Ancient Australia

Man with a spear-thrower, photograph by H. Basedow
Man with a spear-thrower

Ancient Australia (also called the Prehistory of Australia), covers the time from when the first humans came to Australia to the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

Aboriginal artefacts on Rottnest Island have been dated from 6,500 to more than 30,000 years ago. However, more recent evidence suggests human occupation by or even before 50,000 years ago.

During the Pleistocene period, sea levels were much lower than they are today. This would have made migration from Asia to Australia much easier than it is now. However several long sea crossings would still have had to be made. These crossings would have included distances of 90–100 km of open sea. It is not known what kind of boat would have been used for these crossings, but they were probably a raft made from bamboo. These first Australians were the world's first ocean travellers.

The land bridge between Australia and New Guinea was blocked by rising sea levels about 8,000 years ago. The people of Australia and New Guinea are closely related by DNA. DNA evidence shows that the Australian Aborigines belong to the modern humans who left Africa between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. Research shows that the Australian Aborigines were part of a group that left Africa 24,000 years before the groups that settled in Europe and Asia. This makes them one of the oldest indigenous peoples outside Africa. The DNA also shows that most migration to Australia stopped about 50,000 years ago, and the people here developed in isolation to the rest of the world. The Australian Aboriginal population is one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. Many Aboriginal stories from northern Australia say that the people came to Australia from across the sea.

It is not known what the first Australians looked like. The oldest place where humans lived in Australia dates to 55,000 years ago, the Malakunanja II rock shelter in the Northern Territory. The earliest human remains in Australia, found at Lake Mungo in New South Wales, are 15,000 years younger. The bones of people born from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, show they were more robust, and were more physically varied than later people. Several important archaeological sites reveal information about the life of these people. These sites include Lake Mungo, Kow Swamp, Coobool Creek, Talgai, and Keilor.

The first Australians had dark skin and black hair. Most of them were hunter-gatherers, hunting animals and collecting plants to eat. They were nomadic people moving from place to place in search of seasonal foods.

They developed into different ethnic groups and each group had its own language and traditions. In 1788 it is estimated that there were about 500 separate language groups in Australia. Each of these language groups was made up of many smaller groupings. These smaller groups often combined for ceremonial and trade activities. Because they were all different, it is difficult to make general claims about Aboriginal traditions and beliefs.

Fire, megafauna and sea levels

Archaeologists have found that fires increased with the arrival of people. Hunter-gatherers use fire as a tool to drive game, to produce new growth to attract animals, and to clear scrub. Dense forests became more open forest, and open forest became grassland. Species that could survive fire began to take over: in particular, eucalyptus, acacia, and grasses.

Bassian plain 14000 BP
The shoreline of Tasmania and Victoria about 14,000 years ago, as sea levels were rising, showing some of the human archaeological sites

The changes to the fauna were even more dramatic. Megafauna, species much larger than humans, disappeared, as well as many of the smaller species. About 60 different vertebrates became extinct, including the Diprotodon family (very large marsupials that looked rather like hippos), several large flightless birds, meat eating kangaroos, a five-metre lizard and Meiolania, a tortoise the size of a small car.

The direct cause of the mass extinctions of the megafauna is uncertain. It may have been fire, hunting, climate change, or a combination of all. Without large herbivores to eat the vegetation, the extra fuel made fires burned hotter, further changing the landscape.

In the period from 18,000 to 15,000 years ago, Australia became drier, with lower temperatures and less rainfall. Between 16,000 and 14,000 years ago the sea levels rose quickly. One scientist has estimated sea levels rose 50 feet in 300 years. At the end of the Pleistocene, about 13,000 years ago, rising sea levels cut the land access across the Torres Strait to New Guinea, the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania, and to Kangaroo Island.

The Tasmanian Aborigines were cut off from the rest of Australia. By 9,000 years ago there were no longer people living on the small islands in Bass Strait or Kangaroo Island.

Studies of language and genes shows that there has been long-term contact between Australians in the far north and the people of modern-day New Guinea and the islands. This seems to have been mainly trade with a little intermarriage. Macassan praus are also recorded in the Aboriginal stories from Broome to the Gulf of Carpentaria. There were some semi-permanent settlements established, and cases of Aboriginal settlers finding a home in Indonesia.


The Aboriginal people did not know writing but they painted pictures on rocks and bark. They also scratched or carved designs into rocks. They used paint that they made from crushed rocks and water in colours like brown, red, orange, and yellow. Many ancient cave paintings have been all over Australia. As the paints made form crushed rock and clay are not organic, it is not possible to use carbon dating to date these pictures. Some paintings have been found showing megafauna that became extinct over 40,000 years ago. These paintings may be the oldest known paintings in the world. Another site in Arnhem Land has charcoal drawings that have been radiocarbon-dated at 28,000 years old.

Aboriginal people had a strong spirituality. They believed that everything had come from the Dreamtime and that the earth was sacred. They believed that ancestor spirits such as the Rainbow Serpent had made the world and everything in it. The laws and customs of the Dreamtime are passed on from parents to children. They have complex ritual songs and dances which are performed at corroborees.


Ancient Australia for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.