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The prehistory of Australia is the period between the first human habitation of the Australian continent and the first definitive sighting of Australia by Europeans in 1606, which may be taken as the beginning of the recent history of Australia. This period is estimated to have lasted between 40,000 and 70,000 years.[1]

This era is referred to as prehistory rather than history because there are no paper written records of human events in Australia which pre-date this contact.



See also Early human migrations#South Asia and Australia
The map shows the probable extent of land and water at the time of the last glacial maximum and when the sea level was probably more than 150m lower than today; it illustrates the formidable sea obstacle that migrants would have faced.

The minimum widely-accepted timeframe for the arrival of humans in Australia is placed at least 40,000 years ago [2]. Many sites dating from this time period have been excavated.

Archaeological evidence indicates human habitation at the upper Swan River, Western Australia by about 40,000 years ago; Tasmania (at that time connected via a land bridge) was reached at least 30,000 years ago.[3][4] Others have claimed that some sites date back up to 60,000 years, but these claims are not universally accepted.[5]

Palynological evidence from South Eastern Australia suggests an increase in fire activity dating from around 120,000 years ago. This has been interpreted as representing human activity, but the dating of the evidence has been strongly challenged.[6] Charles Doortch has identified Aboriginal stone tools, found at Rottnest, as dating possibly to 70,000 years, making them amongst the first evidence of modern homo sapiens found outside Africa.

Migration was achieved during the closing stages of the Pleistocene, when sea levels were much lower than they are today. Repeated episodes of extended glaciation during the Pleistocene epoch, resulted in decreases of sea levels by more than 100 metres in Australasia.[7]

The continental coastline extended much further out into the Timor Sea, and Australia and New Guinea formed a single landmass (known as Sahul), connected by an extensive land bridge across the Arafura Sea, Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait. Nevertheless, the sea still presented a major obstacle so it is theorised that these ancestral people reached Australia by island hopping.[7] Two routes have been proposed. One follows an island chain between Sulawesi and New Guinea and the other reaches North Western Australia via Timor.[8]

The sharing of animal and plant species between Australia-New Guinea and nearby Indonesian islands is another consequence of the early land bridges, which closed when sea levels rose with the end of the last glacial period. The sea level stabilised to near its present levels about 6000 years ago, flooding the land bridge between Australia and New Guinea.

It is unknown how many populations settled in Australia prior to European colonization. Both "trihybrid" and single-origin hypotheses have received extensive discussion;[9] however, the issue has become politicized, with the assumption of a single origin tied in to ethnic solidarity, and multiple entry used to justify white seizure of Aboriginal lands. There is little objective data to settle the issue one way or the other.

Human genomic differences are being studied to find possible answers, but there is still insufficient evidence to distinguish a "wave invasion model" from a "single settlement" one. Some Y chromosomal studies indicate a recent influx of Y chromosomes from the Indian subcontinent.[10]

Advent of fire farming and megafauna extinctions

Archaeological evidence (in the form of charcoal) indicates that fire, already a growing part of the Australian landscape, became much more frequent as hunter-gatherers used it as a tool to drive game, to produce a green flush of new growth to attract animals, and to open up impenetrable forest. Densely grown areas became more open sclerophyll forest, open forest became grassland. Fire-tolerant species became predominant: in particular, Sheoaks, eucalypts, acacia, and grasses.

The Shoreline of Tasmania and Victoria about 14,000 years ago as Sea Levels were rising showing some of the human archaeological sites

The changes to the fauna were even more dramatic: the megafauna, species significantly larger than humans, disappeared, and many of the smaller species were wiped out too. All told, about 60 different vertebrates became extinct, including the Diprotodon family (very large marsupial herbivores that looked rather like hippos), several large flightless birds, carnivorous kangaroos, a five metre lizard and Meiolania, a tortoise the size of a small car.

The direct cause of the mass extinctions is uncertain: it may have been fire, hunting, climate change or a combination of all or any of these factors. (The once popular climate change explanation is no longer favoured. See Genyornis.) With no large herbivores to keep the understorey vegetation down and rapidly recycle soil nutrients with their dung, fuel build-up became more rapid and fires burned hotter, further changing the landscape.

The period from 18,000 to 15,000 years ago saw increased aridity of the continent with lower temperatures and less rainfall than currently prevails. At the end of the Pleistocene, roughly 13,000 years ago, the Torres Strait connection, the Bassian Plain between modern-day Victoria and Tasmania, and the link from Kangaroo Island began disappearing under the rising sea.

From that time on, the Tasmanian Aborigines were geographically isolated. By 9,000 years ago populations on small islands in Bass Strait, as well as Kangaroo Island, had failed to survive.

Linguistic and genetic evidence shows that there has been long-term contact between Australians in the far north and the Austronesian people of modern-day New Guinea and the islands, but that this appears to have been mostly trade with a little intermarriage, as opposed to direct colonisation. Macassan praus are also recorded in the Aboriginal stories from Broome to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and there were some semi-permanent settlements established, and cases of Aboriginal settlers finding a home in Indonesia.

Culture and technology

The last 5000 years were characterised by a general amelioration of the climate and an increase in temperature and rainfall and the development of a sophisticated tribal social structure. The main items of trade were songs and dances, along with flint, precious stones, shells, seeds, spears, food items, etc.

The Pama-Nyungan language phylum which extends from Cape York to the south west covered all of Australia except for the south east and Arnhem Land. There was also a marked continuity of religious ideas and stories throughout the country, with some songlines crossing from one side of the continent to the other.

The initiation of young boys and girls into adult knowledge was marked by ceremony and feasting. Behaviour was governed by strict rules regarding responsibilities to and from uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters as well as in-laws. The kinship systems observed by many communities included a division into moieties, with restrictions on intermarrying dictated by the moiety an individual belonged to.

Describing prehistoric Aboriginal culture and society during her 1999 Boyer Lecture, Australian historian and anthropologist Inga Clendinnen explained:

"They [...] developed steepling thought-structures - intellectual edifices so comprehensive that every creature and plant had its place within it. They travelled light, but they were walking atlases, and walking encyclopedias of natural history. [...] Detailed observations of nature were elevated into drama by the development of multiple and multi-level narratives: narratives which made the intricate relationships between these observed phenomena memorable.
These dramatic narratives identified the recurrent and therefore the timeless and the significant within the fleeting and the idiosyncratic. They were also very human, charged with moral significance but with pathos, and with humour, too - after all, the Dreamtime creatures were not austere divinities, but fallible beings who happened to make the world and everything in it while going about their creaturely business. Traditional Aboriginal culture effortlessly fuses areas of understanding which Europeans 'naturally' keep separate: ecology, cosmology, theology, social morality, art, comedy, tragedy - the observed and the richly imagined fused into a seamless whole."[11]

Political power rested with community elders rather than hereditary chiefs and disputes were settled communally in accordance with an elaborate system of tribal law. Vendettas and feuds were not uncommon. This has generally been attributed to the multiple alliances that bound people together through marriage or blood, and shared belief systems about descent from common culture heroes.

Cremation of the dead was practised by 25,000 years ago, possibly before anywhere else on Earth, and early artwork in Koonalda Cave, Nullarbor Plain, has been dated back to 20,000 years ago.[12]

It has been estimated that in 1788 there were approximately half a million Australian Aboriginal people, although other estimates have put the figure as high as a million or more. These populations formed hundreds of distinct cultural and language groups. Most were hunter-gatherers with rich oral histories and advanced land-management practices (a possible period of ecological destruction of the initial colonisation phase was thousands of years past).

In the most fertile and populous areas, they lived in semi-permanent settlements. In the fertile Murray Basin, the gathering and hunting economies to be found elsewhere on the continent had in large part given way to fish farming. Sturt's expedition along the Murray led to a belief that the Aboriginal groups there were practicing agriculture as a result of the presence of large hay-stacks, used as permanent grain stores.[13]

Little interest was shown by white settlers in the bulk of the Aboriginal people, and so little is known of their cultures and languages. Diseases decimated some indigenous populations just prior to the period where most Aborigines came into direct contact with Europeans. When Cook first claimed New South Wales for Britain in 1770, the native population may have consisted of as many as 500 language groups speaking several hundred distinct Australian Aboriginal languages, dialects and sub-dialects.

Contact outside Australia

The people living along the northern coastline -the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York - have had encounters with various visitors for many thousands of years. People and traded goods moved freely between Australia and New Guinea up to and even after the eventual flooding of the land bridge by rising sea levels, which was completed about 6000 years ago.

However, trade and intercourse between the now-separated lands continued across the newly-formed Torres Strait, whose 150 km-wide channel remained readily navigable with the chain of Torres Strait Islands and reefs affording intermediary stopping points. The islands were settled by different seafaring Melanesian cultures such as the Torres Strait Islanders over 2500 years ago, and cultural interactions continued via this route with the Aboriginal people of northeast Australia.

Indonesian "Bajini" fishermen from the Spice Islands (e.g. Banda) have fished off the coast of Australia for hundreds of years. Macassan traders from Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) regularly visited the coast of northern Australia to fish for trepang (an edible sea cucumber) to trade with the Chinese since at least the early 1700s (see the main article Macassan contact with Australia).

There was a high degree of cultural exchange, evidenced in Aboriginal rock and bark paintings, the introduction of technologies such as dug-out canoes and items such as tobacco and tobacco pipes, Macassan words in Aboriginal languages (eg. Balanda for white person), and descendants of Malay people in Australian Aboriginal communities and vice versa, as a result of intermarriage and migration.

See also


  1. ^ "Australia colonized earlier than previously thought?"., Paola Arosio & Diego Meozzi. 24 July 2003. Retrieved 2007-11-02.   - reporting on news in The West Australian (19 July 2003)
  2. ^ Hiscock, Peter. (2008). Archaeology of Ancient Australia. Routledge: London. ISBN 0-415-33811-5
  3. ^ Lourandos, pp84-87
  4. ^ Wade, Nicholas (8 May 2007). "From DNA Analysis, Clues to a Single Australian Migration". The New York Times.  
  5. ^ Lourandos, pp87-88
  6. ^ Lourandos, p88
  7. ^ a b Lourandos, p80
  8. ^ Lourandos, p81
  9. ^ Windschuttle, Keith; Gillin, Tim (June 2002). "The extinction of the Australian pygmies". Keith Windschuttle (The Sydney Line). Retrieved 2007-11-02.  
  10. ^ Alan J. Redd; June Roberts-Thomson, Tatiana Karafet, Michael Bamshad, Lynn B. Jorde,J.M. Naidu, Bruce Walsh, Michael F. Hammer (16 April 2002). "Gene Flow from the Indian Subcontinent to Australia: Evidence from the Y Chromosome" (pdf). Current Biology (Orlando, Florida, USA: Elsevier Science) 12: 673–677. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(02)00789-3. Retrieved 2007-11-02.  
  11. ^ Inga Clendinnen, Boyer Lectures, "Inside the Contact Zone: Part 1", December 5, 1999
  12. ^ BLAINEY, Geoffrey, Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia, 1976, ISBN 0-87951-084-6, p.84
  13. ^ Flood, Josephine (1984), "Archaeology of the Dreamtime" (Uni of Hawaii Press)


  • Lourandos, H., Continent of Hunter-Gatherers: New Perspectives in Australian Prehistory (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • Isaacs, Jennifer (ed.), Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History (New Holland Publishers, 2005, pp. 304, ISBN 1741102588)
  • Blainey, Geoffrey, Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia (The Overlook Press, 1976, pp. 285, ISBN 0-87951-084-6)


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