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To the 18th century AD
     A place apart
     Temporary bridges
     The first Australians
     Aboriginal hunter-gatherers
     Terra Australis

18th century
19th century
To be completed

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A place apart: from 50 million years ago

Although Australia is close to a chain of southeast Asian islands, it is believed to have been a separate land mass since about 50 million years ago. In that time much can happen in evolution, and the many species unique to Australia demonstrate the point. The best-known examples are the kangaroo and the koala among the marsupials and the emu in the ostrich family. But there are countless smaller creatures which have similarly developed in isolation on the Australian continent.

Many other species, now indigenous in Australia, evolved elsewhere within the last 50 million years and hopped over from southeast Asia. Among these species is man.


Temporary bridges: 60,000 - 10,000 years ago

The Ice Ages play an essential part in mankind's advance from Asia into both Australia and America. The effect of an ice age is to lower the sea level by 100 metres and more. This narrows the gaps between many islands and sometimes even exposes a complete land ridge.

One such sunken ridge is the Sahul Shelf, under the largest stretch of sea between the Indonesian islands and Australia. Another lies between Siberia and Alaska.


The first Australians: from 60,000 years ago

The islands of Indonesia are like a string of beads pointing towards Australia. Stone Age hunter-gatherers no doubt find much of their food on the shores and in the shallows, and soon use rafts to reach offshore reefs. Probably the first people to arrive on slightly more distant islands have been carried there by accident rather than intention.

But there is a plentiful supply of food wherever they make landfall. With an ice age reducing the level of the Timor Sea (see Ice Ages), this series of hops for mankind sooner or later reaches Australia. The earliest traces of human habitation in the continent are now tentatively dated between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago.


The aboriginal hunter-gatherers of Australia: till AD 1788

None of the indigenous animals of Australia is suitable for herding, so the tribes of human immigrants live until recent times by their traditional methods of hunting and gathering. One of their favourite hunting weapons is a throwing stick (called boomerang by a tribe in southeast Australia). A curved variety of boomerang, which can be thrown in such a way as to return to the thrower, is used by hunters to make birds fly towards a net.

Fresh water is scarce in the vastness of the Australian continent. The territory belonging to each tribe of hunter-gatherers is defined in relation to a watering place, which becomes associated with the tribal ancestors.


The religious cult of the Australian tribes links living people with an eternal spirit world referred to as the 'dreaming'. This other world was in existence before the creation of our own. The dead return to the 'dreaming', from which they will be reincarnated.

Rituals are enacted in a lively tradition of dance, painting and music. The Australian tribes paint on cave walls (as early as 25,000 years ago, recent research suggests), on wooden implements and on strips of eucalyptus bark. Their style has one very unusual characteristic; in depicting a living creature the artists like to include the unseen bones and organs within. In music, too, the Australians can surprise - for example with one of the world's strangest woodwind instruments, the didgeridoo.


Terra Australis: 16th-18th century

From the early 16th century European merchants are sailing the seas of southeast Asia. Often they make unexpected landfall, raising hopes of unknown territories rich in gold, silver or spice. The discovery of the Solomon Islands by a Spanish vessel in 1568 prompts interest in a so-called Terra Australis Incognita ('unknown southern land'). Part of the brief given to Francis Drake, when he sets off in 1577 to sail across the Pacific, is that he should search for this supposed land of treasure (see Drake's voyage).

Interest is maintained in the early 17th century when Dutch ships, sailing to and from the Moluccas, sight stretches of the western Australian coast. Are these places perhaps connected to the southern land?


The governor general of the Dutch East Indies, Antonio van Diemen, decides to investigate. He chooses for the purpose an experienced navigator, Abel Tasman, who is instructed to sail far south in the Indian Ocean and then to strike east, hoping to discover whether there is an open passage to South America. In the process he may also perhaps discover Terra Australis.

Tasman leaves Batavia in August 1642. He sails to Mauritius before continuing south and then east. He first makes landfall in November. He calls the place Van Diemen's Land, after the governor who has appointed him. Not until 1856 is the island renamed Tasmania, in honour of its discoverer.


Keeping to the southern coast of this large island, Tasman continues eastwards. In December he reaches New Zealand. Sailing northeast along the coast of both South and North Island, he concludes that this must be the northwest corner of Terra Australis. Tasman discovers Tonga in January 1643, and the Fiji islands in February. He then continues northwest, passing north of New Guinea and returning to Batavia in June.

Remarkably, in his ten-month voyage, Tasman has sailed all the way round the real Terra Australis without noticing it. It will be another century before the continent of Australia is properly discovered and charted.


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