How Did The Australian Aborigine Get To Australia?

By John Prytz 2013

What would become the Australian Aborigines* arrived in Australia a minimum of 40,000 years ago, perhaps as long ago as 60,000 years ago. To get to Australia, from mankind’s (as in Homo sapiens) birthplace, eastern Africa, requires getting one’s feet wet. There just is no getting around that fact.

Even at the height of the Ice Ages and lower sea levels, a migration to Australia would still have had to cross considerable ocean distances. There never was a direct land route linking Africa and Australia that hominids could have crossed.

There was however an Ice Age derived land connection between Australia and New Guinea until about 6000 years ago. Collectively this Australia-New Guinea landmass was called Sahul, but the entirety of Sahul was still surrounded by formable distances of ocean from the nearest other land, roughly 90 km distant at the closest point. To get to Sahul, hence Australia, you needed to sail the ocean blue.

We really do have to ask in the first place is whether or not, as a typical prehistory member of our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestry, the Aborigines would have been comfortable with dealing with bodies of water. Rivers and streams you can wade across or swim across, maybe use a buoyant log to hold on to if need be. Or, just keep on wandering upstream until the water obstacle is fordable. Lakes can be walked around. But the ocean!!! The oceans offshore must have been terrifying to our very ancient ancestors, and rightly so. Therefore, perhaps it should not be surprising that, alas, there’s no evidence one can exhibit in a museum that what would become the Aboriginal culture ever had the ability or desire to sail the ocean blue, at least based on what that culture has exhibited over the many, many generations since that presumed maritime crossing(s).

Okay, let’s go back to the beginnings. Once upon a time what would become the nomadic hunter-gatherer race we know today as the Australian Aborigine was just a hop, skip and a ‘short’ sail away from the Promised Land. But first things first; that hop and skip.

Sooner or later in your nomadic hunter-gatherer wanderings you’re going to intersect the seashore! So let’s say you’re the leader of a small band of nomadic hunter-gatherer ‘aborigines’ somewhere in eastern Indonesia between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. You climb up and over a hill, and there, much to your astonishment, lays the ocean. You’ve never seen the ocean before, so like wow, Surprise! Now what do you do? Well presumably you head on down to the shoreline to check it out. Then what? Could you honestly credit the following monolog: “Hey gang, look at what we found, it’s the ocean! What say we all build a raft and go sailing!”

Well it might depend on whether or not you can see an opposite shore – land across the ocean, on the horizon that can’t be reached just by walking the coastline around to it. If there is nothing on the horizon except the ocean if you can’t see the opposite shore, there’s probably no way you’re going to stick your toe into the water. In most cases with no other land in sight, you haven’t a clue what’s on the other side of the ocean, if anything (maybe it goes on forever and forever), or how far across it is to the other side. The known is safer than the unknown; discretion is the better part of valour.

But if you can see land across the way, well, decisions, decisions. It all boils down to motive, means and opportunity.

Motive: You might associate that distant across the waters land with food, shelter, security (defence) and mates. No guarantees of course. If where you are lacks in one or more of those categories, you might be tempted to cross on over – or more likely as not just move on up or down the shoreline or back inland. Are you really going to stop, make a raft and go sailing out into the pure unknown out of pure curiosity that there might be food, shelter, security and/or mates there, though curiosity you probably have even if it’s more than just academic curiosity? No, in the daily hunt for survival you’ll probably ignore the ocean and the land on the horizon and just follow the coastline (or go back inland) – which eventually will bring you to most places that also offer food, shelter, security and mates. You’re also not going to have much of a motive if you’re scared witless that in doing so you are entering the realm of the ‘gods’. There’s something rather supernatural about the interface between ocean and land; the tides. The tides must have seemed to be a purely supernatural manifestation, without natural explanation (Isaac Newton was a far distant prospect at the time), an unexplainable action of the ‘gods’ (which were a really real prospect at the time) somehow saying “this is our domain, keep away”.

Means: Even if you’d like to cross on over to that unknown land mass, you’re going to need raw materials; the ability to figure out how to put them together properly; and acquire seafaring and navigation skills. In any event, it’s not all that easy building and sailing and navigating a seaworthy boat or raft from scratch without any handy-dandy how-to manual available. It’s all going to be trial and error. Can you afford the time and risks? Further, you can’t drink the seawater so freshwater would have to be carried on any hypothetical voyage. Do you have leak-proof containers? If so, how much do you need to take? Who knows? You certainly wouldn’t have a clue.

Opportunity: You and your band of nomadic hunter-gatherers have lots of pressing needs, like finding today’s food and water, plus tonight’s shelter. You found the shoreline and found that it was a good resource, unlike that land across the way of which you know nothing. The coastlines and seashores offers an abundance of food stuffs and resources: shellfish, crabs, turtles, seals, seabirds, fish, even seaweed (dried for fuel). Coastlines and seashores are good. Unknown lands have a low priority. But in the unlikely event you have lots of spare time on your hands, well, opportunity beckons – maybe.

If you forget the land opposite, what about using the coastal waters as a highway up and down the coast and save the legs? Would you travel the coastline by boat or raft? – Probably not. Firstly, you’re a hunter-gatherer. You can’t do that from a raft. Secondly, the ocean, even just offshore, is nothing if not unpredictable and dangerous: from huge waves, gales, riptides, strong currents, razor-sharp rocks and shoals, sharks, jellyfish, hypothermia, and just all sorts of unknowns lurking beneath the surface to add to your terrors. Would you rather be high and dry 10 miles inland or 10 miles out to sea in a raft that’s breaking up and you trying to keep your head above water and not ending up as fish-food? It takes way less effort sit on the beach than to swim or sail in or on the ocean, and it’s a lot safer too! On land, you’re in control; you have control. Even if you skirt the coastline from the ocean instead of the land side, if you come to an impassable barrier, it’s probably easier and far safer to trek inland for a while than divert resources to swimming or rafting around the barrier with all the dangers that could entail.

Fast-forward tens of thousands of years later.

Aborigines in the northeast of Australia, starting roughly 2500 years ago, had contact with Melanesian seafarers, the Torres Strait Islanders, who could island and reef-hop over the newly created Torres Strait. Post Ice Age sea level rise created that 150 km Torres Strait marine barrier by flooding that former land connection that separated Australia from New Guinea. However, Melanesian seafaring technology apparently wasn’t readily adopted by the Aborigines. In any event, it doesn’t assist in explaining the arrival(s) – one or more waves – of Aborigines that many tens of thousands of years ago.

Prior to white settlement, less than three centuries ago, there is no archaeological or pictorial evidence for sophisticated Aboriginal maritime activities in Australia. Dugout canoes is about as sophisticated as you get, technology which apparently came via Makassan traders from Sulawesi (an Indonesian island), and then only since the early 18th Century, or shortly prior to white settlement. That’s not much help is getting Aborigines to Australia 40,000 to 60,000 years ago.

All up, it was non-Australian seafarers who discovered the Aborigines (the Dutch in 1606, the English in 1688, all culminating with Captain Cook’s visit in 1770, hence white settlement in 1788) and never the other way around.

So, if there is one thing one doesn’t associate with the Australian Aborigine, its seafaring and ocean navigation abilities. Aborigines are nomadic landlubbers with at best bark canoes. Aborigines go walkabout, not sailabout. If the Aborigines really had halfway decent maritime abilities, you’d of thought they would have discovered and colonized Lord Howe Island or Norfolk Island, even New Zealand several tens of thousands of years ago. [Tasmania doesn’t count since that island was connected to the Australian mainland during the drop in sea levels during the Ice Ages.] But New Zealand only dates human inhabitation back to just roughly 1300 AD or CE if you like, and the Maoris aren’t the Australian Aborigines.

It’s a similar mystery as the one as to why the ancient prehistoric east African Homo sapiens or Homo erectus didn’t discover that rather large island target off their own eastern coast – Madagascar. Madagascar wasn’t inhabited until roughly between 350 BCE and 550 CE, and then from Borneo. Native Africans (the Bantu) didn’t hit town until 1000 CE. The evidence suggests to me that prehistoric nomadic hunter-gatherers just didn’t have the seamanship skills everyone assumes they must have had.

So, the $64,000 question is, how did they, the Aborigines, arrive in Australia? By boat stupid! It’s an axiomatic response that in prehistoric times to get from Point A to Point B, when Point A and Point B are separated by reasonably vast oceanic distances, that our ‘primitive’ ancestors must have constructed rafts or boats and used same to cross said vast oceanic distances. It just has to be, no other explanation is possible. But is it logical? No, IMHO. They, our prehistoric ancestors didn’t have boat or raft building know-how, or navigation skills nor seamanship abilities. Is there actual evidence they did? Again, the answer is in the negative.

The first boats found in the archaeological record only date to about 7000 BCE, the historical era, way, way after they are required in way earlier prehistoric times. That’s probably because ‘modern’ sailing, as in lengthy ocean voyages involving maritime crossings with nothing but the ocean in view, only took off in historical times, post the Agricultural Revolution which dates to roughly 10,000 years ago. That’s now well documented in the archaeological and pictorial record. The main outcomes were establishing trade routes and the opening up of Oceania (Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand, Madagascar, etc.) to both initial discovery and colonization. Perhaps that was a logical outcome due to the stability and population growth caused by establishing settlements. Or, perhaps like agriculture itself, maritime skills were a gift from the ‘gods’.

One other bit of evidence that it isn’t easy to reach Australia from S.E. Asia, despite a theory that it would have been relatively easy via island hopping, is that Australia has a very unique fauna. You don’t find the kangaroo, koala, or platypus in S.E. Asia, and you don’t find fauna from S.E. Asia in Australia’s natural environment. Seeds, insects, birds, etc. can cross over of course, carried on the winds or under their own power, but not anything that’s larger and fully terrestrial.

In conclusion, in prehistoric times, in order to migrate to certain geographical locations, like Australia, it’s traditional to assume, actually stating the bleeding obvious, that primitive humans from that era had to stick their toes in the water and cross on over by building rafts or boats, acquiring various maritime skills and sailing the ocean blue. However, there is no evidence, far less proof for this assertion. Rather, IMHO, you’d be a bloody idiot to stick your toe in the water unless practically forced at ‘gunpoint’. It’s a Catch-22: Before you risk your all sailing the ocean blue, you’d better first have or acquire motive, means and opportunity. But, you can only become comfortable with having motive, means and opportunity after you’ve already risked your all by having first sailed the ocean blue and become skilled professional sailors. Or, in other words, before you’re at all comfortable sticking your toes in the water, you’ve got to stick you toes in the water. Faced with that sort of choice, the sane decision is to keep your toes out of the water from the get-go. That’s also stating the bleeding obvious. When two sides state the bleeding obvious, and both those sides are contradictory, well that’s a Catch-22.

So how did the Australian Aborigine get to Australia, or Sahul? Well, maybe they just flapped their arms and flew, or were flown, but they didn’t swim the distance nor did they sail it. It’s time to think outside of the box.

*There’s actually no such animal as The Australian Aborigine, rather there are some 400 distinct Aboriginal groups throughout Australia. However, one assumes they all collectively had a common ‘ancestral’ origin.

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