rapid settlement is also evidence that there were higher numbers of colonisers making landfall on the northwestern/northern shore of Australia and that they were more capable at the time of arrival than was initially believed.

Evidence from genetic studies suggests there was a large founding population. It has been argued (Ingman & Gyllensten, 2003) that a similar age that was estimated of several mtDNA sequences that have been found in Australian Aborigines is also evidence of a large founding population which grew as people arrived on the Australian shore (also Watson et al., 1997; Kayser et al., 2001). The point has also been raised (Merriwether et al., 2005) by calculating mtDNA diversity, that the results of the calculation are consistent with a large initial population that contained several hundred women. The total founding population was probably more than 1,000 people when men and children were included, and based on this, subsequent geographical and population expansion could have been relatively rapid.

Also, the people who landed in Australia were descended from humans who had already expanded steadily through many different environments on the way from Africa. It is suggested by genetic evidence that humans spread from Africa to Australia, across southern and southeast Asia, at an average of 1-4 km per year (Forster, 2004; Forster & Matsumura, 2005; Macauley et al., 2005). The adaptability of the early foragers and their capacity to colonise new landscapes is demonstrated by this expansion rate from Africa. Assuming the foragers who entered Australia expanded at similar rates human settlement of the continent would have taken 1,000-4,000 years, and estimate that is very close to the one that had been proposed (Birdsell, 1957). If dating techniques are developed that are capable of much higher resolution this hypothesis could be tested.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Hiscock, Peter, 2008, Archaeology of Ancient Australia, Taylor & Francis.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  13/03/2017
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