Australia History: Aboriginal Settlement

Australian Aboriginal (which literally means 'indigenous') society has the longest continuous cultural history in the world, with origins dating to the last Ice age. Although mystery shrouds many aspects of Australian prehistory, it seems almost certain that the first humans came here across the sea from South-East Asia. Heavy-boned people whom archaeologists call 'Robust' are believed to have arrived around 70,000 years ago, and more slender 'Gracile' people around 50,000 years ago. Gracile people are the ancestors of Australian Aboriginal people.

They arrived during a period when the sea level was more than 50 meters lower than it is today. This meant more land between Asia and Australia than there is now, but watercrafts were still needed to cross some stretches of open sea. Although much of Australia is today arid, the first migrants would have found a much wetter continent, with large forests and numerous inland lakes teeming with fish. The fauna included giant marsupials such as three-meter-tall kangaroos, and huge, flightless birds. The environment was relatively non-threatening - only a few carnivorous predators existed.

Because of these favorable conditions, archaeologists suggest that within a few thousand years Aboriginal people had moved through and populated much of Australia, although the most central parts of the continent were not occupied until about 24,000 years ago.

The last Ice age came to an end 15,000 to 10,000 years ago. The sea level rose dramatically with the rise in temperature, and an area of Greater Australia the size of Western Australia was flooded during a process that would have seen strips of land 100 km wide inundated in just a few decades.

Many of the inland lakes dried up, and vast deserts formed. Thus, although the Aboriginal population was spread fairly evenly throughout the continent 20,000 years ago, the coastal areas became more densely occupied after the end of the last Ice age and the stabilization of the sea level 5000 years ago.