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Researchers demystify the secrets of ancient Aboriginal migration across Australia

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Sixty millennia ago, Australia was connected to Papua New Guinea and formed a mega-continent known as Sahul.(Supplied)

Australia's first people are thought to have arrived when the continent was a much bigger place, with lower sea levels connecting Papua New Guinea and Tasmania to what we now know as modern Australia, forming the mega-continent of Sahul. 

Key points:

  • Aboriginal Australians arrived on the shores of a larger continent around 60,000 years ago
  • A Flinders University researcher says they moved across it on 'super-highways' similar to modern transport routes
  • While not exact, researchers hope Aboriginal communities can help fill in the gaps of their work

New research from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage shows the paths that were likely trodden by the ancient Aboriginal people as they moved across the continent from the Kimberley to Tasmania.

A map showing the migration routes in the ancient mega-continent of Sahul.(Supplied)

Flinders University's Professor Corey Bradshaw is one researcher who mapped the routes. 

"We really wanted to understand not just how they got here, but what they did once they got here," he said. 

The models take data from archaeologists, anthropologists, ecologists, geneticists, climatologists, geomorphologists, and hydrologists, and analyses the information to come up with the most likely routes around the country. 

'Super-highways' for super movers 

The models hypothesise the first Australians landed on the shores of Western Australia, around the Kimberley region, about sixty thousand years ago, and in as little as 6,000 years they had settled across the country, from the far north of the tropics to the deep south of Tasmania. 

"You know, people probably made it from out of Africa ... within 10–15 thousand years and then bam, they were in Australia.

"That's just remarkable considering that the technology that was available at the time, and I'm talking settlement, not just walkabouts here and there."

The super-highways bear striking similarities to Australia's current highways and stock routes, and Professor Bradshaw said there was a good reason why. 

Professor Corey Bradshaw developed the new migration map.(

"The fact that they settle this entire continent so quickly and establish these long-term relationships suggests that, yes, there were oral histories passed down for tens of millennia," he said.

"A lot of the European explorers — those that were smart enough to talk to the local people about which way to go and how to survive, I imagine that those would have passed down for a long time."

Data meets Dreamtime 

While the models show the most likely routes based on available data, they're not definitive, and researchers are hoping to collaborate with the Indigenous community to fill in the gaps.

With decades of experience as an Indigenous historian and archaeologist, Laureate Professor Lynette Russell said both science and stories have a place in uncovering Indigenous history.

"No-one has 70 thousand years of oral history, but it doesn't mean that there's not deep stories that are associated with land," Professor Russell said.

"People talk about that when the land was made when the ancestors came when the creators created the land.

"I think in those stories, and particularly in those songs and song lines, we may well find information that tallies with, but also may contradict the scientists approach."

Professor Russell said the new maps are a starting point, rather than exact facts, when it comes to Aboriginal history.

"These modelling papers are important because they give us they're a heuristic device for which we can then start to imagine what the past might have been like."

When it comes to coming up with more answers about the past, both academics agree collaboration is key.

"Aboriginal communities are partners in the research. They're not the stakeholders, and we're not stakeholders alongside them," Professor Russell said.

It's work Professor Bradshaw wants to see his team undertake next.

"We want to extend this through later periods," he said.

"Compare those differences in Dreaming stories between sites, or the linguistic similarities or differences between different nations, or the similarities in rock art, and using all these different cultural elements in deep association with Indigenous knowledge from different groups.

"Having that sort of multiple cultural layers being, in a sense, validating the scientific predictions, that's a real marrying of Indigenous knowledge and Western knowledge and that's an exciting next step."

Source: ABC

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