Researchers map ancient ‘superhighways’ used by first Australians

The first humans to arrive in Australia rapidly journeyed to every corner of the continent using ancient “superhighways”, new detailed modelling has revealed.

Researchers from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) constructed complex, detailed computer models to analyse how those early humans would have arrived on what was then the supercontinent of Sahul – modern Australia and New Guinea which were joined by a land bridge.

They also modelled the routes those arrivals would have likely taken as they spread to every corner of the continent.

Professor Corey Bradshaw, CABAH chief investigator at Flinders University, said the modelling on the demographics of ancient Sahul showed there could have been as many as 6.5 million people across the continent.

“Even if you just look at the extent of modern Australia it still equates to around 3 million people, which is a threefold increase on what has been suggested in the past,” Professor Bradshaw said.

“But unfortunately any censuses of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has historically been pretty poor, and after Europeans arrived there were genocides and massive losses from diseases, coupled with a lack of effort in finding out true numbers.”

The other interesting thing the modelling showed was that once people arrived in Sahul they could have settled the entire continent in about 5000 years – very fast by the standards of early human movement around the globe.

“That’s quite remarkable when you consider the size of the continent at that time, around 11 million square kilometres, and even then the driest on the planet, and they managed to do it pretty easily.”

“So I suspect we’ve vastly underestimated what Indigenous populations were like when Europeans arrived.”

The CABAH deputy director, Distinguished Professor Sean Ulm from James Cook University, said the modelling done to determine routes used a variety of techniques to map out more than 125 billion pathways across the continent, and then whittle them down to the most likely to have been used by first peoples.

“We asked the model to find relationships between those pathways and the earliest known archaeological sites in the continent,” Professor Ulm said.

“And that was a critical test for the model, how closely did the modelling match the existences of those physical sites, and we were surprised by how strongly they matched.”

The tracks identified also correlated strongly with dreaming tracks from existing populations of First Nations people in various parts of the country, further strengthening their perceived validity.

The researchers are now looking to the future by using the model to suggest new sites where archaeological evidence is likely to be found, based on the modelled trackways.

Some of those sites are underwater, in areas of Sahul which have since gone under the sea, which Professor Bradshaw said was an under-explored area of Australian archaeology.

“They do a lot of it in Europe and other parts of the world, but we’re only just getting started on it here, which means there could be even earlier sites out there waiting to be uncovered,” he said.

Professor Ulm said he was pleased the modelling matched many Indigenous stories about the earliest days of the continent, and hoped it paved the way to a clearer understanding of Australia before the arrival of Europeans.

“For me personally it’s not simple idle academic interest – what we are increasingly realising is every part of Australia has been modified and created by traditional owners,” he said.

“From the moment people arrived on the continent and settled in their countries, they’ve been managing those landscapes.”

The two papers detailed the research have been published in the journals Nature Communications and Nature Human Behaviour.

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