First People Migrate to Australia

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Dispersion of haplogroup to Australia
Some of the earliest evidence of modern humans outside of Africa and the Middle East is not in Asia or Europe but in Australia. The earliest evidence of modern humans in Australia comes from Madjedbebe, a sandstone rock shelter in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory of Australia. Artifacts there have been dated to be 50,000 to 65,000 years old. The oldest human skeletal remains are the 40,000-year-old Lake Mungo remains in New South Wales. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the Australian Museum: The earliest dates for human occupation of Australia come from sites in the Northern Territory. The Madjedbebe (previously called Malakunanja II) rock shelter in Arnhem Land has a widely accepted date of about 50,000 years old. Reports of a date close to around 65,000 years old (Nature, 2017), which was contentious at the time, have been rebutted by Allen & O'Connell in 2020. Molecular clock estimates, genetic studies and archaeological data all suggest the initial colonisation of Sahul and Australia by modern humans occurred around 48,000–50,000 years ago. [Source: Fran Dorey, Australian Museum, September 12, 2021]

Recently published dates of 120,000 years ago for the site of Moyjil in Warrnambool, Victoria, offer intriguing, but unlikely, possibilities of much earlier occupation (Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, 2018). The site contains remains of shellfish, crabs and fish in what may be a ‘midden’, but definitive proof of human occupation is lacking and investigations are ongoing.

Evidence of the Earliest Modern Humans in Australia

Gemma Tarlach wrote in Discover magazine: “A number of archaeological sites in the Land Down Under have been pushing the arrival date back — first 45,000 years ago, then 50,000...The evidence that the first people arrived in Australia at least by 45,000 years ago is strong. There is some pretty good evidence that they arrived 75,000 years ago or earlier. Some art work has been dated to this time. Even if we take the 50,000 year figure that means that people arrived in Australia more than 25,000 years before people arrived in the Americas and Lascaux caves were painted in France. [Source: Gemma Tarlach, Discover, July 19, 2017]

Some of the oldest known Aboriginal artifacts, dated between 43,000 and 47,000, are stone tools found at Cranebrook Terrace in Sydney. Many sites have been dated at 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. The tools found at these sites is less sophisticated than those used in Europe, consisting mainly of Neanderthal-style flaked stones and scrapers, There is little evidence the early Australians hunted large marsupial animals. It has been suggested that it likely they didn't develop more sophisticated tools because they didn't need them. There seems to have been plenty of food and there was no rival human species — like Neanderthals in Europe — to prod them to develop new technologies. Just reaching Australia — most likely with seaworthy rafts — is testimony to their skill and cleverness.

DNA research backs up the theory that early man arrived in Australia 65,000 years ago. Once there they evolved in relative isolation, developing genetic characteristics and technology found nowhere else until the arrival of the first European settlers. DNA samples from Aboriginal Australians and Melanesians from New Guinea taken in by University of Cambridge researchers in the mid 2000s indicates they share genetic features linking them and other Eurasians to the exodus from Africa. Toomas Kivisild, one of the author of the Cambridge study, told the Times of London, “The evidence points to the relative insolation after the initial arrival, which would mean any significant developments in skeletal form and tool use were not influenced by outside sources."

Australia and Out of Africa Theory

migration routes from Asia to Australia via Timor

According to “Out of Africa” theory first humans in Europe and Asia came from a migration of modern humans (Homo sapiens) from Africa and the first humans in Australia came from a recent migration of modern humans through Southeast Asia. These people belonged to a single genetic lineage and were the descendants of a population that originated in Africa. Fossil evidence from the earliest indigenous Australians shows a range of physical variation that would be expected in a single, geographically widespread population. [Source: Fran Dorey, Australian Museum, September 12, 2021]

It is widely believed that modern humans reached Asia by 70,000 years ago and moved down through Southeast Asia and into Australia. However, modern humans were not the first hominids to inhabit this region. Homo erectus had been in Asia long before that. Radiometric dates obtained for volcanic minerals at Sangiran in Java, Indonesia indicate that homo erectus — Java Man — had been in Asia at least 1.5 million to 1.8 million years ago. It is possible that modern humans and homo erectus may have coexisted, as some dates for Indonesian Homo erectus suggest they may have survived there until as recently as 50,000 years ago. Homo erectus remains have never been found in Australia.

Another human species, the Denisovans, is also thought to have inhabit Asia and there is evidence that they interbred with modern humans and Neanderthals. Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians carry about 3-5 percent of Denisovan DNA. This is explained by interbreeding of eastern Eurasian Denisovans with the modern human ancestors of these populations as they migrated towards Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Migration from Africa to Asia to Australia

The fact that some of earliest evidence of modern humans outside of Africa and the Middle East is in Australia suggests that the early man followed a coastal route through South Asia and Southeast Asia to Australia. It is believed that the migration was not a caravan-like journey but rather one in which some huts were set up on the beach and the migrants lived there for a while moving and then moved to a new location further to the east every couple of years. Traces of such a migration if it took place were covered in water and sediments when sea levels rose at the end of the Ice Age.

DNA studies of people living today indicate that modern humans migrated from Eastern Africa to the Middle East, then Southern and Southeast Asia, then New Guinea and Australia, followed by Europe and Central Asia. Perhaps they didn't enter Europe because that region was dominated by Neanderthals. According to research by geneticist at the University of Cambridge in the mid 2000s all modern humans descend from a small number of Africans that left Africa between 55,000 and 60,000 years ago. Another less reliable DNA study determined that an intrepid group of 500 hominids marched out of Africa about 140,000 years ago and they are the ancestors to all modern people today. [Source: Guy Gugliotta, Smithsonian magazine, July 2008]

Saioa López, Lucy van Dorp and Garrett Hellenthal of University College London wrote: “In contrast, mtDNA studies have traditionally favored a Southern route across the Bab el Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea. From there, modern humans are thought to have spread rapidly into regions of Southeast Asia and Oceania. For example, two studies have concluded that individuals assigned to haplogroup L3 migrated out of the continent via the Horn of Africa. Furthermore, Fernandes et al. analyzed three minor West-Eurasian haplogroups and found a relic distribution of these minor haplogroups suggestive of ancestry within the Arabian cradle, as expected under a Southern route.[Source: Saioa López, Lucy van Dorp and Garrett Hellenthal of University College London, “Human Dispersal Out of Africa: A Lasting Debate,” Evolutionary Bioinformatics, April 21, 2016 ~]

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Aboriginal Art
“From an archeological perspective, evidence indicative of maritime exploitation is extremely limited. The discovery of artifacts from the Abdur Reef Limestone in the Red Sea and archeological sites in the Gulf Basin that indicate long-standing human occupation earlier than 100, 000 years ago may offer some evidence; however, whether these represent the activities of the ancestors of modern-day human groups is still an open question. Furthermore, Boivin et al caution that while coastal regions may have been important, a coastal-focused dispersal would still have been problematic and not necessarily conducive to rapid out of Africa dispersal.” ~

Reaching India was an important milestone on the way to Australia. Tony Joseph wrote in The Hindu: “When did our species, Homo sapiens, first set foot in India? There are two competing versions of the answer: let’s call them the ‘early version’ and the ‘late version’. The ‘early version’ says they arrived 74,000 to 120,000 years ago from Africa through the Arabian peninsula with Middle Stone Age tools such as scrapers and points that helped them hunt their prey, gather food, or make clothes. The ‘late version’ says they arrived much later, around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, with upgraded technology such as microlithic (tiny stone) tools that might have been used to give sharp tips to arrows and spears. A geological event separates the two versions: the supervolcanic eruption at Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia, about 74,000 years ago, dumped tonnes of ash all over South-east Asia and South Asia, causing much stress to all life in the region. The ‘early version’ says migrants reached India before Toba; the ‘late version’ says the opposite.” [Source: Tony Joseph, The Hindu, September 5, 2017 |^^|]

Reaching Indonesia was another important milestone on the way to Australia. Bruce Bower wrote in Science News: “Humans inhabited rainforests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra between 73,000 and 63,000 years ago — shortly before a massive eruption of the island’s Mount Toba volcano covered South Asia in ash, researchers say. Two teeth previously unearthed in Sumatra’s Lida Ajer cave and assigned to the human genus, Homo, display features typical of Homo sapiens, report geoscientist Kira Westaway of Macquarie University in Sydney and her colleagues. By dating Lida Ajer sediment and formations, the scientists came up with age estimates for the human teeth and associated fossils of various rainforest animals excavated in the late 1800s, including orangutans. [Source: Bruce Bower, Science News, August 9, 2017]

Modern Humans in Australia 65,000 Years Ago Challenges Migration Models

Gemma Tarlach wrote in Discover magazine: “The discovery is also at odds with the conventional date for our species leaving Africa, and adds fuel to the growing bonfire of what was the evolutionary timeline for Homo sapiens. For decades, the hoary old story of human evolution and migration went something like this: An archaic version of Homo sapiens evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, and eventually amassed enough random advantageous mutations to get upgraded to version 2.0 (thanks, natural selection!), aka modern Homo sapiens, by about 100,000 years ago. Then, the timeline gets a bit iffy. Many paleoanthropologists had long argued that our species didn’t leave Africa until 60,000 years ago — some put the date even later, around 40,000 years ago. That’s what the archaeological evidence told them, and that’s what they stuck hard and fast to. [Source: Gemma Tarlach, Discover, July 19, 2017]

“Since the 1990s, however, a growing number of studies — increasingly driven by genetic evidence — have painted a very different picture of human evolution and migration. Most recently, in 2016 a landmark genomic study of 400 Papua New Guineans suggested that modern Homo sapiens may have arrived in the region 120,000 years ago. And earlier this month, the sequencing of ancient mitochondrial (maternally-inherited) DNA extracted from a Neanderthal femur hinted that African Homo sapiens were interbreeding with European Neanderthals more than 200,000 years ago.

“Then there was the announcement earlier this year that Homo sapiens — albeit not quite version 2.0 — were in Morocco 300,000 years ago — the best evidence yet that our species is considerably older than we thought. Enter The First Australians Question. As one of the corners of the world furthest-flung from Africa, it makes sense that our species would arrive there fairly late in its relentless march across the planet. Many old-schoolers believed humans first set foot in Australia anywhere from 20,000-40,000 years ago.

Low Sea Levels and the Modern Human Migration to Australia

Ice-age land bridge from Australia to Tasmania

Modern humans reached Australia about 65,000 years ago in the middle of a major ice age, glaciers covered nearly 17 million square miles of the Earth, including much of northern Europe and Canada, and sea levels were more than 122 meters (400 feet) lower than what they are today. Much of Europe was covered by ice. In southern Asia and western Oceania, islands and land masses that are now separated by ocean water were connected by land bridges. The shores of Australia, for example, extended out several hundred miles further than they do today.

There has always been a relatively large expanse of ocean separating Asia and Australia. At times this distance was reduced by Ice Ages and sea level changes but never enough so that crossing a large stretches of water wasn’t necessary. For much of their history Australia and New Guinea were joined together in a landmass called Sahul. They were not separated by rising sea levels until about 8,000 years ago, when Tasmania and Australia were also separated. Genetic evidence supports the close ties between these two countries – the Indigenous peoples from these regions are more closely related to each other than to anyone else in the world, suggesting a recent common ancestry. [Source: Fran Dorey, Australian Museum, September 12, 2021]

Java, Bali, Sumatra and the Philippines were connected to Southeast Asia by land bridges 65,000 years ago but even during the maximum period of glaciation Australia, New Guinea and the western island of Indonesia were isolated by waters of Java Trench and North Australian and Weber basins. Even when the sea levels were at their lowest there was 80 kilometers (50 miles of sea) between Indonesia-Southeast Asia and Australia-new Guinea. During times of low sea levels the shortest path to Australia was between Timor and Sahul, where the stretch of sea that has to be crossed is only about 90 kilometers wide (55 miles).

Ancient aboriginal myths say the continent's original ancestors came from the north and west from across the sea. The first Australians most likely arrived on foot by crossing a land bridge that connected Australia with New Guinea.

Early Modern Humans Had to Have Taken Boats to Australia

The earliest evidence of humans in Australia suggests that some from of boatbuilding had been developed at that time. Although the earliest inhabitants may have walked from New Guinea at some point they would have had to use some sort of boat to get across the Java Trench which created a water barrier between Indonesia and New Guinea. It seems likely that the first human inhabitants of Australia arrived from Timor, 90 kilometers (55 miles from Australia), when Australia's shore stretched further north during the ice age. To reach Australia would have involved traveling in the open sea with no view of land. It seems unlikely that early swam the distance.

Fran Dorey of the Australian Museum wrote: The settlement of Australia is the first unequivocal evidence of a major sea crossing and rates as one of the greatest achievements of early humans. However the motive and circumstances regarding the arrival of the first Australians is a matter for conjecture. It may have been a deliberate attempt to colonise new territory or an accident after being caught in monsoon winds. The lack of preservation of any ancient boat means archaeologists will probably never know what kind of craft was used for the journey. None of the boats used by Aboriginal people in ancient times are suitable for major voyages. The most likely suggestion has been rafts made of bamboo, a material common in Asia. [Source: Fran Dorey, Australian Museum, September 12, 2021]

The oldest dates for human occupation of Australia represent the earliest, indirect evidence for sea faring by humans anywhere in the world. The oldest known boat is the Pesse canoe, a dugout made from a hollowed out tree trunk found in the Netherlands and dated to 8200-7600 B.C.. It was about one meter long and was was made from a hollowed Pinus Sylvestris tree. A dugout found in Denmark was dated to 6000 B.C. It is believed some kind of boat or raft was by ancient people to reach Australia at least 65,000 years ago. The oldest known vessels made with planks were found in Egypt and date to about 3000 B.C. [Source: Marine Insight, April 15, 2022]

Some scientists speculate that early homo sapiens might have crossed the open ocean in rafts made of bamboo logs. "Bamboo makes sea travel wonderful," anthropologist Alan Thorne told National Geographic. "You don't have any waves breaking over you — you just sort of flex over them." He and other scientists have re-created log and bamboo crafts and found them to seaworthy enough to make a 50 mile trip.

Route Used by First Humans to Reach Australia

There are a number of likely paths of migration across Asia and into Sahul. These are based on the shortest possible route and take into consideration the land bridges that would appear during times of low sea levels. However, travel may have also occurred when sea levels were high. High sea levels would have reduced the amount of usable land and increased the population pressure. During these times it may have been necessary to expand into new areas. [Source: Fran Dorey, Australian Museum, September 12, 2021]

In a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution in October 2018, researchers at Australian National University said they had found the most likely route used by first humans into Australia. The university reported: Co-lead researcher Shimona Kealy said these people probably travelled through Indonesia's northern islands, into New Guinea and then Australia, which were part of a single continent between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago, when sea levels were 25-50 metres below the current level. Ms Kealy, a PhD scholar at the School of Culture, History and Language and an Associate Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage at ANU, said, "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." [Source: Australian National University, October 31, 2018]

The findings challenge a popular theory that these early adventurers travelled from Southeast Asia, through Indonesia and Timor and then across sea to reach Australia's shores and land that is part of the Northern Territory today.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.

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.

Co-lead researcher Professor Sue O'Connor from ANU 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," said Professor O'Connor, a researcher at the School of Culture, History and Language and a Chief Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage at ANU.

Hominids Cross the Wallace Line

20120205-australia Rock_paintings_-_NMA-11802.jpg Stone flake tools, found near a stegodons (ancient elephant), dated to 840,000 years ago, were found in the Soa Basin on Indonesian island of Flores. The tools are thought to have belonged to Homo Erectus. They only way to get the island is by boat, through sometimes turbulent seas, which implies Homo erectus built seaworthy rafts or some other kind of vessel. This discovery is regarded with caution but may mean that early hominids may have cross the Wallace Line 650,000 years earlier than previously thought.

During several ice ages when sea levels dropped Indonesia was connected to the Asian continent. It is believed that Homo erectus arrived in Indonesia during one of the ice ages.

The Wallace Line is an invisible biological barrier described by and named after the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. Running along the water between the Indonesia islands of Bali and Lombok and between Borneo and Sulawesi, it separates the species found in Australia, New Guinea and the eastern islands of Indonesia from those found in western Indonesia, the Philippines and the Southeast Asia.

Because of the Wallace Line Asian animals such as elephants, orangutans and tigers never ventured further east than Bali, and Australian animals such as kangaroos, emus, cassowaries, wallabies and cockatoos never made it to Asia. Animals from both continents are found in some parts of Indonesia.

The first people to cross the Wallace line from Bali to Lombok, Indonesia, scientists speculate, arrived in a kind of paradise free of predators and competitors. Crustaceans and mollusks could be collected from tidal flats and pygmy elephants unafraid of man could be easily hunted. When food supplies ran low, the early inhabitants moved on to the next island, and the next until the finally reached Australia.

The discovery of the Hobbits in Flores is thought to confirm that Homo Erectus crossed the Wallace Line. See Hobbits.

42,000-Year-Old Deep-Sea Fishermen in East Timor Hints How Humans Got to Australia

More than 40,000 years ago, prehistoric humans living in what is now East Timor ago possessed the skills necessary to catch deep ocean fish such as tuna. East Timor is one of the closest islands to Australia. Discovery News reported: “In a small cave at the eastern end of East Timor, north of Australia, archaeologist Sue O’Connor from the Australian National University has unearthed the bones of more than 2,800 fish, some of which were caught as long as 42,000 years ago. [Source: Discovery News, November 28, 2011 |^|]

“The find shows that the people living in the region had the sophisticated cognitive skills needed to haul in such a difficult catch, O’Connor says. Her findings appeared in the journal Science. “What the site has shown us is that early modern humans in island Southeast Asia had amazingly advanced maritime skills,” she said. “They were expert at catching the types of fish that would be challenging even today — fish like tuna. It’s a very exciting find.” |^|

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“It isn’t clear exactly what techniques the people living in the area at the time used to catch these fish. Tuna can be caught using nets or by trolling hooks on long lines through the water, O’Connor said. “Either way it seems certain that these people were using quite sophisticated technology and watercraft to fish offshore. She said it also demonstrated prehistoric man had high-level maritime skills, and by implication, the technology needed to make the ocean crossings to reach Australia.|^|

“The site where the discoveries were made, known as Jerimalai cave, is a small rock overhang hidden behind in foliage, a few hundred meters from the shore. “When I discovered it in 2005, I didn’t think that Jerimalai would tell us about the very early occupation of Timor,” O’Connor said. “I was quite surprised when I found all these fish bones and turtle bones.” So far, she and her colleagues have only excavated two small test pits at the cave, which contained a number of stone artifacts, bone points, animal remains, shell beads and fish hooks. In just one of those pits, 1 meter square and 2 meters deep, they found 39,000 fish bones. . “I think Jerimalai gives us a window into what maritime coastal occupation was like 40,000 to 50,000 years ago that we don’t really have anywhere else in the world,” said O’Connor. |^|

O’Connor said: “They were expert at catching the types of fish that would be challenging even today - fish like tuna. It's a very exciting find. Simple fish aggregating devices such as tethered logs can also be used to attract them. So they may have been caught using hooks or nets,' she said. 'Either way it seems certain that these people were using quite sophisticated technology and watercraft to fish offshore.” [Source: Simon Tomlinson, Daily Mail, November 25, 2011]

According to the Daily Mail: “She added that the finds may shed light on how Australia's first inhabitants arrived on the continent, with the implication that seaworthy boats would have been used to fish in the deep ocean. “Ee have known for a long time that Australia's ancient ancestors must have been able to travel hundreds of kilometres by sea because they reached Australia by at least 50,000 years ago,' said O'Connor. 'When we look at the watercraft that indigenous Australians used at the time of European contact, however, they are all very simple, like rafts and canoes.”“

DNA Evidence Suggests Australian Aborigines Were First Explorers

Mongoloid, Astraloid and Negrito distribution of Asian peoples

AFP reported in 2011, “An international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of an Australian Aboriginal man and reported that his ancestors likely explored the earth earlier than those of modern Asians. The findings shed new light on the waves of migration by humans out of Africa, and suggest that Aboriginals were descended from rare and brave adventurers that moved on 24,000 years earlier than the rest. [Source: AFP, September 27, 2011]

“Aboriginal Australians descend from the first human explorers," said lead author Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen. “While the ancestors of Europeans and Asians were sitting somewhere in Africa or the Middle East, yet to explore their world further, the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians spread rapidly; the first modern humans traversing unknown territory in Asia and finally crossing the sea into Australia.

“It was a truly amazing journey that must have demanded exceptional survival skills and bravery." The findings were based on the analysis of a 100-year-old lock of hair donated to a British anthropologist by an Aboriginal man from the Goldfields region of Western Australia. Researchers sequenced the DNA and found “no genetic input from modern European Australians," which they believe shows that Aborigines moved through Asia and into Australia in a first and separate wave.

The evidence suggests “the ancestors of the Aboriginal man separated from the ancestors of other human populations some 64,000 to 75,000 years ago... before finally reaching Australia about 50,000 years ago”, said the study. The genetic history of Australians has been difficult to pin down because scientists have lacked access to DNA from fossilised bones such as those found from Neanderthals and Denisovans in cold caves in Europe and Russia, where DNA can be preserved.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Australian Museum, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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