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We recently returned from a brief holiday in Darwin (follow this link).  Interesting questions raised at the Darwin Museum and by the Warradjan Cultural Centre at Kakadu are where the Aboriginal people came from; how they got to Australia; and when. 

Recent anthropology and archaeology seem to present contradictions and it seems to me that all these questions are controversial.

As I have mentioned in several other articles on this website, during the period of repeated glaciations called the Pleistocene (from around 2.5 million to about 12 thousand years ago) sea levels varied over a wide range.  This was caused by the northern ice sheet repeatedly re-forming and melting; due to perturbations in the Earth's spin and orbit.

During the last period of low sea level, present day mainland Australia; New Guinea and Tasmania formed a single land mass, known to geographers and anthropologists as Sahul (Australasia), with a much extended coastline; just as Java; Sumatra; and Borneo; formed part of the Malay peninsular; incorporating the present gulf of Thailand; the Philippians and Indonesia; known as Sunda (Asia). 

The ocean barrier that still separated these land masses accounts for the unique Australasian flora and fauna.   This distinct change in biology is know as the Wallace Line. It was first identified by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's contemporary and the co-author of the theory of natural selection. The line provided strong supporting evidence for their joint paper to the Royal Society.  At its narrowest, during the last glacial maximum, the ocean barrier was around 30km.  As the sea rose Tasmania was cut off from the mainland; Australia was separated from New Guinea; and Indonesia and the Philippines became archipelagos.



Landmasses during the late 
Landmasses during the late Pleistocene
From Wikipedia:   Early Human Migration Sea Level change 



Homo Sapiens Sapiens (modern man) was preceded in the region by Homo erectus.  But he has been thought incapable of boat or raft construction and therefore of a sea navigation over, perhaps, swimming distance.  So Sahul is thought to have been initially populated by modern humans; capable of deliberately or accidently crossing the reduced ocean barrier by boat or raft. 



Early Humans

At present there are two anthropological theories about the spread of modern man (homo sapiens sapiens). 

Broadly they propose:
  • that all modern humans are descended from a common ancestor in Africa; and everyone outside of Africa is descended from a group that left Africa during a glacial period when the sea was lower and land more extensive;  or
  • prior to the evolution of modern man there were earlier hominins, like Neanderthals, who had left Africa, via the Levant, about 1.8 million years ago and that these independently evolved into the various races of modern humans we see today.

This latter theory has been largely disproven by DNA analysis; discussed below.  But there is now good and growing DNA based evidence that we modern humans bred with the earlier wave of hominins; when they were encountered in our spread across the globe.

The best known of these earlier hominins are the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) that became extinct just 30 thousand years ago. 


A representation of a Neanderthal woman - in the Natural History Museum London


Neanderthal burial goods and cave art reveal that they too were predisposed to some form of metaphysical belief system.  This probably varied in its details from region to region.  They may also have built shelters using animal hides; suggesting that they could also trap game; and possibly build boats.  They had larger brains than modern humans and it has long been suspected that they had language; but was it grammatical? 

The sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 found their DNA in the ancestors of all non-African humans (note alternative spelling): 

Neandertals, the closest evolutionary relatives of present-day humans, lived in large parts of Europe and western Asia before disappearing 30 thousand years ago.
We present a draft sequence of the Neandertal genome composed of more than 4 billion nucleotides from three individuals. Comparisons of the Neandertal genome to the genomes of five present-day humans from different parts of the world identify a number of genomic regions that may have been affected by positive selection in ancestral modern humans, including genes involved in metabolism and in cognitive and skeletal development.
We show that Neandertals shared more genetic variants with present-day humans in Eurasia than with present-day humans in sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting that gene flow from Neandertals into the ancestors of non-Africans occurred before the divergence of Eurasian groups from each other.

 A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome - 56 authors in  Science  7 May 2010


This was probably due to a Neanderthal male, or a part Neanderthal male, mating with our common ancestral mother; as there is no Neanderthal component in human mtDNA (that only follows the female line - see below).


ive evolved


The presence of shared Neanderthal DNA in all non-Africans lends support to the theory that our common ancestor left Africa between 64 to 75 thousand years ago when climatic conditions were favourable; probably first populating the modern Middle East and Mesopotamia. 

In addition to Neanderthal, several other ancient hominins are thought to have left Africa in the past two million years; during the Pleistocene.

A related archaic Neanderthal-like population known as the Denisovans has been identified from  DNA recovered from a finger bone found in a Siberian cave; dated to between 30 and 50 thousand years ago.

The discovery of Denisovan DNA in Asian populations, in addition to Neanderthal inheritance, suggests that the Denisovan's range once extended to Southeast Asia and perhaps Oceania.

In addition to ancient Neanderthal and Denisovan populations, the remains of another advanced fire using and tool making hominin (Homo erectus soloensis), with dates between 550 and 143 thousand years ago, has been found around the Solo river in Java. 

A possible relative: Homo Floresiensis has been found on the nearby island of Flores; living from over 95 to 13 thousand years ago.




Regular crossings

 It is obvious that present day Australian Aborigines are the descendants of the people who first populated parts of Asia; in particular from the lands that incorporate the islands of present day Indonesia.  But when were the first crossings made; and do they and the people who now occupy SE Asia have ancestors in common?

Regular crossings happen, even at present sea levels.  For example in the Darwin museum is a 6m long dug-out canoe that in 1964 accidently sailed over 300 km from Selaru, in Indonesia, to Australia with 2 women 4 men and 4 children on board. 

Such a single fishing family would be quite capable of surviving and multiplying to eventually populate the continent.  But they are probably just one of many thousands of such accidental crossings in the last dozen or so millennia.


A dug-out canoe
A 6m long dug-out canoe from Selaru in Indonesia (2 outriggers not attached) - Darwin Museum


The Darwin Museum has a collection of boats intercepted coming to Northern Australia in just 25 years.  Boats like the ones pictured are very difficult to detect.  How many actually arrived in that time?

Archaeological evidence is mounting for quite frequent commerce and even human migration between northern Australia; Indonesia and New Guinea; most recently Melanesian and European.  Ancient ceramic and metal traded objects are found with increasing regularity.  Artefacts have even been found that originated in Africa.

Even if the necessary seafaring technology had never been developed or was forgotten in parts of Australia, this was not the case in the Torres Straight or Cape York, where inter-island navigation extended for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles. 

And as a plaque in Darwin records, in 1952 the artist Ian Fairweather demonstrated that even the simplest of rafts is adequate to travel between Australia and Indonesia.


A dug-out canoe
The Darwin Museum has a collection of 13 boats intercepted coming to Australia




Aboriginal Technology

When Europeans arrived in Sydney local people made canoes, for fishing on the Harbour, from bark (read more); and this was believed to be the pinnacle of indigenous seafaring technology; but was this just the best 'fit for purpose'?  

Bark canoes took only a day or two to make and lasted around four years.


Aboriginal bark canoe


There are many early records, including some photographs, of Aboriginal Australians making dug-out canoes and using outriggers to stabilise more simply worked logs. But it is obvious that wooden canoes are much more time consuming to construct than bark ones and don't last more than a few decades in any case. 

There is some excellent photographic and supporting documentation of men cutting a wooden shield out of a living tree using stone tools (Dick, T. (1915) 'The Origin of the Heliman or Shield of the New South Wales Coastal Aborigines', J. Roy. Soc. NSW. 49, pp. 282-288). 


Photographs taken by Thomas Dick on the NSW coast circa 1914 - Australian Museum


These shields are substantial and were widely used in intertribal battles for defence against clubs (or nulla nulla as we called them at school - a local Sydney name) and spears.  Many shields and clubs are indicative of sophisticated wood-working skills.  They could also be used for defence against ritual punishment by spearing.  In an early observation of this cultural practice in South Australia the offender was allowed a shield to attempt to protect himself against the spears of his accusers.


Aboriginal Clubs and Shield
Aboriginal shield with cuts and a range of clubs - Australian Museum Sydney



When knowledge is handed on verbally, from father to son and mother to daughter, there is obviously a risk that it will be lost or distorted.  But practical techniques are self-correcting.  If the information is wrong the technique fails and needs to be corrected. 

When I was a child in Sydney we mimicked numerous Aboriginal technologies that somehow got handed down as playground knowledge along with other playground lore like: the rules of marbles; or the various varieties of cicadas and how to make them leave their holes prematurely; caring for silkworms; and various rhymes and taunts. 

We made shelters (cubby houses), but not canoes, using sheets of bark; bullroarers (a 'musical' or signalling instrument); and returning boomerangs from the wooden cases fruit was then shipped in. The wood from these cases could also be used for starting fires, boy scout style; but matches are more convenient. 

We also made woomeras, for throwing spears, out of wood and fencing wire but we found that a length of cord with a knot in the end is almost as good.  


School boy spear-thrower


Using this simple device we could confidently throw a spear about 50 feet (15m), to stick it's steel point, made from a sharpened 4" (100 mm) nail, well into a tree with some accuracy.  Possibly this cord was also an Aboriginal tool; but one that would be unlikely to survive; be noted; or even recognised; by a museum.  Some adults were certainly oblivious as to its purpose, when emptied from a grubby pocket. 

Our boyhood efforts with burning arrows are noted in a comment by a friend elsewhere on this website.  A properly weighted (nail pointed) arrow, even shot from a home-made bow, has a much longer range and better accuracy than a spear.  But it has lower mass and therefore less penetrating power, unless very fast, like a modern archery arrow; a crossbow bolt; or a bullet.

There are close genetic, linguistic and cultural similarities between Aboriginal Australians and New Guinea Highlanders.  For example 'Bilums' and other carriers woven by women in Papua New Guinea are very similar to carriers for collecting food made by indigenous Australian women.


Aboriginal baskets and string bags in the Australian Museum, Sydney


But somehow archery did not spread to Aboriginal Australia or was forgotten.  Archery is more or less ubiquitous elsewhere in the world; widespread from about 12 thousand years ago.  Australia had, possibly, the only substantial population that did not use or develop this technology. 

Bows and arrows are very widely used in Papua New Guinea for hunting and, until quite recently, in battle.  Highland tribes were once very warlike.  As recently as 1986 then Prime Minister Paias Wingti, himself a highlander, said that the re-emergence of large-scale tribal fighting in the Highlands was:  '...nothing much.  They use only bows and arrows, no firearms... All these traditions are dying down. They will fade away maybe in 10 to 15 years time.'  Nowadays mock battles may be staged for the Queen or other high status tourists; and they no longer eat the enemy champions thus killed. 

Upon passing into manhood highlanders are presented with their first bow and arrows and they are thereafter carried ceremonially as a symbol of manhood; as was a sword in western and some eastern cultures.  

In PNG the arrows are unfletched and usually longer than modern archery arrows.  The arrow shafts are bamboo to which a denser sharpened hardwood arrowhead is joined by a woven socket.   Ceremonial arrow heads are often elaborately carved and painted.  As in most cultures a man's status is closely related to the value of his ceremonial dress.  Rare feathers and fine weapons are particularly valuable and high status objects.  


PNG Bows and Arrows
Papua New Guinea Warriors with Bows and Arrows  Source: Bundi Fitz-Patrick & Kimbuna 1983


In 1983 I bought a bow and half a dozen arrows from a tribesman in Madang.  The bow is of springy, probably heat treated, hardwood and is not any better finished than some of our childhood ones but some, more valuable, are beautifully finished. The bow string was missing and I guessed that this was the most valuable component.   I substituted a fine stainless steel braided cable, purchased from a local ship chandler, and held an archery competition with some of the local boys.  They needed a lot of practice just to hit a cardboard box.  The arrows are relatively heavy and not nearly as fast as a modern archery arrow, giving them an effective range of less than fifty metres.

Possibly the technology was developed in, or introduced into, PNG after separation, around 8 thousand years ago, or possibly it was unsuitable for killing the larger game on the mainland where spears and woomeras were in effective use for the same purposes (ceremonial, hunting and fighting).  As in PNG elaborately carved and decorated spear heads were used ceremonially.  

Perhaps at some time there was a cultural prohibition against killing at a greater distance.  In the time of the Greek heroes a bow and arrow was judged to be a coward's weapon when compared to a sword; particularly as the arrow tip can be poisoned; like the arrows of Paris. 

But the absence of bows and arrows, that are ideally suited for hunting small game and birds, as well as engaging an enemy at a distance, does suggest a long period of effective cultural separation.




DNA evidence

DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is the very long molecule that forms chromosomes and encodes the genes used by all living organisms to reproduce and function.  DNA encodes the instructions for creating each cellular colony, defining each species, and each individual within a species.  DNA changes over time in such away that each  change is a development on previous generations.  So it is possible to trace DNA ancestry back through generations of a particular species over time.   DNA studies are increasingly shedding light on the questions around human origins. 

Most animals, including humans, carry two types of DNA.  Our main genome is carried by the chromosomes in the nucleus of each of our cells.  This comes from both our parents. 

The secondary genome, mtDNA, is carried by bacteria-like organelles within each of our cells, that convert sugars for cell energy, called mitochondria.  These are all cloned (reproduced by asexual division) from the mitochondria that were within the original egg cell provided by our mother.

So our mtDNA comes only from our mother; in turn from her mother; and so on and mtDNA allows us to map the female ancestral line. 

This original egg cell was fertilised by a sperm from our father (sperm do not contribute their mitochondria). Once fertilised, the egg cell then divided repeatedly, differentiating in accordance with the coding instructions in our DNA, into the many cells that form the cellular colony that became 'us'. 

Males are differentiated from females by a Y chromosome in place of one X.  So sons can only inherit this from their father (like their family name in our culture) and periodic changes in the DNA of the Y chromosome allow the (actual) male ancestral line to be traced back.  


Human ReproductionHuman Reproduction - Click here to enlarge


Because each cell has numerous mitochondria but only one nucleus, the DNA found in ancient animal remains (for example in teeth) is predominantly mtDNA.  If this is confusing, follow this link for a more comprehensive, nontechnical, introduction to genetics.

Many people, like me, have volunteered genetic material to assist in mapping human migration patterns.  Others wish to keep this information private and are protected, to a degree, by medical ethics and privacy laws.

An early study produced the following map. It is based on mtDNA and is therefore matrilinear.  Later studies including the male line (Y chromosome) and remaining DNA provide a slightly different, but similar, map involving multiple waves of settlement; as discussed later.



Human migrations and mitochondrial haplogroups

Map of human migrations based on mitochondrial DNA haplogroups - scale: thousands of years
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Today there are very few Aboriginal populations that do not also carry European DNA from the early settlers.  This can obscure evidence of the original indigenous ancestry and time-line.  The few individuals with 'pure Aboriginal' DNA are only found isolated communities in the Northern Territory or in human remains that predate European arrival. 

Although there are obviously many sources of aboriginal DNA, ranging from medical and forensic samples to a simple clipping from a hairdresser,  DNA studies in Australia have been hampered by "a legacy of distrust of biological research among aboriginal groups means that genetic studies are viewed suspiciously and samples are (ethically) hard to come by".  Increased indigenous travel and intermixing within Australia further obscures possible regional genetic differentiation.

In 2011 DNA from a 90 year old hair sample, originally collected by the British ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon, who was given the hair by a young Aboriginal man in the early 1920s while on a train journey from Sydney to Perth, was sequenced.  The research team, led by Eske Willerslev, a palaeogeneticist at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, obtained approval to sequence his genome from a Danish bioethics review board and also received the approval of a committee that represents Aboriginal people in the region where the man probably lived  (Nature 22 September 2011).

Like other populations outside Africa such as Europeans and Asians, this Australian Aboriginal man owed small chunks of his genome to Neanderthals; but his ancestors had also interbred with the Denisovans. Until this sequencing, Papua New Guineans were the only modern human population whose ancestors were known to have interbred with Denisovans.  His genome indicates that his ancestors started their journey from the home of the common ancestors, outside Africa, more than 60 thousand years ago.



 Spread and evolution of Denisovans

Spread and evolution of Denisovans (source: Wikipedia)


Using this genome; another Aboriginal from the Northern Territory; and others from the region representing 33 Asian and Oceanian populations; researchers led by Mark Stoneking at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, then calculated the portion of Denisovan ancestry found in the genomes of 243 people  (Reported in the American Journal of Human Genetics).

Denisovan ancestry was found in indigenous Australians; together with present-day New Guineans; and an indigenous tribe in the Philippines known as Mamanwa; while the residents of mainland Southeast Asia contained none.

Stoneking says that this pattern hints at at least two waves of human migration into Asia: an early trek that included the ancestors of contemporary Aboriginal Australians, New Guineans and some other Oceanians, followed by a second wave that gave rise to the present residents of mainland Asia.  As the ancestors of contemporary Europeans and most other Asians went their separate ways less than 40 thousand years ago, the Denisovans had probably vanished by the time the second wave of Asian migrants arrived.


A dug-out canoe
A more sophisticated Melanesian canoe - made from planks - used for interisland travel
Polynesians and Melanesians were/are able to navigate to islands hundreds of kilometres away


Alan Redd, a biological anthropologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, says that the peopling of Australia may have been more complicated than either paper suggests. Dingoes, for instance, were brought to the island continent by humans who arrived in the last 5 thousand years. "It's certainly possible that people were trickling in at different times," he says.

In a more recent study by a team led by Mark Stoneking at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology the entire genomes of 344 individuals, including aboriginal Australians from the Northern Territory, highlanders from Papua New Guinea, several populations from Southeast Asian and India and a handful of people from the United States and China were compared.  

This study revealed that Australians, New Guineans and the Mamanwa diverged around 36 thousand years ago.  It suggested that they all descended from an early southward migration out of Africa.

But it also found evidence of more recent genetic mixing, or gene flow, between the Indian and northern Australian populations taking place around 141 generations ago. Thus some aboriginal Australians can trace as much as 11% of their genomes to migrants who reached the Australia around 4 thousand years ago from India.

This gene flow could not have occurred during the initial wave of migration into Australia because it is absent from New Guinean and Mamanwa genomes, and it is too uniformly spread across the northern Aboriginal genomes to have come from European colonists. The study confirms earlier studies of mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome that hinted at recent gene flow between India and Australia.

The recent genetic mingling coincided with the arrival in Australia of microliths; small stone tools that formed the tips of weapons; and the first appearance in the fossil record of the dingo, which most closely resembles Indian dogs.

According to the article in Nature: Sheila van Holst Pellekaan, a geneticist at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and a co-author of the earlier genome-wide study, welcomes the latest research, but warns that the finding of Indian genetic material in people from the Northern Territory is “definitely not representative of Australia," because it only looked at people from the Northern Territories. She believes that the Aboriginals' vast genetic diversity suggests that multiple waves of migration could have occurred, but that new genes would not always have dispersed through the pre-existing peoples.

In summary then DNA based evidence suggests that:

  • Modern humans arrived in the landmass of Sunda in at least two separate waves. 
  • The first wave arrived in excess of 50 thousand years ago and interbred with earlier Neanderthal-like hominins known as Denisovans.
  • Some then continued south, crossing 30+ km of ocean, to become the first wave of modern humans to populate Australia. 
  • The second wave were people probably from around Mesopotamia who left there less than 40 thousand years ago; some north to populate Europe; and some south into SE Asia. 
  • They were technologically more advanced and entirely displaced the earlier group in SE Asia; but not in Australia; the highlands of New Guinea; or part of the Philippines.
  • Some people from a later wave, with ancestors in India, migrated to Australia about 4 thousand years ago and interbred with the earlier people; at least in the Northern Territory.
  • From about a thousand years ago Melanesians; Polynesians; and then Europeans arrived in Northern Australia and also introduced new genetic diversity and technology.




Archaeological Evidence

 Until recently anthropology was based on 'digs' in places where remnants of bone or artefacts were found.  In Australia these seemed to present contradictory evidence and raised as many questions as they did answers.

In contradiction to DNA based dating that suggests original arrival in the region around 40 thousand years ago, and repeated new arrivals since, archaeological dating of Aboriginal tools and art suggests that settlement may have happened as long as 90 thousand years before present. 

This timing is in dispute in academic circles.  Based on the above DNA evidence and archaeological finds in countries that must have been populated first,  90 thousand years seems to be far too early for modern humans to have arrived. 

The oldest human remains in Australia found at at Lake Mungo in NSW date to around 40 thousand years ago.  Initial mtDNA analysis found that this person was unrelated to present day Aboriginal people.  But this has been claimed to be scientifically faulty and is dismissed by many in the field.  Local people have since prevented any re-testing of the remains.   Aboriginal supported research at Lake Mungo has since found footprints and hominin manufactured artefacts that have been dated to as early as 78 thousand years ago. 

The dating of some objects could well be defective as radio-carbon dating of related organic deposits becomes less accurate after about 30 thousand years and other methods need to be used.  Some dating methods that rely on the age of surrounding material or the depth at which artefacts are found, may be problematic if they were buried either by humans or reburied by some natural disturbance; like a flood.

But a verified very early date would strongly suggest that the artefacts found are not associated with modern humans at all but with another advanced hominin, possibly Denisovan; Homo erectus soloensis or Homo Floresiensis.

These earlier hominins certainly had a much longer time; and more periods of low sea level to reach Australia; but could they build boats; or rafts; or accidently get swept into the sea as a family?  How did they get as far south as Java and Flores?




The oldest Culture on Earth

For me the most controversial claim made at the Warradjan Cultural Centre at Kakadu is that that Aboriginal culture is the oldest on earth.  That somehow this culture has been uniquely unchanging since the first arrival of modern humans. 

If indeed this is true, then it is the only place on Earth where human culture has failed to change significantly within centuries, let alone millennia.

Europeans and Asians have evolved dozens of different cultures in the past two thousand years.  Despite the Roman, Danish and Norman invasions the English culture is quite different to that of the Italians, the Danes or the French.  The Māori arrived in New Zealand  but within a few hundred years had evolved a culture that is distinctly different to that of their Polynesian forebears.  Africa had a rich pre-history of cultural evolution, not limited to the Nile valley, for example the Maasai aggressively expanded their culture, at the expense of others, and came to dominate what is today Kenya and northern Tanzania.

In Darwin I saw what seemed to be evidence of shared culture with New Guinea; Indonesia and Polynesia. 

I wondered if this was recent or does it go back for thousands of years.  In particular the Museum has a significant collection associated with the Makassans from Indonesia who sailed thousands of kilometres to collect and process sea cucumber (trepang) for the Chinese market. There is evidence of contact and trade as early as the mid 17th century.  Many words in use in Northern Australia come from these contacts and fishermen prized their superior canoes.

This is a six foot diameter globe in the Russian Museum in Moscow made between 1650 and 1655.


1654 Globe
1650-1655 World Globe


On this globe the west coast of Australia is quite accurately mapped from the middle of the Bight in the south, all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north.  This indicates that not only had Europeans visited but the coast had been surveyed; at least 120 years before Cook landed in Botany Bay.  For further information follow this link to Was Australia Charted Before 1606?

I also saw dates for the first arrival of modern humans that are at odds with my previous understanding.  There seems to be insistence on the earliest date possible and I'm at a loss as to why; as obviously people came from somewhere else.  It doesn't matter when Australia was populated; somewhere else was populated before.

It seems to me that people often report that the way that they do things is the way they have always been done, particularly if taught by their grandparents, but in cultures with written history this is easily disputed. 

Most of us have played Chinese whispers.  As indigenous culture is handed down verbally I doubt that central elements like 'dream time' stories or 'secret initiations' continue to be the same for more than a few generations.

Look at English folk tales of King Arthur and of Robin Hood - total nonsense within a few generations. But we can confirm they are nonsense because there was a parallel universe, in which literate people produced contemporary written records, for example the Annales Cambriae; the Doomsday Book; and the Magna Carta.

Over a longer timeframe climate; landforms and the location and type of plants and animals; are constantly changing. Even sacred sites are transformed over a few millennia. Rivers change path and dry-up or flood; trees thrust aside; water and wind erode; and cliff-sides collapse.


A few hundred years is all it takes
Trees move rocks - few hundred years is all it takes   (photo taken in Cambodia - see elswhere on this website)


It is more than likely that the way indigenous Australians lived when Europeans arrived was simply the latest accommodation to ever changing climate and available resources. Anthropologists are increasingly noting considerable differences across the continent.  For example some communities used sophisticated fish trapping and it seems probable that some form of agriculture was practiced in the Murray valley suggesting a semi-sedentary lifestyle; while in other areas gardening, as practiced in New Guinea, seems to have the norm. 

Animistic religion that attributes magical propertied to plants, animals places and natural phenomena (like lightening, the wind, rain, the sun and so on) is the 'default' human belief system, our natural inclination to believe in magic; as reflected in many children's fairytales.  Belief in an afterlife may be even older, pre-dating modern humans, as suggested by grave goods in Neanderthal burials.

Animistic beliefs are found universally in hunting; gathering and herding communities.  The associated stories vary widely from community to community but inevitable similarities can be found in human communities across the planet like: revering the sun, moon and selected stars;  revering totem animals, plants and sacred places and fearing others; or identifying the elements: earth; wind (air); fire; and water (rain); and honouring the spirits of the dead.  

Animism does not evolve into a belief in Gods, or a God, and the necessity of sacrifice in appeasement, until communities become organised; with specialisation and a structured hierarchy.  Animism was still practiced in parts of Europe until around two thousand years ago and is highly differentiated, encompassing thousands of beliefs; legends and myths. 

Thus Animism, in different forms, was practiced across Australia until the Christian Missionaries arrived.  Although there has been a recent effort by some, particularly in the tourism and welfare sectors, to suggest a pan-aboriginal (common) belief system before Christianity, this is not supported by historical data that documents a wide variety of legends, totems and attitudes towards the dead.

It is notable that while people living 'on country' may not be found, or respond to the Australian Census, 99% of Aboriginal Australians now report religious beliefs directly in line with other Australians: 25% not reporting a religion or reporting no religion; and the remainder mostly various Christian denominations. Less than 1% report traditional animist beliefs.



Aboriginal Languages

Relatively recently northern Australia was connected to New Guinea by land and had a similarly diverse range of languages.  But the sea rose, separating the land masses about eight thousand years ago.  The climate changed and Australia became less hospitable and less able to support the same hunting and gathering population.  This resulted in some language groups occupying larger areas and others dying out.  It is estimated that when the British arrived in 1788, Australia with an area ten times the size of New Guinea, had perhaps half as many distinct clans and languages.

Today only fifteen Aboriginal languages are in regular use; mostly in and around Darwin. These few are under such threat that there is an active programme of preservation; linking to programmes intended to retain traditional culture and lifestyle.  Other programmes are attempting, perhaps incompatibly, to educate children, introduce improved medical practice and nutrition and mitigate the clash of cultures that has introduced alcohol, drugs and welfare dependence. 

A living language is a dynamic thing not an ancient object to be preserved in a museum.  Words stand for concepts and without the correct words we can't grasp the concepts that they embody.  While any language can absorb words and concepts from others or evolve its own, we should not condemn anyone to using an ancient language that prevents them properly integrating into society, obscures meaning and understanding, or does other harms like maintaining erroneous views of the universe.   Languages should not be preserved just for the delight of a handful of academics to the detriment of the communities in which they are preserved.   We should simply record the past forms and usages for future study; absorb anything useful, like place names; then let them go.

English, for example, is changing all the time and is almost unrecognisable after less than a thousand years.  Hundreds of European languages have disappeared over the same time to be replaced by standardised French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian; plus a few more.




Australian Megafauna

A second academic controversy surrounds the fate of the Australian megafauna.

Across the planet in Europe, Asia and the Americas the arrival of modern humans coincides with species extinction.  In Australia megafauna disappeared between  40 thousand and 50 thousand years ago.  In the Americas this coincides with the arrival of modern man about 13 thousand years ago. The hairy mammoth died out about 4 thousand years ago after long and well documented human predation extending over thousands of years.  That the extinction of the megafauna in New Zealand was due to human predation is incontrovertible.  There is recent evidence that giant Moa were driven to extinction within 150 years of  Māori settlement less than 1 thousand years ago. When we were in Malta we saw evidence of the Pygmy Elephants that died out in various Mediterranean sites soon after human settlement.

There is still academic debate about the role that humans played in these extinctions in Australia, because, amongst other things, if the longest timeline is correct, humans must have coexisted with these animals for tens of thousands of years before they became extinct.


Diprotodon - Extinct 25,000 years ago

Marsupial lion - Extinct 30,000 years ago

Diprotodon jaw and teeth

Reasons for extinctions are still in dispute

Exhibits in the Australian Museum, Sydney


More recently the arrival of dogs in Australia clearly coincides with new extinctions. In particular the previous top predator the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) finally became extinct in mainland Australia around the time of the Roman conquests, probably due to the arrival of the dingo.  Its image can still be seen in rock art near Darwin indicating that some of this art is at least two thousand years old. 


Rock Art Thylacine
Rock Art Thylacine


The Thylacine became extinct in Tasmania in the 20th century; after dogs (and a head bounty) were introduced by Europeans in the 18th century. 

The human introduction of rabbits and cats has done untold damage to other species; and another wave of native wildlife extinctions, and threatened extinctions, is now being suffered due to the introduction of the Cane Toad to Queensland in 1935.


Update - see also 2017 updade (appended below):


Recent discoveries have further confirmed human mega-fauna interactions.

A paper recently published in Nature by Hamm, G., Mitchell, P., Arnold, L. et al. Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia (Nature 539, 280–283, 2016).

The Abstract stated, in part:

"Elucidating the material culture of early people in arid Australia and the nature of their environmental interactions is essential for understanding the adaptability of populations and the potential causes of megafaunal extinctions 50–40 thousand years ago."

"Here we present evidence from Warratyi rock shelter in the southern interior that shows that humans occupied arid Australia by around 49 thousand years ago. The site preserves the only reliably dated, stratified evidence of extinct Australian megafauna including the giant marsupial Diprotodon optatum, alongside artefacts more than 46 thousand years ago old. We also report on the earliest-known use of ochre in Australia and Southeast Asia (at or before 49–46 thousand years ago), gypsum pigment (40–33 thousand years ago), bone tools (40–38 thousand years ago), hafted tools (38–35 thousand years ago), and backed artefacts (30–24 thousand years ago). Thus, our evidence shows that people not only settled in the arid interior within a few millennia of entering the continent, but also developed key technologies much earlier than previously recorded for Australia and Southeast Asia."



Are the facts important?

As I said in the introduction to my essay on this website The Meaning of Life:

What is this identity you call 'Me'? What is culture and what is knowledge? What is truth? What is goodness? What is success in life? Why are we here? Are there any rules? How do our culture, upbringing and nature work to make us what we are? Can we talk about the 'meaning of life' at all, or simply about 'the presence of life'?
Others have told us most of what we think we know. How can we trust them? Why do we believe what other people around us believe? We tend to believe trusted messengers and to be suspicious of untrusted ones irrespective of the message. How do messengers gain our trust?
Ideas and speculations are fundamental to what it is to be human, unique among the animals of this planet and probably in this universe...


As I am defined by what I know and believe, if I believe things that are fanciful, and demonstrably wrong, I am diminished to that degree. 

A scientific paradigm can be likened to a jigsaw puzzle; all the pieces must fit together to form a coherent picture.   Finding a verified fact, that does not fit, requires a paradigm change: we must undo the whole thing and start again.   So it is important that facts are properly verified: they do not stand alone but as a part of our currently validated 'world view'.   Thus discovering that there really are angels or fairies or that Astrology is valid would require some pretty drastic revisions to the presently verified scientific paradigm.

It seems to me that it is self-evident that poor information and faulty knowledge leads to a faulty 'world view' and poor decisions.

Illiteracy; ignorance; and bad ideas not only diminish us as individuals; they lead us to do things that are misjudged; and often harmful to others. 

The conditions that some Aboriginal babies are condemned to grow up under are shameful to all Australians.  Very poor decisions in the past have contributed to this terrible situation. 

I have travelled widely and have observed everywhere that living cultures evolve as knowledge grows; events unfold; and conditions change. 

Might not proclaiming of Aboriginal culture, as it might have been at the time of European settlement, to be in some way sacrosanct, prevent people from moving forward?   Should not a contemporary Aboriginal culture embrace the Internet; tertiary education; individual responsibility; and a work ethic; rather than the values of a hunting and gathering society?

Just today there is a new report of the violence that is said to be endemic within some contemporary Aboriginal communities.  Children born into these communities typically face a significantly shorter life than other Australians. Many will experience lifelong welfare dependence, marked by: illness; drug and alcohol addiction; rape and petty crime; illiteracy and ignorance.  Some will go on to abuse their own children.  

I have no Aboriginal experience or direct empirical knowledge of these matters, except the little I have seen for myself in country towns; or in Redfern; over the past six decades; or been told.  In addition to going to school in Australia with descendants of the first Australians, I have explored the anthropological exhibits of many museums; read scientific papers and books (there are half a dozen on anthropology on my shelves); seen numerous television documentaries; as well as seeing movies ranging from Jedda to Rabbit Proof Fence.  I have also known and worked with and met Aboriginal people, most recently in Darwin; and listened to commentators and the media.  But I am a concerned observer. 

Taking note of diverse commentators on Aboriginal origins, culture and 'the way forward' I notice glaring contradictions between the different sources and voices. Clearly something is wrong.

And that does matter.


 As always, I welcome informed comment or criticism - Comments will be recorded below



2017 Addendum

Anthropology is a rapidly developing area of knowledge, largely thanks to advances in DNA analysis and genetic research. 

Back in 2011 the first Aboriginal genome was sequenced from a 90-year-old tuft of hair (Nature: 22 September 2011).

An analysis of his genome indicates that his ancestors started their journey more than 60,000 years ago, branching off from humans who left Africa. The ancestors of contemporary Europeans and most other Asians probably went their separate ways less than 40,000 years ago, according to Willerslev's team.

Ancient relations

Like other populations outside Africa, the Australian Aboriginal man owes small chunks of his genome to Neanderthals. More surprisingly, though, his ancestors also interbred with another archaic human population known as the Denisovans. This group was identified from 30,000–50,000-year-old DNA recovered from a finger bone found in a Siberian cave. Until now, Papua New Guineans were the only modern human population whose ancestors were known to have interbred with Denisovans.

A second study incorporating genomic surveys from different Aboriginal Australians paints an even clearer picture of their ancestors' exploits with the Denisovans. Researchers led by Mark Stoneking at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, calculated the portion of Denisovan ancestry found in the genomes of 243 people representing 33 Asian and Oceanian populations. Patterns of Denisovan interbreeding in human populations could reveal human migration routes through Asia, reasoned the team. The paper is published today in the American Journal of Human Genetics


Last year a team headed by: Malaspinas, AS.; Westaway, M.; Muller, C.; et al. published A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia. (Nature 538, 207–214, 2016).

They generated high-coverage genomes for 83 Aboriginal Australians (speakers of Pama–Nyungan languages) and 25 Papuans from the New Guinea Highlands.
They found that Papuan and Aboriginal Australian ancestors diversified 25–40 thousand years ago, suggesting pre-Holocene population structure in the ancient continent of Sahul (Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania).

Yet all of the studied Aboriginal Australians descend from a single founding population that differentiated ~10–32 thousand years ago. with limited gene flow from this region to the rest of Australia, during the Holocene epoch (past 10,000 years) they inferred a population expansion in northeast Australia consistent with the spread of the Pama–Nyungan languages.

They estimated that Aboriginal Australians and Papuans diverged from Eurasians 51–72 thousand years ago, following a single out-of-Africa dispersal, and subsequently admixed with archaic populations.

Finally, they found evidence of selection in Aboriginal Australians potentially associated with living in the desert.

Queensland's Griffith University’s Research Centre of Human Evolution (RCHE) was a major contributor to this multinational study. RCHE Professor David Lambert, one of the many contributing authors, added in Griffith News (20 September 2016) that: the differentiation of the ancestral Australian population ~31,000 years ago into subgroups was likely due to the formation of the central desert acting as a barrier to subsequent migrations.
He added that the unique morphological and physiological adaptations, identified in Aboriginal Australians living in the desert areas today, may have developed as specific biological means of coping with those highly challenging environments.

“In particular, the evidence suggests that desert groups are able to withstand sub-zero night temperatures without showing the increase in metabolic rates observed in Europeans under the same conditions,” Professor Lambert said.

This week the older practice of digging up artefacts, together with improved dating techniques, also made a seminal contribution.   A team headed by Dr Chris Clarkson, from the University of Queensland, published their findings from a dig at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in the Northern Territory in a peer reviewed article in Nature (547, 306–310, 20 July 2017). 

The Abstract points out that: "The time of arrival of people in Australia is an unresolved question. It is relevant to debates about when modern humans first dispersed out of Africa and when their descendants incorporated genetic material from Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly other hominins. Humans have also been implicated in the extinction of Australia’s megafauna."

The paper reports a large number of human manufactured artefacts including: grinding stones, ground ochres, ground-edge hatchet heads and the world's oldest-known use of reflective minerals, were found deeply buried, surrounded by contemporary sediments that have been independently (both at the University of Wollongong and the University of Adelaide) radiocarbon and optically dated (luminescence dating -revealing when grains of sand were last exposed to sunlight) at 65,000 (+/- 5,000) years old.  This pushes back previous evidence for human habitation by around 15,000 years.

Figure 1: Site location and stratigraphy, showing the location of Madjedbebe, makes reference to the lower sea levels at the time (65 ka). Compare this to the similar map of Sahul above.

 nature22968 f1


The Abstract concludes: "This evidence sets a new minimum age for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans."

Commentary by local academics on this paper has drawn attention to the controversy. 

Professor Peter Hiscock of the University of Sydney, one of the archaeologists previously sceptical about the dates, reportedly told the ABC: "the new study had convinced him it was the oldest site in Australia"; although he thought the date of 65,000 years was "optimistic".

Professor Hiscock is reported as saying that the significance of this "great discovery" is: "what it tells us about Australia's first people and their journey out of Africa."

"The artefacts in this site are unambiguously the evidence for the time at which Homo sapiens reach Australia," Professor Hiscock is reported as saying.  "The artefacts indicated the first Australians were able to quickly adapt to their new environment."

"What we are seeing is that from the moment people are arriving in Australia they are exploiting the landscape, they are creating artwork in their shelters, and they are inventing new kinds of technologies, such as ground-edge axes, which are older than anywhere else in the world."

"Probably that level of sophistication is the reason why they were able to move from Africa to Australia."

"What we don't know is when they left Africa," Professor Hiscock is reported as saying

The ABC also interviewed palaeoanthropologist Michael Westaway of Griffith University. He is reported as agreeing that the "foundational" study would make scientists take a fresh look at that (out of Africa) question.

"The latest genetic evidence indicates that humans moved out of Africa about 72,000 years ago - although there is archaeological evidence they may have been in the Near East 110,000 years ago," Dr Westaway is reported as saying.

"It means that within several thousand years, Homo sapiens were in Australia...  That's a very rapid expansion across the globe," Dr Westaway is reported as pointing out.

"Once they moved out of Africa, Homo sapiens bred with Neanderthals and Denisovans before moving into South-East Asia then into the supercontinent of Sahul - what is now New Guinea and Australia."

"The new dates also indicate modern humans lived in the same region as the ancient, now extinct, Homo floresiensis aka 'the hobbit', for at least 15,000 years," Dr Westaway is reported as commenting.

Alan Cooper at the University of Adelaide reportedly told New Scientist that he is perplexed by the discovery, given that nothing so ancient is found anywhere else in Australia. “We know these people were fast movers – they moved very quickly from Africa to Asia to Australia,” he told them. “So if they did arrive in northern Australia 65,000 years ago, why did they then just sit down and wait 15,000 years before spreading to the rest of the country?”

Adding to the mystery is the fact that it is unclear where the first Australians came from. The easiest route into Australia is via the chain of islands directly to the north, but there is little evidence that Homo sapiens was present on these islands much before 44,000 years ago, Sue O’Connor from the Australian National University is reported as telling New Scientist.

"This is an evolving picture, though. For instance, there is some evidence that H. sapiens reached a more northerly island of South-East Asia – Luzon in the Philippines - 67,000 years ago."

O’Connor is reported as being puzzled by the early humans’ wanderlust. "Sea levels were substantially lower 65,000 years ago, making it easier to move between Asia, Australia and the islands en route. But humans still had to cross open water stretching for 80 kilometres to make it to mainland Australia," she says. “There’s no obvious reason like climate shifts to explain the rapid movement.”

New Scientist comments that "the earlier arrival date for humans is in line with arguments that our species is responsible for the demise of some Australian megafauna. Creatures including giant versions of birds, echidnas and wombats, and tree-dwelling lions went extinct about 45,000 years ago."

Other scientists put these extinctions down to the global warming that led to sea level rise to present levels and the consequent climate changes to habitat, perhaps concurrent with human predation.

Meanwhile the geneticists have 'dug up' a whole new species of hominin, the 'Denisovans', without leaving the laboratory.  The species gets its name from the remote Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia.  Remains there resembled Neanderthal but were quickly discovered to be genetically quite different.  No more bodies have been found but the dirt-diggers are busy to be the first to unearth another skeleton.  In the meantime, as Denisovan remains and artefacts resembled Neanderthal we can assume that they had skills and culture similar to the Neanderthals, about whom we now know quite a bit.

Their (Neanderthal) bodies were shorter and stockier than ours, another adaptation to living in cold environments. But their brains were just as large as ours and often larger - proportional to their brawnier bodies.

Height: Males: average 5 ft 5 in (164 cm); Females: average 5 ft 1 in (155 cm)
Weight: Males: average 143 lbs (65 kg); Females: average 119 lbs (54 kg)

Neanderthals made and used a diverse set of sophisticated tools, controlled fire, lived in shelters, made and wore clothing, were skilled hunters of large animals and also ate plant foods, and occasionally made symbolic or ornamental objects.

There is evidence that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History


Denisovan genes have been found in dozens of locations due to cross species interbreeding with modern humans; particularly in New Guinea and elsewhere in SE Asia, just as Neanderthal genes are found in Europeans.  The genes are so geographically widespread that the Denisovan species is thought to have been skilled seafarers.  As genetic evidence in New Guinea and Australia suggests, they successfully crossed the 'Wallace Line' to Sahul (Australasia) sometime before New Guinea was separated.

New Scientist has published this speculation:

 Denisovan Odyssey

Thus if the latest find in the Northern Territory turned out to be Denisovan, and not modern H. sapiens at all, it would resolve a lot of mysteries around the age of the find and help to explain how Aboriginal Australians come to have 3 - 5% Denisovan ancestry.  In addition it would point to a high level of Denisovian technological sophistication, similar to Neanderthal and Modern Humans, and more evidence of their seafaring skills. To resolve these possibilities the diggers now need to find some 65,000 year-old bones.

As I commented in the original article, above, if the hominin manufactured artefacts found at Lake Mungo were indeed still in their original silt layer and were thus correctly dated to 78,000 years ago, then they too probably predated the arrival of our species.

"Curiouser and curiouser!" said Alice.

Meanwhile, during the past four years since I last wrote, the geneticists have been busy elsewhere in the World too.  

New Scientist has reported:

Fossils from Spain’s 'pit of bones' have yielded 430,000-year-old nuclear DNA that reveals Neanderthals in the making. As least 28 hominin skeletons have been recovered from a pit at the Sima de los Huesos site in the Atapuerca mountains of northern Spain. An analysis of DNA pulled from one skeleton suggests the tribe may be ancestral to both the Neanderthals and their east Eurasian contemporaries, the Denisovans.

The fossils resemble Neanderthals, which evolved some 100,000 years later. But their mitochondrial DNA is more similar to that of Denisovans, who also lived later and thousands of kilometres away, in southern Siberia. Other evidence is growing to suggest that the the split between modern humans and the Neanderthals and Denisovans occurred about 765,000 years ago.

There is increasing evidence that these early hominins had ritual and perhaps language. One body found in the 'pit of bones' is that of an individual who was killed by two blows to the head with either a spear or a stone axe, before being thrown into the pit, perhaps as part of an early funeral ritual.

“The only possible manner by which a deceased individual could have arrived at the site is if its cadaver were dropped down the shaft by other hominins,” says Nohemi Sala from Complutense University of Madrid: “Middle Pleistocene hominins were already engaging in funerary behaviour.”

It is now thought that a hominin, earlier than Neanderthals and Denisovans or modern humans, left Africa a million years earlier than modern humans and spread across the Eurasian continent. In Europe these proto-humans became known as Homo Heidelbergensis, as the first specimen was found in a sandpit near Heidelberg, but there seem to have been several subspecies, spread over a period of at least half a million years.  Early examples are distinguished by a very prominent brow-ridge large face and large jaw.  Their brains were considerably smaller than H. Neanderthalensis (or ours) but they were capable, co-operative hunters, used fire and manufactured sophisticated weapons, including wooden spears and intricately fashioned stone axes.

According to the Smithsonian:

This species may reach back to 1.3 million years ago, and include early humans from Spain (‘Homo antecessor’ fossils and archaeological evidence from 800,000 to 1.3 million years old), England (archaeological remains back to about 1 million years old), and Italy (from the site of Ceprano, possibly as old as 1 million years).

Comparison of Neanderthal and modern human DNA suggests that the two lineages diverged from a common ancestor, most likely Homo heidelbergensis, sometime between 350,000 and 400,000 years ago – with the European branch leading to H. neanderthalensis and the African branch (sometimes called Homo rhodesiensis) to H. sapiens

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History






# Kaustuv 2021-07-11 05:29
Thanks Richard for my first and only lesson in anthropology.
And in the ancient history of my adopted land.
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