Solving the settlement puzzle

Snapshot of the past: The discoveries at Lake Mungo have allowed artists to recreate a picture of life as it was at the lake 40,000 years ago.

Snapshot of the past: The discoveries at Lake Mungo have allowed artists to recreate a picture of life as it was at the lake 40,000 years ago.

According to the results of recent DNA analysis, the Australo-Papuans finally arrived in Sahul between 47,000 and 55,000 years ago after their long journey out of Africa.

They spread across the continent quite quickly, south down the western coast, north across the continent and then south. By around 35,000 years ago, they had reached Warren Cave in Tasmania.

The remarkable discoveries at Lake Mungo have allowed artists to recreate a picture of life as it was at the lake 40,000 years ago.

However, the first of the major changes since settlement was now under way. DNA analysis suggests that around 37,000 years ago, the Papuans and Australian Aborigines diverged genetically even though Sahul was still one continent.

There are some puzzles about this date, it seems too early, but the vastness of the Sahul continent may already have been affecting the genetic make-up of its people.

Around 36,000 years ago, the climate became cooler and drier. At first, inland water levels remained high. However, further climate change would now place Aboriginal occupation of the continent at some risk. We are also coming to the first dates for known Aboriginal occupation of northern NSW.

The Cuddie Springs site near Brewarrina suggests occupation as long ago as 35,000 years ago, although the dates have been subject to considerable dispute. Excluding Cuddie Springs, we have a date of greater than 20,200 years BP from Glennies Creek 35 kilometres north of Branxton in the Hunter, while a site on a former terrace of Wollombi Brook near Singleton suggested a date range of 18,000-30,000 years BP.

At Moffats Swamp near Raymond Terrace, a date of 17,000 years BP was obtained. On the Liverpool Plains, Aboriginal occupation has been dated to at least 19,000 years BP. 

The later dates for New England are puzzling. It is hard to believe that there had not been Aboriginal settlement in the broader New England by 35,000 given the other dates we have.

I think part of our failure to find dates lies in later submergence of coastal parts of New England. Part lies in the simple absence of surviving sites.

What is also puzzling about the dates is that they come from a period when the survival of early Aboriginal society was under threat. Again, the latest DNA results provide guidance. I will look at this in my next column.

Jim Belshaw’s email is ndarala@optusnet.com.au. He blogs at http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au/ and http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com.au/ 

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