Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The First Boat People See First Boat People-First Footprints

The dreamtime stories of a number of Aboriginal tribes tell of canoe crossings made by their dreamtime ancestors from islands to the north of Australia, which agrees with the thoughts of scientists about the arrival in Australia of the first Aboriginal People, based on archaeological evidence.

The Riratjingu people of the east coast of Arnhem Land, believe they are descended from Djankawa who crossed from the island of Baralku with his 2 sisters in a canoe, led by the morning star to the shore at Yelangbara, on the east coast of Arnhem Land. They followed the rain clouds across the country. When they needed water they plunged their sticks into the ground and water flowed out. They gave their descendants their laws and taught them the names of the animals.

The arrival of Aboriginal People in Australia was certainly before 50,000 and probably more than 60,000 years ago, the most widely accepted date for the peopling of Australia. At that time the sea level was much lower than present because a lot of water was locked up in glaciers during the Ica Age. Even with lower sea levels there was still about 70 km of ocean that needed to be crossed from Southeast Asian islands to the closest parts of the Australian continent, Arnhem Land, Kimberley, and Cape York. It would have been possible to walk from New Guinea across a wide plain, but they would still have to travel across the seas to get to New Guinea.

It is believed they probably arrived in canoes or maybe bamboo rafts, possibly from Indonesian islands such as Flores, possibly via Timor, either intentionally or by accident. If they drifted to one of the islands near the Australian mainland they probably wouldn't have been able to return because the currents and winds wouldn't take them in the right direction.

At the time of the low sea levels there would have been a chain of islands near the Australian mainland that ran parallel to some of the more easterly small Indonesian islands that would have been visible from the Indonesian islands. As long as they had some sort of craft that could have made the short crossings between islands they could have island hopped to the Australian mainland.

As if to back up the theories of the crossing to Australia, dreamtime stories across to the top of Australia have various dreamtime ancestors travelling by canoe from the northwest, the direction of Indonesia.

The oldest known occupation sites in Australia are found in Arnhem Land in the northern part of Western Australia. The 2 oldest known sites are Malakunanja II and Nauwalabila rock shelters. These sites have very similar cultural sequences that have been dated by radiocarbon and luminescence techniques to 53,000 and 60,000 BP. Sites dating to more than 40,000 BP have also been found in the southeast and far southwest of the continent.

It has been suggested that the colonisation of the continent probably started by spreading along the coast and up river valleys, having an assured food supply in the form of fish and shellfish from the rivers, and small animals around the rivers. From there they spread out until they inhabited the entire continent.

During the lacustral phase, a time when the inland lakes like Lake Frome and Lake Mungo, etc., were filled, though they were surrounded by arid areas. By 60,000 BP they had reached the Willandra Lakes region. By 30,000 BP arid central Australia had been occupied. Evidence for this occupation comes from Puritjarra Rockshelter, west of Alice Springs, and Allen's Cave and Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain. The area they populated extended from New Guinea to the glaciers of south-western Tasmania.

The first Australians were among the earliest Homo sapiens. No evidence has been found that Homo erectus had ever reached the Australian continent, including the continental shelf. The remains found at Lake Mungo in New South Wales are of a gracile people, with slender build. The site was dated to 60,000 BP.

This is a problem; all younger remains are of a more robust type of human, appearing more archaic. It is not known if the Mungo people are a continuum of the same population or a distinct population. It seems unlikely that the robust people are descended from the more gracile population. But according to the dates, if one population is descended from the other, the robust type did indeed descend from the gracile type. Was it an adaptation to the much harsher conditions?

There are now in excess of 120 Pleistocene sites known in Australia. It is now known that these ancient hunter-gatherer people had all the hallmarks of advanced humans elsewhere. They used fire for hunting and managing their environment to maximise the food source for the animals they hunted, and used ground ochre for decoration, wore ornaments and honoured their dead. The earliest burial known from Australia dates to 60,000 BP. The corpse was covered with powdered ochre.

By 20,000 BP they were mining flint in underground mines like Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain. In north Queensland at that time they were hafting handles to ground-edge axes. The only rival for this level of sophistication of stone tool manufacture at this time was in Japan at a similar early time.

Industries in Australia were distinctive, having some special tools such as large waisted axes and the horsehoof core, a single-platform core, which was sometimes used as a chopping tool. They are similar to the Mousterian industries in Europe and the Middle East, and the Middle Stone Age in Africa. They also used the Levallois technique of flake production.

Once they arrived in Australia they were relatively isolated from the rest of the prehistoric world. They didn't undergo the 'creative explosion' that occurred in western Europe. It has been suggested that this 'creative explosion' occurred because of the necessity to adapt to the freezing conditions of the Ice Age. In Australia the Ice Age had the effect of increasing the dryness of the already arid continent even more. The Aboriginal People adapted to the increased aridity by moving to areas with reliable water sources, then moving back when wetter times returned. The result of this reaction to the Ice Age in Australia meant that there was no urgent need to innovate to survive, so technology and art underwent a gradual development.

When Aboriginal People arrived in Australia the megafauna had not yet gone extinct. There has been some debate as to whether the arrival of humans was connected with the extinction of the megafauna. Now that a number of dating techniques have been developed and more archaeological and palaeontological sites have been discovered it is becoming apparent that as the humans moved into an area the megafauna went extinct in that area soon after. The debate is, at least partially, changing to whether it was caused by overhunting or the use of the fire-stick destroying the original environment, making it more suitable for their preferred prey. Their use of fire to change an environment was so successful that the present vegetation type over much of Australia has been referred to as an Aboriginal artefact. The debate is becoming was it by overkill, gradual attrition of populations, or by environment change.

They adapted so well to the arid conditions that they maintained healthy populations in some of the harshest environments on Earth. Some of the European explorers died of starvation and thirst in the same areas in which the Aboriginal People flourished. And European agriculture failed miserably where the firestick agriculture was a brilliant success. Some of the early Europeans, presumably not those who were busy trying to exterminate them to get their land, thought of them as poor, starving savages who needed saving, physically and spiritually. The opposite was in fact the case, they ate a healthier diet than most of Europe, even today, and they were so successful at surviving that they had plenty of time for a spiritual, cultural life. They might not have had operas and symphony orchestras, but they had seasons of Corroborees and didgeridoos and music sticks. A corroboree for every occasion, and different ones for men and women, and some for everyone, men, women and children. It might be seen as more primitive, but it fulfilled the same function. They actually had more time to devote to matters of the mind - art, dance, music, festivals and ceremonies, than most Europeans until recent times.

By about 35,000-25,000 years ago they had occupied all major environmental zones in Australia. Possible exceptions have been suggested to be the north Queensland rainforest, the dunefield deserts and possibly small offshore islands.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing, 2004
  2. Jennifer Isaacs, Australia Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, New Holland Publishers, 2005
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 07/09/2013

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