Mapping the ‘superhighways’ travelled by the first Australians

Superhighways’ used by a population of up to 6.5 million Indigenous Australians to navigate the continent tens of thousands of years ago have been revealed by new research using sophisticated modelling of past people and landscapes.

The new insights into how people not only survived, but thrived, in harsh environments provide further evidence of the capacity and resilience of the ancestors of Indigenous people, and help paint a picture of large, well-organised groups navigating tough terrain.

The ‘peopling’ of Sahul — the combined mega continent that joined Australia with New Guinea when sea levels were lower than today — could have taken as little as 5,000 years as people moved from the far northwest, all the way to Tasmania in the southeast.

Models also predict that the total population of Sahul could have reached as much as 6.5 million people, according to the studies led by researchers from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH).

Many Aboriginal cultures believe people have always been here, while others have strong oral histories of ancestral beings arriving from the north. While there are many hypotheses about where, how and when Indigenous Australians first settled in Sahul, archaeological evidence is scarce.

Now, a group of multidisciplinary experts have collaborated to investigate these questions using state-of-the-art modelling techniques, with the findings published in two companion papers in Nature Communications and Nature Human Behaviour.

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