Australia’s Real First Fleet Uncovered

New modelling suggests the First Fleet lobbed up on Australia’s shores a good 50,000 years earlier than we thought.

New modelling suggests the First Fleet lobbed up on Australia’s shores a good 50,000 years earlier than we thought.

While we already know Indigenous Australians are the oldest continuous living culture on the planet and some of their art dating back over 30,000 years makes the Egyptians look like post-modernists in comparison, it would seem they are also the real First Fleeters.

There remains a debate as to how the First Australians arrived but according to the modelling by a group of experts investigating our continent’s deep history, they arrived in large groups using complex technologies.

The researchers representing the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage used sophisticated modelling to determine not only the likely routes travelled by Aboriginal people tens of thousands of years ago, but also the sizes of groups required for the population to survive in harsh conditions.

Their findings support the theory people arrived in several large and deliberate migrations by island-hopping down to West Papua and beyond more than 50,000 years ago. At the time, sea levels were probably close to 75-metres lower than they are today so more islands may have been visible to our north. This could have meant there was a near land bridge leading down from West Papua New Guinea and our first intrepid First Fleeters potentially hugged island coastlines as they made their way down.

Then again, the researchers suggest Indigenous navigators may have been able to make more complex over-the-horizon voyages.

Professor Michael Bird, from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) and James Cook University said “this research offers a greater understanding of how migration events took place and further evidence of the marine and navigation capabilities used to make these deliberate journeys,” he said.

What the studies confirm is the ancestors of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people possessed sophisticated technology and knowledge to build watercraft. They also showcase the remarkable ability at that time to plan, navigate, and make multiple complicated, open-ocean voyages to directly transport large numbers of people.

While many Aboriginal cultures believe people have always been here, others have strong oral histories of ancestral beings arriving from the north.

Bearing this in mind, the team of multidisciplinary researchers from CABAH and the CSIRO set out to establish the most likely route travelled to reach the ancient mega-continent, known as Sahul (New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania joined at times of low sea level).

“We developed demographic models to determine which island-hopping route ancient people most likely took,” said CABAH’s Professor Corey Bradshaw, from Flinders University.

“A northern route connecting the islands of Mangoli, Buru, and Seram into West Papua New Guinea would probably have been easiest to navigate and survive. This route was easiest when compared to the southern route from Timor that leads to the now-drowned Sahul Shelf in the modern-day Kimberley region.”

The researchers also used complex mathematical modelling — considering factors including fertility, longevity, past climate conditions, and other ecological principles — to calculate the numbers of people required for the population as a whole to survive.

The simulations indicate that at least 1300 people arrived in either a single migration event or smaller, successive waves averaging at least 130 people every 70 years or so, over the course of about 700 years.

“This suggests planned and well-organised maritime migration, rather than accidental arrival,” Professor Bradshaw added.

Lead Image: Photograph by Joey Csunyo Source: Unsplash 

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