Who’s Your Daddy? Who were the first Australians

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But who were these first people and from where did they come? Could humans have developed in Australia at the same time they were developing in Africa? Was there a wave of immigrants or only one founding population? And where does Homo floriensis fit into this picture, if at all?

It can quite comfortably be stated that humans did not develop in Australia in the same way that they did in Africa as ‘no primates (apes or monkeys) or even more distant human relatives’ (Burenhult 2003, 151) have been found in the continent. It had previously been thought that they existed no further east than the Indonesian Islands, but in 2003 Homo floriensis was discovered in the Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores by Mike Norwood and his team (Morwood et al 2004). Although this pushed an earlier species of human closer to the shores of Sahul, this is now considered the furthest east they would have come.

It is generally understood that ‘colonization of Siberia began about 42,000 years ago’ (Haviland et al 2010, 221), and Sahul afterwards as migrations moved further east. This all fits in neatly with the radiocarbon dating that has been accepted for the settlement of Sahul, but what about those dates, tested through Thermoluminescence, that place them even further back – to the time of Homo erectus? To put it in perspective, this places them in ‘a confrontation like that of moderns and Neanderthals in Europe’ (Howells 1997, 170). Something to think about, especially when dating techniques are telling us that this is the case.


Using the accepted dating of c.40,000 years ago, and the archaeological evidence that has been uncovered so far, it is quite safe to say that ‘the initial colonisers of Australia were Homo sapiens sapiens, since they are the only human remains to have been found on the continent’ (Smith & Burke 2007, 26). This then places the settlement of Sahul at the same time as that of Europe, however, the dating

Is complicated by three factors; a scarcity of skeletal evidence, both in Australia and its nearest neighbour, south east Asia; the difficulties involved in distinguishing between different populations and sexual dimorphism within one population; the problems of dating and interpretation (Smith & Burke 2007, 26).

Asia is Australia’s nearest neighbour and thus it is considered the place from which the migrants made their way across the sea to settle the new land. It has been stated that the early arrivals ‘came from south eastern Asia, most probably from the Indonesian island group, Java, Sumatra and Borneo’ (Butzer 1972, 516), and the island of Flores lies just east of this group. They crossed the strip of water separating Sunda and Sahul and settled in the new land.

One of the biggest debates surrounds whether the migrants came in one or successive waves (Brown 1997; Habgood 2003), and also if their origins were from one or multiple places.  Birdsell (1977) believed there to have been three waves of migrants from south eastern Asia and a ‘dihybrid’ theory was proposed by Thorne (1971, 1976, 1977; Thorne & Wilson 1977; Thorne & Wolpoff 1981). This debate still continues but what is certain is that ‘a mounting body of evidence suggests a rapid occupation of Australia’ (Macintyre 2009, 9).

The debate surrounding the populations was fuelled by the remains of cranium uncovered in Australia, ‘considerable physical variation is seen in Australian fossil specimens’ (Haviland 2010, 222). There are two ‘types’ that have been uncovered and these have been termed ‘gracile’ and ‘robust’, (Lahr 1996, 29),

The Gracile material (Mungo 1 and 3, Keilor) exhibits high and rounded skulls, expanded temporal and frontal regions, small brow ridge development, thin bones, short faces and relatively small palates, mandibles and teeth (Habgood cited in Lahr 1996, 294)

The Robust group (Kow Swamp, Cohuna, Coolbool Creek, Mossgiel, Lake Nitchie, Cossack crania, all dated to between 16 and 10 Ka), show relatively low and ‘rugged’ skulls, flat receding frontal bones that are broad anteriorly and have a pre-bregmatic eminence, postorbital constriction, large supraorbital tori, broad pragmatic faces, moderate gabling of the vault, thick cranial walls, occipital tori and large palates, mandibles and teeth (Thorne cited in Lahr 1996, 294)

The differences are quite marked, but are they enough to show that there were possibly two founding populations? Taking the dates into consideration it appears that the gracile fossils are earlier than the robust type,

The ‘graciles’ appear earlier; LM 1 and 3 are either 40,000 or 60,000 years old….of the ‘robusts’ WLH 50 is 14,000 years old, the Kow Swamp specimens vary from 9,000 to 12,000 years ago….and the Coolbool skulls vary about the same, while Nitchie … is only 6,000 years old (Cameron & Groves 2004, 256).

However, it has also been understood that ‘gracile characteristics were viewed as ‘modern’ and robust characteristics as ‘archaic’ (Lourandos 1997, 90), due to the cranial characteristics. However, the above dating tells a different story.

So is there any relationship between the two ‘types’? Webb (2206) sates that ‘it is apparent that many graciles were small in height’ (Webb 2004, 234), and that ‘gracile morphology did not exist right across the continent ….it was restricted to certain areas in the south and east’ (Webb 2004, 248). Also, the gracile evidence suggests ‘not a Chinese link, but a broader movement of modern humans across the face of the globe’ (Webb 2004, 247-248).

The robust fossils are dated later and this shows that there ‘seems to be an increasing robusticity over time’ (Cameron & Groves 2004, 256), tending one to believe that the population started out as gracile, and through time and space developed into more robust characteristics due to location and environment.

The prehistoric environment was different from that of today, it was colder, drier, extensively forested and had more areas of fresh water (Lourandos 1997, 296). It was wetter, and the fauna included ‘giant marsupials …and flightless birds’ (Fairfor et al., 2003, 13). This all resulted in a ‘diverse concentrated food supply’ (Bailey 1988, 6) and as an added advantage there was ‘an absence of predators, for there were few carnivorous competitors’ (Macintyre 2009, 10), making it an ideal place to stay an explore.

The maritime and estuarine locations were settled as they provided facilitation in ‘population dispersal and interchange’ (Bailey 1988, 6), and these are the areas that the new settlers tended to stay,

Evidence of these first settlers is slight, although it comes from three corners of the continent; north (New Guinea and north Queensland), south east (including Tasmania), and southwest (Lourandos 1997, 296).

Going back to the robust cranial features, and the suggestion they are dated after those with gracile features, we have to take into consideration the environment in which these first settlers came to inhabit, and the way they have changed through time. Adaption to the environment can cause anatomical changes and differences regionally. This has been researched by Brown (1987) and Habgood (1989) who put forward the hypothesis of internal diversification. Given the vast area of Sahul, and the variety of environments contained within it, internal diversification has its merits.

The early period of small population size would have allowed for strong differentiation to occur, differentiation that was then magnified through subsequent population expansions….A long period of comparative isolation would have allowed the development of a regional morphological lineage (Lahr 1996, 294).

This can explain how there is a difference in the cranial remains that have been found so far. With the gracile population seen as the founding people, who then changed over time, to adapt to their environment; environments that were known and used over generations of the people who lived off the land,

With a precise and intimate knowledge of its resources and seasonal patterns. They organised socially in extended families, with specific rights and specific responsibilities for specific country, and rules to regulate their interaction with others (Macintyre 2009, 11).

This could explain the occurrence of the two fossil types being located in or near the same areas, but through time and space, had changed, and originated from the one founding population. This is confirmed through genetics which ‘indicate that Australia was colonized by a single large and diverse population and has remained minimally affected by outside gene pools’  and that ‘Biologically these Pleistocene people belonged to one population’ therefore ‘did not simply have either gracile or robust features, but often had a mix of characteristics’ (Hiscock 2008, 97, 98). Further evidence shows that ‘The mtDNA sequences do not differentiate gracile and robust morphologies’ (Adcock et al. 2001).

These DNA findings show that the gracile and robust cranial remains came from the same founding population who adapted to their environments when they dispersed throughout the continent. Through social interactions and the occasional migration of others from southeast Asia changes were inevitable.

This leads to the puzzling discovery of Homo floresiensis on the island of Flores (Morwood et al 2004; Brown et al. 2004). Does it, if at all, have any bearing upon the peopling of Sahul? At first I thought no, but then my attention was drawn to an article relating to the lost pygmy tribes of Australia, The Extinction of the Australian Pygmies by Windschuttle and Gillin (2002). Although it puts forward a compelling idea, it has been refuted by Westaway and Hiscock (2005), who conclude their comment by stating it as ‘a fanciful and ultimately superficial discussion of Australia’s past …. The reason that pygmies are not discussed in models of human colonization of Australia is that a separate group of pygmies never existed here’ (Westaway & Hiscock 2005, 146, 147). (Links to both of these papers are above the reference section below).

Others have written about the Australian pygmies (McNiven & Russell 2005; Nekes et al. 2006; Layton 2010 – Myths). McNiven and Russell (2005) say it amounts to a conspiracy theory; and Nekes et al (2006) state that in the 1930’s they were all shipped off to Palm Island to make way for the sugar cane industry: and Layton refers to a myth surrounding pygmies that were ‘exterminated’ and represented in rock-art (Layton 2010: 128). But these subjects are still open for debate and I will not be continuing them here.

The preceding information is relevant to this article in the hypothesis that there may have, at some time, been one or more individuals that made the crossing to Sahul from the island of Flores. We know that Homo floresiensis must have made some type of craft to cross the 19km of water to get to the island of Flores originally, could they also have travelled further? There is evidence of the technology used by Homo floresiensis which ‘date to 880,000 years ago, more than 600,000 years before Homo sapiens appeared on the evolutionary scale’ (Schalley & Khlenztos 2007: 2), but could they have made sailing craft? Researchers also believe that,

Found throughout the cave ….. were sophisticated stone tools…. Evidence of advanced technology and cooperation on a modern human level has prompted the discoverers to hypothesize that Homo floresiensis almost certainly had language (Lafreniere 2010:89)

Therefore, showing all the traits and advancements of modern humans there is a possibility that Homo floresiensis had the capability to cross large stretches of water, especially as they had already developed the nautical skills to cross to Flores to begin with.

At present, Homo floresiensis is seen as a descendant of Indonesian Homo erectus that got isolated on Flores 800 kya and succumbed to the ecological pressures of island living by dwarfing in body size (Dunsworth 2007: 96)

To find out if they ever did cross to Pleistocene Sahul, would mean uncovering  remains on the mainland – like looking for a needle in a haystack!

Homo floresiensis may have survived until the sixteenth century when the Dutch navigated the islands,

In the mythology of the island, there were common references to small, hairy, language-poor cave-dwellers called Ebu-Gogo (Lafreniere 2010:87)

However, this may not be the earliest reference to the inhabitants of Flores. Between 1357 and 1371 Sir John de Mandeville, a Medieval knight, produced his work, The Travels of Sir John de Mandeville, where he claims to have travelled through the Holy lands, India and the Indonesian Islands. Some regard his work as fictional, however, others believe him to have been the first European to have travelled so far around the globe.  He mentions Java by name, and states,

In one isle are little men as Dwarfs, who have no mouth but a little round hole, and through that hole they eat their meat with a pipe; and they have no tongue neither do they speak, but blow and do whistle, and to make signs one to another (Mandeville n.d: 95)

As his writings were so early and written at a time when the Church ruled your thoughts and lives, the illustrations by the monks who copied the text were biased and ‘It was concluded that his entire journey must have been a fiction’ (Milton 1996: 249). Some of his descriptions have since been proven accurate and Milton (1996) points out that

Even Mandeville’s story of the reed-beds of Borneo – where precious jewels are said to grow on the branches of the plants – has a rational explanation: bamboo emits a siliceous concretion which could easily be mistaken for a gemstone (Milton 1996: 250).

As far as the pygmies are concerned, at the time of Milton writing his book, Homo floresiensis had not been discovered and the only other historically known pygmies in the region were those of New Guinea,

And while there are certainly no pygmies on the Asian mainland, Sir John’s race of midgets sound remarkably like the warrior pygmies who inhabit the highlands of New Guinea (Milton 1996: 250).

In conclusion, it appears, through science and anthropological findings to date, that Sahul was possibly settled by one main founding population, which changed due to the large and varied environments within the continent. However, with Homo floresiensis in the vicinity and the possibility of a large pygmy population in Queensland once existing, I believe that the settlement of Sahul is still open to debate and that no one theory should stand over the others. Only with further investigations through archaeology and anthropology can we move forward with our endeavours to uncover the settlement origins of Sahul.

Written by Sue Carter

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