An operatic soprano with a voice described as sparklingly clear, her career would take her across the world, from Russia to America, but she always returned home.
This extraordinary Australian was arguably our first celebrity. While her singing is famed, she was a complex woman who shaped her own career, far more interesting than her culinary namesakes — Melba Toast and Peach Melba — might suggest.
On her 160th birthday, here are five things you may not know about her.
1. She avidly pursued the perfect portrait
Melba was aware of the relationship between image and celebrity, and pursued the “perfect” portrait for years.
The most well known painting of Melba today is by Rupert Bunny, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902.
But biographer Ann Blainey reports Melba told her friends no one — save Bunny himself — liked the portrait when it was completed.
Looking at this image very closely, there appears to be the 19th century equivalent of photoshopping. Melba’s jawline has been subtly reshaped: a little visual nip and tuck.
In what could be characterised as a form of “pre-mythologising”, Melba commissioned a bust by Bertram Mackennal. When the bust was completed in 1899, she promptly gifted it to the National Gallery of Victoria, saying:
may I express the hope that I am not wholly forgotten in our beloved country.
2. She was shrewd with money
A clever business woman, who always controlled her own interests, Melba only engaged managers for short periods of time in foreign markets.
According to one of her biographers, Joseph Wechsberg, Melba had no time for dinner invitations that carried the implication of a little performance. Once at the party, she would announce she would sing, but only if they would “sign a little cheque”.
She once quoted a fee of £500 to an American socialite who asked her to dinner and to sing afterwards — A$71,000 today.
3. Her OBE was not for her singing
Melba lost five relatives at Gallipoli, and in 1915 she single-handedly spearheaded a charitable endeavour in the form of Melba’s Gift Book of Australian Art in support of Belgian war relief efforts.
Filled with colour plate illustrations from significant Australian artists and writers such as Arthur Streeton, Norman Lindsay and Henry Lawson, the front cover is inscribed with the words “the entire profits from the sale of this book will be devoted by Madam Melba to the Belgian Relief Fund”.
Melba spoke passionately about her love for Belgium in the opening pages of the book:
[…] I made my debut there; my first appearance in opera was in Brussels, and I can still hear the cheers of my first audience, the kindly, warm-hearted Belgians whose generous recognition of the unknown artist from distant Australia gave me hope and courage to persevere.
While Melba is known for her astonishing musical talent, she became a Dame in 1918 in recognition of this charitable work.
4. She was a gossip magazine staple
Celebrity needs both fame and commodity, and Melba ensured her renown reached far beyond the concert hall. Even Australians who could have never heard her sing because they lived in regional areas were avid consumers of her as a product.
You could buy cartes-de-visite of her in costume, or eagerly read newspaper and magazine gossip about her poorly concealed affair with the Duc d’Orleans. From 1904, recordings of her singing could be purchased; and in 1926 she published her own vocal method: a hit with singing students, and still used today.
Melba was fatigued at times by the pressure of singing roles as she aged, and had two extended periods of rest in Switzerland in 1890 and 1897 to recover from vocal nodules.
While she did seek fame, carefully moulding the image she provided to the public, Melba would come to know its darker side. She remarked in her biography, “everybody who has known fame has also known the agonies which fame brought”.
Naomi Braithwaite, Nottingham Trent UniversitySneakers (or trainers if you’re British), once the symbol of athleticism, have transcended their primary function to become commercial and fashionable objects of desire. From sportswear and street style to catwalk fashion, sneakers have made their mark as cultural commodities.
You can listen to more articles from The Conversation, narrated by Noa, here.
The global sneaker market valued at approximately US$79 billion (£56 billion) in 2020 and is predicted to reach US$120 billion (£85 billion) by 2026. With such huge growth, it is unsurprising that they are considered big business.
Such are the strides in the sneaker industry that a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum explores how the shoe became an undisputed cultural symbol of our times.
Comfort is king
The last decade has seen a huge shift in how sneakers are worn. Donning a pair is no longer frowned upon in the workplace or on more formal occasions. Even British etiquette experts Debrett’s have given their seal of approval, deeming them socially acceptable for smart casual occasions.
The continued dominance of the athleisure trend has had a significant impact on the growing sales of sneakers – along with the pursuit of comfort. This only grew more during the pandemic as lockdowns made people further prioritise comfort, which resulted in a rise in sales of loungewear, athleisure and flat shoes, like sneakers.
As such, sneakers have moved from the niche to become coveted as fashionable objects. Footwear is now the biggest selling category in the online luxury market and sneakers have made a significant contribution to this growth.
Historian Thomas Turner defines the latter decades of the 19th century as a time when industrial progress and social change were twinned with a growing enthusiasm for sporting pursuits, in particular lawn tennis. This resulted in the need for a more specialised type of footwear, which Dunlop’s rubber sole could fulfil. Dunlop launched their now iconic, Green Flash model in 1929, which was worn by tennis legend Fred Perry at Wimbledon.
Other significant sports shoes of the 20th century included the Converse All Star, designed for basketball. However, it is Adidas and Nike that have both shaped the sneaker’s evolution from sport to style.
Research by the sociologist Yuniya Kawamura on sneakers defines three waves of the phenomenon. The first wave in the 1970s was defined by an underground sneaker culture and the emergence of hip-hop. Adidas’ Samba design, as a key example, became a key part ofTerrace Fashion within football fan subculture. In 1986, Run-DMC released the song My Adidas, leading to a sponsorship deal with the brand. This forged the sneaker’s deep-rooted place in popular culture.
The second wave of the phenomenon began in 1984 with the launch of Nike Air Jordans. This gave rise to the commodification of sneakers and their desirability as status items, fuelled through celebrity endorsements. For Kawamura the third wave is marked by the digital age and the resulting growth in sneaker marketing and resell culture.
The global sneaker resale market was valued at US$6 billion (£4.6 billion) in 2019 and is forecast to be worth US$30 billion (£21 billion) by 2030.
The growing presence of “sneakerheads” who collect and trade sneakers have ensured that they maintain cult status. Nike and Adidas routinely release limited editions shoes associated with a celebrity, hip-hop star or athlete.
These shoes have a retail value of US$190 to US$240 (£135 to £170) and are reselling for between US$1,695 and US$6,118 (£1,202 and £4,339). The lucrative sneaker resale market has created a new cult of sneaker enthusiasts who through entrepreneurial spirit are generating significant hype along with personal income.
From sport to fashion, sneakers dominate the consumer market. Yet, despite their adoption by the mainstream, sneakers retain their coolness as cultural icons.
Evidence today of the indentured labourers who once toiled on the plantation is found in small signposts such as one at “The Gardens”, formerly a small Melanesian village on the outskirts of Halifax. Here lived a few families who were not later repatriated to their islands.
Far fewer women than men were recruited as indentured labourers. In 1906, when forced repatriation of these labourers began, only 14 Melanesian women and 500 men remained on the Herbert. Annie, one of those 14, did not live in The Gardens community. Her life took a very different course.
Available records reveal a woman of colour who defied all odds to participate in a predominantly white community. Yet Annie remains an enigma.
The “frontier” is generally thought of as a masculine space. In part this is because most frontier history has been written by European men, who tended not to notice women beyond their domestic arrangements, if at all. Fleshing out the lives of pioneering frontier women is difficult enough if they are white, let alone for women of colour.
The first Melanesian men were brought to the Herbert River district around 1872; women came about ten years later. Annie appears to have been among them. While some islanders volunteered, others were secured against their own will by deceit and even kidnapping.
They were paid, and at the end of the three-year indenture period could either return to their islands, re-indenture, or work freely in the sugar industry on a set wage. Following the existing record trail leaves many questions unanswered about when Annie arrived and where from.
In the Halifax cemetery, her simple headstone tells us she came from Ureparapara (the third largest island in the Banks group of northern Vanuatu). Yet her death certificate records her as born on “Lambue South Sea Island”. Her marriage certificate records her birth as “Burra Burra South Sea Island”. Neither of these locations can be identified, but the latter may be a corruption of Buka Buka.
A register was kept listing the names of recruited labourers and other details. The only Etinside on this register is a man brought over on November 5, 1888 from Ureparapara. We don’t know if this was Annie, mistakenly recorded as a male.
Details of Annie’s arrival are further muddied by the information provided on her gravestone, marriage and death certificates. According to these, she was born around 1870, so would have arrived in Australia in 1881 as an 11-year-old.
Indentured women were employed both in fields and houses by small farmers, and on plantations. Annie’s obituary, published in the Herbert River Express, says she was first engaged as housemaid to Norwegian sugar cane farmer Johan (John) Ingebright Alm and his wife Antonia, then to an English farmer, Francis Herron and his wife Lucinda.
By 1884, she was housemaid to George Gosling who had migrated from Britain in 1881. George was an overseer of indentured labour gangs, then farmed on leased land and in his own right, turning a piece of land called “Poverty Flat” by locals into a successful farm, Rosedale.
Without an official record to prove she had arrived as an indentured labourer, officials could have identified Annie as Aboriginal. This would have meant restriction of her movements and associations; her children, as mixed race and born out of wedlock, could have been taken from her.
The indentured labour scheme was never meant to permit Melanesian people to settle permanently in Australia. In 1901 the White Australia policy legislated to stop the scheme. From the end of 1906, all Melanesian indentured labourers were to be forcibly deported back to their islands, except for those with exemption tickets.
Marriage offered Annie protection. Rather than social disapproval, it seems to have met with tolerance, even if expressed in a patronising way. One Cairns newspaper described her with tongue in cheek as Gosling’s “little black duck”.
Annie and Gosling had three more children although tragedy struck on January 17, 1905, when Gosling died of malaria at the age of 45. Annie was left with five young children, the youngest only eight days old. On Gosling’s death, Annie was recognised as his lawful widow, inheriting all his estate. The success of his farm can be partly attributed to her. On the Herbert, small farmers depended on wives and children for all field labour, apart from cane harvesting.
Annie had another child in 1907, who she named Robert Gosling. She went on to marry William John Davey on February 17, 1909. But one month after their marriage, she registered the death of little Robert. Davey died on August 30, in the same year. After his death she reverted to using the name Gosling.
Despite her “alien” status, Annie integrated herself successfully into the largely white social fabric of Halifax, becoming a respected member of the community at a time of institutionalised racism. She participated in civic life, was registered on the electoral roll and ran a farm.
Her children attended the Halifax State School, her sons farmed and held jobs at the sugar mills (unusual for children of indentured labourers) and her children married Anglo-Australians, Europeans and Asians.
Annie’s were remarkable feats, given the prevailing racial attitudes and prohibitions regarding land ownership, education and constitutional rights. They indicate her determination to be recognised as an accountable, independent and hard-working member of society, regardless of her skin colour.
When Annie died on November 23, 1948 at the recorded age of 78, she was described in the Herbert River Express as a “grand old pioneer”.
This stone marked the boundary between Belgium and France. By moving it 2.29 metres, he expanded Belgium’s territory.
We must assume he had driven around it before — the stone was placed on this site in 1819, as part of the proceedings that established the Franco-Belgian border in 1820 after Napoleon’s defeat.
For the farmer, it stood in the way of his tractor. For the governments of France and Belgium, it was an active international border.
This story suggests a fragility to borders that contradicts their apparent solidity in an atlas or on Google Maps. Human history is, however, full of arguments about where the edges of property lie.
‘Beating the bounds’
Nations establish their borders through treaties. Rivers are sometimes relied on to set boundaries, but even here tensions rise when there are disputes about interpretation. Is the boundary on the river banks, the deepest part of the river, or the very centre of the flow?
The fact these measurements can even be calculated is remarkable. Expecting high levels of accuracy in a map is a recent development.
Later development saw the topographical charts used by bushwalkers and mountain climbers. But only with the arrival of digital mapping did it became normal to pin-point our location on a map in everyday situations.
The precise location of boundaries was usually part of local knowledge, kept and maintained by members of the community. For centuries a practice known as “beating the bounds” was followed in parts of Great Britain, Hungary, Germany and the United States.
Members of the parish or community would walk around the edge of their lands every few years, perhaps singing or performing specific actions to help the route stick in the participants’ minds. By including new generations each time, the knowledge was passed through the community and remained active.
Beating the bounds was a tradition of spatial knowledge that carried weight — it was accepted as evidence in cases of disputed boundaries. It was also part of a larger tradition maintaining borders through physical symbolism, whether for good or bad.
Britain has a long history of using enclosure (the fencing or hedging of land) as a means to excluding the poor from accessing common resources. In contrast, in colonial Australia, the first fences were built to protect essential garden crops from scavenging livestock.
Sometimes the importance of the border was demonstrated with an elaborate marker. The Franco-Belgian stone was carved with a date and compass points, representing not only a boundary but also the end of Napoleon’s destructive wars.
Formality was not always required. At a local level in the Australian colonies, boundaries were often marked by painting, slashing or burning a mark into a tree. These were easy to ignore, and frustrated landholders placed public notices in the newspapers cautioning against trespassing. People constantly took timber from private properties, or grazed their livestock without hesitation wherever was convenient to them.
Landholders included descriptions of their properties — detailing landmarks and neighbouring properties — in their notices, so there could be no doubt about which land was taken.
But these descriptions formed a circular argument: the potential trespasser needed to know who held each property in order to establish whose property they were about to enter. How effective they were at actually preventing trespass remains unclear.
Rivers were an obvious boundary marker, although European settlers quickly learned how to manipulate them to suit their own needs. By quietly blocking a section of river with trees and other rubbish, they could divert its route to suit their own wishes. By the time the surveyor came to verify or reassess boundaries, the landholder had been using their stolen acres for several years.
Throughout the 19th century, Australian survey departments devoted huge resources to undoing the confusion created by manipulation and incompetence in earlier years.
Markers of time
When the Belgian farmer this week got fed up with going around the stone and decided to move it, he was participating in a time-honoured tradition of manipulating impermanent boundary markers. But if he was able to move it, then who is to say it had not been moved before?
Historic boundary markers like this one have a habit of being in technically the wrong place, even if they are in precisely the right place to commemorate a moment in time.
Perhaps that is where their true significance sits.
Gordon McKelvie, University of WinchesterThe Wars of the Roses are normally portrayed as a series of battles between two warring houses, York and Lancaster, over who was rightly king of England. However, they were about much more than that. In many ways, the wars were really about standards of government.
Remembered mostly as an English-only affair, on the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury, a key event in the wars, it is worth remembering how the wider politics of late-Medieval Europe, particularly France, shaped this important, and often commemorated, part of English history.
The Wars of the Roses were three distinct conflicts. The first phase of the wars ended when the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was usurped by the 18-year-old Edward IV, who then cemented his position by winning the Battle of Towton.
Conflict re-emerged a decade later, this time caused by the deteriorating personal relations between the Yorkist king, Edward IV, and his closest ally and advisor, the Earl of Warwick, later known as “the Kingmaker”. During this instability, problems in England were drawn into a wider sets of events. Foreign rulers, particularly the French king, Louis XI, and his main adversary, Charles, Duke of Burgundy, were able exploit these divisions.
A scandalous marriage
The Earl of Warwick started the 1460s as the key figure in government, with key military and diplomatic responsibilities that helped secure Edward’s newly won kingdom. However, as the decade progressed, Warwick’s control over the young king waned as Edward sought his council less and less. The key division between the two men was foreign policy, a key aspect of medieval government.
In 1464, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a knight killed fighting for the Lancastrians three years earlier. This was a scandalous marriage. Kings married to form wider alliances that would benefit the kingdom, never for love. The ceremony also occurred as Warwick was negotiating a union with a French princess, causing the earl much embarrassment.
A connected issue was the different visions that Edward and Warwick had of England’s role within wider European politics.
France was also politically unstable at the time, with Louis XI (nicknamed the “Universal Spider”) clashing with many of his leading subjects, particularly the Duke of Burgundy who had significant independent power.
While Warwick favoured an alliance with Louis, Edward preferred an alliance with the Duke of Burgundy.
The duke was more than simply a subject of the French king as Burgundy ruled over the Low Countries, which constituted much of modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. As such, Edward believed an alliance with Burgundy would provide England with stronger commercial ties with many Flemish and Dutch towns.
It also had the added advantage of avoiding an unpopular alliance with one of England’s traditional enemies, the French. The alliance was cemented when Edward secured the marriage of his sister to the duke in 1468.
Crisis and opportunity
While this was happening, many Lancastrians remained at large. The deposed Henry VI was eventually captured as a fugitive in July 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His French wife (Margaret of Anjou) and their son (Prince Edward) spent much of the 1460s trying to gain foreign allies to support a Lancastrian restoration, particularly the French king.
For Louis XI, however, Margaret’s cause was a lost one until divisions in England meant became beneficial to the French king. Little did he know that the situation in England was turning in such a way.
The fractions between Warwick and Edward were too big to fix. So Warwick allied himself with Edward’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, instigating failed popular rebellions in 1469 and 1470, which caused them to flee to France. It was at this point that Louis XI brokered an unlikely alliance between Warwick and Margaret of Anjou, in which Warwick agreed to restore Margaret’s imprisoned husband as king.
The complex history of the following months can be boiled down to the key events. Warwick, backed by the French, invaded England in September 1470, though Margaret and her son remained in France until England had been secured.
Seeing his support collapse, Edward fled to the Low Countries, and Henry VI was restored as king. The Duke of Burgundy eventually backed Edward privately, giving him 50,000 florins and several Dutch ships. This allowed Edward to invade in spring 1471.
However, rather than facing one enemy, Edward IV faced two: Warwick and Anjou. After returning to England, he rallied enough troops and, on Easter Sunday, defeated an army led by Warwick at Barnet. Warwick was killed fleeing from the battle and his body put on display.
This should have ended the war, but Margaret, her son and many Lancastrians did not arrive in England until two days after the Kingmaker’s death. Margaret’s reluctance to cross the channel with her supporters (no doubt to the annoyance of the French king) meant that opposition to Edward was divided, which gave him the advantage in both battles.
The Yorkists regrouped and gathered more troops, before marching west for a second battle at Tewkesbury. The battle occurred just south of Tewkesbury Abbey, where the Yorkist army was able to overwhelm the Lancastrians led by Margaret of Anjou, whose 16-year-old son was killed in the fighting.
The twists and turns that led to Battle of Tewkesbury are more than just a good story. They tell us a lot about how English and European politics were intricately bound together, even during periods of civil war.
Both sides relied on foreign aid. France and the Low Countries were a places of refuge when the tide was turning against them, and the French were important backers. In all, this period in one of England’s most famous wars shows that civil wars, even in the middle ages, could be subject to foreign interference and the machinations of wider geopolitical events. Ultimately, the Wars of the Roses were not an exclusively English set of events.
Howitt’s field notes, combined with contemporary Gunaikurnai knowledge of their country, has led to the rediscovery. The site is located on public land, on the edge of the small fishing village of Seacombe. Its precise location had been lost following decades of colonial suppression of Gunaikurnai ritual and religious practices.
Researchers from the Howitt and Fison Archive project and the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation began searching for the site in 2018. While it lacks archaeological traces, such as middens, rock art, stone arrangements or artefact scatters, the importance of such ceremonial grounds is under-recognised. They are a central feature of Australian Indigenous conceptions of landscape and have considerable historical and cultural importance.
In the first few weeks of 1884, the Gunaikurnai peoples of Gippsland were preparing for a historic gathering. After decades of discussion and negotiation with Howitt, who was also a local magistrate and power broker, they finally agreed to allow him to record their secretive young men’s initiation ceremony, known as the Jeraeil.
Last held in 1857, just a few years before Howitt arrived in Gippsland, the Jeraeil had ceased to be performed due to tighter governmental restrictions and stern dissuasion from Christian missionaries.
On January 30 1884, all the required Gunaikurnai people had assembled. Those coming from the Lake Tyers Mission came on the paddle steamer Tanjil. Those from Ramahyuck Mission, on the shores of Lake Wellington, arrived on the steamer Dargo.
Convinced that an Aboriginal initiation ceremony from this part of the colony would never be performed again, Howitt arranged and paid for his primary Kulin informants from the Melbourne area, William Barak and Dick Richards, to attend so they could contribute their commentary on Victorian ceremonies.
The event, which lasted four days, began with a series of preliminary
ceremonies involving men and women singing together. The women
kept time by beating on rugs folded in their laps and hitting digging
sticks on the ground. Many of the performances that followed were restricted only to men, with six youths eventually initiated into manhood.
“It was remarkable,” Howitt commented, that although he had known many of these men “intimately,” and for a long time, they had kept these “special secrets […] carefully concealed” from him for many years.
Howitt’s published description of the Jeraeil, along with the equally significant work on similar ceremonies in New South Wales produced by Robert Hamilton Mathews, went on to influence the way religious life and ritual in south-eastern Australia was understood.
Finding the site
Lacking from Howitt’s record, however, was a precise description of where the historic ceremony had been held. A recent project to work on Howitt’s field notes in collaboration with Gunaikurnai people has uncovered new details, including a sketch map of the ceremony ground, sparking community interest in finding the site.
Howitt’s drawing of the ceremony ground, along with his notes and newspaper articles, enabled the research team to positively locate the site, on the edge of Seacombe, near the McLellan’s strait, which links Lake Wellington with the Southern Ocean.
The site’s significance lies not in any immediately observable physical property, but in its historical and cultural associations. They span the story associated with this place, including the local creation stories associated with Bullum Baukan (a woman with two spirits inside her); the complicated relationship with Howitt; interactions with other colonial authorities and the status of the Jeraeil in anthropological literature.
Discovery of this site means it is now protected under the (Victorian) Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006. All Aboriginal cultural heritage is protected in Victoria whether it has been formally registered or not and it is an offence to harm it.
The Jeraeil site is arguably one of the most significant of places in terms of the ritual and ceremonial life of Gunaikurnai people. However, the prospect of erecting signage at the Jeraeil site can produce mixed responses.
On the one hand, telling the world about these places might secure them. On the other, the Gunaikurnai live in a region dotted with monuments that remind people of the colonial violence enacted by men such as Scottish explorer Angus McMillian. One plaque brazenly describes McMillan as an explorer who achieved “territorial ascendancy over Gippsland Aborigines”.
Still, it is imperative places like the 1884 Jeraeil ground are better understood, recognised and protected. Not only does it tell a story of Aboriginal cultural practice but of shared Aboriginal and European interactions we should all know more about.
But where the earliest people moved across the landscape, how fast they moved, and how many were involved, have been shrouded in mystery.
Our latest research, published today shows the establishment of populations in every part of this giant continent could have occurred in as little as 5,000 years. And the entire population of Sahul could have been as high as 6.4 million people.
This translates to more than 3 million people in the area that is now modern-day Australia, far more than any previous estimate.
But whichever the route, entire communities of people arrived, adapted to and established deep cultural connections with Country over 11 million square kilometres of land, from northwestern Sahul to Tasmania.
This equals a rate of population establishment of about 1km per year (based on a maximum straight-line distance of about 5,000km from the introduction point to the farthest point).
That’s doubly impressive when you consider the harshness of the Australian landscape in which people both survived and thrived.
Previous estimates of Indigenous population
Various attempts have been made to calculate the number of people living in Australia before European invasion. Estimates vary from 300,000 to more than 1,200,000 people.
The 2016 census figures show an estimated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of about 798,400.
But records prior to the modern era are unreliable because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were only fully included in the national census from 1971, after the historic 1967 Referendum.
Before 1971, population estimates were attempted by anthropologists and government authorities. For example, the 1929 census reported 78,430 Aboriginal people.
Then, in 1930, the first thorough Australia-wide survey of Aboriginal populations estimated a minimum population of 251,000 at the time of European invasion.
This was based on accounts of European settlers adjusted by anthropological concepts about group sizes and ideas about environmental productivity.
Yet almost all of these older estimates are uncertain because of haphazard or incomplete data collection, and even a healthy dose of guesswork.
A new approach needed
We developed an entirely different approach to tackle the question of how many people were in Sahul, and through which parts they would have moved first as they adapted to a range of challenging new landscapes.
We developed a simulation model grounded in the principles of human ecology and behaviour, based on anthropological, ecological and environmental data.
For example, we estimated the number of people the landscape could support based on climate and vegetation models that recreated ecosystems during the time of the first peopling of Sahul.
We also gathered real-world anthropological information on immigration and emigration rates, long-distance movement, human survival and fertility. We even looked at the probability of disasters such as bushfires and cyclones.
After running 120 scenarios of the model many times each, our research found that after expanding to all corners of the continent, the population of Sahul could have been as high as 6.4 million people, with initial entry most consistent with 50,000 or 75,000 years ago.
How good is our model?
We tested our predictions by comparing the model’s results against the ages and locations of the oldest known archaeological sites from Australia and New Guinea.
If the model predicts realistic movements (even though it’s unlikely we’ll ever know exactly what occurred), we expect its results should at least partially match the patterns observed from the archaeological data.
That’s exactly what we found.
For example, while previous modelling says the northern route of entry through New Guinea would probably have been easier for people to negotiate, our model suggests the southern route through modern-day Timor and into the Kimberley was potentially the dominant entry point.
Why our estimate is higher than others
Our model covers the entire landmass of Sahul, including both New Guinea and the now-submerged continental shelves, which represent about 30% of the total landmass of Sahul. No previous population estimates have included this expansive region.
There is also plenty of precedent for the population densities our estimates imply.
If you divide our total 6.4 million population estimate by the land area available at the time (11,643,000 km²), it comes out to around 55 people per 100 km². This compares well to estimated densities of 34 people per 100 km² in some coastal regions of Australia, and 437 people per 100 km² in swidden-farming agricultural societies in New Guinea.
Population estimates immediately following European invasion are also likely to be low because of the heavy death rates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people suffered from exposure to European diseases such as smallpox, and the devastating history of genocide committed by colonists.
Our findings add to the new evidence constantly being revealed to paint a more complete picture of life so long ago.
With sophisticated modelling tools combined with an ever-increasing pool of data covering all aspects of pre-European life in Australia, and guided by Indigenous knowledge, we are coming to appreciate the complexity, prowess, capacity and resilience of the ancestors of Indigenous people in Australia.
The more we look into the deep past, the more we learn about the extraordinary ingenuity of these ancient and enduring cultures.
Few archaeological sites date to these early times. Sea levels were much lower and Australia was connected to New Guinea and Tasmania in a land known as Sahul that was 30% bigger than Australia is today.
Our latest research advances our knowledge about the most likely routes those early Australians travelled as they peopled this giant continent.
Modelling human movement requires understanding how people navigate new terrain. Computers facilitate building models, but they are still far from easy. We reasoned we needed four pieces of information: (1) topography; (2) the visibility of tall landscape features; (3) the presence of freshwater; and (4) demographics of the travellers.
We think people navigated in new territories — much as people do today — by focusing on prominent land features protruding above the relative flatness of the Australian continent.
To map these features, we built the most complete digital elevation model for Sahul ever constructed, including areas now underwater.
We used this digital elevation model to understand what was visible to early travellers. Essentially, from each point in the continent we asked “what can you see from here?” This moving window calculates the largest “viewshed” map ever created. When our virtual travellers move, they reorient based on visible terrain everywhere they go. The figure above shows the prominence of features across the continent as increasingly yellow shades against the blue background.
You can clearly make out features such as the the New Guinea Highlands, the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, the Great Dividing Range in the east, and the Hamersley Range in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
But navigation using prominent landscape features isn’t enough to tell us where the most commonly travelled routes were.
For this we also need to take into account other factors, such as the physiological capacity of people travelling on foot, how difficult the terrain was to traverse, and the distribution of available freshwater sources in a largely arid continent.
Billions and billions of routes
We put all these different bits of information together into a mega-model, known as From Everywhere To Everywhere (FETE), and created more than 125 billion possible pathways from everywhere on the continent to everywhere else. Each route represents the most efficient way to move from one location to another. This was the largest movement simulation of its kind ever attempted.
This gives us an idea of the relative ease or difficulty of walking across all of Sahul.
We cannot possibly examine every metre of the 125 billion pathways we created, so we needed a way to weight the relative importance of likely pathways. To do this, we compared all plausible pathways with the distribution of the oldest known archaeological sites in Sahul, providing weighted probabilities for each path.
This provided a scale going from the “most likely” to the “least likely” chosen paths.
The most likely pathways in the map above are what we are calling the “super-highways” of Indigenous movement. The next most likely paths are marked by dotted lines.
This allows us to discard many of the billions of paths as less likely to be chosen, helping us focus on those that were the most probable.
We now have a first glimpse into where Indigenous Australians likely travelled tens of thousands of years ago.
Pathways well trodden
These super-highways might have been more than just routes used for the initial peopling of Sahul.
Several of the super-highways our models identified echo well-documented Aboriginal trade routes criss-crossing the country. This includes Cape York to South Australia via Birdsville in the trade of pituri native tobacco, and the trade of Kimberley baler shell into central Australia.
There are also striking similarities between our map of super-highways and the most common trading and stock routes used by early Europeans. They followed already well-known routes established by Aboriginal peoples.
These Aboriginal exchange routes and the relatively recent trade routes of early Europeans cannot be used directly to validate a map from tens of thousands of years ago. But there are strong similarities that might suggest an extraordinary persistence of routes across the entire time period of human occupation of Australia.
We infer that early populations spread across the broad plains on the western and eastern margins of the continent (now under water) and through the region that now forms the Gulf of Carpentaria, which connected Australia to New Guinea.
It is worth noting these early people traversed and lived in all environments of Australia, ranging from the tropics to the arid zone. The ease of adaptation to all ecosystems is remarkable and one of the reasons for the success of the human species across the globe today.
[This] modelling establishes the infrastructure for detailed local and regional studies to engage respectfully with Indigenous knowledges, ethnographies, historical records, oral histories, and archives.
The fundamental rules we described apply even to questions about how the first migrations of people out of Africa might have occurred, and how people ultimately proceeded to inhabit the rest of the planet.
This work might even have implications for humanity’s future, if climate scenarios require large-scale migrations. Learning from those who have been present in Sahul from more than 60,000 years ago could help us anticipate migration patterns in the future.
Stefani Crabtree, Assistant Professor for Social-Environmental Modeling @ Utah State University and Associate Investigator ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage and ASU-SFI Biosocial Complex Systems Fellow, Santa Fe Institute; Alan N Williams, Associate Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW; Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Devin White, R&D Manager for Autonomous Sensing & Perception (Sandia National Laboratories) and Research Assistant Professor of Anthropology (UTK), University of Tennessee; Frédérik Saltré, Research Fellow in Ecology for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University, and Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University
This week, the Philippines is marking a significant event in the history of European colonialism in the Asia-Pacific region — the 500th anniversary of the death of Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães (more commonly known as Ferdinand Magellan).
The Philippines government is hosting a series of events to mark the role that Indigenous people played in Magellan’s contested first circumnavigation of the earth in the 16th century.
European history books celebrate the expedition as a three-year Spanish-led voyage, carrying 270 men on five ships. But Filipino commemorations remind audiences that Magellan died halfway through the expedition in the Philippines and that only one ship with just 18 survivors limped home to Seville.
In particular, Filipinos remember how Lapu Lapu, the datu (leader) of the island of Mactan, inspired a force of Indigenous warriors to defeat Magellan’s crew — and the Spanish threat to their sovereignty — on April 27, 1521.
The Filipino commemorations show what an Indigenous-centred government approach to imperial history in the Pacific can look like. They also sit in stark contrast to the exhibitions, reenactments and publications that marked the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in Australia and New Zealand in recent years.
These commemorations mostly upheld the unique bravery of the British navigator, sidelining potentially deeper discussions of the violence to Indigenous people he and his crew also brought.
What happened to Magellan in 1521
Magellan reached what are now the Philippines in March 1521 after an arduous 100-day Pacific crossing. He set about using a combination of diplomacy and force to get local leaders and their followers to convert to Catholicism and submit to the authority of the far-away Spanish king.
Rajah Humabon of Cebu and other local rulers embraced an alliance with the Spanish, hoping to gain an advantage against their rivals.
Magellan decided to attack Mactan, however, when Lapu Lapu refused to negotiate. About 60 European sailors and soldiers joined forces with Humabon and attacked Mactan at dawn, but they were met on the beach by Lapu Lapu and his armed warriors.
Weighed down by their armour, the Europeans stumbled in the shallows under arrow fire. Filipino folk histories say that an army of sea animals were also part of the resistance. Octopus wound their tentacles around the legs of the invaders, dragging them to their deaths. The battle was over within an hour.
Celebrating the victory at Mactan
The events organised by the Filipino government’s National Quincentennial Committee to mark Magellan’s death include a drone show, military parade and the televised unveiling of a new shrine to Lapu Lapu. All of these commemorations are designed to pay “tribute and recognition to Lapu Lapu and the Mactan heroes”.
Matthius B. Garcia’s painting, Hindi Pasisiil (Never to be Conquered), recently took the grand prize in the “sovereignty” category.
In his work, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the strong figure of Lapu Lapu. He is covered in Visayan tattoos and wears the bright red bandana and thick gold chains of a warrior and ruler. He leaps into the centre of the canvas, kampilan (sword) raised above his head, leading the charge of men rushing at the European invaders.
Magellan and his men, decked out in armour over puffy sleeves and stockings, fall over each other and into the sea to their deaths.
The artwork is Indigenous-centred because it was crafted by a Filipino artist for a Filipino audience. It is telling the story of what happened at Mactan from the point of view of the locals rather than the strangers.
Ordinary Filipinos have also been sharing their own artistic representations of the battle of Mactan on the NQC’s Facebook page, such as 5-year-old Miguel Alfonso Manzano Noriel’s painting, entitled The Battle of Mactan, below.
The NCQ has also encouraged children to print paper doll figures of Lapu Lapu and Magellan so they can re-enact the battle of Mactan at home.
In contrast to Garcia and Noriel’s fiery scenes of mayhem, the winning entries in the art competition’s “magnanimity” section remember the compassion that Filipinos showed to the explorers.
In Romane Elmira D. Contawi’s prize-winning painting, a local man holds out fruit to a bedraggled, hollow-eyed white man. The work illustrates the key role locals played in the expedition, giving provisions to Magellan’s fleet and sharing their expert knowledge on surviving the dangerous seas.
Remembering Cook in Australia and NZ
From 2018–20, the Australian and New Zealand governments also sponsored events related to a significant anniversary of European incursion into their lands — the arrival of Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, in 1769–70.
Some did aspire to take an Indigenous-centred viewpoint. But the majority ended up pushing, at best, a “shared histories” approach. They encouraged audiences to consider “both sides” of the beach when the Endeavour docked on Indigenous shores.
In these performances, Cook was made to forego some of the limelight, but never to step off his pedestal entirely.
Other memorials did not achieve even this fuzzy sense of mutuality. Pre-existing statues of Cook, for instance, not only remained standing through the anniversary years, they were often protected from being defaced. In the case of the Cook statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park, this came in the form of dozens of police officers.
Decolonised public histories
The Philippines’ approach to a more Indigenous-focused and critical form of public history is imperfect. The government has come under attack for silencing “unpatriotic” criticism” of national leaders today — and in the past.
And the government was criticised for its handling of the death of another Ferdinand – the Philippines’ former president Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country through martial law for nearly a decade. He was given a hero’s burial to the outrage of many.
Similarly, public histories that happily remember 16th-century rebellions against Spanish conquistadors so as to “uplift the cultural confidence of the Filipino people” can render invisible some modern Indigenous struggles for autonomy, particularly in the Philippines’ Islamic south. There is only room for patriotic versions of the country’s history that emphasise unity.
Despite these serious concerns, the Filipino approach to the era of European expansion offers a refreshing contrast to the dominant stories about Cook in Australia and New Zealand. It is not simply adding in Indigenous voices or awarding Indigenous people co-star status on commemorative occasions.
Rather, the Filipino attitude to Magellan flips colonial history on its head by focusing on Indigenous resistance.
The promise of decolonised public histories in the Pacific is not to punish, shame or settle scores. It is instead intended to help forge as-yet undreamed futures for the region that place original sovereigns at their heart.
Michelle Arrow, Macquarie UniversityImagine you are in a large building near Parliament House in Canberra filled with irreplaceable objects. Not jewels, medals or paintings, but a collection of letters, tapes and documents of Australian life.
The collection contains letters written to and from prime ministers, and recordings of their speeches. It has historic episodes of the ABC television programs Four Corners and Countdown. Audio recordings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Your grandmother’s migration records. Your uncle’s military service records. Covert ASIO surveillance footage of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. Letters from women living under the shadow of domestic violence, written to the Royal Commission on Human Relationships.
These are just some of the things to be found in the National Archives of Australia. Its role is to collect, manage and preserve records generated by the Australian government. This sounds dull, but it is anything but.
It is not merely a “politician’s archive”: while the NAA is famous for its annual release of cabinet records on January 1 each year, some of the collection’s richest records are those that offer insights into the lives of ordinary Australians. Whether they were migrating to Australia, registering for military service, or writing to the prime minister to demand that he fund women’s refuges, ordinary citizens generated paper trails that have been preserved in the NAA’s collections. As a resource for understanding the ways that government works, and the ways that citizens interacted with it, the NAA is a peerless resource. The material it houses belongs to all of us.
Now imagine burning this building to the ground, destroying almost everything inside. Last week, historians around the world watched in horror as the Library at the University of Cape Town burned down, taking with it thousands of irreplaceable historical records. Thanks to years of underfunding, Australia is on track to see a similar, though less spectacular, destruction of historical records, unless the federal government makes an urgent injection of funds.
Over the past few years, both Labor and Liberal governments have repeatedly cut funding to our national cultural institutions, including the National Archives. All commonwealth agencies have been subject to so-called “efficiency dividends” since 1987. This means that each year they receive a reduction in funding.
While this is intended to drive savings, in effect, according to a 2019 parliamentary inquiry, it has had a “significant and compounding effect” on cultural institutions over the last decade. This was made even worse in 2015-16, when the Turnbull government imposed an additional 3% “efficiency target” on national cultural institutions.
This means institutions like the National Archives have been forced to shed expert staff and reduce services to users. In 2013, the archives had 429 staff around Australia but by 2019, this had shrunk to just 308. This has made it more difficult for people to access material at the archives, as opening hours have been reduced. Users report long delays when they request materials; obtaining digital copies of files can cost you hundreds of dollars. This user-pays system has further restricted access to collections.
Even more urgently, these funding cuts are also taking irreplaceable audio visual collections to the brink of a “digital cliff”: that is, where a combination of material fragility and redundant technology will destroy a huge audio visual archive. Australia’s audio-visual collections will hurtle over this digital cliff by 2025 if no action is taken.
Let’s think for a moment about what this means.
Australia has experienced a century of profound and rapid transformation, all of it captured by the mass media. Television, film and audio show us how people in the past moved, sounded and spoke: they offer vivid and compelling evidence of life in the past that is impossible to obtain any way.
This kind of footage is the mainstay of documentaries. Archival footage can light a fire of curiosity about our past, especially in those who might never pick up a history book. It is crucial especially for engaging young people in history. Brazen Hussies, the recent documentary about the history of women’s liberation, was so successful because of its use of vivid, rarely-seen archival footage, much of it held in the National Archives.
Filmmakers would struggle to create lively historical documentaries if we allow the archival film held by the National Archives to be destroyed. It would be disastrous for our historical understanding.
What is so astonishing is that the amount of money required to pull us back from the digital cliff is relatively small. The government has committed $500m to an expansion of the Australian War Memorial : the Tune Review of the National Archives, released in March this year, recommended the government fund a seven year program to urgently digitise at-risk materials. The cost? Just $67.7 million.
The National Archives is a crucial democratic institution. It plays an important role in holding the state to account, encouraging broad participation in civic life by facilitating access to records generated by the Australian government. This gives it enormous power to control – and limit – access to government records.
Yet it has not always exercised this power wisely.
Given the enormous financial pressures on the National Archives, its decision to fight Professor Jenny Hocking’s bid to access the so-called “Palace Letters”, a legal dispute that cost the archives more than $1 million, was a deeply misguided use of precious funds.
Similarly, many historians have criticised the archives’ overly cautious approach to clearing records for access, which has led to huge backlogs of unprocessed requests. Its practice of sending records back to the department that originally created them means documents can languish, unchecked, for months or even years.
A process which restricts or even refuses access to government documents without adequate justification does not reflect an open and free democratic process.
The National Archives has much work to do to improve access to the records it holds. But it is also clear it has been denied essential funding for many years, and this has taken a toll.
The archives contains irreplaceable records that are important to every Australian. It is the government’s role to fund our national cultural institutions adequately so they can preserve and maintain this material: not just for citizens today, but for the citizens of the future.