Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Archaeology of Sahul or Greater Australia

In his book, Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia, Tim Murray says it is no longer possible to see either the continent of Australia or the the first inhabitants to be static and unchanging. It is now known that during the time the ancestral Aborigines have been living in Australia the climate and the environment have undergone some very drastic changes. The first arrivals would have found familiar conditions and food at the places of their arrival on the margins of the continent, but the further they penetrated into the interior the more unfamiliar everything would become, different plants, animals, climates and ways of finding water. According to Murray, they have proven to be exceptionally flexible and inventive.

Once they had adapted their behaviour to survive in the new and often harsh environment, they had to do it all over again as the climate changed, becoming even more extreme as the Last Glacial Maximum approached. At the time the first people arrived, most likely from outer islands of Indonesia, the climate of central Australia was much wetter that it became later. When Aboriginal people were living around the margins of the then full Lake Mungo, arriving in the area some time before 40,000 years ago, possibly as much as 60,000 years ago, they were able to catch large fish in the lake, that is now a barren desert. Rivers of sand of the present were at that time flowing and the region was much greener than it became as the glacial period intensified and the lake dried up about 17,000 years ago as the climate became much drier, the most extreme time lasting for about 5,000 years, at which time the continent was even drier than at the present. At this time the people as well as the animals of the area had to adapt or die. Their adaptability was again tested by the changing climate.

According to Murray, when referring to evidence that had been found suggesting behaviours of the people in deserts and glacial areas as the climate deteriorated in the Pleistocene, "... the old image of unplanned , ad hoc responses to the trials of life simply does not match the clear evidence of purposive behaviours which are of the same order of those exhibited by the Aboriginal people thousands of years later during the Holocene. Instead of a featureless landscape of human beings struggling to come to grips with their world, we are now confronted by a richness and variety which only a decade ago was simply undreamed of".

According to Allen (Source 2) the Pleistocene records of Greater Australia have been thought to reflect groups of humans that are characterised by populations with low density with subsistence strategies that were undifferentiated and limited, and using uninventive technologies. It has been generally accepted, though without demonstration, that throughout Greater Australia the people must have been primitive and few in number for at least 30,000 years. The uncritical acceptance of the Australian Core Tool and Scraper Tradition, that is an undefined and continent-wide, fitting most lithic evidence into it, though its distribution is far from being across the entire continent.

The view of the people of the Greater Australia as being unchanging as a starting point for the suggestions of social and economic intensification in the Middle to Late Holocene has been criticised (Cosgrove et al., 1990). Another consequence of the accidental discovery of sites dating from the Pleistocene, as opposed to finds resulting from directed searching, that were often followed by ad hoc explanations, is that the models that were developed for Greater Australia during the Pleistocene have been minimalist models, often dominated by the shortest sea routes and the lowest sea levels between Asia and Greater Australia, the smallest founding population sizes that are viable, the accidental and most frequent number of landings and the dispersal routes requiring the minimum number of adaptations. According to Allen, minimalist hypotheses based on few or no data require testing and revision that is continuous, the danger being that superficial support from fragmentary data will not be later questioned, the need for new alternative explanations often being obscured by just such support. In Australia and PNG more recent investigations of the Pleistocene record have reviewed the data and interpretations (Source 2).

All Pleistocene sites that had been reported for Melanesia were in the New Guinea Highlands up until 1986, with 1 exception, Misisil Cave on the island of New Britain. Dating from the terminal Pleistocene at its base, this is an archaeologically limited site (Specht et al., 1981). After carrying out a review of these sites in 1983 (in Hope et al., 1983: 42-5) Golson concluded that it was not possible to say anything very specific about the nature of the occupation during the Pleistocene based in the available evidence, though some disparate archaeological facts did result from Golson's work.

The 2 oldest known Highland sites, Kosipe (White et al., 1970), 2000 m above sea level, and Nombe (Mountain, 1983), 1720 m above sea level, were both occupied by 25,000 years ago, at least. Adjacent to a high altitude pandanus swamp from which palynological evidence was recovered of the clearance of forest occurring at 30,000 years ago (Hope, 1982), that is thought to have possibly been carried out by humans, Kosipe is an open site that has been interpreted as a focus for the collection of pandanus, at least seasonally. Evidence of the hunting of diverse animal species has been found in the Nombe Rockshelter. Humans appear to have shared the site with other predators at the time the earliest layers were being deposited. There were 2 species of Protemnodon, and extinct species of Dendrolagus, an unidentified diprotodontid and a thylacine in association with stone tools. In the succeeding level there are more large marsupials in association with stone tools. It seems from this evidence that if the humans were not hunting or scavenging these large marsupials, that at least were familiar with them, and their predators. The evidence suggests that Kosipe and Nombe were both in or near mid-montane forest, at high altitude and 100 km or more from the coast, though otherwise they were quite different sites. The distinctive stone artefact usually called a waisted blade, though it has been described as a hafted axe (Groube, 1986: 172), has been found at both Kosipe and Nombe, about 400 km northeast of Kosipe, dating to about 25,000 years ago, though he distinguishes between the waisted axe at Kosipe and the early stemmed axe from Nombe, conceding that in New Guinea the stemmed axes and the waisted axe are consistently associated, suggesting they are a significantly associated form (Groube, 1986: 169). Allen groups the 2 forms as waisted tools. In the Yuku rock shelter, 1300 m above sea level, 150 km northwest of Nombe, accepted to be of Pleistocene age, though it is undated, as well as other sites in Australia and Melanesia, waisted axes are also found.

According to Allen, there appears to be an increase in the density of archaeological evidence in the Highlands in the terminal Pleistocene, though he admits the apparent increase may by the result of the limited number of sites and sequences that have been found. Continuing through this period, there is a wide range of forest and forest-grassland ecotone prey animals in the Yuku site. It has been reported that at Nombe Stratum C, covering the period between 14,500 and 10,000 years ago, 'considerable' amounts of bone, that includes burnt bone, stone artefacts, as well as a wider range of species than occurs either side of this layer, have been found in the this site. The presence of humans in a range of upland environments, carrying out a range of activities, such as claims for the construction of houses at Walek 15,000-12,000 years ago (Bulmer, 1977: 65) and at NFX, 18,000 years ago (Watson & Cole, 1978: 35-40), is indicated by occupation of other rock shelters such as Kafivana (White, 1972), Kiowa (Bulmer, 1975),  and Manim (Christensen, 1975) and at open sites such as Walek (Bulmer, 1977: 65) and at NFX (Watson & Cole, 1978: 35-40).

Allen suggest it can generally be assumed, in spite of the fragmentary and non-complementary nature of the data, that people were quite familiar with a wide range of environments in the uplands and highlands in New Guinea well before 25,000 BP, and especially with the resources found in them. It has been suggested that many of the plants would have been familiar to the people first arriving in the area (Golson , 1971a), and it can be assumed that by the time they reached the area they they would also have become familiar with the marsupial fauna they encountered at high altitudes and at temperatures that are low relative to the coastal areas.

Allen says that whether or not the familiarity with the plant species facilitated their movement into the upland forests, by this time a range of marsupials are found such as wallabies, tree kangaroos, phalangers, bandicoots and echidnas, as well as placentals such as bats and rats, are common at these sites, suggesting distinct adaptations to environments away from the coast.

Though it is suggested by Allen that such small amounts of evidence can be stretched too far, the lateral spread of the waisted axe, a specific artefact type, indicates either a common origin for the groups among which this implement was important, or there was a connection throughout the Pleistocene between the groups along the spine of New Guinea. It has been suggested that these tools were used for clearing forest, indicating that the widespread evidence of forest interference from the Pleistocene didn't result simply from hunting practices (Groube, 1998: 298-302), suggesting instead that the clearing was deliberately done to encourage the growth of the most useful and productive food plants that grow best in these small clearings, 'Restricted natural stands of food plants such as aerial yams, local bananas, swamp taro and such tree crops as sago and Pandanus, could be promoted by judicious trimming, canopy thinning and ring-barking, and perhaps with the aid of fire, some minor felling' (1988: 299).

It has been suggested (Groube, 1988: 296-7) that soon after the arrival of people in Greater Australia, and following the initial exploration of the Highlands forests, that Groube believes are likely to have been events that were synchronous archaeologically, that occurred at least 40,000 years ago (1988: 302), maintaining that the forms, wear-marks on the waisting, damage to the edges and breakage patterns, are consistent with their use for the management of the forest for the production of food plants. This would have set the people on the path that led to fully developed, and apparently widespread, horticultural subsistence practices in the Highlands in the immediate post-Pleistocene (Golson, 1988).

There was apparently a good deal of human altitudinal movement, that occurred concomitantly, as indicated by the location of sites and the faunal suites, as reflected in the Early Holocene in the presence of marine shells at Kafiavana (White, 1972: 93). The small amount of evidence that has been gathered indicates a high degree of adaptation and patterning of human behaviour in the Highlands during the Pleistocene, as well as possibly interaction networks between distant areas of the Highlands and the lowlands of eastern New Guinea.

The lowlands of Melanesia
Tasmania in the Pleistocene

See Stone Tools

See Source 1 for more information and illustrations.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Murray, Tim, 1998, Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia, Allen & Unwin.
  2. Jim Allen, in Murray, Tim, 1998, Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia, Allen & Unwin.
  3. Allen. J & O'Connell, J.F., 2003, The long and the short of it: archaeological approaches to determining when humans first colonised Australia and New Guinea, Australian Archaeology, No. 57, 2003.


  1. Pamwak Rockshelter: A Pleistocene site on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea
  2. Faunal Composition of Pamwak Site, Manus Island, PNG


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 24/06/2011



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