The Journey to Ancient Australia: Part 3

The following is an extract from an article first published in Agora magazine (HTAV).

Image © Robyn Kinsela

Image © Robyn Kinsela

The first evidence of outside contact can be traced to about 4500 BP, when dingoes were introduced from Asia [1]. Between 800 to 1000 years ago, the Macassans began trading with people in Arnhem Land. Evidence of Macassan contact is found all along the northern shores of Australia. Rock art at Malarrak portrays Macassan praus (sailboats), weapons and houses. At Anuru Bay, Macassan burials have been excavated. Contact with the Macassans transformed Ancient Australian coastal life. The introduction of metal tools changed the way food was collected and processed. Iron axes enabled the construction of hollowed-out canoes made of solid wood, often called ‘dugout’ canoes. With these sturdier canoes and metal harpoons, fishermen could venture into deeper waters to hunt dugong and sea turtle.

Some historians have speculated that the Portuguese may have arrived in the 1500s [2], and there are hints of voyagers from Africa as well [3], though these two theories remain unproven. The first documented contact is dated 1606, when the Dutch made landfall at Cape Keerweer in Queensland. The last arrivals in 1770 were the British. Whereas past visitors had stayed temporarily, these newcomers did not leave. Instead, their fleets signalled the beginning of a prolonged and systematic effort to extinguish the Ancient Australian way of life, applying a potent combination of force, relocation, re-education, and introduced diseases [4]. This created a double-edged national historical narrative and a deep dichotomy that is gradually being acknowledged, respected and remedied.

One October day in 1984, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra was advised by radiophone: ‘We have a first contact here.’ Located in the Gibson Desert, nine Pintupi people had been picked up in a four-wheel drive and taken to Kintore, near Alice Springs. They had never seen a non-Indigenous person, let alone cars and towns [5]. Wearing human hair belts and armed with spears and boomerangs, the Pintupi Nine had quietly stepped out of the desert and into modern-day society. They are believed to be the last people to have lived an Ancient Australian hunter-gatherer lifestyle.


[1] This article from the Max Planck Institute explains this early contact.

[2] An illuminated Portuguese manuscript possibly from the 1500s appears to contain the image of a kangaroo or wallaby.

[3] The discovery of five extremely rare Kilwa coins off the Arnhem Land coast points to early explorers in the region.

[4] The South Australian Museum has digitised Norman Tindale’s Tribal Boundaries in Aboriginal Australia map, illustrating known Indigenous language groups. Only about 30 languages and dialects are still spoken today.

[5] Warlinipirri Tjapaltjarri, one of the Pintupi Nine, recalls the day he first saw a white man.

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