Article: The Pre-History of Australia.

Article: The Pre-History of Australia.

The prehistory of our country, which is the time that came before the colonisation of Australia, is something that has not been taught or even spoken of as often as the settlement of the British in the 1700s. The first account of human habitation dates all the way back to approximately 65,000 BC, when South-East Asians arrived on the land. This time period is referred to as the ‘prehistory’ as there is no consistently written documentation of human events. 

Credit: Wikipedia - Australia (Continent)

Credit: Wikipedia – Australia (Continent)

First Sign of Habitation in Australia.

The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history as it is the first time that any human had managed to leave their Afro-Asian ecological system, as argued by Yuval Noah Harari.

According to an article written by Chris Clarkson titled ‘Human Occupation of Northern Australia by 65,000 Years Ago‘, the earliest evidence of humans in Australia dates back to 65,000 years, though the discussion on the route that the humans took to arrive here is still a mystery and can only be theorised by archaeologists. A prominent site in the debate of the first initial human colonisation is Madjedbebe, which is a rock shelter based in northern Australia which was excavated in 1973 and 1989.

The earliest artifact that is said to have been recovered from the excavations of this site included stone tools and ground ochre pieces (ochre: earthy pigment containing ferric oxide, generally with clay varying from light yellow, brown or red) from between 60,000 years and 50,000 years.

There is ongoing discussions among archaeologists regarding how the first migrants actually came to arrive on the land of Australia. Migration is said to have taken place during the last stages of the Pleistocene (also know as the Ice Age), when the levels of the sea were considerably lower than they are today, making it prominent that migrants landed via sea when New Guinea and Tasmania were joined to Australia. It is also noted that migrants got to Australia by island hopping, as water remained a prominent obstacle in getting onto the continent.

Although it is written that the first sign of humans on the land of Australia reaches back 65,000 years ago, but a widely accepted time-frame is said to be 40,000 years ago as many sites dating back to this time period have been excavated to show minimal evidence.

Radiocarbon Dating.

Radiocarbon dating, which was developed in the late 1940s, is a technique that is used amongst scientists to assist in finding the ages of biological specimens such as ancient human remains (bone) and wooden archaeological artifacts.

How does radiocarbon find itself within living specimens? Radiocarbon is constantly being created within our atmosphere due to the interaction between cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen. The remaining radiocarbon then combines itself with the atmospheric oxygen which in turn forms radioactive carbon dioxide.

But how does this show relevance to human remains or wooden archaeological artifacts? When radiocarbon dioxide is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis, animals acquire the radiocarbon by eating the plants. Then, when the animal or plant dies, the carbon stops exchanging with its environment it begins the radioactive decay phase.

Using a fragment of the specimen or a fragment of wood can actually help scientists figure out when the organism died, thus, giving scientists an approximate time frame of when the organism was living on Earth.

This technique has been able to provide information regarding when and where the ‘first’ humans lived when they arrived in Australia. Radiocarbon dating suggests they lived around Sydney for at least 30,000 years. Charcoal, stone tools, and what seemed to be ancient campfires used by Aboriginal nations were found in the Parramatta, Western Sydney area after an archaeological dig was undertaken, with other stone tools being found in the far western suburb of Penrith. These tools are said to date back to 45,000-50,000 years, proving human settlement in Sydney suburbs earlier than scientists had originally thought.

Early Indigenous Pre-History.

The ancestors of the Indigenous Australians are believed to have arrived around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, which is roughly around 15,000 years after it is believed that the Asian Australians found their way to Australian grounds.

In 2017, a genetic study (of mitogenomes) that involved hair samples from 111 historical Aboriginal Australians was undertaken, taken from three different anthropological expeditions. This study found that the Aboriginal Australians residing in the country today are all related to a common ancestor who was a member of a distinct population that emerged on the mainland around 50,000 years ago.

Across the studied groups of Aboriginal Australians, the science implies that the settlement within Australia comprised a single, rapid migration right along the east and west coasts, reaching, what we know to be, South Australia by 49,000-45,000 thousand years ago. After the colonisation that spread across the continent, secure regional patterns had developed and have since survived despite significant changes in climate and culture (this was during the late Pleistocene and Holocene epochs).

It is theorised that these early migrants came out of Africa about 70,000 years ago, which, according to science and an article posted via National Geographic, would make Aboriginal Australians the oldest population of humans living outside of Africa.

According to an article posted on Wikipedia about Australia’s pre-history, a small number of copper coins were found in 1944 with Arabic inscriptions engraved on them. These coins were discovered on a beach in Jensen Bay, on Marchinbar Island which is part of the Wessel Islands of the Northern Territory. It is said that the coins were later identified as the Kilwa Sultanate of East Africa.

No other coins had ever been found outside of Africa besides one previously unearthed in Oman, which is an Arab country residing on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia.

The inscriptions engraved on the coins found on Jensen Bay identify a ruling Sultan of Kilwa, but it has not been confirmed as to if the ruler was from the 10th century or the 14th century.

Pre-History Artifacts.

Since 1973, digs and excavations at a rock shelter in Australia’s Northern Territory, known as Madjedbebe, have unearthed over 10,000 hunting and gathering tools such as stone tools, ochres, plant remains and even bones. As stated previously, these artifacts were able to be dated thanks to radiocarbon dating and another technique of dating called Optical Stimulated Luminescence (used to date the last time quartz sediment was exposed to light. As sediment is transported by wind, water, or ice, it is exposed to sunlight and zeroed of any previous luminescence signal. usu.edu n.d.).

Ancient tools for hunting and gathering purposes evolved within Australia thousands of years before they ever appeared within Europe. The practices in which the Aboriginal inhabitants displayed within Australia did not disrupt nature in any case, but kept everything nature wise in harmony – much different to the practices displayed in the modern world which has a detrimental effect on not only nature, but the climate.

  • Excavation undertaken by the University of Queensland at the lowest levels of Madjedbebe exposed many pieces of artifacts that were used for seed grinding, ochre “crayons” were also discovered which were used to make pigments.
  • The largest excavation area allowed UQ explorers to pick up very rare items, such as the world’s oldest known edge-ground hatchets and the world’s oldest known use of reflective pigment (which included mica).
  • Experiments were undertaken to better understand how the pressure of humans walking across the ground could potentially shift the artifacts, and how much it would actually move them, which could potential make it difficult to date the items.
  • UQ studied thousands of grains of sand individually, having another lab test grains as well to make sure their results were reliable – collectively, the results convince explorers that Madjedbebe, and Australia were settled 65,000 years ago.
  • The oldest known rock art in the world is dated to 40,000 years ago in Sulawesi (a possible stepping stone to Australia).
  • Grinding tools that were discovered from the Madjedbebe site indicate that a range of fruits, seeds, animals, and other plants were ground up for consumption.
  • Ancient fireplaces were also found, along with burnt pandanus nuts, fruit seeds and yams, which point to clues of the earliest plant based food consumed in or around the excavation site.

Some of the artifacts discovered may be the earliest known examples of hunting and gathering in Australia, if not the world, proving that Australia was settled far before modern humans entered Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Prehistory of Australia. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistory_of_Australia [Accessed 20 Jan. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Pleistocene. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleistocene [Accessed 20 Dec. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (2020). Asian Australians. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_Australians [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Clarkson, C. and Arnold, L. (2017). Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago. [online] Digital.library.adelaide.edu.au. Available at: https://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/bitstream/2440/107043/2/hdl_107043.pdf [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). History of Australia. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Australia [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].

Tobler, R., Rohrlack, A., Soubrier, J., Bover, P., Llamas, B., Tuke, J., Bean, N., Abdullah-Highfold, A., Aguis, S., O’Donoghue, A., O’Laughlin, I., Sutton, P., Zilio, F., Walshe, K., Williams, A., Turney, C., Williams, M., Richards, S., Mitchell, R., Kowal, E., Stephen, J., Williams, L., Haak, W. and Cooper, A. (n.d.). Aboriginal mitogenomes reveal 50,000 years of regionalism in Australia. [online] Nature.com. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature21416.epdf?referrer_access_token=eY7MAkrfTQer7ZbMy31OwtRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0MVh1n37UJYq40PVxzOAJD1iZLiBJ7SbxBMRpLMTIVJnvvrPVa9DRZpR4VtAKVTi32PxWV3uTmFlWOtkeme8uHs9W5pZE2UzMgc-E4ZdUPw_Zc4PBhuzf990cpIkKgQaykHX7ikRN7HaeoU6ebvQo8wH2aNAs-AdXv43IJ7kOSrWg%3D%3D&tracking_referrer=www.nationalgeographic.com [Accessed 17 Jan. 2020].

BLAKEMORE, E. (2019). Aboriginal Australians. [online] Nationalgeographic.com. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/people/reference/aboriginal-australians/ [Accessed 3 Feb. 2020].

H. Monroe, M. (2011). Macassan Traders. [online] Austhrutime.com. Available at: https://austhrutime.com/macassan_traders.htm [Accessed 5 Feb. 2020].

Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Madjedbebe | Description, Artifacts, & Significance. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Madjedbebe [Accessed 5 Feb. 2020].

Usu.edu. (n.d.). USU OSL Laboratory – What is OSL?. [online] Available at: https://www.usu.edu/geo/luminlab/whatis.html [Accessed 5 Feb. 2020].

What is radiocarbon dating?

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