The history of Australia is the history of the area and people of the Commonwealth of Australia with its preceding Indigenous and colonial societies. Aboriginal Australians arrived on the Australian mainland by sea from Maritime Southeast Asia between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago. The artistic, musical and spiritual traditions they established are among the longest surviving such traditions in human history.
Early Indigenous prehistory
The ancestors of Indigenous Australians are believed to have arrived in Australia 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, and possibly as early as 65,000 years ago. They developed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, established enduring spiritual and artistic traditions and used stone technologies. At the time of first European contact, it has been estimated the existing population was at least 350,000, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained.
There is considerable archaeological discussion as to the route taken by the first colonisers. People appear to have arrived by sea during a period of glaciation, when New Guinea and Tasmania were joined to the continent; however, the journey still required sea travel, making them among the world’s earlier mariners. Scott Cane wrote in 2013 that the first wave may have been prompted by the eruption of Lake Toba. If they arrived around 70,000 years ago, they could have crossed the water from Timor, when the sea level was low, but if they came later, around 50,000 years ago, a more likely route would have been through the Moluccas to New Guinea. Given that the likely landfall regions have been under around 50 metres of water for the last 15,000 years, it is unlikely that the timing will ever be established with certainty.
The earliest known human remains were found at Lake Mungo, a dry lake in the southwest of New South Wales. Remains found at Mungo suggest one of the world’s oldest known cremations, thus indicating early evidence for religious ritual among humans. According to Australian Aboriginal mythology and the animist framework developed in Aboriginal Australia, the Dreaming is a sacred era in which ancestral totemic spirit beings formed The Creation. The Dreaming established the laws and structures of society and the ceremonies performed to ensure continuity of life and land. It remains a prominent feature of Australian Aboriginal art. Aboriginal art is believed to be the oldest continuing tradition of art in the world.
Evidence of Aboriginal art can be traced back at least 30,000 years and is found throughout Australia (notably at Uluru and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, and also at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney). In terms of age and abundance, cave art in Australia is comparable to that of Lascaux and Altamira in Europe.
Manning Clark wrote that the ancestors of the Aborigines were slow to reach Tasmania, probably owing to an ice barrier existing across the South East of the continent. The Aborigines, he noted, did not develop agriculture, probably owing to a lack of seed bearing plants and animals suitable for domestication. Thus, the population remained low. Clark considered that the three potential pre-European colonising powers and traders of East Asia—the Hindu-Buddhists of southern India, the Muslims of Northern India and the Chinese—each petered out in their southward advance and did not attempt a settlement across the straits separating Indonesia from Australia. But trepang fisherman did reach the north coast, which they called “Marege” or “land of the trepang”.
For centuries, Makassan trade flourished with Aborigines on Australia’s north coast, particularly with the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land.
The greatest population density for Aborigines developed in the southern and eastern regions, the River Murray valley in particular. The arrival of Australia’s first people affected the continent significantly, and, along with climate change, may have contributed to the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. The practice of firestick farming amongst northern Aborigines to increase the abundance of plants that attracted animals, transformed dry rainforest into savanna. The introduction of the dingo by Aboriginal people around 3,000–4,000 years ago may, along with human hunting, have contributed to the extinction of the thylacine, Tasmanian devil, and Tasmanian native-hen from mainland Australia.
One genetic study in 2012 by Irina Pugach and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has suggested that about 4,000 years before the First Fleet landed, some Indian explorers settled in Australia and assimilated into the local population in roughly 2217 BC.
Despite considerable cultural continuity, life was not without significant changes. Some 10–12,000 years ago, Tasmania became isolated from the mainland, and some stone technologies failed to reach the Tasmanian people (such as the hafting of stone tools and the use of the Boomerang). The land was not always kind; Aboriginal people of southeastern Australia endured “more than a dozen volcanic eruptions…(including) Mount Gambier, a mere 1,400 years ago”. In southeastern Australia, near present-day Lake Condah, semi-permanent villages of beehive shaped shelters of stone developed, near bountiful food supplies.
The continent of Australia (then known as New Holland) was incorporated within Asia in this 1796 map, engraved by Samuel John Neele and published by John Wilkes. Tasmania is wrongly shown to be attached to the mainland of Australia, at the bottom of the map.
The early wave of European observers like William Dampier described the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Aborigines of the West Coast as arduous and “miserable”. Lieutenant James Cook on the other hand, speculated in his journal that the “Natives of New Holland” (the East Coast Aborigines whom he encountered) might in fact be far happier than Europeans. Watkin Tench, of the First Fleet, wrote of an admiration for the Aborigines of Botany Bay (Sydney) as good-natured and good-humoured people, though he also reported violent hostility between the Eora and Cammeraygal peoples, and noted violent domestic altercations between his friend Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo. Settlers of the 19th century like Edward Curr observed that Aborigines “suffered less and enjoyed life more than the majority of civilized men”. Historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that the material standard of living for Aborigines was generally high, higher than that of many Europeans living at the time of the Dutch discovery of Australia.
By 1788, the population existed as 250 individual nations, many of which were in alliance with one another, and within each nation there existed several clans, from as few as five or six to as many as 30 or 40. Each nation had its own language and a few had multiple, thus over 250 languages existed, around 200 of which are now extinct. “Intricate kinship rules ordered the social relations of the people and diplomatic messengers and meeting rituals smoothed relations between groups”, keeping group fighting, sorcery and domestic disputes to a minimum.
Permanent European settlers arrived at Sydney in 1788 and came to control most of the continent by end of the 19th century. Bastions of largely unaltered Aboriginal societies survived, particularly in Northern and Western Australia into the 20th century, until finally, a group of Pintupi people of the Gibson Desert became the last people to be contacted by outsider ways in 1984. While much knowledge was lost, Aboriginal art, music and culture, often scorned by Europeans during the initial phases of contact, survived and in time came to be celebrated by the wider Australian community.
Impact of European settlement
The first known landing in Australia by Europeans was by Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon in 1606. Twenty-nine other Dutch navigators explored the western and southern coasts in the 17th century, and dubbed the continent New Holland. Macassan trepangers visited Australia’s northern coasts after 1720, possibly earlier.
Other European explorers followed and, in due course, navigator Lieutenant James Cook wrote that he claimed the east coast of Australia for Britain when on Possession Island in 1770, without conducting negotiations with the existing inhabitants, though before his departure, the President of the Royal Society, one of the voyage’s sponsors, wrote that the people of any lands he might discover were
‘the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. No European Nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent. Conquest over such people can give no just title: because they could never be the aggressors.’
The first governor, Arthur Phillip, was instructed explicitly to establish friendship and good relations with the Aborigines, and interactions between the early newcomers and the ancient landowners varied considerably throughout the colonial period—from the curiosity displayed by the early interlocutors Bennelong and Bungaree of Sydney to the outright hostility of Pemulwuy and Windradyne of the Sydney region and Yagan around Perth. Bennelong and a companion became the first Australians to sail to Europe, where they met King George III. Bungaree accompanied the explorer Matthew Flinders on the first circumnavigation of Australia. Pemulwuy was accused of the first killing of a white settler in 1790, and Windradyne resisted early British expansion beyond the Blue Mountains.