© 1996 by James Q. Jacobs

Did Homo sapiens sail to Australia 176,000 years ago? Stone artifacts from recent archaeological excavations indicate that Australia may have been populated as early as 176,000 years ago, more than triple previous estimates. Ochre samples from the dig, at Jinmium monolith in the Northern Territory, indicate that the horizon of the earliest known human art may extend to 116,000 years ago. Petroglyphs on the monolith and surrounding boulders are dated at 75,000 years old. Australian scientists Richard Fullager, Donald Price and Lesley Head report their startling findings in the December, 1996, issue of Antiquity.

The stone engravings, many thousands of precise circles, were discovered by Australian Museum scientist Richard Fullanger a decade ago. The petroglyph circles are 30.5 millimeters in diameter and vary in size and depth by no more than a few millimeters. Some of the glyphs were buried by one and one-half meters of sediment. Until recently 38,000 BP was the oldest established date of Australian occupancy. In 1990 Australian National University scientists Dr. Mike Smith and Dr. Rhys Jones published findings from Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, establishing occupation by 50,000 BP. In 1995, the date was pushed back to 60,000 BP. 

Thermoluminescence dating, a relatively new technique, produced the 75,000 year old petroglyph date. Previously the oldest dates equaled the limits of the radiocarbon method. Application of scientific advances to the study of rock art in Australia and elsewhere promises to significantly advance knowledge of human prehistory.

Australia has no native primate species, so humans must be immigrants. Australia is perhaps the oldest of the now existing continents, with land that has probably been above water for 1.6 billion years. During the most recent peak of glaciation, 18,000 years ago, the ocean was about 130 meters (425 feet) lower and a vast, wide plain connected Australia and New Guinea. The shores of Australia and Timor were only 100 kilometers apart. Due to deep ocean trenches the New Guinea and Australia land mass has been separate from Asia far longer than humans have inhabited the earth. Glaciation cycle peaks would have facilitated human migrations across the narrower straits. 

At the time of European contact more than 100 tribal groups speaking well over 100 languages occupied the Australian continent. Guesses of the Aboriginal population at the time of British settlement range from 150,000 to 300,000. Captain Arthur Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales, estimated the population of Aborigines around present day Sydney to number about 1500. On April 22, 1788 he wrote of the probable 2000 rock engraving sites on the local sandstone outcroppings, in the neighborhood of Botany Bay and Port Jackson, "the figures of animals, of shields, and weapons, and even of men, have been seen carved upon the rocks, roughly indeed, but sufficiently well to ascertain very fully what was the object intended. Fish were often represented, and in one place the form of a large lizard was sketched out with tolerable accuracy. On the top of one of the hills, the figure of a man in the attitude they usually assumed by them when they begin to dance, was executed in a still superior style."

For the Aborigines rock art represents their history and mythology as well as a direct tie to their ancestors. At intervals they reengraved and repainted the art. Even the earliest foreign contacts are part of the rock art subject matter. To the foreigner the meaning of the rock art is obscure. Some of their earliest history of exploration is equally obscure. 

Middle Age cartographers Macrobius in the tenth century, Cecco d'Ascoli in the thirteenth century, and Marco Polo in the fourteenth displayed their belief in a great southern continent. Marco Polo depicted two great islands south-east of Java and wrote that they were seven hundred miles distant. Marco Polo's information is viewed as evidence of Chinese knowledge of the southern continent. 

A claim has been made by a Chinese scholar that Confucius cited calculations based on Chinese astronomical observations made in Australia during 592 B.C. and 553 B.C. A more easily accepted claim for Chinese landings in Australia dates to the early fifteenth century, when the Ming dynasty's huge fleet explored Timor and sailed as far as the Coast of Africa. In 1897 a soapstone statuette of Chinese origin was unearthed between the roots of a banyan tree one and a quarter meters underground near Darwin, on the northwest coast. Although Islamic and Arabian traders were established in the Indies prior to European discovery, no record of their visiting Australia has surfaced. Writing around 1515, Chronicler Tom Pires acknowledged learning details of the eastern seas from the charts of Moors, "which I have seen many times." 

A judicial declaration made to the French Admiralty in 1505 by Binot Paulmier de Gonneville recounts being driven by a storm to an unknown land after rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1503. Lost in a calm sea after a "furious tempest," Paulmier sailed to the south in the direction of birds he sighted. He found "a great country" and stayed six month in "Southern India." His crew refused to sail further and Gonneville returned to France. His journals and descriptions were lost when an English corsair plundered the vessel. The identity of "Southern India" remains in dispute.

A large country called "Great Java," depicted south of the islands of Java and Sumatra, occurs on six French maps bearing Portuguese place names. They may have been copied from the same original map, perhaps smuggled from Portugal by Bishop Miguel de Sylva. He was outlawed by public decree for carrying out of the country papers entrusted to him by King John. De Sylva's brother was imprisoned for writing to him. The Portuguese zealously enforced secrecy about their discoveries at sea. The oldest of the maps, drawn by Jean Rotz in 1542 and later presented to King Henry VIII of England, illustrates a great land from near ten degrees south latitude to 35 degrees south on the west coast, an exact correctness, and to 60 degrees south on the east. The south coast is not depicted.

Although no records of Portuguese discovery of Australia are known, the cartographic evidence of the early sixteenth century is not inconsistent with history. After 1517 Spain and Portugal began to dispute possession of the East Indies. On July 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI decreed that all discoveries 180 degrees east of the Azores should belong to Portugal and those for 180 degrees to the west to Spain. The Catholic majesties agreed to fix the line of demarcation at the mouth of the River of the Amazones. European explorers were incapable of accurate determination of longitude until after developing precise chronometers. Thus the location of a meridian 180 degrees from the South American demarcation in the highly profitable spice islands became a point of contention. 

In 1516 Fernando Magellan suggested that Sumatra, Java and the Moluccas were in the hemisphere belonging to Spain. In 1519 Charles V dispatched Magellan with five vessels on a westward passage to the islands, the first known voyage around the globe. Magellan and many of his sailors died in the Philippines before two surviving ships reached the disputed area. After three years at sea one ship, the Victoria, returned to Spain with only eighteen very ill survivors. They reiterated the Spanish claim to the East Indies.

In 1525 the marriage of King Charles' sister to King John eased the tensions. By secret treaty signed in Saragosa on April 22, 1529, Charles V sold the right to the islands to King John for a purported 350,000 gold ducats. The nearest portions of Australia to the Indies fell in the Spanish hemisphere and thereafter the Portuguese had no incentive to further explore the area, or to divulge secrets that could result in competition to their trade. Had they known that western Australia was in "their hemisphere" and that the Strait of Torres separated Australia and New Guinea, would Australia today be called "New Portugal"?

Around 1840 elderly Timorese recounted their belief to Australian colonist George Windsor Earl that Melville Island had been a source of slaves for the Portuguese. Three brass cannons, of possible sixteenth century Spanish or Portuguese origin, have been discovered on the Kimberley coast. Perhaps future archaeological finds will shed more light on early Portuguese and Spanish exploration down under.

The first substantiated discovery of Australia was in 1606 by Dutch captain Willem Jansz. His journey exploring the east and south coasts of New Guinea followed the western shores of the islands between Australia and New Guinea and then part of Northern Australia. Within the year Spaniard Luis Vaes de Torres sailed through the strait that bears his name and reported very large islands at eleven degrees south, probably Prince of Wales Island and Cape York Peninsula. Neither explorer knew he had discovered a separate continent. The Dutch continued to chart parts of the coast in successive voyages. 

First recorded contact with the Aborigines is attributed to Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz on April 12, 1623. Upon landing the Dutch clashed with Aborigines. Carstensz termed the Cape York natives "the most wretched and poorest creatures I have ever seen." Later in the same voyage, on New Guinea, natives killed Carstensz and eight sailors. Dutch East India Company records note that the expedition found islands and nations "of very little use" to the Company. 

In 1636 Gerrit Tomaz Pool sailed along the coast of Arnhem Land and, though many columns of smoke were sighted, no contact with natives was made. During six weeks in south-western Australia and sixteen inland explorations W. De Vlamingh sighted Aborigines only twice. On Abel Jansz Tasman's 1642-1643 voyage around the south side of the continent, resulting in discovery of Tasmania and New Zealand, the smoke of Aboriginal fires was noted. By 1756 Dutch explorers had visited all but the east coast of the continent. Having found no gold, silver or valuable trade commodities, the Dutch took little interest in "New Holland." The Dutch East India Company resolved that the area should remain unknown to deprive foreigners of trade advantages.

On August 26, 1768, Captain James Cook set sail from Plymouth, England on an overt scientific mission to observe the transit of Venus from the Pacific. His secret instructions from the British Admiralty, to sail at a latitude of 40 degrees south in search of a land of great extent, may have been due to Jean Rotz's 1542 map. After six months exploring New Zealand he sailed westward again and sighted "New South Wales" on April 19, 1770. Cook returned to England in July of 1771 after charting the coast for eight thousand kilometers and substantiating the separation of New Guinea and Australia. 

The American War of Independence left the British without a place to off load convicts. Before the war about a thousand criminals were exported to the colonies each year. Two hundred offenses were punishable by death and many sentences were reprieved on condition of being transported abroad. During the war prisons and ships on the Thames became overfilled. In 1778 the King announced a plan for transporting convicts to New South Wales.

On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip, 736 convicts and 294 others landed at Sydney Cove, New South Wales with optimism about their colony. In six months only one sheep survived of more than sixty head of livestock. Forty convicts had died on the voyage, another sixty-eight perished in the first half year, with many more sick from scurvy. The first supply ship to sail, two and one-half years later, wrecked on the coast of south Africa. The second fleet brought another thousand convicts, while 267 had perished en route. Half were landed sick and helpless. 

In 1791 William Pitt, in the House of Commons, said it was a necessary and essential point of police to send the most incorrigible criminals out of the kingdom. No cheaper mode of disposing of convicts could be found. Transporting the most pitiable was seen as a way of further relieving the burden in the mother country. In 1791 another 198 died during a voyage that delivered 1,864 convicts. Governor Phillip, soon after arrival, had asked for non-convict settlers with knowledge of farming, but by 1800 only some twenty had arrived. 

By 1820 the fledgling penal colony began to prosper. A total 400,000 acres of land had been granted, including 70,000 acres to ex-convicts. Settlements sprung up north and south of Sydney. Inland explorations discovered fertile lands. Wool became an important commodity and a profitable enterprise. The rest is part of Down Under history, a history that now reaches back much further than ever before imagined. 

AFTERWORDS: Since this 1998 writing, many new findings in Australian archaeology have come to light. The date of the populating of Australia remains the subject of considerable research and debate.

2008.04.07 - Archaeological finds dated to 35,000 years (
ANCIENT Aboriginal tools found on a Pilbara mine site in Western Australia have been dated at 35,000 years - among the oldest so far discovered in Australia. Archaeologists believe the dig could yield material up to 40,000 years old, comparable with the internationally famous Lake Mungo Man discovery in NSW. .... archaeologist Neale Draper said: "We are thrilled at the test results. This is a major scientific discovery. It contains a large number of stone tools and it is one of the most data-rich ancient sites in Australia, with an exceptional amount of information about climate change through the last ice age, the earliest occupation of the Pilbara and North-West Australia." ...

The First Mariners Project
Bednarik, R. G. 1995. Seafaring Homo erectus. The Artefact 18: 91-92.
--- 1997. The initial peopling of Wallacea and Sahul. Anthropos 92: 355-367.

Aboriginal rock art may depict first sea arrivals
Amy Middleton - August 02, 2013

Genomes link aboriginal Australians to Indians
Mingling of genes four millennia ago suggests continent was not isolated after all.
Ed Yong 14 January 2013


Keneally, Thomas, Outback, Rand McNally and Co. 1983
Shaw, A. G. L., A Short History of Australia. Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1967.
R. H. Major, Burt Franklin, Early Voyages to Terra Australis, now called Australia, New York. First published in 1859 by Sir Roderick Impey Murchison.
Stanbury, Peter and John Clegg, A Field Guide to Aboriginal Rock Engravings, Sydney University Press, 1990.
Mulvancy, D. J., The Prehistory of Australia, Ancient Peoples ands Places, Vol. 65, Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1969.
Edwards, Robert, Australian Aboriginal Art, The Art of the Alligator Rivers Region, Northern Territory, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1979.

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Published Feb. 1, 1998.