FACT SHEETS

Mapping the journeys of Australia’s first people

31.10.18

A ‘treasure map’ of island locations has been developed to identify the stepping-stones Aboriginal people used to get to Australia.

The mapping work undertaken by CABAH Associate Investigator Shimona Kealy from The Australian National University (ANU) plots the potential routes taken tens of thousands of years ago by Australia’s first people.

“We’ve created a treasure map of sorts with the likely route across land and water that these incredible people took to reach Australia,” said PhD candidate Ms Kealy.

 

PhD scholar Shimona Kealy (left) and Professor Sue O'Connor. Image credit: ANU
Mapping history
The modelling tells us where to look for more clues
Brave and skilled
Aboriginal people used courage and innovation to travel
The islands of South East Indonesia. Image credit: Shimona Kealy

“Archaeologists have yet to explore most of Indonesia’s northern islands for human settlements predating the oldest sites found in Australia. These islands could hold the key to the mystery of how the first humans made it to Australia’s shores,” she said.

Island hopping

The research, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, considers how ancestors of Aboriginal people potentially journeyed through Indonesia’s northern islands, into New Guinea and then Australia.

“Archaeologists have yet to explore most of Indonesia’s northern islands for human settlements predating the oldest sites found in Australia. These islands could hold the key to the mystery of how the first humans made it to Australia’s shores,” she said.

Island hopping

The research, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, considers how ancestors of Aboriginal people potentially journeyed through Indonesia’s northern islands, into New Guinea and then Australia.

The modelling is based on conditions 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, when sea levels were up to 50 meters lower and the Australian mainland was joined to both New Guinea and Tasmania.

Ms Kealy said the oldest dates for human occupation on the Australian-New Guinea continent (known as Sahul) represented the earliest, indirect evidence for long-distance seafaring by humans anywhere in the world.

Most likely route into Australia from Lida Ajer in Southeast Asia was through Indonesia’s northern islands, into New Guinea and then onto Madjedbebe in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

“This study helps to tell the Australian story, particularly for Indigenous people, and acknowledges the bravery, innovation and maritime technologies and skills of these early modern humans,” Ms Kealy said.

The study modelled the least-cost path from Southeast Asia to Australia, by considering factors such as difficulty to travel up slopes, visibility at sea, access to fresh water along the many potential pathways and the sophistication of maritime technology at the time.

Skilled and courageous

CABAH researchers have previously highlighted the skilled maritime capabilities of the first Aboriginal people, evidenced by purposeful voyaging to the continent.

The islands directly north and west of Sahul (known as Wallacea) were never connected to the mainland, requiring multiple successful water crossings east from mainland Southeast Asia (Sunda).

“These people hopped their way along these islands, probably looking for a place to live where they would have access to reliable food staples and other resources – the visibility between islands would have been very favourable in terms of enabling this adventurous spirit,” Ms Kealy said.

Professor Sue O’Connor co-lead researcher and leader of the CABAH People research theme, said the proposed alternative route through Timor onto the northwest coast of Australia is now seen as less likely as a result of this study’s least-cost pathway modelling.

“The suggested route through Timor is also considered less likely given comprehensive archaeological evidence indicates the earliest human settlements in Timor are much younger than those found in Madjedbebe in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory,” she said.

 

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