“Aren’t we all boat people?” is the question posed by Meat & Livestock Australia’s current pre-January 26th holiday marketing spiel. All very inclusive and politically correct but probably not right as there are many descendants, living in Australia, of people who walked here.
The issue is one of the changing geographical ‘face’ of our planet – specifically it’s moving parts – the continents. Go back some 45,000 to 70,000 years ago and Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea were one land mass called Sahul that was joined at the hip to another land mass called Sunda which comprised what we now know of as Malaysia, Indonesia, Sumatra, Timor – all of which was contiguous with the Asian land mass.
This was all happening during the last major Ice Age which corresponded to the Out of Africa dispersal of modern humans and their recent forebears. This last Ice Age did what the others preceding had done, lock up a lot of water, cause droughts and force the migration of many animal species to the warmer and wetter zones of our planet.
There was a massive diaspora, that pulsed like waves, of hominins walking out of Africa into Asia Minor then gradually through Sri Lanka/India, into Southern Asia and further East to the New Guinea part of the whole Sahul land mass or, via Timor, into what later was separated into what is the northern section of the Northern Territory.
As they went they evolved to suit the climate, met and matched with other clans, adopted new cultural skills and Stone Age technologies and kept on, keeping on either by competitive force or led by curiosity as to what was ‘over that hill’ or ‘on the other side of this bay’.
These Sahul/Sunda lands were characterised by many island chains separated by ocean gutters. But, as any beachside or bayside dweller in Australia knows today these regions come with the shifting sands of beaches and sedimentary plumes of estuary mud. These could ‘disappear’ these ancient shallow gutters at low tide allowing small family clans to wade across.
Add to this the seismic volatility of this whole geographical ‘crash site’ were the Oceanic Plate hits the Indo-Asian Plate and there could have been lava bridges, land subductions and newly erupted islands all piecing together a pathway onwards to the East and to the South for these early, intrepid wayfarers. It is why there are so many genetic mitochondrial strains in Australia’s first people.
These first peoples came to what is now Australia through the gateways of Asia, South-East Asia, India, Melanesia right back to Africa those 50,000 or so years ago via this Sahul/Sunda connection.
So, perhaps we should think not in terms of Indigenous or Aboriginal for these early arrivals but think of them as ‘Sahulians’ who most probably and appropriately, took the easy option of walking rather than the greater effort of boating here.
There is a wonderful website that puts the sea level rises into context over the ages. Please visit www.sahultime.monash.edu.au.
As its authors admit this is a work in progress and it doesn’t track past earthquakes or volcanic activity but is shows how at one with South-East Asia our Australia once was when it was called Sahul.
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