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Evidence of first peoples

Defining Moments in Australian History

WARNING: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Evidence of first peoples

at least 52,000 years ago: Archaeological evidence of first peoples on the Australian continent


about 12,000 years ago: Sea level rises, separating Tasmania from the mainland

The date of earliest occupation of the Australian continent is constantly changing. New excavations and improved dating techniques push the date further back into the distant past.

Footprints in the sand, artefacts in ancient shelters and items such as this piece of ochre all provide evidence of the vast human history of the continent.

However, this is just part of the story, because Aboriginal people traditionally believe they have been here in their country since the time of creation and, prior to that, the continent was a ‘land before time’. 

 

More on evidence of first peoples

Aunty Val Coombs, Quandamooka Elder, 2012:

White fellas like theorising we come from somewhere else other than Australia to lessen our connection to country. We are from here. Our knowledge of our history is embedded in our blood and our country. Whitefellas knowledge of our history is only as good as their technology.
A piece of ochre
Piece of ochre used in what is now Kakadu National Park, 53,000–59,000 years ago. Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory. Photo: George Serras.

Aboriginal occupation

Aboriginal people are known to have occupied mainland Australia for at least 50,000 years. It is widely accepted that this predates the human settlement of Europe and the Americas. Increasingly sophisticated dating methods are helping us gain a more accurate understanding of how people came to be in Australia. Some of the earliest archaeological sites are found in northern Australia.

This piece of ochre, excavated from the Madjebebe (Malakunanja II) site in Arnhem Land, is believed to be over 50,000 years old. Other sites of considerable antiquity such as Lake Mungo in New South Wales and Devil’s Lair in south-west Western Australia continue to be discovered and researched across the continent.

Human footprints on a sandy surface
Pleistocene human footprints: Willandra Lakes in southeastern Australia, 2005. Michael Amendolia.

The Dreaming

From an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander view of creation, people have always been in Australia since the land was created. On mainland Australia, the Dreaming is a system of belief held by many first Australians to account for their origins. In the Dreaming all-powerful beings roamed the landscape and laid the moral and physical groundwork for human society. 

Prior to the Dreaming there was a 'land before time' when the earth was flat. Ancestral beings moulded the landscape through their actions and gave life to the first people and their culture. No one can say exactly how old the Dreaming is. From an Indigenous perspective the Dreaming has existed from the beginning of time.

Further reading

More ochre specimens in our Collection Explorer

The spread of people to Australia on the Australian Museum website

'Aboriginal DNA dates Australian arrival' on the ABC Science website

First Footprints: The Epic Story of the First Australians, Scott Cane, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013.

Archaeology of Ancient Australia, Peter Hiscock, Routledge, London, 2007.

Prehistory of Australia, John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1999.

Archaeology of the Dreamtime: The Story of Prehistoric Australia and its People, Josephine Flood, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney, 1999 (revised edition).

Thomas Keneally

Renowned author Tom Keneally discusses why the finding of ancient human remains in the Willandra Lakes region is among his top three Defining Moments in Australian History.

You can find more Tom Keneally discussions on the Defining Moments videos page

Related Defining Moments

65 million years ago: Australasian landmass separates from Gondwanaland 

about 28,000 years ago: Earliest known rock art engraved and painted 

18,000 years ago: Australia separates from Papua New Guinea due to sea level rise 

about 12,000 years ago: Sea level rises, separating Tasmania from mainland 

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Topics:IndigenousNationhood Places:Australia Curriculum subjects:History School years:Year 7