Aboriginal Origins


Who Were the First Australians?

According to some traditional beliefs of Australia's indigenous people, their ancestors were created in the Dreaming (see below - 'Memories of the Dreamtime'), the period when both landscape and humans were formed. For them, there is therefore no mystery to their origins. They have always been where they are. Nor is the timing of their origins important. The Dreaming integrates past, present and future in a way that makes chronology a concept of little significance.

For scientists, though, the origins and timing of the arrival of the first Australians have been burning questions for over 200 years. Who were the first Australians? Where did they come from? How did they get here? When did they arrive? What is their place in the global story of human evolution? These questions remain unresolved as each new model is in turn challenged by new theories, evidence and dating techniques.

Where did the first Australians come from?

Australia was colonized from the north, from the Southeast Asian landmass, across what are now Indonesia and Malaysia. Fossils of Homo erectus found in Java in the 19th century by Eugene Dubois were proposed as possible ancestors of the first Australians. Research has established that Homo erectus was in Java 1.74 million years ago. Skeletons in southeast Asia less than 100,000 years old are rare. Wadjak from java, Niah from Sarawak and Tabon from Palawan are all about 10,000 years old.

Aboriginal history is not a history of isolation with a local Aboriginal pointing to a painting of an Indonesian prau (boat).


As sea levels have changed over the millennia in response to global glaciation, Australia was at times joined with Tasmania and New guinea in a unit known as Sahul. Even at the lowest sea levels, however, Sahul was separated from Southeast Asia. The only way to get to Australia was therefore by boat or canoe, and it is not hard to imagine anatomically modern humans, just like us in thought and ability, constructing bamboo rafts powered by sails woven from leaves. The currents and winds of the region almost guarantee landfall at the end of a trip, and the evidence of land just over the horizon is to be seen in the flight paths of migratory birds and in the columns of smoke from dry-season fires.

Mungo 3, a man buried on the edge of Lake Mungo in southeastern Australia perhaps as much as 60,000 years ago, has been shown to carry a version of mitochondrial DNA (inherited through the female line) within the Australian family and distinct from African lineages.

The early settlement of Australia is likely to have been undertaken by organized expeditions of whole groups, perhaps maritime fishing villages who eventually made permanent bases on the southern shores of the Timor Sea. Given the length of shoreline available, dozens of groups could have made their homes at roughly the same time without intruding on established property. If so, the first Australians might have numbered in the thousands. And the final sea-level rise around 10,000 years ago probably did not result in the total isolation of the early settlers even though at European contact indigenous Australian were not seafarers. Fishing voyages of Macassans in the last few hundred years are well documented and the arrival of the dingo, a domestic dog, about 4000 years ago, is another instance of continuous traffic.

When did people first arrive in Australia?

Until the middle of the 20th century, archaeologists assumed that the first migration into Australia took place during the last glaciation, now dated between 25,000 and 13,000 years ago, when sea levels were last low. By the early 1970s, however, it was clear that the first Australians had arrived well before this. Investigation of the peopling of Australia has proceeded hand in hand with the development of ever more innovative dating methods. From radio-carbon dates of 9000 years ago in 1961 to 328,000 in 1981, the pace of discovery has pushed back the earliest evidence of occupation. Dates from localities including Malakunania, Jinmium and Mungo have now led a number of archaeologists to argue for colonization at 60,000 years, or even earlier.

  Above Left: Homo erectus of Southeast Asia shows detailed similarities to early Australians.





Below Left: The skeleton from Wadjak comes from the boundary of the two great landmasses and near the origins of agriculture in the region. this individual is a link between Aboriginal people to the south and Asian people to the north.

There is, however, also considerable debate about the dating methods and the interpretation of the results. While some argue that there is no convincing evidence of occupation before 40,000-45,000 years ago, others claim that 60,000 years is a conservative estimate. Debates can become heated, as excavation strategies, sampling methods and dating techniques are queried. A further problem is that given the sea-level rise of the last 10,000 years, much of the evidence for great antiquity is buried under 100 m (300 ft) of water along the coast. At any rate, we do know that people had spread throughout the continent by 40,000 years ago. There are now dates greater than 35,000 from Warreen in Tasmania, Allen's Cave on the Nullabor plain, Upper Swan in southwestern Western Australia, Willandra Lakes near the Murray and Darling rivers, Ngarrabullgan in Cape York, the Huon peninsula in New guinea and Matenkupkum in new Ireland. Aboriginal people had made the desert core their home by at least 22,000 years ago.

These first Australians would have encountered changing climates and different environments. During periods of low sea levels, when Tasmania and New Guinea were attached to Australia, small glacial caps topped the southern dividing range and the higher peaks of Tasmania. Spring melt waters fuelled rivers nine times the volume of present-day ones. These ancestral rivers, including Willandra Creek, flowed through a much drier, colder and windier land. During such times the man known as Mungo 8 was buried. Like many since, he was buried facing the water of Lake Mungo, with his feet to the east. He has recently been dated at about 60,000 years and while his exact date of burial is being debated he is still the oldest known Australian.

Who were the first Australians?

Modern indigenous Australians very physically from region to region, as do Europeans or any other continental group. There are two main explanations for this variation. Migration models assume multiple origins and different ancestral groups, while evolutionary models account for biological variation by examining processes of selection for different environments as well as marriage patterns across social and geographic boundaries. So did the observed range of biological variation develop as people adapted to the ecological variety of a new country, or was it created by the arrival and subsequent inter-marriage of different colonizing groups? For much of the 20th century, migration models were used to explain the range of physical difference. In 1941, before radiocarbon dating was invented, Joseph Birdsell argued that three waves of migration by different colonizing groups accounted for the observed differences. By the early 1970s, Alan Thorne had proposed a dual migration model. His discoveries at Kow Swamp provided the evidence for heavily built, robust people living along the Murray river in southeastern Australia. The remains from Lake Mungo, which were much older than Kow Swamp, were more lightly built. Thorne explained this variation by relating them to ancient fossils from the north. The larger and more robust group traced their ancestry to Homo erectus in Java, while the more gracile were from further afield in China.

A churinga from central Australia, it is thought that the
ancestors of the Dreamtime became these sacred objects.

As dates for initial occupation have moved back, evolutionary explanations for the range of physical variation among indigenous populations have gained ground. People living in a desert environment over tens of thousands of years tend to develop a slender, slighter appearance, with relatively longer limbs. The people of the Willandra Lakes were desert dwellers during glacial times. Equally, adaptation can explain to a significant degree the sturdy build of those living in resource-rich areas such as the Murray River. About 90 skeletons that are thought to be older than 10,000 years have been discovered in Australia. Most are fragmentary. They come mainly from Willandra Lakes, Coobol Creek and Kow Swamp. The latter two are separated by about 50 km (31 miles) across the Murray River and both lie within what was historically Baraparapa tribal territory.

Investigation has shown that, on average, most of these individuals from more than 10,000 years ago were larger and more heavily built. the best known - Cohuna, Nacurrie, Kow Swamp and Coobol Creek - are from a restricted area of the Murray River. They exhibit the largest teeth of any human group, a sweeping forehead and well-developed brow ridges. Others, such as Keilor and many of the Willandra Lakes skeletons, are less ruggedly built and are physically closer to modern Aboriginal people.

Who were the ancestors of the first Australians?

Recent research into the origins of anatomically modern humans and their spread throughout the world has polarized into two models. Regional continuity and Out-of-Africa. In the first, Homo erectus spread through Eurasia from Africa and reached Java by 1.74 million years ago. Evolution from Homo erectus occurred across the Old world with all populations linked by inter-marriage. Modern Homo sapiens appears about 130,000 years ago. Under this model, the fossils of Homo erectus found at Solo and Ngandong are the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians. Many researchers have noted similarities between Australians of about 10,000 years ago and the Javan fossils that point to an unbroken lineage. Under the Out-of-Africa model modern humans developed in Africa 130,000 years ago and in a geological instant moved across Asia, perhaps sailing the coasts of India and Southeast Asia, to settle Australia by 60.000 years. Along the way they killed all resident populations of Homo erectus and made the step to Australia that eluded the people that had lived so close for more than one and half million years. This is the blitzkrieg model of evolution.

This strange creature, its head held up high and to the right, and with its young to the right, may well be one of the long-extinct megafauna.

So according to the Out-of-Africa model, the fossils of Homo erectus from Java - Solo and Nganbong - are pruned from the Australian family tree and the first Australians are descended from ancestors who appeared in Africa 130,.000 years ago. The Regional continuity model still identifies Homo erectus as the ancestor of the first Australian. Perhaps the most surprising question then, is why Homo erectus did not make the last short crossing to Australia? Or did they? The Regional continuity model leaves open the possibility that we all eventually see evidence of humans in Australia at more than 100,000 years ago. Although unlikely, it is not impossible. 


When Europeans took possession of Australia, with the landing of the British first Fleet in botany Bay in 1788, they shaped the land by their own European values. They snapped it, they divided it into fields and farms, they gave its landmarks English-language names - as if it were an empty land. Archaeologists, within the same cultural tradition, have always had as a central concern the dating of the exact time. Aboriginal people settled Australia, their current best estimate is around 60,000 years ago or earlier.

Often, but not always, a Dreaming Place is a singular feature of the landscape, such as this naturally occurring great stack of sandstone.

Aboriginal Australians have their own views on these matters. We have, they know and say, always been here, since the Dreaming time when the land was made and put in order, when the creeks and hills were made, when the people were placed each in their own country. The 'Dreamtime', the word used today to express this Aboriginal concept in English, is not a fitting translation. 'Dream' is the wrong word, in hinting at some insubstantial irrational world from which we will wake up to a different and true reality. 'Time' is the wrong word also, for it suggests some distinct period, placed in the past and separate from the present. An essential part of the Dreaming of the 'always' of the being here, is that things are as they are and must be. Time, measured chronological time, change over time - those central planks in archaeology and Western empirical science - do not come into it.

Art of the Dreamtime

In their ancient rock paintings and rock engravings, Aboriginal Australians have left a pictorial record. Many of the animals and the birds are those in the land today, among them are some such as the brolga and the crocodile, the sulphur-crested cockatoo and the python, that are creatures important also in the Dreamtime stories. A common motif is a bird-track, sometimes small, the size of a bush-turkey's track, sometimes large, the size of an emu, sometimes even larger. Are these last the over-size images of emu tracks? Or records of a bigger bird? There are images of oversize human feet as well.

In Australia, rock art is a living traditional this great frieze in Kakadu National Park was painted in the early 1960s, over traces of earlier paintings.

In north Australia, the rock paintings of Kakadu National park and its region go back some thousands of years, certainly 4000 years, probably many more. In its older phases there are many images of Tasmanian tigers, the marsupial carnivore which survived into the 20th century only in Tasmania. On the Australian mainland, the tiger has been extinct since people brought dogs from Southeast Asia - these became the wild dingo, which, as a more efficient medium-sized predator, drove the tiger to extinction. It survived in Tasmania because by the time the dingo arrived in Australia, Tasmania was already separated from the mainland by the rising sea-level of post-glacial times.

Records of the ancient past

We think the dingo came into north Australia some 4000 years ago, so the pictures of Tasmanian tigers are of an extinct creature - but one which has been extinct only that length of time. But a unique painting, high in the remote 'stone country' beyond even the boundary of Kakadu National Park, hints at something older. Well-preserved and well-painted, it seems to depict an adult and juvenile of a singular creature which is certainly not a Tasmanian tiger, nor any kind of kangaroo or mode3rn marsupial. It has small front legs with front paws rather like hands (as marsupials do), beefy back legs and a broad tail (as marsupials do). It has something odd about its middle, as if it had large and pointed udders or teats hanging below the body (but marsupials have their teats inside the pouches where their young develop). The small, or juvenile one, has something similar. Is this creature one of the megafauna? One identification is of a creature known only from its fossil bones, called Palorchestes.

Human tracks cut into a north Australian rock face are worn and crusted with age, some were later outlined in white paint. The celebrated 'dot painting' of recent art in central Australia derives its iconography from ancient rock art.

Tantalizingly, we currently know of just the one painting. There may be more in the high stone country, where countless rock-shelters are full of paintings, not much visited and certainly not fully explored for rock art. A central figure in the Dreamtime stories is the Rainbow Serpent, the great Being who moved through the country shaping the land and who has left dramatic sign of her (sometimes his) passing by making the billabongs and pools, the rocks and creeks. Dies the Rainbow Serpent preserve some kind of memory of the great snakes even larger than modern Australian pythons, of past times? do Aboriginal stories of floods and rising waters also preserve the memory of the end of the Ice Age, when a rising sea-level will have pushed people back from an older sea-shore?

The Rainbow Serpent is a central figure in the Dreamtime stories. In this modern image, Rainbow has the head of that most powerful of creatures, the saltwater crocodile.

In Kakadu National Park, where that sea-level rise is well dated and rather late in its final stages, a well-dated rock art sequence gives a telling clue: there is a decided increase in paintings which show people fighting at just that era of a rising sea which would have pushed 'people of the shore' into new contact with 'people of the stone' who formerly had been well inland.

Australian Aboriginal Anthropology

Australian Aboriginal Anthropology 1

Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime

Australian Aboriginal Music

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