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This article introduces the reader to a series discussing First Australians – their 65,000-year relationship to the land, plants, and the European culture that arrived on the continent only 250 years ago.

First Australians


We love the land and we know the land. The land talks to us, sings songs and talks to us. Even the birds tell us things about the land, they do. This is a spirituality that we’ve got. And we walk this land and we listen and we see. This land’s my life. This land is me and I am the land. And so it is too with all our people. You can see their expressions in their faces when they walk across the country – how much they love it. And I don’t think that’ll ever die

Iris Lovett-Gardiner Gunditjmar [1]

Baron von Mueller

Aboriginal spinning lesson

Central Australia

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Today we live in a world of complex social organization with instantaneous long-distance communication and sophisticated technology. More than half of all people live in cities that are linked to a global network of politics and international trade. This is a globalized world of immediate experience that is dominated by short-term events, man-made environments, and human culture.

But when we broaden our perspective, drawing back from now to examine the forces driving human history over the longer term, the sound of human voices and the influence of human creations recedes into the background, absorbed by the greater forces of the natural world.

For the historian analyzing the factors at play in human affairs the causal perspective changes as we move from the short-term urgency of the local, here, and now into the global, large-scale, and long-term.

Over the short term, the periods of recent history, we find ourselves preoccupied with individual people, places, and events.

Over longer periods we see history and social organization moulded by culture – by religion, science, economic systems, and ideologies.

Over yet longer periods we see geography as critical, strongly influenced by the location of resources and the constraints of mountains, deserts, landforms, and the sea. Over this time frame human history merges into environmental history.

Over an even greater time scale of hundreds of thousands of years we see the interplay of organism and environment in the evolutionary time frame that forged our bodies and our minds.

Driving this entire process, over all time, is the elemental energy that powers the universe and sustains all life, allowing us to survive, reproduce, and flourish.

Together these historical perspectives coalesce into the grand historical themes of culture, nature, and evolution – played out in the arena of place and time.

Human impact on the Australian landscape began when Aboriginal people first stepped onto this continent about 65,000 years ago – more than 20,000 years before modern humans migrated into northern Europe and more than 45,000 years before their arrival in the British Isles after the last Ice Age. The Aboriginal period of occupation has been so long that it can be measured in the geological terms of landscape transformation created by volcanic activity and natural climate change.

There is much we will never know about the interaction between Aboriginal and land as nomadic family groups migrated across the continent from north to south, arriving in Tasmania some 35,000 years ago. But gradually archaeologists, ecologists, palaeontologists, anthropologists, linguists and others have begun piecing this remarkable story together. Their work has steadily accumulated evidence addressing the following key questions:


    • When and where did Aboriginals arrive on this continent?
    • Was there more than one wave of occupation?
    • What was the speed and path of migration within the continent?
    • How have population numbers and culture been influenced by the climatic and landscape changes that have occurred during their c. 65,000 years of occupation?
    • What were the places, nature and timing of major cultural changes?
    • How and when was the arid zone colonized?
    • What was the role of Aboriginals, if any, in the extinction of Australia’s ancient megafauna?
    • What has been the impact of Aboriginal fire on the Australian landscape?
    • Why did the domestication of plants and animals not occur in Australia as it had on other continents?
    • How did Aboriginal belief systems influence their relationship with the land and their method of land care?

Having at least partial answers to these questions helps us assess the extent to which the landscape meeting the eyes of the first Europeans navigating along Australia’s coastline in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a product of human activity.

This series of articles on First Australians[4] examines the environmental, cultural, and economic aspects of the Aboriginal hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle and the recent superimposition of a modern Western techno-industrial society. This is part of the constant reinterpretation of the past, and the reappraisal of our vision for a more sustainable future.

Media Gallery

‘Primitive People’

Condescending British 1950s interpretation of Aboriginal society.

Times and values have changed.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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