Aboriginal colonisation was planned migration

By AAP with Amy Middleton 24 April 2013
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The first Australian settlers numbered up to 3000 and arrived intentionally, a new study suggests.

AUSTRALIA WAS FIRST SETTLED by 1000 to 3000 humans around 50,000 years ago, according to new research, suggesting the first arrivals were part of a planned migration.

The study also suggests Australia’s population crashed during the Ice Age before recovering to a peak of about 1.2 million people around five centuries ago.

Estimates of the population of prehistoric Australia are controversial, the researchers say, and useful in measuring the impact of European colonisation on Australia.

Australia’s first settlers

During the study, Alan Williams of the Australian National University in Canberra took a fresh look at investigations in which charcoal, shell and other materials have been carbon-dated.

Using samples collected from 1750 archaeological sites across the country to reflect human activity, Alan created a data curve to represent changes in population.

From his findings, published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Alan believes the first inhabitants of Australia arrived from southeast Asia and comprised a “founding group” of between 1000 and 3000 people.

This number of early arrivals is higher than previous estimates, which have numbered a small band of family members, and suggests the first settlement was a result of deliberate exploration or migration, rather than accidental colonisation.

Population of Australia before European settlement

Alan says the population grew steadily, but then fell by as much as 60 per cent around 20,000 years ago, during the peak of the last Ice Age, when Australia became cooler and far drier than it is today.

At the end of the Ice Age, the population grew in fits and starts, reaching a peak of around 1.2 million 500 years ago.

By 1788, when British colonisation began, the population was between 770,000 and 1.1 million. Europeans brought with them smallpox, measles, flu and other diseases that proved catastrophic for an indigenous population without immunity.

Alan estimates the indigenous population had decreased prior to European contact, perhaps suggesting such diseases had been introduced earlier by other explorers, such as
the Macassans, he says.

Professor Mike Morwood, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong in NSW, believes the findings are realistic in terms of the major population turning points of early Australia.

“This paper…is a welcome, updated and useful addition to the [existing] literature,” Mike says.

“It also reminds us that the ultimate aim of archaeological research is to use the evidence of stone artefacts, midden remains dates, etc, to reconstruct the human past.”