Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

First Boat People (from First Footprints) See First Boat People

The author1 suggests the first settlement of Australia occurred soon after about 75,000 BP following the Toba super volcanic eruption in Sumatra that had occurred at that time, the people travelling to Australia as it was as far as they could travel from their homeland that had proven to be so dangerous. He1 points out that long before the settlement of Australia Homo erectus must have made sea crossings in sufficient numbers prior to 840,000 BP as by that time they were present on the island of Flores, Indonesia. Though it is not known how they made the crossings there were a number of options open to them as even after normal tropical storms there is plenty of floating vegetation and logs around the Indonesian islands, and there are also logs that they could have hollowed out, that in spite of their appearance are actually stable and can't sink.

The author1 describes incidents in his travels in the more remote parts of Indonesia that demonstrated to him how surprisingly easy it was to travel by sea in logs that had been dug out, dugout canoes, often with bamboo stabilisers, even in rough weather, at least in the hands of a competent user of such watercraft. He said that these crossings could just as easily have occurred 75,000 years ago, though he points out that there would always have been hazards involved, the sea being a dangerous place. He suggests that even in normal times, when there has not been a super-eruption to add to the normal dangers of life, the dangers of a sea crossing would probably be no greater, especially to people who spend their lives travelling and fishing in the waters around their island home in various forms of primitive watercraft.

[In 1960, when I was working in the Northern Territory, I was taken for a ride in a dugout canoe that seemed to me to be very low in the water, in the McArthur River at Borroloola. There were a couple of Aboriginal adults and a number of very boisterous children in the dugout. I was the only passenger who didn't move, watching the tiny amount of freeboard and I thought it was sure to capsize the way the children were jumping about, but to my great surprise and relief it remained stable. Apart from not being a good swimmer I had heard stories about the denizens of the water in and near the Gulf where a number of people I knew had been fishing and shooting, but not swimming. MHM]

People had reached Bali from Lombok, the islands being close enough to each other that one can be seen from the other on a clear day, but the currents between them are much faster than is usual for currents in Indonesia, the diurnal current is strengthened by the prevailing wind, and it is among the strongest currents in the world reaching speeds of up to 6 knots, or 11 km/hr, and it is made much more dangerous by such phenomena as 'frightening overfalls, eddies and windborne turbulence'1. A current of 130 km/day was reported in 1909.

According to the author1 before the super-eruption of Toba there are no reasons known that could explain the push to colonise Australia, given the potential risks of the trip, but he suggests the aftermath of the Toba eruption could have been the reason people decided to look for another home. Around 75,000 BP the sea level was about 60 m, and possibly to 80 m, lower than the present level, which would have meant that Ashmore Reef would have been about 10 m above sea level, located on the tip of a long peninsula, as much of the continental shelf along northern Australia was exposed at that time. Ashmore Reef is 130 km from Timor, and closer to Timor another part of the continental shelf that formed a large plateau-like island, which was 25 km across, 18 km to the northeast of Ashmore Peninsula, that is 90 km from Timor, that is 4 times the distance that had already been crossed in previous inter-island crossings. The author1 suggests that it is unlikely the first arrivals knew how far Australia was from their departure point, given that the original travellers were competent, was only relevant in proportion to that competence. He suggests the critical elements were probably knowledge, including seamanship, craft, provisions and timing.

The primary consideration with regards to knowledge was an awareness that there was in fact another landmass to the south, likely to have been known because of the strong environmental indicators At the present the aridity of Australia, that is more than 500 km from Timor at the present, can be sensed from Timor and the haze at the end of the dry season can be seen when standing on the south-western tip of Timor. The weather in Timor is influenced by the Australian continent, Timor is hotter than further north and there is a pastel orange haze in the sky. Even at a distance of 500 km the sense of a large, hot landmass to the south is implicit. The author1 also suggests that when the distance to Australia was 90 km it must have been possible to smell Australia. At night the glow of bushfires must have been visible, as would large smoke-filled clouds in daylight, even at the present dust from the southeast trades makes visibility poor across the Timor Sea. Though Australia is too low to be seen, violent thunderstorms may have been sighted. A clear indication of land to the south would also have been provided by migratory birds.

It would have been helpful to know the best season to sail, and to know not to sail in the dry season when the winds and currents flowed away from Australia. Apart from the risk of storms, the wet season would have been a better choice, as it is the season when both winds and ocean currents would generally take any craft towards Australia, and there would have been rain to provide drinking water. Another advantage of travelling to Australia in the wet season would have been plenty of drinking water available when they arrived. In Timor and the southern Indonesian archipelago the climate was similar to that of northern Australia, dry in the dry season and wet in the wet season.

There has been speculation concerning the type of craft that may have been used for the journey. One suggestion is craft made from bamboo, though in the southern latitudes of Indonesia there is less bamboo of large size.

Fishermen and coastal foragers in remote parts of Indonesia use bamboo to carry sweetened rice and water in the natural compartments of bamboo stems. They can steam the mixture in the bamboo over fire, though the rice is often pre-cooked, and the author1 suggests that in the past treated rhizomes, nuts and palm sugar may have also been carried in bamboo, as well as fresh shellfish such as giant clam. They could have also carried live turtles by leaving them upside down on the decks.

The author1 suggests tree trunks, lashed together or singular, modified or not, could have been an alternative form of sea-faring craft, and possibly some form of propulsion such as paddles, and/or some form of sail such as bark, large tropical broad leaves, and single leaves on branches, bound or matted. According to the author1 the windage of such materials, that are natural and unmodified, is surprisingly effective. Even at the present people living in the remoter parts of Indonesia continue to use broad leaves and palm fronds for down-wind sailing in dugout canoes, and he adds that anyone who has paddled a stand-up paddleboard into the wind will understand how effective the windage of the human body is.

At the present the wind and sea conditions are mild in comparison to typical sea breezes around southern Australia, and 75,000 BP the state of the sea was probably considerably calmer, the cooler climate having reduced the currents, wind and swell. Between the Moluccas and New Guinea the present-day current across the Banda Sea moves at about 20 km/day, which together with a favourable wind would carry people to land in 3-4 days. A distance of 40 km could be travelled in a day with a current of 1 knot, therefore the 90 km between Timor and Australia could have been crossed in 2-3 days by sailing downwind in the wet season. This becomes more possible as evidence has been recovered from south-eastern Timor that 42,000 BP coastal fishermen were using sophisticated fishing technology to catch open ocean fish such as tuna, which indicates that these ancient people were knowledgeable about the sea.

According to oral history 9 generations ago, about 200 years, a vessel with a cargo of palm sugar ran ahead of a storm for 5 days which brought them to the open sea, and not knowing where they were followed sea birds returning to land because they thought that would bring them to another country where they could get help. They eventually saw the green reflection on the clouds so sailed on eventually reaching the western end of Ashmore Reef. As they had no compass they used the Southern Cross as a back bearing to steer north and eventually reached their home.

There has been considerable debate about the route taken by the original settlers of the Australian continent. According to the author1 the sea crossing to Ashmore Reef was possible. If they travelled about 50,000 BP the sea level was possibly 20 m higher and the Ashmore Peninsula as well as its neighbouring islands, would have been submerged, and the distance to Australia at this time was 200 km, making it more likely a more northerly route via the Moluccas from Sulawesi to New Guinea was followed. As the actual route(s) followed and the possible landfall(s) have been submerged for the last 15,000 years the debate must remain speculation. As it is not possible to know how, where or exactly when the first people arrived in Australia, the author1 suggests is that what is known is that about 70,000 BP the conditions were conducive to setting out on such a voyage and the aftermath of the Toba super-eruption may have provided the incentive needed to leave.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin
Scott Cane has included in his book, written as a companion to the ABC TV series of the same name, a number of stories from his days living among Aboriginal people in the desert and moving around with them.




Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 06/11/2013
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