People in Australia before the Europeans arrived

In the middle of last year I compiled Where Did We Come From?,  a  sequence of articles and links about the evolution of our own species from the time we diverged from other apes up to the last few tens of thousands of years.

The last few articles in that sequence focused on Australia, and later additions crept ever closer to our own time. In the interests of making all the material more manageable, this post is its Australian content with some further additions. As before, it is arranged chronologically.

I don’t want to unbalance the post by saying too much about contemporary political issues but the date of its publication is not entirely coincidental.

Archaeology Places Humans in Australia 120,000 Years Ago

Shell middens and a potential ancient hearth add to growing evidence of a much deeper human occupation period in Australasia (prehistoric Sahul).

A meticulously detailed 11 years research program has concluded that there is compelling evidence for a human presence 120,000 years at Moyjil, Point Richie, on the far south coast of Victoria.

That quote is from this article on Ancient News, not the most reliable media outlet, but it is backed up by reputable sources in its own footnotes and by later reports. For instance, this ABC story from 2020 says that the age of the materials is not in doubt; the doubt is about whether they show human occupation.

If Moyjil really does show people in Australia 120,000 years ago it will overturn a broad consensus which dates the first human occupation to no earlier than 75,000 years ago. As this article on ThoughtCo says, the lower sea levels at this time joined (modern) Australia to New Guinea and Tasmania in a land mass now called ‘Sahul’, making migration easier. Such a date also agrees with the “Out of Africa” theory.

We also need to bear in mind that any coastal settlements from this early period were flooded when sea levels rose at the end of the Ice Age between 19,000 and 6,000 years ago.

A 2016 DNA analysis dates the migration of Aboriginal Australians’ ancestors from Africa to 50 – 70,000 years ago, making them the oldest society on earth. The “Kakadu rock shelter” below suggests a date early in this range.

Kakadu Rock shelter dated to 65,000 years ago

You may not know the name of Madjedbebe, but you will. It’s a rock shelter that sits atop one of the world’s largest uranium deposits – the Jabiluka mining lease wholly surrounded by Kakadu National Park.

What the Mirarr traditional owners know, the archaeologists have confirmed with new dating techniques. By testing grains of quartz locked in the sediment around the artefacts, they’ve established when those mineral grains were last exposed to sunlight. The analysis dates the first occupation of the site at 65,000 years – making Madjedbebe the oldest site of human occupation on the Australian continent.

Source: ABC News, 2018. See also Clarkson and others in The Conversation.

Studies of plant remains at the shelter tell us about the diet of the earliest inhabitants and, more surprisingly, the way the climate of Kakadu has changed over that huge time span.

65,000-year-old plant remains reveal the diet of the earliest known Aboriginal Australians

Australia’s first people ate a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and other plant foods, many of which would have taken considerable time and knowledge to prepare, according to our analysis of charred plant remains from a site dating back to 65,000 years ago.

We already know the earliest Aboriginal Australians arrived at least 65,000 years ago, after voyaging across Island Southeast Asia into the prehistoric supercontinent of Sahul, covering modern mainland Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea.

Source: Australian Geographic

“People have been eating the same nut at the same place for 65,000 years, which is fantastic for scientists, because you can make direct comparisons,” Dr Florin said.

The scientists used carbon dating to determine the amount of water in the environment when the pandanus plants were growing, giving an indication of overall rainfall.

Dr Florin said they discovered the current period was the driest the Kakadu region had ever been, including at the height of the last ice age, between about 25,000 and 18,000 years ago.

Source: The Age, Jan 2021.

We have known about sites dated to 30 – 40,000 years ago for some time. The most famous of them was Lake Mungo but others were scattered right across the continent.

Is an Aboriginal tale of an ancient volcano the oldest story ever told?

Long ago, four giant beings arrived in southeast Australia. Three strode out to other parts of the continent, but one crouched in place. His body transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim, and his teeth became the lava the volcano spat out.

Now, scientists say this tale—told by the Aboriginal Gunditjmara people of the area—may have some basis in fact. About 37,000 years ago, Budj Bim [in SW Victoria] and another nearby volcano formed through a rapid series of eruptions, new evidence reveals, suggesting the legend may be the oldest story still being told today.

The study raises a provocative possibility, says Sean Ulm, an archaeologist at James Cook University, Cairns, who was not involved with the work. “It is an interesting proposition to think about these traditions extending for tens of thousands of years.” But he and others urge caution, as no other stories passed down orally are believed to have survived that long. …

Aboriginal tales are already among the oldest known. In 2015, Patrick Nunn, a geographer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore, co-authored a study suggesting 21 communities around Australia have independently kept alive stories describing an episode of sea level rise that drowned parts of the coast. Nunn thinks those stories might be about 7000 years old. The Gunditjmara story would be more than five times as old.

Source: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/02/aboriginal-tale-ancient-volcano-oldest-story-ever-told

I vaguely remember being told about about indigenous histories of an eruption somewhere near Undara (I might even have heard it from one of the guides at Undara) and the Kinrara eruption – only 7000 years ago according to Wikipedia, although this site isn’t so precise about the date – seems to be a good possibility.

Humans did not drive Australia’s megafauna to extinction – climate change did

When people first arrived in what is now Queensland, they would have found the land inhabited by massive animals including goannas six metres long and kangaroos twice as tall as a human.

We have studied fossil bones of these animals for the past decade. …

It has been argued that the extinctions were due to over-hunting by humans, and occurred shortly after people arrived in Australia. However, this theory is not supported by our finding that a diverse collection of these ancient giants still survived 40,000 years ago, after humans had spread around the continent.

The extinctions of these tropical megafauna occurred some time after our youngest fossil site formed, around 40,000 years ago. The time frame of their disappearance coincided with sustained regional changes in available water and vegetation, as well as increased fire frequency. This combination of factors may have proven fatal to the giant land and aquatic species.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/may/19/humans-australia-megafauna-to-extinction-climate-queensland

It is widely believed that the first people to colonise the Americas quickly  drove the megafauna to extinction (although there are still doubts about that) but the time scales in Australia are much longer and not so well known: the first Australians co-existed with our megafauna for at least 20,000 years and perhaps as long as 80,000 years if the Point Ritchie discoveries stand up to further examination. Tim Flannery may still have been right when he proposed, in The Future Eaters, that firestick farming was responsible; if so, the answer to the question is “both”, since people brought on the climate change which was responsible for the extinction.

The world’s oldest observatory? How Aboriginal astronomy provides clues to ancient life

This 2016 story from ABC News raises intriguing speculations about the level of complexity of indigenous Australian society around 10,000 years ago, and amplifies some troubling questions about white Australians’ conventional history of the colonial period:

An ancient Aboriginal site at a secret location in the Victorian bush could be the oldest astronomical observatory in the world, pre-dating Stonehenge and even the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Researchers say the site could date back more than 11,000 years and believe the stone arrangement mapped out the movements of the sun. The site could also disprove the notion that first Australians were uniformly nomadic hunter-gatherers.

European Colonisation

It is gradually becoming clear that the Australian history we learned in school forty or fifty years ago (and probably more recently) obscured, more or less deliberately, much of the truth about the colonisation of the country by Europeans. The indigenous inhabitants were more numerous and far more settled into permanent communities than we were told, while border wars and massacres were far more frequent and bloodier than we we told, and “terra nullius” was a self-serving fiction from the outset.

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (2014) is one of the key works in our rethinking of this history. I knew about it for some years before I finally found the time and courage to read it recently. I had avoided it because I really didn’t want to read yet another account of white injustice and brutality, but I needn’t have worried: the book is not confronting in that way but is primarily about pre-contact indigenous life.

Tom Griffiths writes about Pascoe and his books at https://insidestory.org.au/reading-bruce-pascoe/ and places Dark Emu in the context of the ongoing academic revision of our history by “scholars such as Norman Tindale, Harry Allen, John Blay, Beth Gott, Jeannette Hope, Tim Allen, Rupert Gerritsen, Bill Gammage, Rhys Jones, Jim Bowler, Tim Flannery, Ian McNiven, Dick Kimber, Peter Latz, Deborah Rose, Harry Lourandos, Lynette Russell, Paul Memmott and Eric Rolls.” I encourage everyone to read both the essay and the book.

Much of the “new” history is disturbing but, as Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell tells us, we have to come to terms with it so that we can move forward without its shadow looming over us.

9 thoughts on “People in Australia before the Europeans arrived”

  1. The oldest dated rock art in Australia is a kangaroo in the Kimberley. “…one such painting of a kangaroo [is] on the ceiling of a low, well-protected, rock shelter and were able to date three wasp nests underlying the painting, and three nests built over it. These ages allowed us to determine confidently that the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old; most likely 17,300 years old.” https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/australia-s-oldest-known-aboriginal-rock-paintings

  2. Bone tools found in a remote north Australian cave have been dated as being more than 35,000 years old, making them some of the oldest in the nation.
    Eight tools made from kangaroo bone have been excavated from Riwi Cave in the southern Kimberley, by archaeologists in the early 1990s with support from the nearby Mimbi community.
    It’s only now that better dating techniques could put the tools at between 35,000 and 46,000 years old.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-08/bone-tools-kimberley-cave-thought-to-be-35-000-years-old/100053656

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