Until a few decades ago, Australian universities often trained archaeology students to go on digs in the Middle East and elsewhere, but seldom equipped them for field-work in their own country.
The prevailing belief seems to have been that archaeological research in Australia was largely a waste of time. The continent, it was felt, hadn’t been occupied for very long.
Anyway, the early occupants hadn’t done very much of note. For example, it wasn’t until the middle of May 1994, that the general public learned of the existence of an enormous Koori burial ground at Lake Victoria.1
This graveyard, in the extreme south-west of New South Wales, is so extensive that its discovery may lead to a massively increased estimate of the Koori population of Australia at the time of European settlement.
It adds nothing, however, to our knowledge of when the first human inhabitants arrived in the Australian continent, how they came here, or who they were.
Unless some crucial information relating to the Lake Victoria site has not been released it cannot do so, for reasons that will become obvious. Yet these questions are important and should be addressed.
So, when did humans first occupy Australia? The answer keeps changing as new discoveries are made. Until 1960, the earliest human fossil found in Australia was the 9,000-year-old Talgai skull from south-east Queensland.
In 1962, John Mulvaney found human artifacts in Queensland’s Kenniff cave that were dated to 16,000 years ago. By 1972, the period of occupation had been doubled when a 32,000-year-old skeleton was found in the sands of Lake Mungo, in New South Wales.
For a concise review of the current orthodoxy, it is hard to go past N.G. Butlin’s elegant summary. 2
In 1989, Professor Butlin wrote that “Given their reliance on identifiable evidence, prehistorians have generally – but not always – been cautious in their statements about Aboriginal migration.
The few comments here do not do justice to differences of opinion between some individuals but very briefly indicate what appears to be a prevailing view.
It is agreed that: Aborigines arrived by sea; their ancestors passed out of SE Asia through the islands; and the ultimate immigrants arrived not less than 40,000 years ago.
Since New Guinea was joined physically to Australia for about 100,000 years before about 8,000 BP, the most common belief now seems to be a first arrival in New Guinea and then land passage to the present Australian mainland.”
But the dates keep being revised upwards. In 1989 a team of anthropologists from the Australian National University announced the discovery of a fragment of human bone near Lake Eyre that was dated (by its fluorine content) about 60,000 years BP. 3
Yet by this time there was already indirect evidence suggesting that humans were in Australia much earlier than that.
In 1986 Edmund Gill and Dr. John Sherwood announced that a hoard of apparently cooked shellfish remains found at the Hopkins River near Warrnambool was between 60,000 and 85,000 years old. 4
The late Dr. Gurdip Singh analysed pollen from Lake George near Canberra and concluded that a dramatic change of vegetation about 130,000 years ago suggested that humans had caused this damage by repeatedly setting fire to the bush. 5
Then in 1992, Dr. Peter Kershaw, an ecologist at Monash University, studied a core of sediment taken from what is now seabed near the Great Barrier Reef.
The area, which used to be above sea level, had been dominated by conifers such as hoop pines and bunya pines. About 150,000 years ago the conifers died out and were replaced by fire-tolerant eucalypts.
This was accompanied by a steep rise in charcoal sediment. After pondering every possible natural explanation for the change, Dr. Kershaw considers it most likely represents the appearance of fire management by the continent’s early human migrants.6
What is clear from all of this is that humans have been present in Australia for a very long time. 150,000 years ago is the earliest date seriously proposed at this stage for their arrival. Further discoveries might well push that date further back into the past.
To be continued……..