The Original Boat People

Image Source : Wiki Commons

Image Source : Wiki Commons

Archaeologists and anthropologists are still uncertain as to who the first Australians were and from where they came. The debate has been further clouded by the discovery in 2003 of the new species of Homo, Homo floriensis, on the nearby Indonesian island of Flores. Who were the first Australians and how did they cross the ocean to a land they could not see?

The settlement of Australia has always caused debate amongst academics as to when it occurred and by whom. In the past 20 years more Pleistocene sites have been uncovered on mainland Australia which seems to push the dating back from c.25,000 years ago to up to c.176,000 years ago (Kirch 2002; 67) and earlier.

Homo floriensis : Image Source : Wiki Commons

The dating of sites in Australia has been used as a guide as to when the continent was first settled (Hiscock 2008) and the artefacts and human remains are usually dated using the Radiocarbon dating method (14C), however, when the dates stretch further back than 40,000 years, Thermoluminescence Dating techniques are used. This dating method is in its infancy and there is some debate as to its accuracy. One of the sites using this technique is the Jinmium Rockshelter, Northern Territory, with the results giving a staggering 176,000 years ago (Kirch 2002; 68). Other sites have been dated giving a range of c.60,000 BP and also 800,000 BP (McGrail 2004; Robert, Jones & Smith 1994; Spooner 1998)

The accepted dates, through 14C techniques are accepted as 35,000 – 40,000 years ago (McGrail 2004; Smith & Sharp 1993) and this is now the standard accepted timeframe for the settlement of Australia. So how did they arrive? Prehistoric Australia was a landmass known as Sahul, and it included New Guinea and Tasmania. Sahul was never connected to south-east Asia, then known as Sunda.

There is no evidence of significant tectonic movements in recent geological times, and man could not have crossed dry-shod from the Sunda to the Sahul land masses (Butzer 1972, 518).

This shows that prehistoric humans had to make a sea voyage in order to settle Sahul, ‘the permanant water barrier of Wallacea kept early people out’ (Burenhault 2003, 151). Due to the change in climate at the end of the Pleistocene ‘the sea level was more than 50m lower than it is today’ (Fairfor et al. 2003, 13) and even then there would have been no visible sign of land, ‘fifty or so miles puts Greater Australia over the horizon from Timor’ (Koppel 2005, 122).


But why would prehistoric man want to go to sea and look for a land that lay over the horizon? One theory suggests that the eruption of Mt. Toba in Sumatra caused widespread lack of resources ‘foragers migrating eastwards may have found regions devoid of food and tool making resources’ (Hiscock 2008, 25), thus they were pushed further towards the south-east in search of new land.

Once at the islands of Indonesia there were two routes which may have bought prehistoric humans to Sahul, one coming through Timor and the other through Sulawesi and New Guinea, however, ‘each of these routes still involves crossing open water without land visible on the horizon’ (Haviland et al 2010, 222).

The routes to Sahul, via island-hopping, and the fallout from Mt Toba lead us to believe that the colonisation of Sahul was deliberate. In the 1990’s it was hypothesised that the settlement may have been accidental ‘with a few early humans drifting on floating logs over the Wallacea waterways’ (Kirch 2002, 68), however it is now believed that the crossings may have been planned, ‘more frequent and two way voyages’ (Goodenough 1996, 13). So, with a need to find more resources and the possibility of a planned crossing, how did prehistoric man know where to go?

Australia is well-known for its bush-fires, sometimes catastrophic in today’s terms. If the land of Sahul was unseen and lay over the horizon, then the possibility of smoke from bush fires (Koppel 2005, 122) may have persuaded prehistoric man to adventure over the sea. But how did he do it?

Watercraft are known to have been used by Australian Aborigines from records kept of the colonisation of Australia by the British. However, those recorded would not have been suitable to make an ocean-going trip (Jupp 2001; Gould 2011), and if the crossing was planned, then they would also require enough room to carry some provisions too (Gould 2011, 20), like the Dingo, which possibly originated from south-east Asia 40,000 years ago.

The precise type of watercraft used by the first colonists will remain forever unknown, but the large rafts made of lashed together bamboo-poles which still ply some south-east Asian rivers for transport might give some clues (Glover & Bellwood 2004, 14).

Bark canoes, bamboos rafts, reed crafts, and log crafts have all been hypothesised. Bark canoes require few tool or knowledge as to construction (Johnstone 1989, 17). Log and reed rafts require further planning and construction as well as choosing the right trees to use to prevent water logging, ‘Taiwan log rafts were soaked in shark or tung oil’ (McGrail 2004, 288) and this would make them last longer, but did prehistoric man have the knowledge to know this?

In all of the sites explored through archaeology and marine archaeology no remains have been found of any craft (Kirch 2002; Gould 2011). Even in the Aboriginal creation time, known as the Dreamtime, are there any stories relating to the first travellers; no sagas, songs, stories or beliefs exist (McGrail 2004, 283).

Robert Bednarik made two experimental voyages, using the crude tools and materials that would have been available to prehistoric man, and was able to travel between two Indonesian islands, (Bednarik 1988, 1999). His successful experiments showed that it was indeed possible for such craft to have undertaken sea voyages.

The next question that arises is that of being able to maintain a course for the place you have in mind but cannot see. Did the travellers go by day or use the stars as guides at night? ‘Steering a course by stars, wind or swell may be another trait that has been lost due to non-use’ (McGrail 2004, 288). Therefore, are there skills, abilities and knowledge that have been lost over the centuries as they were no longer needed by the travellers as they found Sahul, liked the place, and decided to stay?

A recent article has stated that stone tools dating to Homo erectus have been found on the island of Crete, showing that they were able to cross water at a really early date, Home erectus dates from 1 million to 300,000 years ago, and are believed to be the first hominid to leave Africa. The researchers who made the discovery are from North Carolina State University,

Their evidence is based on stone tools …. are most similar to early stone-age tools from Africa that are about 700,000 years old …. (Chappell 2011).

If this find holds true then there is every reason to believe that the sea-crossing to Sahul was well within the capabilities of Homo sapiens (modern humans). They built their sea-going vessels, loaded them with provisions, family members, possibly a Dingo or two, and headed off to a land known to exist on the horizon, where they had possibly sighted smoke.

We now suspect that Homo erectus was able to travel by sea, if the findings of the North Carolina State University hold true, so could an earlier date be applied to the first settlers of Australia, and could the dates given by Thermoluminescence, back to 176,000 years ago, be correct?

Homo floriensis has also thrown a spanner in the works and upset the neat chronology for the Out of Africa Theory. The next article looks at H. Floriensis and the types of human crania uncovered in mainland Australia that questions whether there were two types of humans on the continent or whether there was internal diversification due to an isolated population.

Featured Author : Sue Carter


Allen. J., Holdaway. S. 1995. Contamination of Pleistocene Radiocarbon Determinations  in Australia. Antiquity 69: pp. 101-112.

Bednarik. R. 1998. An experiment in Pleistocene seafaring. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 27(2): 139-149.

Bednarik. R., Hobman. B. & Rogers. P. 1999. Nale Tasih 2: journey of a Middle Palaeolithic raft. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 26(1): 25-33.

Burenhault. G. (ed). 2003. People of the Past: The Epic Story of Human Origins and Development. San Francisco: Fog City Press.

Butzer. K. W.1972. Environment and Archaeology: An Ecological Approach to Prehistory. Oxon: Taylor and Francis.

Chappel. H. 2011. Human Precursors Went to Sea, Team Says. The News & Observer. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Accessed 18th August 2011.

Fairfor. S., Andrew. D., & Finlay. H. 2003. Northern Territory. Sydney: Lonely Planet.

Glover. I., & Bellwood. P. S. 2004. Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History. Oxon: Routledge.

Goodenough. W. H. 1996. Prehistoric Settlement of the Pacific. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Gould. R. A. 2011. Archaeology and the Social History of Ships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haviland. W. A., Walrath. D., Prins. H. E. L., & McBride. B.2010. Evolution and Prehistory: The Human Challenge. Victoria, NSW: Cengage Learning.

Hiscock. P. 2008. Archaeology of Ancient Australia. Oxon: Routledge.

Johnstone. P. 1989. The Sea-Craft of Prehistory. Oxon: Routledge.

Jupp. J. 2001. The Australian People: An Encyclopaedia of the Nation, it’s People and Their Origins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kirch. P. V. 2002. On The Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact. California: University of California Press.

Koppel. T. 2005. Lost World: Reuniting Prehistory – How New Science is Tracing America’s Ice Age Mariners. Cammeray, NSW: Simon & Schuster.

McGrail. S. 2004. Boats of the World: From the Stone Age to Medieval Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert. R. G., Jones. R., & Smith. M. A. 1994. Beyond the Radiocarbon Barrier in Australian Prehistory: A Critique of Allen’s Commentary. Antiquity 68: pp. 611-616.

Smith. M.A. & Sharp. N. D. 1993. ‘Pleistocene Sites in Australia, New Guinea and Island Melanesia: Geographic and Temporal Structure of the Archaeological Record’, in M.A. Smith, M. Spriggs and B. Fankhauser (eds) Sahul in Review: Pleistocene Archaeology in Australia, New Guinea and Island Melanesia, pp. 37-59. Canberra: Australian National University.

Spooner. N. A. 1998. Human Occupation at Jinmium, Northern Australia: 116,000 Years Ago or Much Less? Antiquity 72: pp. 173-178.

© Copyright 2011 HeritageDaily - Heritage & Archaeology News
Free PDF    Send article as PDF