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The Arrival of Aboriginal Australians on the Continent

Colorful designs on aboriginal musical instrument didgeridoos

The Arrival of Aboriginal Australians on the Continent

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

Aboriginal Australian Arrival

By Marco Stojanovik

Some Aboriginal Australians have always believed that their ancestors came from across the sea in canoes in the Dreamtime. In northern Australia, for example, one of the major themes in indigenous Creation stories concerns the arrival of the Great Earth Mother, symbol of fertility and creator of life, from across the sea.

In recent years scientists have come to the same conclusion from archaeological and other evidence that Aboriginal people arrived in Australia by watercraft more than 50,000 years ago. It is not possible that human evolution could have occurred in Australia independently of the rest of the world, for the ape-like ancestors from which Homo Sapiens developed in Africa have never been present in Australia. Rather, it is generally held that modern humans, leaving Africa, first reached Asia by 70,000 years ago before moving down through South-east Asia into Australia through a series of hazardous sea voyages in primitive or ancient boats. This first of the Australian Aboriginal population were thus the world’s earliest ocean voyagers.

This article explores the possible routes to Australia taken by the original settlers, watercraft used, and reasons for migration. Much of the information is sourced from Josephine Flood’s Archaeology of the Dreamtime: The Story of Prehistoric Australia and its People. The information is intended as background information for various Odyssey Traveller’s tours of Australia, particularly our tour of Kakadu in the Northern territory – one of the first areas settled by the Indigenous people of Australia.

Routes to Australia

Archaeological evidence suggests the first migrations reached Australia by 60,000 years ago during the closing stages of the Pleistocene, when sea levels were much lower than today. The first migrants could not have walked to Australia though, as at no point during the last 3 million years has there been a complete land bridge between the Asian and Australian continents. Although the distance was reduced by lowered sea levels, the earliest travellers would still have had to come across by sea, navigating across large stretches of water.

There is considerable discussion among archaeologists about the route taken. Two likely paths, theorised in 1977 by US anthropologist Joseph Birdsell, are widely accepted and used as a model for researchers.

Birdsell suggested that the most favourable route requiring the least expenditure of energy and resources would have been a northerly one through Sulawesi to New Guinea via a series of smaller islands. New Guinea and the Australian continent were connected as a single landmass known as Sahul until about 10,000 years ago, meaning the first people could walk down through what is now Cape York to the rest of the continent.

Birdsell’s southern route goes through Timor and ends with a significant sea crossing to the Northern Territory or Kimberley coastline. This may have been no more difficult than the first route for both would have involved crossing a maximum of about 90 to 100km of open sea.

Birdsell’s routes / Shimona Kealey, Julien Loays, Sue O’connor / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

A planned Arrival Using Watercraft

Recent studies have suggested that the ancestors of the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Melanesian peoples first made it to Australia as part of an organised, technologically advanced migration to start a new life. They possessed sophisticated technological knowledge to build watercraft, and they were able to plan, navigate, and make complicated, open-ocean voyages to transport large numbers of people toward targeted destinations.

In order to make successful journeys across more than 90km of open sea, the colonists would have needed buoyant and sturdy watercraft. It is likely then that the first voyagers to Australia were coastal dwellers who not only used watercraft such as simple crafts to gather shellfish and other sea foods, but could also already make substantial sea voyages utilising winds and currents.

The lack of preservation of any ancient boat means archaeologists will probably never know what kind of craft was used for the journey, especially as none of the watercraft used by Aboriginals people in prehistoric Australia seem suitable for major Pleistocene voyages.

The most likely suggestion has been rafts or canoes made of bamboo tubes, a material common in Asia, tied together by ropes made from rich Asian flora.  Bamboo shafts are coated in silica and are thus impervious to water and extremely buoyant. Bamboo would have grown in areas of high rainfall all along the northern migration route, and at least as far as Java on the southern route.

Once in Australia the voyagers would have been virtually ‘trapped’ by the lack of bamboo, for only a few relatively thin-stemmed species (such as Bambusa arnhemica) grow in isolated pockets in the northern coastal plains.

Traditional bamboo raft, Indonesia

Reasons for Migration

The motive and circumstances regarding the arrival of the first Australians is a matter of conjecture. One incentive for deliberate voyages to Australia may have been distant smoke from natural bushfires on the Sahul shelf visible from some Indonesia islands. The vegetation on the shelf at this time is likely to have been semiarid savanna woodland, which is prone to fires caused by lightning. Even small fires in this type of vegetation produce billows of smoke rising to 1000 metres of more, while smoke from large bushfires commonly reaches 5000 metre. Some plumes 1000 metres high could have been seen by people standing at sea level up to 100km away, a good indicated of land ahead.

The flight of birds would have similarly been a sign of a new land and food resources. Seasonal migration of birds from Australia to Timor and from New Guinea to Sulawesi, including the vividly colourful, noisy ‘dollarbird’, would have implied the presence of fresh water, vegetation and probably fish and other game.

In addition to these pull factors, certain push factors also probably operated to encourage migration. Economic historian Noel Butlin has identified population pressure and food scarcity as the most likely ways of explaining the migration process. He argues that population growth occurred in mainland Southeast Asia during the last glacial period due to adequate resource supplies and new technological developments. This population growth could have then led gradually to increasing group size, unmanageable groups, and splintering. Such splintering would have led to dislocation as competing groups were herded south and east, including long-distance movement.

Considerable environmental fluctuation during the glacial period could have also played a role. It is generally believed that in the tropics of Southeast Asia, glacial cold spells caused habitat areas of land to expand during times of very low sea level. This resulted in more food-rich savanna and open woodlands, leading to population growth. When the sea the rose again the habitable area would have shrunk within a few thousand years, leading to stress, possible conflict and intensified migration as people tried to find substitute locations.

Scott Cane in 2013 further conjectured in 2013 that the first wave of migrations may have been prompted by the eruption of Toba.  One of Earth’s largest known explosive eruption, this super volcanic eruption occurred around 75,000 years ago at the site of present-day Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Toba catastrophe theory holds that this event caused a global volcanic winter of six to ten years and possibly a 1,000-year-long cooling episode. This may have pushed groups out of the region looking for more habitable land.

Tour of Early Aboriginal Sites

Odyssey Traveller visits a number of early Aboriginal sites as part of our tour of Kakadu and Darwin, one of our many brand new outback and Australia tours. Kakadu is believed to be one of the first areas settled by the indigenous people of Australia, with excavations by University of Queensland researchers at the Madjedbebe rockshelter in Kakadu suggesting that the area was inhabited 65, 000 years ago.These archaeological sites revealed stone axes, seed-grinding tools, stone points (likely used as spear tips), and ochre – the oldest ground-edge stone axe technology in the world.

Kakadu National Park meanwhile is home to an extensive collection of ancient Aboriginal rock art. The park boasts over 5, 000 known rock art sites, with some archaeologists believing that there might be up to 15, 000 total sites in the park. Some of these rock paintings are up to 20, 000 years old, constituting one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world.

Our Kakadu tours make the most of the many indigenous culture opportunities offered by the park, seeing Aboriginal art and learning about the traditional culture of the  Bininj/Mungguy people, who have lived in this country for up to 60, 000 years. The tour also takes in the highlights of Kakadu: the plunge pool (one of the national park‘s most popular swimming holes) and stunning waterfalls of escarpment country; Barramundi Gorge (Maguk) in the Mary River wetlands.

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu.

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our other outback Australia tours, which include visits to the ancient indigenous sites including Lake Mungo and the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape as part of our tour of the Southern States of Australia; visits to the important cultural site of Wilpena Pound on our tour of the Flinders Ranges; to ancient rock art in the Kimberley, Western Australia; and to the Brewarrina Fish Traps in outback Queensland.

Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. Our tours aren’t the typical tourism Australia holiday – Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island. Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways. We move in genuinely small groups – usually 6-12 per tour – and all tours are cost-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.


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