The History of Australia Podcast

Episode 6 - The First Fleet

November 15, 2020 Jasmin O'Connor Season 1 Episode 7
The History of Australia Podcast
Episode 6 - The First Fleet
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, humans set foot on the Australian continent for the first time. 

The History of Australia Podcast

Transcript - Episode 6 The First Fleet

Welcome to the History of Australia Podcast, Episode 6 - The First Fleet. Last episode, we had a look at fire hawks, Australia’s home grown pyromaniac birds who light fires for hunting. 

This week, it’s back to the narrative. In today’s episode,  Australia is discovered for the first time by homo sapiens. 

Now, a bit of a reminder of the context. During most of the last 100,000 years, Australia had a very different climate and geography. Until the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago, Australia was much cooler. There were enormous amounts of ice in the North and South Poles of the world. Sea levels were significantly lower than they are today, as much as 120 to 180 metres (400 to 600 feet) lower than present levels. That meant Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea formed a single continent, called Sahul. Sahul was very close to its present global position, that is, just south of Asia. However, Sahul remained separated from Southeast Asia by a series of oceanic troughs so deep that the falling sea levels never brought South East Asia and Sahul together. At any time, moving from South East Asia to Sahul would have required at least 8–10 sea crossings between different islands. 

 Despite these deep sea crossings, within really a very short space of time, homo sapiens were able to navigate these crossings and colonise Australia. 

From about 350,000 to 150,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa. These were anatomically modern humans, indistinguishable from you or me today. They were tall and lithe. They had the big brain and flat face, small jaw and small teeth that characterise you and I. There are a lot of gaps still in our understanding, like:

  • What exact species did we evolve from? 
  • Where in Africa did we evolve? 
  • Did our brain and our intelligence and social capacities evolve at the same time as our skeletal form, or later? 

Some of the earliest dated homo sapien fossils are from: 

  • Morocco: the Jebel Irhoud excavations in Morocco are dated to 350,000 to 280,000 years old
  • South Africa: the Florisbad fossils are dated to 260,000 years ago.
  • Israel: the Zuttiyeh and Tabun fossils are dated to about 300,000 years ago. 
  • Ethiopia: specimens from the Ibish formation are dated to 196,000 years ago.

About 72,000 years ago, Sapiens from North Africa and the Middle East started to spread into the Mediterranean and Asia. These sapiens are the direct ancestors of all non-Africans today. And aside from the fossil record, it is the record in our DNA that has really in recent years shed light on this. By mapping the DNA of people from all over the world, scientists are able to see that there is less and less genetic diversity in populations further from Africa. What this means is that you have a population of homo sapiens in Africa, and then a small subgroup of those decides to leave Africa and they venture out into the middle east and there they grow and multiply, and then a subgroup again set out and they travel into Asia and groups settle along the way and again a subgroup keeps going through South East Asia and again a subgroup keeps going down into Oceania. And so even when then you have a long established population living in Oceania, they are never going to end up with that same genetic diversity that existed in Africa originally. Over time their DNA is going to diverge and mutate and develop new diversity, but that is going to be different, new diversity that’s going to leave a different record in our DNA.

On their way to Australia, homo sapiens came into contact with earlier species of humans that had left Africa in earlier waves of migration. 

Recent genomic studies have shown that the ancestors of both Aboriginal Australians and Papuans on occasion bred with Neanderthals and Denisovans and another archaic hominin. And this encounter with other archaic hominins is unique to the homo sapiens that went on to colonize sahul. This is something that happened after this population had diverged from the homo sapiens that remained in Africa, and the homo sapiens who went on to colonise Eurasia. So it’s a truly unique part of the history of the human race.  

So it’s a bit of a funny situation, because we call Neanderthals and Denisovans and this other mystery hominin a different species, but the definition of a species is a group of living organisms who can produce fertile offspring. And our own DNA is testament to the fact that our ancestors were able to produce fertile offspring with Neanderthals and Denisovans and other archaic and unidentified humans. And I’ve quite often read that homo sapiens were almost, but not quite  an entirely separate species because it was only on rare occasions that we were able to produce fertile offspring. Which, I don’t know what evidence there is that scientists are drawing on to make that conclusion, that interbreeding was only successful on rare occasions. How do they know how often interbreeding was attempted? I haven’t come across any journal articles of fossil finds of infertile humans who are 50:50 sapien/neanderthal or sapien/denisovan. And obviously there were no scientists around at that time observing how often they were trying to do the dirty. So how can they conclude that it wasn’t lack of opportunity (say living in mostly different places at different times) or social and cultural barriers (like different language and customs) that precluded interbreeding or that neanderthals and denisovans had relatively small populations compared to sapiens, so their legacy genetically just gets dwarfed by sapien DNA? The point is, we did successfully interbreed so it’s not really correct to call us different species.  

A lot of scientists point to skeletal differences to label us as different species, differences in brow ridges, facial musculature and cranial space to say we are a different species altogether. But then I think, well a pug and a poodle and a great dane are all dogs, canis lupus familiaris, and their skeletons are extremely different, so that doesn’t seem like definitive proof. One journal article I was reading The saltational model for the dawn of H. sapiens, chin, adolescence phase, complex language and modern behavior  published in Nature Precedings does actually suggest that Neanderthals and Modern humans are actually sub-species of the same species. 

Either way, whether they are a different species of a subspecies, they were a distinct population. 

And another contentious point is that after sapiens come into Eurasia, other human populations become extinct and it’s not clear why. All other human populations appear to go extinct between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. Perhaps the last of these other humans to die out is the diminutive humans living in the Island of Flores, Homo floresiensis. So again just to recap, Flores is an island in Indonesia, just north of Australia. Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only one metre (about 3 feet) and weighed no more than twenty-five kilograms. Despite their small stature, they hunted komodo dragons and pygmy elephants. 

I wonder whether the ancestors of aboriginal Australians came into contact with these other humans and if that has left an imprint on their culture. There are many aboriginal Australian stories of tiny human species. 

In I, the Aboriginal, Waipuldanya, tells of a fabled group of pygmies called the Burgingin who live in the mountains in the Northern Territory of Australia. Waipuldanya describes the Burgingin as Little People, three feet tall and immensely strong. Waipuldanya hypothesises that the Burgingin may be a cultural memory of the pygmy people living in New Guinea. People from Papua and New Guinea are amongst those with the shortest stature in the world, but their average height is still about 5 feet 3 inches tall.  

Charles P. Mountford, in The Dawn of Time, details another aboriginal story of pygmy people. The Ningauis live in the dense mangrove swamps of an island, Imaluna, that lies off the northern coast of Australia. The Ningauis resemble aboriginal Australians except that they are small people, about two feet tall. These pygmies, it is told, don’t command the use of fire and so eat their diet of crabs, shellfish and jungle plants raw. 

Now in the story recounted by Mountford, the Ningauis are imbued with some magical powers. They are shy people and if anyone goes near them they’ll call out “Eeh” and this has the ability to make everything go dark and then under the cover of darkness, the Ningauis run away.   

While the Ningauis don’t have command of fire, they are still a sophisticated people with secret rituals, songs and chanting. 

There is an element of the bogey man in the retelling by Mountford. He says, and I quote, “There are tales of hunters who, lured by the songs and light, have ventured into the swamps to find out what was happening. But as soon as the intruders were detected, the Ningauis made the swamp so dark, and the mangrove trees bend so closely together, that the strangers lost their way and died.”

 Anyway, I don’t think in the historical or cultural record I’m going to stumble across a source that definitively says “yes Aboriginal Australians interacted with and knew homo floresiensis, or neanderthals or denisovans. But just my own personal hunch is that if any cultural is going to have a cultural memory or imprint or connection to these other ancient humans, it seems to me that there is a good chance that it’s going to be Aborignal Australians. And that’s because these are such ancient, unbroken, continuous cultures with stories that do go back thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years. So if any cultures are going to remember these things, then these cultures are probably a good place to start that inquiry. 

The first sapiens to migrate to Australia are the direct ancestors of the indigenous people of Australia today. So what does that mean, if the original colonisers were able to thrive and multiple and spread out over the whole continent? 

Well, mathematical simulations by Sam Gallou at the University of Adelaide, suggest that at least 1,300 people would have been  needed to have arrived in a single migration event to Sahul to have created a long-term viable population. Alternatively, if there were successive waves of migration, there would have to be about 130 people arriving every 70 years or so over the course of about 700 still about 1300 people in total. 

The implication of this is that the first arrival of Indigenous Australians was deliberately planned using complex technologies as they migrated in large groups.I think what this modelling does is debunk the idea that stable, long-term colonisation of a continent could happen by accident. Say, a pregnant survivor of a tsunami swept out to sea and stranded in Australia goes on to populate a whole continent. You know the chances of long term survival are improbable and the incest would just be horrendous. 

The amount of people that needed to migrate to reach a stable population, whether that is a one off migration or successive waves of migration, really points to that being a sophisticated and planned undertaking. These are people capable of undertaking deliberate open ocean voyages. 

Aside from being deliberate, all the evidence also points to the journey being undertaken very early in sapien prehistory. While dating techniques do give us different dates, all the dates are very ancient and the conclusion is undoubtedly that this is the first major orchestrated ocean voyage undertaken by sapiens. 

Lets take for example the DNA evidence. DNA evidence suggests that approximately 58,000 years ago the ancestors of indigenous Papuan and Australian people became a genetically identifiable group. By contrast, European and Asian ancestral groups became distinct in the genetic record around 42,000 years ago. So basically, what this is suggesting is that Papuans and indigenous Australians probably reached Sahul first and were living there and adapting there before modern sapiens made their way into Europe and settled in Europe.  

The archaeological record also reinforces the ancientness of the first crossings to Australia. There are sites of human occupation of Australia that are dated to around 65,000 years ago. The oldest is the Madjedbebe (previously called Malakunanja II) rock shelter in Arnhem Land. And I think it’s worth noting again here that the ancient coastline of Australia is flooded and under 120 metres of water, so it’s really unlikely that this is the oldest occupation site by indigenous Australians, it’s just the oldest that we’ve found, the oldest are undoubtedly long flooded and the archaeological evidence likely destroyed. 

Crossing to Australia about 65,000 - 70,000 years ago would have been comparatively easier. Sea levels were lower due to a cooler climate, meaning fewer and shorter ocean crossings. 

There are a number of likely paths of migration across Asia and into Sahul. These are based on modelling the shortest possible route and take into consideration the land bridges that would appear during times of low sea levels. It’s currently posited that the most likely landing point would have been West Papua. This would have been after crossing via Sulawesi, Mangoli, Buru, and Seram. So for those less familiar with the local geography, this is an island hopping route right to the tippy top most northern point of Sahul, modern day West Papua, that’s sitting at the equator. 

There is another posited landing point of the Kimberly in the Northern Territory of Australia. This is a slightly more southern route, still via modern day Indonesia, into the mainland of Australia at about 10ish degrees south of the equator.  This would have been via Flores and Timor. So, as a side note, I think this also still opens up the possibility that aboriginal Australians may have come into contact with Homo Floresiensis on their journey.  

However, travel may have also occurred earlier when sea levels were high. Migration when sea levels were high is often discounted because there is still a lot of professional scepticism about whether sapiens would have had the seafaring capabilities to make the journey when oceans are higher. But there is not really any evidence to rule it out either. Some scientists also point to higher sea levels as potentially being the instigation for why sapiens were venturing out and colonising new areas in the first instance. High sea levels would have reduced the amount of usable land and increased the population pressure. During these times it may have been necessary to expand into new areas.

Whether the crossing or crossings were made when sea levels were low or high, it nevertheless remains that the settlement of Australia is the first unequivocal evidence of a major sea crossing and rates as one of the greatest achievements of early humans. 

The lack of preservation of any ancient boat means archaeologists will probably never know what kind of craft was used for the journey. So in my reading I’ve often seen people hypothesising what is the most rudimentary craft that could be used to make an open ocean crossing? And some of the suggestions thrown out there is floating debris, or a log, or bamboo lashed together. To me such rudimentary ocean craft seem incongruous with the mathematical modelling that suggests that 1,300 people undertook this voyage. To me that’s suggestive of a more sophisticated craft. 1,300 people floating across the ocean together on debris seems almost laughable actually. It appears that humans in those times were familiar with the ocean and sea faring. Excavations in southeastern Timor, for example, have revealed coastal fishers using sophisticated fishing technology, with fishermen capturing open ocean fish such as tuna 42,000 years ago. 

I think a common question that people might ask is, well if people did plan to head to Australia, how did the first Australians know that there was a continent to head to in the first place? There are many factors that indicate the existence of Australia, or Sahul as it would have been. These factors could include: 

  • Bushfires: the flow and smoke caused by bushfires 
  • Birds: migrating birds flying south, or feeding birds flying to the south after catching fish. 
  • Drifting land vegetation
  • Clouds piled up over land
  • Different coloured clouds - these can be reflecting the colours of reefs, sand, forests etc. below
  • Loom above land created by sunlight or moonlight reflecting up from sand
  • The presence of certain fish or sea life
  • Distorted ocean swell patterns
  • Phosphorescence or luminescence in the ocean waters

These are some of the indicators used by Polynesian people, the native people of Hawaii, New Zealand, French Polynesia Tonga and the islands in between. 

So, what do aboriginal voices say on their origin in Australia? Of course there are many different stories and beliefs, reflecting the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people who come from hundreds of different nations with their own languages and customs and histories and stories. Many Aboriginal people hold the belief that they were created on the land that is Australia. That is, they are aboriginal, or indigenous or native in the truest sense that they have always, since the very beginning been right here. 

A story that illustrates this belief is the creation story of Bunjil, which was read in Episode 2 - In the Beginning. In that story, an ancestral being creates the first indigenous people, right here on Australian land. 

The Arrernte people of central Australia also tell a story of being created from the earth. Their tribe is created by two ancestral beings who lived in the western sky and came to earth to carve men and women out of boulders. 

The following is another account of indigenous people coming to Australia. This story is told by Alex Vesper from Woodenbong of the origin of the Bundjalung people and the settlement of Australia:

This story has been handed down by [aboriginal people] through their generations. This story cannot be altered. 

I am sixty-seven years of age. I heard this story from my grandfather who was a full-blood of the Ngarartbul [Ngarahgwal] tribe near Murwillumbah. On my grandmother's side the tribe was Gullibul [Galibal]. from Casino and Woodenbong. I heard this story also from many old [aboriginal people] who came from other tribes. 

The first finding of this unknown land, Australia, was made by three brothers who came from the central part of the world. The names of these three brothers were Mamoon, Yar Birrain and Birrung. They were compelled to explore for land on the southerly part of the world. They were forced out of the centre of the world by revolutions and warfare of those nations of the central part.

They came in a sailing ship. As they made direct for south, coming across and seeing different islands and seeing the people in these islands, they kept in the sea all the time until they came to Australia, to the eastern part of this continent.

Their first coming into the land was at Yamba Head, Clarence River. They anchored just on the mouth of the Clarence. This was the first landing of men in this empty continent. They camped, taking out of their empty ship all their camping belongings, such as a steel axe and many other things of the civilised race in the central part of the world. 

After they had rested from the voyage, through the night a storm started to rise from the west. The force of wind broke the anchor and deprived them of the ship, which was driven out to sea and never seen again. 

These three brothers had each a family of his own and they had their mother. Their three wives were with them. When they knew that the ship was gone, they reasoned among themselves and said. "The only possible chance is to make a canoe and return from here from island to island." 

So they went up the Clarence River and they came across a black-butt tree. They stripped the bark off it, made a big fire, a long fire, and heated the bark until it was flexible, until you could bend it about as you pleased. Out of this fifteen to twenty feet long sheet of bark, they made a canoe. Three of these canoes were made. 

They went back to their families and told them to get everything packed up as they were about to leave. Their families said, "Yes. we'll pack up, but mother has gone out for some yams. She was looking for something to eat" So they sang out. They searched along the beach, among the honey-suckle and the tea-tree along the coast, trying to find the old woman. But she had wandered too far out of the reach of their search. She thought within herself that her sons would not be able to make the canoes so quickly. 

The three brothers said. "Well, she might have died. We'll have to go back into the sea." So they packed up. So they took to the ocean in the three canoes with the intention of returning where they came from. 

After they got a distance out from Yamba Head, the old woman arrived back at the camp they had left. So she went up to the top of the hill and started singing out for them. And she saw them two or three miles out on the ocean. 

She was trying to wave them back, but it seemed to be impossible for her to draw their attention. So she was angry with them. She cursed them and spoke to the ocean to be rough. As she cursed them and spoke to the ocean to be rough, the ocean started to get fierce. As they attempted to continue on against the tempest they were driven back to the northern shore beyond Yamba. They were compelled to come in to land at the place which is now known as Evans Head. 

They made the first settling place in Australia at Evans Head. One of the sons returned to Yamba when the ocean was calm and found the mother still alive. She had lived on yams. That is how Yamba got its name. Well, that word "yam," it comes from a civilised word. It means "sweet spud." So that word alone will give you a clue as to where those first people came from. 

So, one brother went back to Yamba and brought the mother to Evans Head. When they settled there, in the process of time, they increased their families. One family race generated northwards on the Australian coast, one to the west and one to the south. As they were generating, they were keeping on extending, and they kept in touch with each other all the time. 

As they went on in that manner they became tribal races, and the first language of their origin we call Jabilum, that means, "The Originals." Tabulum is the word the white man made out of this word. And the first language of these Jabilum was the Birrein tongue. And the second was Gumbangirr, [Gurnbainggir] of the Grafton tribe. Weervul [Wiyabal] is the Ballina lot. And Gullibul [Galibal], that is between the two. Gullibul sprang out of the centre from Tweed Heads."

That’s all for today. Next episode we are going to have a look at the mega fauna that roamed Australia when aboriginal people first arrived on the continent. Until next episode, keep safe and I’ll see you again soon. 


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