Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Unpacking the Package of Behaviour of the First Australian’s and the People of Its Adjacent Islands

Davidson (2014) suggests that as Sahul was colonised only by modern humans its archaeohistory therefore provides unique evidence of what is and is not necessary to show the modernity of behaviour. In this Chapter Davidson concentrates on 4 types of issues about the archaeohistory of Sahul, historical, theoretical, methodological and empirical.

Archaeological history began in Western Europe where the first early humans were encountered. A result of this was that as the practice of archaeology spread to other regions many of the problems encountered were the result of having derived their perspectives from factors that appeared important to the archaeohistory in Europe and the debates that were framed.

Assumptions about the nature of the behaviour of modern humans and the cognitive changes that occurred during the evolution of hominins and humans from a common ancestor, that was more ape-like, more than 3 million years ago to a type of cognition that was more modern that took place about 100 ± 50 thousand years ago. The cognitive abilities that were fundamental to the behaviour that allowed modern humans to get to Sahul also underpinned the use of symbolism, and this has been a dominant theme that relates people to individuals, groups and environments.

For writing archaeohistory generally, methodical issues concern the most appropriate evidence. Though molecular genetics have much to say about relationships in the past, it is necessary to anchor such studies in the evidence of people on the ground. There are major problems that are associated with dating and taphonomy that are presented by archaeological evidence of flaked stone, bone and rock art. There are also major problems for interpretation and the role of evidence from modern people and conditions in that interpretation.

The way the empirical record of Australian archaeohistory contributes to the understanding of the evolution of the cognition and behaviour of modern humans is affected by the effect of the reaction to these historical, theoretical and methodical issues.

Historical questions

The peopling of Sahul and the Americas has been by only modern humans (see comparison in Davidson, 2013). In the remainder of the world earlier hominins, who may or may not have exhibited some of the same behaviours as modern humans, were present almost everywhere. Originally, the question of the origins of modern humans was framed in terms of the apparent opposition between the Neanderthals and modern humans, though more recently their history has proven to be much more complex. There is still, nevertheless, according to Davidson, remarkable interest in what had happened in the small peninsula of Western Europe at the end of Eurasia, as well as what happened with the Neanderthals who were primarily restricted to that region.

It was only late in the archaeological discussion that it was realised that it might be possible to investigate the behaviour of modern humans without necessarily linking it to types of hominin in Europe. The transition that occurred in southwest France in the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic had been known for some time, though that transition had been linked to the emergence of behaviour in modern humans in terms of the “the great information flow, planning depth and conceptualisation consequent upon the emergence of language” (Noble & Davidson, 1991), views that had been influenced by a Eurocentric perspective, in spite of the clear recognition that a fundamental challenge was provided by Australian archaeohistory (Davidson & Noble, 1989; 1992). A correction to the Eurocentric bias was sought by showing important changes in behaviour in African archaeohistory (McBrearty & Brooks, 2000), that was in some cases earlier than had occurred in Europe, mostly by the use of Eurocentric criteria that had been established in 1991, though they systemised the traits list. Many scholars have attempted to measure particular behavioural aspects against that traits list (e.g., Nowell, 2010). Its limitations have been shown by others (d’Errico, 2003 and for East and Southeast Asia, Haidle & Pawlik, 2010), though they paradoxically reinforced its apparent importance.

It is sometimes difficult to be certain that the traits under discussion are really distinctive, as in both Africa and Europe other hominins preceded moderns. A complex relationship is suggested between modern humans and the archaeological evidence that is said to characterise the behaviour of modern humans. Some of the traits appeared before the evolution of modern humans, with some occurring only long after the appearance of modern humans, though none appeared within about 50,000 years of emergence. A final point made by Davidson is that the evidence emerging from Australian archaeology suggests it is not necessary to have all the traits to identify modern human behaviour (Davidson, 2010). As the most important feature of modern humans is really the flexibility of their behaviour (Veth et al., 2011), together with the cognition which allows that, indicates that there was no “package” of traits (cf. Habgood & Franklin, 2011). Therefore, it is irrelevant that the traits of the ”package” accumulated only gradually in Australia (in spite of the importance attached by Powell, 2009). Davidson suggests the discussion of the presence or absence of the traits in Australia that are important in Africa is letting the tail of the history of archaeology wag the dog of archaeohistory. Historically, the trait list of McBrearty & Brooks may, according to Davidson, have reached the end of its usefulness.  

Theoretical Questions

Davidson asks the question what were the differences between modern humans and earlier hominins that might account for only the modern humans reaching Australia and the Americas, though the earlier hominins failed to. Homo erectus had been living in Sunda, the land that connected the Indonesian islands to Southeast Asia at times of low sea levels for more than 1.5 million years (Dennell, 2009, 165-166). Some sea crossings were required for hominins to reach Flores before 1 million years ago (Brumm et al., 2010; Morwood & van Oosterzee, 2007), though there is no known evidence that they went any further.  Davidson said the available options are either nothing changed, with people making several crossings to Australia, either by a series of accidental crossings, or a fundamental change made intentional crossings possible. Davidson says archaeohistory in Australia is important because the best explanation for the difference is a key to an explanation of all modern human behaviour. Davidson says important things about the evolution of all human cognition are revealed by the uniqueness of Australian archaeohistory.

According to Davidson there was a fundamental change between the cognition of hominins and humans which made human intentionally possible, that occurred sometime prior to the first colonisation of Australia. It has been suggested that by about 50,000 years ago (O’Connell & Allen, 2007) that modern humans had gained the cognitive abilities to routinely be undertaking activities in sea-worthy watercraft (Allen & O’Connell, 2008; Davidson & Noble, 1992; O’Connell et al., 2008). The long-term presence, with at least 2 long hiatuses, on Flores indicates that earlier hominins must have had the ability to make sea crossings (Brumm et al., 2010). It has been suggested that such crossings by earlier hominins are more likely to be accidental, such as by rafting (Smith, 2001), based on the current state of knowledge of the abilities of contemporary hominins. It has been shown by anecdotal evidence from recent tsunamis that some such crossings might have been possible (Morwood & Davidson. 2005), to arrive in Australia, by any route, would require at least 8 crossings (Birdsell, 1977); at least 1 of which needed to be about 70 km, and about 90 km by most routes. There are significant problems even for modern people setting out to travel to Australia, which they couldn’t see.

Modern cognitive ability is implied by the ability to build such watercraft (Table 19.1). It has previously been emphasised that language – the use of symbols to communicate – and its impact on mental ability (Davidson & Noble, 1992). They have shown material evidence of the use of symbol in Australian archaeology in support of this argument. Though important in a first approximation, it has led to an understanding that the evolution of cognition was more complex than the dichotomy that has been envisioned (see Davidson, 2010c).


One of the most indicative features of this achievement is, in cognitive terms, separation of tasks in time and space. Mental processes were necessary that were not directly related to stimuli from the interaction of the senses with the external environment for some parts of the making of watercraft (Barnard et al., 2007). It has been suggested (e.g. Coolidge & Wynn, 2009) that an extended Working Memory was necessary to make the overall achievement of a watercraft possible; as the process was necessarily protracted with the result that distraction from the solution was possible. Examination of “cognigrams” of the manufacture of artefacts that had been analysed for other and earlier locations (Haidle, 2010) has shown that this degree of displacement within the entire chain of actions and functions was not achieved even by earlier complex toolmaking. It has been observed that particularly, though not exclusively in southern Africa, there are some indications of the early emergence of cognitive complexity.


It has been argued previously by Davidson that such cognitive achievement would account for watercraft being deliberately used to the north and west of Sahul a short time before Sahul was first colonised, which Davidson suggests probably took place between 50,000 and 45,000 years go (see also O’Connell et al., 2008; Summerhayes et al., 2010; Summerhayes & Ford, 2014). The further voyages around the edges of Sahul illustrate the deliberate nature of watercraft. Animals were carried in their boats to the east, the cuscus, Phalanger orientalis, being introduced to New Ireland by 24,000 cal. radiocarbon years (Gosden, 1995). Several species from Sahul were also carried west to Wallacea during the Holocene (Heinsohn, 2001).

Evidence of early voyages around the edge of Sahul

It has been argued (Davidson & Noble, 1992), in an attempt to establish that the basis for the cognitive differences between earlier hominins and humans was the capacity to communicate with others about things that were not in the immediate contingency of the utterance, by the use of sounds and gestures not necessarily determined by the object of the utterance (Davidson & Noble, 1996). Therefore, people could speak about memories of past occurrences then imagine futures based on such knowledge. The conceptualisation that was necessary to solve such problems as the construction of watercraft arose from this communication.

According to Davidson this version of the implications of the first colonisation has been improved by more complex modelling of a sequence of conditions associated with the evolution of human and hominin cognition was derived from Barnard’s interacting cognitive systems (ICS) model (Barnard et al., 2007).  In the final phase humans are capable of thinking about things without a stimulus from the external environment – and therefore can think novel thoughts. The emergence of reflexive meaning that entails the use of symbols that was central to the earlier argument could identify the emergence of this internal mental process (Davidson & Noble, 1989).

The ICS model is said by Davidson to be much more suitable for understanding how human mindedness is essentially social in nature than any model of cognition that is mainly based on processes that are taking place inside the brain, as the ICS model emphasises the integration of systems receiving inputs from external stimuli. The evolution of cognition required in these arguments more than just genetic changes, also deriving from behavioural contexts of such changes, as evidence d from such changes.

According to Davidson the cognitive abilities achieved by the first Australians were the abilities of all modern humans, yet they have apparently fallen short of the standards of McBrearty & Brooks (e.g. Brumm & Moore, 2005). Davidson says the traits do not neatly assemble into a “package” resembling the behaviour of the first modern humans in Europe, which Davidson suggests is a problem with the method that was derived from archaeology in Europe (and Africa) rather than for the Australian archaeological record. The modernity of the cognition of all Australians was established by the circumstances of the first colonisation of Australia. As all other elements of the so called “package” are irrelevant, Davidson asks why is it so difficult to see this outside Australia.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Iain Davidson in Dennell, Robin & Porr, Martin, eds., 2014, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Search for Human Origins, Cambridge University Press.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 09/08/2015
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