The ‘highways’ used by a population of up to 6.5 million Indigenous Australians to navigate the continent tens of thousands of years ago have been revealed by new research using sophisticated modeling of people and people. landscapes of the past.
New knowledge of how people not only survived, but thrived, in harsh environments, provides further evidence of the ability and resilience of the ancestors of indigenous peoples and helps paint a picture of large, well-organized groups navigating on difficult terrain.
The “ settlement ” of Sahul – the combined mega continent that joined Australia to New Guinea when sea levels were lower than today – could have taken as little as 5,000 years when people have moved from the far northwest, to Tasmania in the southeast.
The models also predict that the Sahul’s total population could have grown as high as 6.5 million people, according to studies by researchers at the Australian Biodiversity and Heritage Research Council’s Center of Excellence (CABAH ).
Many Indigenous cultures believe people have always been here, while others have strong oral histories of ancestors arriving from the north.
While there are many hypotheses about where, how and when Indigenous Australians first settled in Sahul, archaeological evidence is scarce.
Today, a group of multidisciplinary experts collaborated to investigate these questions using state-of-the-art modeling techniques, the results being published in two complementary articles in Nature communications and Human behavior of nature.
Real-world data on the long-range dispersal of people, human survival, fertility rates and the risk of natural disasters have been used in combination with principles of human ecology and behavior and with anthropological, ecological data. and environmental to model the settlement of Sahul, by Nature communications study led by Professor Corey Bradshaw, CABAH chief researcher at Flinders University.
Data from the 10 million km2 super-continent was used to develop a simulation model and run over 120 scenarios to predict population size and growth rate.
The strongest support was found for the arrival of people 50,000 or 75,000 years ago, with the average settlement rate of 1 km per year emerging from the model resulting in a maximum population of 6.5 million people. .
“Guided by indigenous knowledge, we come to appreciate the complexity, prowess, capacity and resilience of the ancestors of the indigenous peoples of Australia,” said Professor Bradshaw.
“The more we look into the deep past, the more we understand that many people have long underestimated the ingenuity of these extraordinary cultures.”
To study travel routes across the Sahul, an international team of archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, environmentalists, geneticists, geologists and computer scientists built the most comprehensive digital elevation model ever. built for the mainland, including areas now underwater.
The model presented in the sister article of Human behavior of nature allowed researchers to understand what early people would have seen – land features particularly important in a relatively flat landscape.
Other factors including the physiological capacity of people, the difficulty of the terrain and the availability of water were also included.
“If this is a new landscape and we don’t have a map, we’ll want to know how to efficiently move around a space, where to find water and where to camp – and we’ll orient ourselves based on that. highlights around the land, ”said Stefani Crabtree, senior author of highways, archaeologist and social scientist, CABAH associate researcher, Santa Fe Institute researcher, and professor at Utah State University.
Scientists have identified and tested over 125 billion possible routes using rigorous computer analysis in the largest motion simulation project ever, with the routes compared to the oldest known archaeological sites to help distinguish the most ancient routes. probable.
The patterns that emerged formed distinct “highways” across the continent, as well as secondary roads.
Several of the identified highways echo the well-documented Aboriginal trade routes that crisscross the country – including the tobacco trade originating in Pituri from Cape York to South Australia via Birdsville, and the Kimberley baler shell trade. towards central Australia.
“Australia is not only the driest continent, but also the flattest in the world,” said CABAH Deputy Director Distinguished Professor Sean Ulm of James Cook University.
“Our research shows that key landscape features and water sources were essential for people to navigate and survive on the continent.
“In many indigenous societies, the features of the landscape are believed to have been created by ancestral beings during the Dream. Each ridge, hill, river, beach and water source is named, told and written into the very fabric of societies, emphasizing the intimate relationship between people and place. The landscape is literally woven into the lives of people and their history. It seems that these relations between the people and the country probably date back to the first settlement of the continent. “
Professor Lynette Russell, Assistant Director of CABAH and Co-Chair of its Indigenous Advisory Committee, said:
“This modeling established the infrastructure for detailed local and regional studies to respectfully engage with Indigenous knowledge, ethnographies, historical documents, oral histories and archives.”
The results of these new studies suggest that there are basic rules people follow when settling in new landscapes, and that these same approaches could inform other major migrations in human history, such as the first waves of migration out of Africa at least 120,000 years ago.
Future work could inform the search for undiscovered archaeological sites, or even apply the techniques to predict human migration movements in the near future, as people flee drowned coasts and climatic disturbances.