That massacre, in which troops and colonists killed between 15 and 80 Noongar people, is widely known. Less recognised is Stirling’s encouragement of soldiers and settlers to flout the law and employ violence, including murder, against Noongar communities resisting colonial dispossession elsewhere in WA.
Stirling was WA’s first governor from 1829-39. My new research on the early history of pastoralism highlights how this industry’s success was built on the violent conquest of the Avon valley in the 1830s, during which Stirling condoned the unlawful killing of Noongar people by soldiers and settlers.
In one case, for instance, he refused to prosecute a farm worker who killed an Indigenous man in cold blood.
This was despite his proclamation that all the settlement’s inhabitants, Indigenous and European, would be protected equally by British law.
He also argued authorities needed to deliver a decisive blow to “tranquilize” the district. Any balanced assessment of his career in WA should take these actions into account.
‘Liable to be prosecuted’
The proclamation declaring the establishment of Swan River in June 1829 explicitly extended the British legal system to the new settlement.
Indeed Stirling gave notice that if any person was “convicted of behaving in a fraudilent [sic], cruel or felonious Manner towards the Aboriginees of the Country” they would be “liable to be prosecuted and tried for the Offence, as if the same had been committed against any other of His Majesty’s Subjects”.
Yet his commitment to abide by the laws he had proclaimed was frequently tested, especially when colonists began to explore and occupy the Avon valley, 60 miles east of Perth. This area became the centre of the colony’s nascent pastoral industry.
The conquest and settlement of the Avon district by pastoralists and farmers in the 1830s was especially bloody. The Noongar people of the Ballardong region, who owned this well-watered and fertile country, bravely resisted the settler incursion.
In 1836, Stirling dispatched ten soldiers to the town of York under the command of Lieutenant Henry Bunbury. This young officer (for whom the city of Bunbury south of Perth is named) was instructed by the governor “to take the most decisive measures”. Bunbury took this to mean he had been “ordered over here with a detachment to make war upon the Natives”.
During 1836 and 1837, Bunbury committed several atrocities, freely admitted to in letters and journals. People sleeping at night were killed without warning. A Noongar man running away from his mounted party was killed, also at night.
Bunbury knew his actions were illegal, but claimed in a letter to Stirling that “severe measures” were necessary. Stirling expressed his satisfaction with Bunbury’s “promptitude”.
In a public notice he explained “a decisive blow” at York was necessary “to tranquilize that District”.
The “boldness” of the Ballardong Noongar resistance meant that nothing would suffice, wrote Stirling, except
an early exhibition of force, or […] such acts of decisive severity, as will appal them as a people for a time, and reduce their tribe to weakness.
Stirling actively condoned the killing of Noongar people by Avon settlers. One particularly egregious atrocity occurred in September 1836 when the pioneering pastoralist Arthur Trimmer ordered a worker to murder a Noongar man “in cool blood”.
The employee, Edward Gallop, was instructed to hide in a barn loft with a gun. The doors of the barn, which contained flour, were intentionally left open and as soon as three men entered to take some, Gallop shot one of them in the head.
Stirling made no public statement condemning this premeditated murder. In a letter to his bosses at the Colonial Office in London, he openly defended settlers’ use of extrajudicial violence.
While expressing his “displeasure and regret at the loss of the Native’s life”, Stirling decided not to prosecute Gallop. He believed that
in cases where the law is necessarily ineffectual for the protection of life and property the right of self protection cannot with justice be circumscribed within very narrow limits.
On several other occasions colonists murdered Noongar people without cause, and in some cases mutilated their bodies. For example, another of Trimmer’s employees named Souper boasted of shooting a woman while hunting in the forest; soldiers under Bunbury’s command later mutilated her body.
When Stirling was asked to investigate and prosecute these crimes by the missionary Louis Giustiniani, he ignored them.
Australians love their war heroes. Our founding myth centres on the heroism of the ANZACs. Our Victoria Cross recipients are considered emblematic of our highest virtues. We also revere our dissident heroes, such as Ned Kelly and the Eureka rebels. But where in this pantheon are our Black war heroes?
If it’s underdog heroism we’re after, we need look no further than the warriors who resisted the invasion of their homelands between 1788 and 1928. And none distinguished himself more than Tongerlongeter — the subject of a new book I have written with historian Henry Reynolds.
In Tasmania’s “Black War” of 1823–31, Tongerlongeter led a stunning resistance campaign against invading British soldiers and colonists. Leader of the Oyster Bay nation, he inspired dread throughout the island’s southeast. Convicts refused to work alone or unarmed, terrified settlers abandoned their farms, the economy faltered and the government seemed powerless to suppress the violence.
It was a legacy Tongerlongeter could never have imagined in 1802, when his people encountered the French explorers under Nicolas Baudin on Maria Island. Having never heard of foreign lands or peoples, they concluded the pale-faced visitors were ancestral spirits returned from the dead. If zombies are an apt comparison, they were soon to experience a zombie invasion.
The British established their first settlement at Risdon Cove, opposite today’s Hobart, in 1803. Only from the 1820s did settlement accelerate up the fertile valleys of the southeast. Tongerlongeter initially restricted his warriors to targeted retribution, but as the violence intensified, all stops were pulled.
By night, Tongerlongeter and his people were vulnerable to ambushes. Gangs of frontiersmen and sealers killed hundreds of men and abducted countless women and girls. Tongerlongeter’s first wife was taken in just such an ambush.
Being wary of evil spirits, Tongerlongeter’s people never attacked by night. But from sun-up to sun-down, exposed colonists lived in constant fear of attack. Using sophisticated tactics such as reconnaissance, decoys, flanking and pincer manoeuvres, sabotage, and arson, Tongerlongeter’s war parties attacked hut after hut, and often several at a time.
Trained from infancy in the arts of war, Aboriginal warriors carried out guerrilla operations with extraordinary discipline and strategy. Apart from soldiers, most colonists were woefully unprepared to face such assailants. Typically, warriors would surround a hut, then kill its occupants, plunder whatever they wanted, and set it alight. Then they “simply vanished”, outwitting even mounted pursuit parties.
In 1828, as the body count rose, Lieutenant Governor George Arthur declared martial law. Vigilantes had long “hunted the blacks” with impunity; now they did so legally.
While such measures took a devastating toll, Tongerlongeter and his allies, the neighbouring Big River nation, only intensified their resistance, making 137 documented attacks in 1828, 152 in 1829, and 204 in 1830. Each year they refined their tactics. Some settlers insisted the colony should be abandoned.
In September 1830, under mounting pressure, Arthur initiated a massive military operation designed to crush the resistance of Tongerlongeter and his allies.
The Black Line, as it came to be known, was Australia’s largest ever domestic military offensive. It involved 2,200 soldiers, settlers and convicts — 10% of the white population — in a seven-week campaign designed to “capture the hostile tribes”. Outnumbered by about 200 to one, and using only traditional weapons, Aboriginal resistance had driven the colony to take the most desperate of measures.
Commanded by Arthur himself, the Black Line was a human cordon, sweeping down eastern Tasmania. It was also a stunning failure, resulting in just two Aboriginal people captured and two killed. During the same period, Oyster Bay-Big River warriors killed five colonists and wounded six.
Still, the white men had made an impressive show of force, so Tongerlongeter’s people headed for the relative safety of the Central Plateau.
They didn’t make it unscathed. According to Tongerlongeter, who recounted his wartime experiences years later in exile, he
[…] was with his tribe in the neighbourhood of the Den Hill and that there was men cutting wood. The men were frightened and run away. At night they came back with plenty of white men (it was moonlight), and they looked and saw our fires. Then they shot at us, shot my arm, killed two men and three women. The women they beat on the head and killed them; they then burnt them in the fire.
A musket ball almost severed Tongerlongeter’s arm just below the elbow. As his comrades sliced off what remained of his limb, the chief’s pain would have been stupefying. But worse was to come. We know from post-mortem records that someone, presumably using abrasive rock, ground smooth his splintered forearm bone. To stem the bleeding, Tongerlongeter simply said his kinfolk “burnt the end”, belying the true horror of cauterisation without anaesthetic.
The desperate final year
Miraculously, Tongerlongeter survived and made it to the plateau, but the momentum of the resistance waned. Oyster Bay and Big River bands made only 57 attacks in 1831. Desperate to avoid the white man’s guns, they wintered in the frigid high country.
Then, in the spring of 1831, Tongerlongeter’s people made one last foray to the east coast where they found themselves trapped on the Freycinet Peninsula by more than 100 armed white men. They were again forced to slip past the muskets at night.
Tongerlongeter made a beeline back west where his wife, Droomteemetyer, gave birth to a son. Parperermanener was the last Oyster Bay-Big River child — a delicate flame kindled from the dying embers of his people.
On New Year’s Eve 1831, Tongerlongeter’s war-weary remnant, now just 26 in number, were holed up in the remote lake country when they were approached by a small Aboriginal party. They were envoys of George Augustus Robinson’s “friendly mission”, whom Arthur had tasked with “conciliating the hostile tribes”.
Robinson’s terms were: if Tongerlongeter’s people laid down their arms they could, once order was restored, remain on their Country with a government emissary for protection. The chief was undoubtedly suspicious, but the alternative was the wholesale erasure of his people and culture.
When Tongerlongeter’s small band of survivors entered Hobart a week later, the whole town came to witness the spectacle. Spears in hand, they approached Government House, where the governor invited them in. His administration kept meticulous records — but as important as this meeting was, Arthur knew better than to document the promises he made.
Ten days later the whole party set sail for Flinders Island. They became dreadfully seasick. Severely dehydrated, Droomteemetyer would have struggled to breastfeed Parperermanener, and soon after disembarking, his tiny body went limp. For the Oyster Bay-Big River remnant, this was no ordinary tragedy. It wasn’t just that a child had died, or even that it was the child of a chief. There were no more children.
Despite the loss of his son, his arm, his country, his way of life and almost everyone he had ever known, Tongerlongeter did not give up hope. As a leader, he couldn’t, and from the outset he was proactive. By popular vote, he represented the exiles in negotiations, settled disputes, provided counsel, distributed justice, and was instrumental in a range of improvements.
In 1834, a visiting missionary identified Tongerlongeter as “the principal chief at Flinders”, where 244 Aboriginal Tasmanians were eventually exiled. When Robinson took command of the settlement in 1835, he immediately recognised the chief’s seniority, renaming him King William after Britain’s reigning monarch.
But good leadership could only do so much. During the five years Tongerlongeter was at the settlement, there were four births but well over 100 deaths, mostly from influenza. On March 21 1837, Tongerlongeter demanded they be allowed “to leave this place of sickness”; and when Robinson hesitated, he asked: “What, do you mean to stay till all the black men are dead?”
It wasn’t just that an “evil spirit” was sickening his people — Tongerlongeter never stopped advocating for their promised return to Country. When that failed, he supported Robinson’s plan for their removal to Victoria, even if the fledgling settlement’s only appeal was that it was not Flinders Island. Some eventually made that journey, but Tongerlongeter was not among them.
The two men could scarcely have been more different. One led the largest empire on Earth; the other led a small nation of hunter-gatherers. One dispossessed millions of indigenous peoples; the other determinedly resisted dispossession. One died in the comfort of a lavish castle, the other in a draughty hut on an accursed island far from home.
King William was just a character Tongerlongeter played so his people might have a voice.
If he had anything in common with the British monarch, it was that his death produced a comparable tide of shock and sorrow, albeit confined to a shrinking settlement on a tiny island at the edge of the known world.
The Black War, as everyone at the time understood, was just that — a war. Yes, it was a small guerrilla war, but so were most wars throughout history. It’s impossible to overstate its significance for Tasmania and its peoples. The impacts of subsequent wars pale by comparison, and yet these overseas conflicts and their heroes monopolise our commemorative spaces.
How can this be? Almost all those who fought alongside Tongerlongeter were killed in action — not as helpless victims, but as warriors. Theirs was the most effective frontier resistance campaign in Australian history, killing at least 182 invaders and wounding another 176. No less intimidating were their efforts to sabotage the invasion by spearing thousands of sheep and cattle, and burning dozens of homes and crops.
And the impact of their resistance was felt beyond Tasmania. Governor Arthur later wrote it had been “a great oversight that a treaty was not […] made with the natives”, and a chastened Colonial Office took steps not to repeat that mistake. New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi, for instance, was due in no small part to Tongerlongeter and his warriors, who taught the British Empire a lesson in the true cost of “free land”.
Tongerlongeter should be recognised as one of our nation’s greatest war heroes. He should be celebrated by politicians and school children alike, and yet almost no one has ever heard of him.
Tongerlongeter showed the “extreme devotion to duty” and “self-sacrifice” that would later make a soldier eligible for the Victoria Cross. He and his warriors fought year after year in the face of staggering odds.
It’s not that these heroes should receive posthumous medals, but they should receive the respect accorded to those who do. Their skin was black, and they wore no uniform, but if the men and women who sacrificed everything in defence of their country do not exemplify our highest virtues, then who does?
It is an Australian quirk that we don’t officially commemorate or memorialise our frontier wars or those who fought in them. When contrasted against memorials to overseas campaigns, this sends a stark message: our country values these foreign conflicts more than those fought on this country, for this country. And it implies our war heroes are all white.
Other countries are far ahead of us in this regard.
A statue of the Chilean Mapuche leader Caupolicán has commanded an imposing position in the centre of Santiago since 1910. Samuel Sharpe, the leader of the Jamaican slave rebellion, was declared a national hero in 1975. And outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s government recently erected a 15-metre bronze statue of indigenous guerrilla fighter Juana Azurduy.
Momentum for commemoration in Australia is building. Aboriginal community groups and elders, with the support of RSL Tasmania, Reconciliation Tasmania and the Hobart City Council, are planning to install a Black War memorial in Hobart’s Cenotaph precinct. When erected, it will be the first of its kind in Australia.
Tongerlongeter and many other heroes of The Black War are buried at the Wybalenna Cemetery on Flinders Island. But rather than being overlooked by an impressive memorial, only thistles adorn their unmarked graves. How Aboriginal people are commemorated or memorialised is the prerogative of their descendants, but admiration for warriors like Tongerlongeter has the potential to transcend race, culture and creed.
Paintings of sailing vessels, smoking pipes, firearms, domesticated animals and other exotic items dot the landscape in Arnhem Land, often overlaying earlier works. Comparatively recent paintings feature more common images too, such as kangaroos, emus, and hand stencils.
While most Australians know about the history of European arrivals, few are familiar with the ongoing visits by people from southeast Asia to the region. Our latest research shows artists depicted early trading sailing vessels less often and differently to European ships — suggesting they viewed these encounters with other cultures in contrasting ways.
Far from the generally accepted notion of an isolated shoreline, the north Australian coast was teeming with sailing vessels engaged in trade for hundreds of years before European exploration and settlement.
Most commonly referred to as Macassans (because they’d made the crossing from the port of Makassar in southern Sulawesi) these early traders came in fleets of praus with their signature tripod masts, to harvest trepang (sea cucumber) and for materials such as turtle shell, beeswax, and iron wood.
Working with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, especially members of the Lamilami family, our new research focuses on the Namunidjbuk clan estate within the Wellington Range in the Northern Territory. We looked closely at one particular type of rock art — boats in the form of Macassan praus and European ships.
Sailing vessels are among the most common new subjects in rock art made during the last 500 years in northwest Arnhem Land. Yet, there is a perplexing inconsistency in how Aboriginal artists of this region treated Macassan prau and European ships.
The earliest dated prau depiction is from the first half of the 1600s. No depictions of European ships are thought to be older than the early 1800s.
Yet we counted many more rock art images of European ships: 50 examples in the study area, compared to only six prau (five images feature elements of both).
These extraordinary works illustrate the maritime history of this region. They range in detail from basic outlines of hulls to detailed depictions of European ships. Some even illustrate cargo.
Others reveal ship features found under the waterline such as anchors and propellers. Southeast Asian prau are recognisable because of their unique tripod masts and sails. Some paintings of European ships show the crew smoking pipes and with their hands on their hips.
When people are portrayed on or next to watercraft in our study area, it is always in association with European ships, with no depictions associated with prau at all.
So, why did Aboriginal artists feel the need to paint so many European ships, and sometimes their crew — but very few relating to southeast Asian visits?
We argue the proliferation of European-related imagery signals the threat they posed to Indigenous sovereignty. Communicating this threat (via rock art and other means) to family and neighbouring clans was an essential tool for inter-generational education, inter-clan communication, resistance and survival.
The lack of praus does not suggest a lesser cross-cultural relationship between Macassans and Aboriginal people. In fact, nearby in Anuru Bay is one of the largest Macassan trepang processing complexes in the NT.
But visits by the Macassans were seasonal, while the Europeans came to stay. Cross-cultural contact between Aboriginal people and Macassans in this region is generally thought to be characterised by mutual respect and exchange. Contact with Europeans was more violent, with historically known killings and massacres of Aboriginal people.
Importantly, our findings in northwest Arnhem Land are the opposite of research undertaken in other parts of northern Australia, such as Groote Eylandt, where there are many depictions of Macassan prau and crew. This reminds us that one size does not fit all in the history of invasion and cross-cultural contact in northern Australia.
For decades R. Lamilami (1957-2021) worked to protect his Country and to educate outsiders on the cultural significance of the Namunidjbuk clan estate and, more broadly, the Wellington Range. With this article we pay tribute to his life’s work and his firm belief that rock art is an irreplaceable history book for Australia.
Imogen Wegman, University of TasmaniaThe new Netflix series Shadow and Bone opens with cartographer Alina Starkov crammed into the back of a rumbling wagon, sketching a war-torn landscape. A flashback to her childhood in an orphanage shows her looking at a map of a conflict zone.
A guardian tells her, “keep a pencil in your hand, or else someone will put a rifle in it instead”. The cartographers of this fictional world are crucial to the military, just as they are in the real world. But there is also a sense that cartographers played a peaceful role in the army.
In reality, the role of surveyors and cartographers throughout history was often far from peaceful. It was their initial explorations that paved the way for destructive waves of colonising armies and civilians.
At each stage of mapping an area, clues are preserved about the priorities and prejudices of the person wielding the pencil, and those instructing them. Today, researchers can spot these clues and draw out the contextual history of the time.
Exploring the land
Maps made it easier for the government back home to imagine the territory of a new colony, to claim to “know” and thus own it. Therefore, surveying expeditions into unknown lands were prioritised.
Some expeditions were huge, such as Lewis and Clark’s crossing of the United States. Others were small, such as James Meehan’s treks around the Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) between October 1803 and March 1804.
Meehan kept a daily log of measurements and happenings as he explored. Like many, he occasionally included sketches, probably trying to ward off boredom during the long evenings at camp.
We know through journal records that Meehan met some palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) people along the different routes, once firing on a group when he felt threatened.
Meehan’s observations were then produced for their first external audience – the colonial government. It’s here we start to see the colony’s priorities.
Many of the map labels highlight the quality of the land in terms of potential for expansion and European-style agriculture. Meehan’s map of the Hobart area emphasises whether the land encountered was hilly or flat, covered with vegetation, or cleared pasture.
By the time Meehan drafted his “Plan of the Settlement at the River Derwent”, pictured above, the Europeans had moved from their initial camp at Risdon Cove to today’s site of Hobart. The Risdon settlement was considered a failure as the fresh water ran out and soldiers threatened mutiny, so Meehan omitted any reference to it beyond a small name label.
More importantly, he excluded any reference to any Indigenous people, despite having encountered them on more than one occasion.
Meehan was playing his part in cultivating the narrative of Van Diemen’s Land as a successful colony on an “empty” island that had been (supposedly) waiting for the Europeans to arrive. This was the same as the terra nullius narrative perpetuated by the British government regarding the mainland.
Propaganda in map form
Sometimes the map would be destined for wider circulation and would be refined with simple decorative features such as a key, north arrow, coloured inks and detailed illustrations of ships or gardens.
Within these more attractive maps, hidden clues became even more nuanced.
Aspirational elements were introduced, giving the viewer a sense of what the cartographer, landholder or government perceived as a desirable landscape. Phrases such as “unexplored country” would be used, or an area of blank space sparked the imagination with some promise of undiscovered wealth.
Both sketch maps and their more refined siblings were used by the ruling powers as working maps to track their increasing expansion over the land. By reading the scribbled annotations carefully, stories of changing land ownership, population growth and acts of violence become apparent.
Republishing and distribution
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, geographers, engravers and others combined data from maps and reports to print single sheets and atlases they could sell at a range of prices.
These maps transported the reading public to remote locations and made them sound educated at the dinner table. Accuracy was not required for this, so mistakes were copied from one chart to another, and outdated information often circulated for decades.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, explorers’ maps and reports sometimes included references to First Nations peoples or their significant sites. Abel Tasman observed the presence of palawa people in southern Tasmania. A century later, explorers in America named “native guides” in recognition of their invaluable assistance during cross-country expeditions.
But by the end of the 18th century, changing attitudes towards First Nations peoples started to see references to them disappear from maps of European colonies around the globe.
In 1804, Meehan omitted all mention of Tasmania’s palawa people from his Derwent River map. This is a reflection of emerging ideas of colonial superiority. The Europeans were increasingly reluctant to admit to needing help from Indigenous people, or even to admit there were other people already living on the lands.
So the next time you find yourself in front of a historic map, make sure you ask what details have been included, which have been excluded and — most importantly — why?
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
Aboriginal rock art unfolds stories about the present-past and emerging worlds, often described by an outsider as the Dreamtime. Some rock art, it is believed, was put in place by spiritual and mythological beings. Many of these Ancestral Beings travelled vast distances, and their journeys link places, clans and different rock art paintings.
Our new research into a 1972 painting made by Billy Miargu in today’s Kakadu National Park shows how rock art can act as an intergenerational media — even when no longer visible to the eye.
In December 1972, Robert Edwards and George Chaloupka, two acclaimed rock art researchers, came across Miargu camping at Koongarra in the heart of Kakadu. They took a photograph of his family. In the background, there was a newly made painting of a kangaroo. The researchers did not think much about this image, describing it as a “poor naturalistic representation.”
When Paul S.C. Taçon revisited the painting only 13 years later, it was gone (probably due to exposure to wind and rain). In 2018, we used state-of-the-art digital documentation methods to try to detect remnants of the kangaroo, but all in vain. We can no longer see the white kangaroo, as shown in the photograph below.
In June 2019, we returned to Koongarra with three of Miargu’s daughters, two of his granddaughters and a great-granddaughter.
We learned that Miargu was born in central Arnhem Land. He moved west to Kakadu around the time of the second world war to work at cattle stations — shooting buffalo, cutting timber — and emerging tourist venues. His clan was Barrbinj and his wife, Daphnie Baljur, was Barrappa. Together, they had six children: five daughters and a son.
Miargu and his wife were camping at Koongarra in 1972 while participating in a fact-finding survey on behalf of the Commonwealth government and the Australian Mining Industry Council for a planned uranium mine. They collected mammals and reptiles for this study.
Our conversations revealed that the place where Miargu painted the kangaroo had a special meaning for him. It is situated in his mother’s clan Country, and he had a ceremonial obligation to this place.
The original kangaroo painting referenced a local ceremony. Depicting this Ancestral Being in his mother’s Country shows that Miargu had undergone this ceremony and was keen to care for this Country. Today, his son and daughters have inherited some of these obligations.
Even though Miargu’s painting of the kangaroo can no longer be detected, this place holds a special meaning to his descendants. In fact, for the family, they say “our dad’s painting is hiding, in secret place”. They address the painting as if it is still there, visible or not.
Miargu passed away in 1990. This is the only place the family knows where he created rock art. His daughter Linda Biyalwanga said, “we don’t know any other paintings. Only one painting, that’s why we bring our children to show them this painting.”
And she explained:
My daddy, story, memory, like memories, memory for us, and [he] make [the rock art] for the grandchildren, yeah. He said when I passed away, then my daughters will come around and maybe my granddaughter, and grandsons, great-great-grandchildren come and have look at […] rock art […] When they have kids, they can show them the painting.
The tangible place, the intangible rock painting, and the family’s recollection of the happy times they spent together with their parents at this special place seem to have merged into a present-past and future which embrace Western concepts of space, but defy similar notions of time.
In an inexplicable but noteworthy way, Miargu’s painting seems more present today because it is absent.
To visit Koongarra and the rock art figure he created is vital for his family. It evokes cherished memories about their parents and feelings, but also sorrow and the loss of “the Old People who finished up”.
Joanne Sullivan, another of Miargu’s daughters, expressed this when she said: “I wish my dad sit here.”
When asked if there are other places where they can connect to their parents in this way, Linda Biyalwanga answered: “It’s the only place. It’s the only place we think about, like, his spirit, mum’s spirit.”
When we left the place, Miargu’s daughters called out to their parents’ spirits and asked them to remember them and take care of them. Even though the rock painting “is hiding”, it is still crucial — it lives on even when gone…
This research was undertaken in collaboration with the family members of Billy Miargu and Daphnie Baljur.
Last year, the Victorian government announced it would establish a Truth and Justice process to “recognise historic wrongs and address ongoing injustices for Aboriginal Victorians”.
Since then, the government has worked in partnership with the First Peoples’ Assembly to figure out how that process would operate.
Today, the government and the First Peoples’ Assembly co-chairs announced the process would be run by the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission (named for the Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba word for “truth”). The commission will be led by five commissioners and, importantly, will be invested with the powers of a royal commission.
The announcement was made at Coranderrk, a former Aboriginal reserve outside Melbourne. The site is significant. Dispossessed from their country, a group of Aboriginal people were allowed in the 1860s to settle on a small parcel of land deemed unsuitable for agriculture.
Rebuilding their community, the group farmed and sold produce into Melbourne. Their success caused resentment among non-Indigenous farmers and the Aboriginal Protection Board.
In 1886, after many years of increasing pressure from the board, residents issued the Coranderrk Petition to the Victorian government, protesting the heavy restrictions that had been placed on their lives. Their petition went unanswered. Residents were evicted, and the land was eventually reclaimed by the government.
The Coranderrk Petition is one example of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities actively resisted colonisation. It also shows governments can — and often do — act in ways that caused deep injustices. It is these, and many other events, that have motivated calls for truth in the present day.
we want the history of Aboriginal people taught in schools, including the truth about murders and the theft of land, Maralinga, and the Stolen Generations, as well the story of all the Aboriginal fighters for reform. Healing can only begin when this true history is taught.
Truth commissions have been set up in many countries around the world as a means to investigate and redress past human rights abuses. Since the first commission began in 1974, at least 40 national truth commissions have been established.
The most prominent truth commission is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Set up to investigate human rights abuses committed under apartheid, the commission’s hearings were broadcast live to a captivated nation. Controversially, however, the commission could grant amnesty to perpetrators who confessed to their crimes.
Under this system, First Nations children were forcibly removed from their homes and families and put into boarding schools run by the government and churches. Similar to the Stolen Generations in Australia, the government had a mission “to kill the Indian in the child”, according to a national apology by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.
The South African and Canadian truth commissions are valuable examples, but the process in Victoria will need to be designed differently. Thankfully, the government has acknowledged this.
Two points stand out. First, truth commissions are often set up by a new government to investigate human rights abuses under a previous regime.
However, this isn’t comparable to the abuses suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Although the invasion and massacres happened many years ago, the consequences of colonisation continue to this day. This fact was recognised by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, which said,
so much of the Aboriginal people’s current circumstances, and the patterns of interactions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal society, are a direct consequence of their experience of colonialism and, indeed, of the recent past.
In Australia, a truth-telling process should not simply document history and investigate “historic abuses”. Rather, it should serve as a bridge to “draw history into the present”.
Second, truth commissions often focus on individual human rights violations.
This also might not be appropriate in Australia, where many perpetrators of violence are likely to have died. More importantly, Indigenous peoples see little distinction between individual acts of violence, such as massacres, and the broader structural forces behind the laws, policies and attitudes that gave rise to and encouraged such violence.
A truth-telling process can help to identify those connections for non-Indigenous Australians.
How Victoria’s inquiry can be a model for the nation
The Victorian announcement places more pressure on the Commonwealth government to implement the Uluru Statement. After all, the call for truth and justice is made by all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, not just those in Victoria.
The Uluru Statement called for three steps to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:
putting a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution
the establishment of a Makarrata Commission that would oversee a process of agreement-making and then a process of truth-telling.
The Victorian government shows this sequenced reform process can work. The First Peoples’ Assembly in the state worked with the government to develop the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission. That commission and the truth-telling process will guide the push for treaties between Aboriginal communities and the state.
The Commonwealth government initially rejected the call for a First Nations Voice. Although its opposition has softened, it remains reluctant to put the Voice in the constitution.
This is concerning. Without constitutional entrenchment, the Voice is likely to struggle to be effective and a national process of treaty making and truth-telling may not occur. Further, a national First Nations Voice will be unable to protect important developments at the state level, like those in Victoria.
Challenges remain, but the announcement today is significant. As First Peoples’ Assembly co-chair Marcus Stewart noted,
never before have we seen a truth-telling process in this country or state.
In Western Australia’s northeast Kimberley region, on Balanggarra Country, a two-metre-long painting of a kangaroo spans the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter above the Drysdale River.
In a paper published today in Nature Human Behaviour, we date the artwork as being between 17,500 and 17,100 years old — making it Australia’s oldest known in-situ rock painting.
We used a pioneering radiocarbon dating technique on 27 mud wasp nests underlying and overlying 16 different paintings from 8 rock shelters. We found paintings of this style were produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago.
Our work is part of Australia’s largest rock art dating initiative. The project is based in the Kimberley, one of the world’s premier rock art regions. Here, rock shelters have preserved galleries of paintings, often with generations of younger artwork painted over older work.
By studying the stylistic features of the paintings and the order in which they were painted when they overlap, a stylistic sequence has been developed by earlier researchers based on observations at thousands of Kimberley rock art sites.
They identified five main stylistic periods, of which the most recent is the familiar Wanjina period.
Styles in rock art
The oldest style, which includes the kangaroo painting we recently dated, often features life-sized animals in outline form, infilled with irregular dashes. Paintings in this style are said to belong to the “Naturalistic” stylistic period.
The ochre used is an iron oxide in a red-mulberry colour. Unfortunately, no current scientific dating method can determine when this paint was applied to the rock surface.
A different approach is to date fossilised insect nests or mineral accretions on the rock surfaces that happen to be overlying or underlying rock art pigment. These dates provide a maximum (underlying) or minimum (overlying) age range for the painting.
Our dating suggests the main period for Naturalistic paintings in the Kimberley spanned from at least 17,000 to 13,000 years ago.
The oldest known Australian rock painting
Very rarely, we’ll find mud wasp nests both overlying and underlying a single painting. This was the case with the painting of the kangaroo, made on the low ceiling of a well-protected Drysdale River rock shelter.
We were able to date three wasp nests underlying the painting and three nests built on top of it. With these ages, we determined confidently the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old; most likely close to 17,300 years old.
Our quantitative ages support the proposed stylistic sequence that suggests the oldest Naturalistic style was followed by the Gwion style. This style featured paintings of decorated human figures, often with headdresses and holding boomerangs.
From animals and plants to people
Research we published last year shows Gwion paintings flourished about 12,000 years ago — some 1,000-5,000 years after the Naturalistic period.
With these dates, we can also partially reconstruct the environment in which the artists lived 600 generations ago. For example, much of the Naturalistic period coincided with the end of the last ice age when the environment was cooler and drier than now.
During the Naturalistic period, 17,000 years ago, sea levels were a staggering 106 metres below today’s and the Kimberley coastline was about 300 kilometres further away, more than half the distance to Timor.
Aboriginal artists at this time often chose to depict kangaroos, fish, birds, reptiles, echidnas and plants (particularly yams). As the climate warmed, ice caps melted, the monsoon was re-established, rainfall increased and sea levels rose, sometimes rapidly.
By the Gwion period around 12,000 years ago, sea levels had risen to 55m below today’s. This would undoubtedly have prompted long-term adjustment to territories and social relations.
This is when Aboriginal painters depicted highly decorated human figures, bearing a striking resemblance to early 20th-century photographs of Aboriginal ceremonial dress. While plants and animals were still painted, human figures were clearly the most popular subject.
While we now have age estimates for more paintings than ever before, more work is continuing to find out, more accurately, when each art period began and ended.
For example, one minimum age on a Gwion painting suggests it may be more than 16,000 years old. If so, Gwion art would have overlapped with the Naturalistic period but further dates are required to be more certain.
Moreover, it’s highly unlikely the oldest known Naturalistic painting we dated is the oldest surviving one. Future research will almost certainly locate even older works.
For now, however, the 17,300-year-old kangaroo is a sight to marvel at.
Acknowledgements: we would like to thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral Co for their collaboration on this work.