According to M. H. Monroe, aboriginal people have lived in Australia for at least 60,000 years, arriving by boat from south Asia by about that time. Some researchers have suggested that aboriginals arrived around 116,000 years ago. These dates have been strongly disputed and re-dating suggests that 60,000 years is correct.  Interestingly, most scientists agree that modern humans have only been in South East Asia since 20,000 years ago, which suggests that Australia was settled before South-East Asia.  Europe, meanwhile was first settled by modern humans also around 60,000 years ago, which suggests that Europeans and Aboriginals arrived in their destinations at around the same time.

  • Aboriginal history of Australia:

It has been suggested that the first arrivals were coastal people, basing their economies on the sea and river mouths, originally spreading around the coast then up the rivers. If this is the case, the mouths of the rivers they would have been entering for the first time could have been hundreds of kilometers seawards of the present coastline as the ice age that lasted from 110,000 years ago until 10,000 years ago would have left a much lower shoreline.  They probably came by canoe, island-hopping as the Polynesians did many thousands of years later when they spread across the islands of the Pacific, probably from southern China.

The closest Australia came to connecting to Asia by land was at the height of the Last Ice Age, but even then, there was still a gap of about 90 km separating the 2 continents by the ocean.  At the time of lowest sea level, – 60 m, at the height of the Ice Age, there would have been a chain of islands parallel to, and visible from, Timor, on the northern side of Wallacea, about 90 km from the Australian islands. There would also have been broken tongues of land jutting out from north-western Australia and from Joseph Bonaparte Gulf on the east. Between the outer islands and the tongues of land there were stop-overs at Ashmore Reef, Cartier Islet and Maurice and Thoubadour Shoals.  Once they reached the first island they could have island-hopped to the Australian mainland, though they probably didn’t realize they had reached another continent when they arrived.

According to Aboriginal legends about the ‘Dreamtime’, the Djanggawul, or Djanggau, Sisters, usually in conjunction with their brother, were two Fertility Mothers in Northern Australia. They crossed the sea from the northeast, resting for a while at Bralgu (after the Dreamtime it was said to be the Land of the Dead of the Dua moiety), an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, before following the path of the sun to the east coast of the Mainland.

  • What does “Australia: the land where time began” say about this country & Down Under tourism?

Another dreamtime ancestor, Chivaree the seagull, paddled his canoe from the Torres Islands to Sandy Beach on the west coast of Cape York. Here his canoe turned into stone. Dreamtime stories from all across northern Australia have various ancestral beings coming to the northern Australian coast from the north, in Arnhem Land the Gunwinggu people tell of an ancestral mother, Waramurungdju (Waramurungundji), who came across the sea from the north-west in the direction of Indonesia to the northern coast of Australia. One feature all the Dreamtime origin stories have in common is the arrival from across the sea in canoes.

Archaeologists have backed up this oral history, previously thought to be totally mythical. They have come to the conclusion, as told in the Dreamtime stories, that the Aboriginal People arrived in canoes along the northern coast.  So, it seems the Aboriginal oral history should be taken more seriously, at least as to the arrival in Australia, and possibly with regard to the supposedly mythical creatures that inhabited the continent at the time they arrived. There were still many of the marsupial megafauna some, like the marsupial lion and carnivorous kangaroos, Propleopus oscillans, that survived until the Late Pleistocene, after the arrival of the first ancestral Aboriginal People.

If the ancestral Aboriginal People were indeed coastal dwellers, what was the incentive to expand inland? In south-western Tasmania the people lived almost exclusively on the coast for 30,000 years, based on the dating of the known sites, apparently rarely venturing into the thick rainforest. At the time of first European contact they were still living in a narrow coastal belt between the horizontal rainforest and the sea. While they lived well on the coast, with plentiful and easily available food, why would they want to move to a habitat that was more difficult and where food was less plentiful and required more time and energy to collect? When the continental shelf was exposed there would have been rivers, possibly with deltas, lakes and swamps, as well as the nearby sea, where they could get all the food they needed, and with very little effort.

At the time of the arrival of Europeans in Australia it was declared an unoccupied land, as the Aboriginal People didn’t practice agriculture, so the colonists could take over without even consulting the locals.   The Aboriginal People were believed by some of those Europeans to be at best, like children, who needed to be protected from themselves as well as everyone else. Others regarded them as sub-human, so there was no problem treating them as though they were animals, especially when colonization got under way and colonists wanted to take over their hunting territory for raising cattle and sheep, or farming. They were mostly tolerated as long as they didn’t try to stop pastoralists taking their land. When they got in the way, they were often treated like animals that ate the colonists’ crops or killed their cattle for food.

It has since been realized that they did indeed farm the land, even the parts that were unusable by the colonists, and for a very long time. It has been called fire-stick farming. During their long period of occupation, they developed a system of burning off limited areas at certain times of the year, that encouraged the grass growth that supported the animals they hunted. So, while they lived by hunting, over large parts of the continent it was in effect managed hunting. In fact, they were possibly the first farmers.

It has been said of the Aboriginal People that ‘they are unchanging people in an unchanging land’, implying that they didn’t adapt so were somehow less worthy than the very adaptable people who took over their country. However, Aboriginal culture include sophisticated religion, art and social organization, an egalitarian system of justice and decision-making, complex far-reaching trading networks. And they adapted to and survived in the some of the world’s harshest environments for survival, which demonstrated that they did indeed adapt very well.

“Archaeologists have also found that their stone tools have evolved over the time of their occupation. Like elsewhere in the world, the earliest known tools were heavy, simple tools, the later ones getting progressively smaller and finer, and eventually to more complex composite tools, that are mounted or hafted to a handle for better leverage. At the time of European colonization most tools were of the composite, hafted type.”