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See also History in 10,000 words

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 Gunditjmara[1]

We live in a world of extraordinarily complex social organisation with rapid long-distance communication, sophisticated technology, and intercontinental trade. More than half the world population now lives in cities linked in a network of politics and economics. This is a globalised world where our immediate experience is dominated by short-term events, man-made environments, and human culture. But when we broaden our perspective, drawing back from now to view the forces driving human history over the longer term, the sound of human voices and the influence of human creations recede into the background, absorbed by the greater forces of the natural world.

Aboriginal sinning lesson, Central Australia Source unknown Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Aboriginal spinning lesson, Central Australia
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For the historian analysing the causal factors at play in human affairs the perspective changes as we consider ever longer time scales as we move from the particular urgency of the local, here, and now to the generality of the inexorable and universal. Over the short-term, the periods of recent history, we are preoccupied with the transient events of cultural history. Over a longer period of several millennia we see the development of social organisation challenged by mountains and deserts, land and sea. At this global scale of desire for resources, novelty and power our attention focuses on human ingenuity constrained by geography, a form of environmental history. Over an even greater time scale of hundreds of thousands of years we enter the more general and abstract interplay of organism and environment, the long-term formative interaction that forged both our bodies and our minds through evolutionary history. Throughout all this is the elemental energy that drives the universe and sustains all life, allowing us to survive, reproduce and flourish. Together these perspectives coalesce into the grand historical themes of culture, nature, and evolution played out in the arena of time and space.

Human impact on the Australian landscape began when Aboriginal people first stepped onto this continent about 55,000 years ago – more than 10,000 years before modern humans migrated into northern Europe and about 25,000 years before their arrival in the British Isles. The period of occupation was 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 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. 55,000 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 the First Australians examines the environmental, cultural, and economic aspects of the Aboriginal hunter-gatherer lifestyle in comparison with that of modern western techno-industrial society as part of our constant reinterpretation of the past and reappraisal of our vision for a more sustainable future.


Citations & notes
[1] cited in Keeler, C. & Couzens, V. (eds) Meerreeng-an Here is My Country: the story of Aboriginal Victoria told through art. Koorie Heritage Trust. 2010. p. 11.
[2] Blainey, 2015
[3] Blainey, 2015, p. 5

Popular and scientific general accounts of Australia’s First People
Blainey, G. 1976. Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia. The Overlook Press: New York
Blainey, G. 2015. The Story of Australia’s People: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia. Viking: Australia
Boroditsky, L. & Gaby, A. 2010. Remembrance of Times East. Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australia Aboriginal Community. Psychological Science 21(11): 1635-1639
Bowern, C. 2010. Historical Linguistics in Australia: Trees, Networks and their Implications. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365: 3845-3854
Clarke, P.A. 2008. Aboriginal Plant Collectors: Botanists and Aboriginal people in the Nineteenth Century. Rosenberg Publishing: Kenthurst, NSW
Dixon, R. 2002. Australian Languages: Their Nature & Development. University of Hawaii Press: Hawaii
Clarke, P.A. 2008. Aboriginal People and their Plants. Rosenberg Publishing: Dural, NSW
Flood, J. 2004. Archaeology of the Dreamtime. JB Publishing: Marleston, SA
Flood, J. 2006. The Original Australians: Story of the Aboriginal People. Allen & Unwin: Sydney
Gammage, B. 2011.The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen & Unwin: Melbourne
Gerritson, R. 2008. Australia and the Origins of Agriculture. Archaeopress: London
Hateley, R. 2010. The Victorian Bush: Its ‘Original and Natural’ Condition. Polybractea Press: Melbourne
Hiscock, P. 2008. Archaeology of Ancient Australia. Routledge: New York
Hudjashov, G. et al. 2007. Revealing the Prehistoric Settlement of Australia by Y Chromosome and mtDNA Analysis. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 104(21): 8726-8730
Kohen, J.L. 1995. Aboriginal Environmental Impacts. UNSW Press: Sydney
Kerwin, D. 2010. Aboriginal Dreaming Paths & Trading Routes. Sussex Academic Press
Mulvaney, J. & Kamminga, J. 1999. Prehistory of Australia. Allen & Unwin: Sydney
Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu: Black seeds agriculture or accident. Magabala Books: Broome, WA
Presland, G. 2010. First People: the Eastern Kulin of Melbourne, Port Phillip and Central Victoria. Museum Victoria: Melbourne
Thorne, A. & Raymond, R. 1989. Man on the Rim: The Peopling of the Pacific. Angus & Robertson: North Ryde

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