Uncovering the ancient history of Aboriginal Australia

For small group escorted tours of Australia in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory a guide on Aboriginal culture for mature and senior travellers.

4 Mar 21 · 12 mins read

Uncovering the ancient history of Aboriginal Australia

… from time immemorial, we believe as Aboriginal people, Australia has been here from the first sunrise, our people have been here along with the continent, with the first sunrise. We know our land was given to us by Baiami, we have a sacred duty to protect that land, we have a sacred duty to protect all the animals that we have an affiliation with through our totem system.

Recalled Jenny Munro of the Wiradjuri nation in a 2007 interview . Though referring specifically to stories associated with her own people, her comments reflect a belief shared across indigenous Australian Aboriginal groups that ‘we have always been here’, Australian history told through traditional learning and oral histories of Aboriginal stories.

Over the past 80 years, the knowledge of Aboriginal people has been confirmed by science, archaeology, archaeological evidence and history. Though debate ranges over the precise time of arrival, scientists now believe that Aboriginal people have been in Australia for between 50,000 and 120,000 years, supported by Aboriginal artefacts from examined archaeological site (s) and the evidence of Aboriginal occupation from the even the earliest colonial explorers journals often collecting stone artefact as they travelled initially eastern Australia. Even the earlier timeframe of 50,000 would put the arrival of Australian aboriginal people in Australia shortly after early humans left Africa, making Australian aboriginal history among the most ancient cultures on earth.

It is generally held that first Aboriginal people arrived in Australia via insular South-East Asia, in a period before rising sea levels, when there were more dry land bridge connections between the islands of South East Asia. Boats would have been used for some of the migration, including between Bali and Lombok and Timor and Australia. 35, 000 years ago all of the Australian continent, including Tasmania, had been settled by the Aboriginal Australian people.

Though the ancient origins of Aboriginal civilisation are today well known, the struggles of scientists, archaeologists, and Aboriginal people to have this longevity understood are less known. The uncovering of the ancient origins of Aboriginal society by archaeologists and scientists is deeply entwined with the struggle of Aboriginal people to have their land rights recognised in the second half of the 20th century.

The first white settlers – failing to understand a people they dismissed as ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers – declared AustraliaTerra Nullius (a Latin expression meaning ‘no man’s land’). Proving the longevity of Aboriginal presence on the land was a powerful challenge to the doctrine of Terra Nullius, which remained in Australian law until the 1992 Mabo decision awarded land rights to indigenous Australians.

Today, scientists and archaeologists continue to find older and older archaeological evidence of Aboriginal civilisation in Australia. New evidence and reassessments of old evidence – including Bruce Pascoe’s best-selling Dark Emu – are revealing the diversity of Aboriginal society, challenging old myths that all Aboriginal peoples were hunter-gatherers.

This article traces the history of some of the key archaeological findings that have transformed our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation on the Australian continent.

Mungo Man and Mungo Lady:

Mungo National Park
The landscape around Lake Mungo, where the remains were found.

In 1960, even the most progressive archaeologists believed that Aboriginal settlement in Australia dated back only a few thousand years. In 1957, John Mulvaney – then Australia’s only trained archaeologist – ingeniously used radiocarbon testing to provide evidence of human habitation dating back 5000 years. This number was clearly inadequate, given the existence of Aboriginal oral traditions, recorded in the late 19th century that clearly mapped onto geological evidence of the ending of the last glacial period, indicating a culture and civilisation that had been continuous since the last Ice Age.

Soon afterwards, Mulvaney found evidence in Northern Queensland dating habitation back 14, 000 years – only to be told by the ABC that the information was of ‘no interest’ to the public!

The watershed moment would prove to be the discovery of human remains – later known as ‘Mungo Lady‘ – by the geologist Jim Bowler in 1968. The son of an immigrant from the Blasket Islands, Ireland, Bowler worked as a potato farmer in Gippsland, Victoria, for ten years after finishing school. Developing a fascination for the soil, he went on to study earth sciences at the University of Melbourne in his late 20s. By the late 1960s, Bowler had begun to find shell middens and other evidence indicating that human habitation in Australia was at least 25, 000 years old.

In 1968, Bowler discovered bones emerging from eroded dunes around Lake Mungo, in the remote south-west of New South Wales. Part of the Willandra Lakes Region, the area had been shaped by ancient geological processes. Around 32 million years ago, it was flooded by sea. Sea levels crept back over millions of years, until the coast of Australia reached its current position, around 2-6 million years ago. Around 150, 000 years ago, the Willandra Lakes formed, filled with water from mountains to the east. The lake dried out at the end of the Ice Age, around 18, 000 years ago.

The year after his discovery, Bowler brought the archaeologists John Mulvaney and Rhys Jones to the site. With the help of colleagues at the Australian National University (ANU), they discovered that the remains were of a young woman. It became clear that she had been ritually buried: cremated, then crushed, burned, and buried in the lunette (eroded dune).

In 1974, Bowler made the discovery of Mungo Man, a man of about 50, who had likewise been ritually buried, placed on his back with hands crossed in his lap and his body decorated in red ochre.

Eventually Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were dated as having lived around 40,000 to 42,000 years ago. They are among the oldest remains of modern humans (Homo sapiens) found anywhere in the world, and are the most ancient evidence of ritual burial – indicating spirituality, cultural practice, and a complex and abstract worldview.

Mungo Man and Mungo Lady would have lived in a fertile environment, when a full lake supported an ecosystem of fish, yabbies, and shellfish, while reed beds and eucalyptus by the side of the lake attracted waterbirds, amphibians, mammals and reptiles. Mungo Man’s teeth – which indicated a diverse diet – and advanced age of fifty further showed that they lived in a prosperous society.

Mungo National Park
Mungo National Park, New South Wales.

The findings revolutionised our understanding of early human migration, revealing that humans had arrived in Australia much earlier than scientists had then thought. Moreover, the discovery also occurred in a time of political and social ferment for Aboriginal people, in which civil rights and land rights movements were being fought after long years of repression and discrimination. The discovery provided powerful evidence to be used in land rights claims, and furthered the pride of indigenous communities. “You have been here 200 years, we for 40,000,” read signs protesting the 1988 Australia Day celebrations.

At the same time, the attitude of scientists and researchers often revealed a lack of respect for the traditional owners of the land. The remains of both Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were taken to Canberra, without consultation of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa, and Mutthi Mutthi peoples of the area. For many Aboriginal people, the removals echoed a long history in which settlers ‘harvested’ skeletons (often by plundering grave sites) for display in museums in the United States and Europe, in many cases to ‘prove’ that indigenous people were lower on the evolutionary scale than Anglo-Saxons. The deep connection of Aboriginal people to their land, expressed through Dreamtime oral traditions, makes the removal of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady a particularly devastating loss for Australian aboriginal history.

In turn, scientists asserted the universal value of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady for science and national identity. Digs at Lake Mungo were met with protests from local people, and from the late 1970s, an embargo.

In 1989, the parties agreed to a conference at Lake Mungo, in which a compromise was met, in which both would respect the others interests in an collaborative approach. Further human remains have since remained in situ. In 1992, Mungo Lady was returned to Lake Mungo.

Still, Mungo Man remained in Canberra, despite the campaigns of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa, and Mutthi Mutthi peoples. In 2014, a widely publicised editorial by Jim Bowler – who had a deep respect for Aboriginal spiritual belief drawn from his own Celtic-inflected Catholicism – called for the remains to be moved back.

The campaign would prove successful, and in 2017, Mungo Man was returned to his home, in an event marked by a traditional ceremony and burial.

The discovery of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man paved the way for the Willandra Lakes to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Area. In 1979, it was made a New South Wales National Park, and was added to the World Heritage List in 1981 – one of the first World Heritage sites in Australia – and one of only four in Australia (along with the Tasmanian Wilderness, Uluru, and Kakadu National Park) recognised for both their cultural and natural value.

Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, Victoria

If Mungo Lady and Mungo Man provided powerful evidence of the longevity of Aboriginal civilisation in Australia, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Victoria is a powerful testament to the diversity of that civilisation. A complex aquaculture network, skilfully designed to catch the kooyang, or short-finned eel, the Cultural Landscape challenges stereotypes that all Aboriginal peoples were nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is located within the traditional country of the Gunditjmara Aboriginal people, in south-western Victoria, north of the Great Ocean Road. The site centres around the dormant volcano Budj Bim, formerly known as Mount Eccles.

Budj Bim was formed by volcanic eruptions around 27,000 years ago. The volcano erupted several times, most recently around 7, 000 years ago, during which lava spread over 50 kilometres to the south, forming a network of lakes, ponds, and swamps – including Tae Rak (Lake Condah) and the Condah Swamp – rich in aquatic life.

Anguilla australis (short-finned eel), known to the Gunditjmara as kooyang.

From this, the Gunditjmara people created a complex set of eel traps, drawing upon their knowledge of the rise and fall of water levels, and of the geologic processes that shaped them. They dug shallow channels – some up to 200 metres long – into the rock, and built weirs and dams out of volcanic rock. By controlling the water, they were able to systematically trap, store and harvest kooyang. The Gunditjmara people also constructed long eel baskets, made of river reeds and steel grass, to regulate and trap the eels according to their size. Eels were kept fat in holding ponds, and smoked in the hollows of large trees.

As UNESCO writes, ‘The highly productive aquaculture system provided a six millennia-long economic and social base for Gunditjmara society.’ A valuable commodity, the eels were traded with other Aboriginal language groups, bringing prosperity to the Gunditjmara peoples. There is evidence of permanent stone dwellings near the traps, indicating that a village was set up nearby – powerfully busting the myth that all Aboriginal people were nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is entwined with the cultural traditions of the Gunditjmara people, passed down through the generations by oral history and cultural practice. Budj Bim figures heavily in the Gunditjmara creation story. Thirty thousand years ago, their ancestors watched the eruption of the Budj Bim volcano, where the Ancestral Being, Budj Bim (‘Big Head’) transformed himself into the landscape. The Gunditjmara – like other Aboriginal peoples – have what UNESCO refers to as a ‘deep time’ conception of their society, which refers ‘to the idea that they have always been there’, an important part of indigenous australians history.

The campaign to have the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site began in 2002. Raising knowledge of the importance of the site, the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Corporation succeeded in having Budj Bim listed on the Australian Heritage Register in 2004.

Lake Surprise
Lake Surprise, Budj Bim National Park

With the support of state and federal governments, Gunditjmara traditional owners prepared a report detailing the archaeological and cultural importance of the site. It was presented to the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June-July 2019. Awarded World Heritage Status, the site joins over twenty other Australian locations on the list.

120,000 years?

Since the discovery of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, the date of first arrival of humans on the Australian continent has been pushed back further and further by new scientific discoveries. Immediately after the discovery, consensus was that the first Australians reached the continent around 40,000 years ago. This idea was given support by the fact that a number of further sites found around Australia – including Devil’s Lair, south of Perth, and hearths found within clay terraces on the Upper Swan River – dated at around 37,000 – 40,000 years ago. However, this ‘plateau’ coincided with the limits of radiocarbon dating, suggesting to archaeologists such as Rhys Jones that the initial arrival might be much older.

Excavations led by Jones at the Madjedbebe rockshelter in Kakadu, Northern Territory in 1989, suggested that there was evidence for human occupation in Australia 60-50 thousand years ago. Questioned by many archaeologists at the time, subsequent investigation from 2012 to 2015 by University of Queensland researchers used radiocarbon dating to suggest that the area was settled 65, 000 years ago – suggesting that humans reached Australia long before Homo sapiens arrived in Europe (45, 000 years ago).

As historian Billy Griffiths points out in Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, the arrival of humans to Australia is of international importance for understanding human prehistory. Since the 1980s, archaeologists have believed that our ancestors, modern humans, migrated by foot out of Africa in a single exodus around 70-80,000 years ago, passing through the Middle East and Asia to contemporary Indonesia. But unlike earlier humanoids, which had made the same journey, homo sapiens was able to go further, making the 100 kilometre boat journey to Sahul (the ancient continent linking Australia, Tasmania and Papua New Guinea, before the rising sea levels to their current point).

For psychologist and archaeologist William Noble and Iain Davidson, the move to Australia is the ‘earliest evidence of modern human behaviour’. The construction of boats and navigation of the seas is the earliest moment in prehistory involving a level of language ability, navigational skill, and technological capacity that we can regard as distinctively human. To ask when humans reached Australia is almost to ask when humans became human.

Even more recently, extensive archaeological research in southern Victoria has suggested that people might have lived in Australia for 120, 000 years – twice as long as the broadly accepted timeframe for human habitation. The research was presented to the Royal Society of Victoria by a group of scholars, including Jim Bowler, discoverer of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man.

Using thermal luminescence analysis, they studied blackened stones that indicated human usage of fire. The results – though not entirely conclusive – indicated that they were from a designated ‘place of fire’, with stones collected and ‘heated in a situation reminiscent of a hearth.’

Though the researchers were cautious in their conclusions, the study opens up the possibility of indigenous habitation going back 120, 000 years. Whether this is proved further or not, it is clear that Australia’s first people have a long and ancient tie to their land.

Ancient Gwion Gwion paintings (also known as Bradshaws) in the Kimberley Region. Photograph sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Odyssey Traveller visits a number of these important sites – incuding Lake Mungo and the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape – as part of our new tour of the Southern States of Australia. Focusing on New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, our tour gets away from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide and casts these states in new light, exploring the little-known places where the three states meet.

Our tour of Southern Australia begins in Adelaide. The trip then heads to the historic shipping town of Port Fairy on the Southern Ocean coastline, stopping for a night in Mount Gambier on the way. The following day, we enjoy a day tour of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, learning about Aboriginal culture and aquaculture with a local tour guide, well versed in indigenous australians history.

Following this, we head further into central Australia, visiting the Naracoorte Caves Park, a UNESCO site home to the fossils of ancient megafauna – recognisable wildlife, such as kangaroos, lions and wombats, on a grand scale. Our southern Australia tour then heads further into the Australian outback, visiting the spectacular scenery of the Willandra Lakes, home to Mungo Lady and Mungo Man. From here, our Australia tour heads to the Murray River town of Mildura, where we enjoy a short paddle steamer trip, before we head to the quintessential outback city of Broken Hill. From Broken Hill, our tour heads back to South Australia, visiting the railway centre of Peterborough and the small town of Burra.

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 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 explore the trading history of the Victorian colony, view Arts and Crafts mansions in the South Australian Adelaide Hills, and learn about the emergence of Australia‘s primary industries of mining and agriculture on our tour of Outback Australia.

We hope that – with the current easing of coronavirus restrictions by both the federal government and Australian state and territory governments – interstate travel within mainland Australia and Tasmania will resume soon, allowing for our tour of Australia‘s southern states to commence in the second half of 2020.

Flinders Ranges.
Flinders Ranges, South Australia.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

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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