Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Pleistocene Seafaring - Sahul

Seafaring in prehistoric times, defined by the authors as the deliberate, place-to-place, open-ocean voyaging, is usually thought to have begun about 10,000 BP. Some have proposed that it must have begun much earlier, as archaeological evidence indicates that the first arrival of humans during the Pleistocene on the coast of Sahul, Greater Australia, comprised of Australia and New Guinea, occurred much earlier than 10,000 BP, possibly as early as 60,000 BP, though the authors suggest dates of 45,000-46,000 BP. The authors suggest that, despite the apparently solid evidence from archaeology, this is often ignored, at least in part because of unfamiliarity with the prehistory of Australia, but mostly because of 'a narrowly inductive approach to the archaeological record and a widespread reluctance to credit the innovative and adaptive capabilities of early modern humans, those ancestral to the Australian Aboriginal People in particular' (O'Connell et al. (2008).

O'Connell et al. (2008) have developed an argument for the early origin of seafaring, together with the underlying coastal and marine economies, emphasising the Sahul data, as well as reviewing the information relating to the initial settlement of Sahul (Greater Australia) and the identity of the first to arrive, that was current in 2008.

The O'Connell et al. (2008) divide the area into 4 parts (Fig.1). Sahul is at the centre, at present represented by Australia and it continental islands. Large areas of the continental shelf have been exposed repeatedly during the last several million years by glacio-eustatic fluctuations of the sea level, forming a single landmass from New Guinea to Tasmania at times when the sea was low enough to expose the continental shelf sufficiently.

The Sunda shelf, to the west of the Australian continent, comprises the Malay Peninsula and the western Indonesian islands. At times of low sea level there was a large sub-continental peninsula that extended from the present SE Asian mainland through Borneo and Java to the east.

The Wallacean Archipelago, 1,500 km wide, lies between Sunda and Sahul. Its overall extent has been reduced periodically as a result of falling sea levels, that increased the size of the islands, though it never connected Sunda to Sahul by dry land in the time period in question. It was much more than 1000 km wide, west to east, even when the sea level was 120 m lower than that of the present. There are 2 main routes across it -  in the north, Sulawesi through Halmahera or Ceram, and Lombok through Timor in the south. Island-hopping along either route would require 8-17 crossings (Birdsell, 1977). There is at least 1 crossing of more than 70 km and 3 of more then 30 km, which ever route is taken. As no large-bodied terrestrial mammal succeeded in crossing between Sahul and Sunda in either direction before the arrival of modern humans gives some indication of how significant the biogeographic barrier was. If any did make it across the gap there were not enough to establish a viable population (Van den Bergh et al., 2001).

The islands of Near Oceania such as the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands, lie to the northeast of Sahul. There are water gaps between the Bismarck Archipelago and mainland New Guinea, and between the neighbouring island of the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands, that are generally in the range noted for Wallacea. There are exceptions, such as between New Ireland and Bougainville, 140-170 km, and Manus Island to New Hanover, 200-300 km, the distances at any particular time depending on the sea level. These straits mark important biogeographical divides, the biodiversity dropping sharply to the north and east of Sahul (Metcalfe et al., 2001). See Archaeology of Sahul or Greater Australia - Melanesian Lowlands.

See Source 1 for more information

Sources & Further reading

  1. O'Connell, J.F., Allen, J. & Hawkes, K., March 2008, Pleistocene and the origins of seafaring


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 13/07/2011



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