The First Australians

When and where did the first people come from?

Aboriginal people recorded their history in rock paintings like this. Getty Images

Aboriginal people recorded their history in rock paintings like this. Getty Images

Humans probably began settling in Australia at least 50 000 years ago. It may even, according to some archaeologists, have been as long ago as 70 000 thousand years ago.

No one knows how many different groups came to Australia, but it thought that the way some of the first people came was by moving along between a chain of islands from Sulawesi (Sulawesi is in Borneo and is now part of Indonesia) and New Guinea. Others may have reached North Western Australia via Timor.

Settling across Australia

The Aboriginal flag was designed in the 1970s to represent indigenous Australians

The Aboriginal flag was designed in the 1970s to represent indigenous Australians

These first Australians soon occupied the whole continent.  Different groups had separate territory and they moved through their territory on foot, making pathways beside streams and rivers, or between water-holes. The different groups asked permission if they were wanting to pass through another group's territory. Some groups of people settled on the islands in the Torres Strait and are known today as Torres Strait Islanders.

These Islanders and the Aboriginal peoples in Northern Australia made rafts and canoes and travelled across rivers and across the sea.

This flag representing the Torres Strait Islanders was designed in 1992

This flag representing the Torres Strait Islanders was designed in 1992

Those Aborigines who travelled south and crossed into the land we now call Tasmania, which was part of the mainland until about 14 000 years ago  when it became separate when the sea level rose.

How did the Aboriginal peoples live?

 Aboriginal peoples were hunters and ate the animals they caught, they were also gatherers of plants that could be eaten. They built shelters that were different in design, depending on the climate (the weather), and the season in their part of Australia. Clothing too varied, depending on the weather and the season.

Bark painting showing a kangaroo that had been hunted.

Bark painting showing a kangaroo that had been hunted.

Those groups that lived in the north traded with people who lived in New Guinea and with visiting sailors and fishermen from parts of what is now Indonesia. The 200-300 language groups were run by older members, known as elders. Aboriginal peoples had their own laws, and languages, and through storytelling, songs, rock art and bark paintings, they passed on their history to each new generation. 

 

Read the kidcyber page about the Aboriginal peoples of Australia

William Dampier had once been a pirate!

William Dampier had once been a pirate!

When did the first European explorers arrive?

In 1606 the first Europeans, (they were Dutch and from the Netherlands) to explore Australia were led by Willem Janszoon. These sailors explored the western side of Cape York, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. They made one landing where the land was swampy and when they were attacked by Aboriginal people so they left.  He reported that he didn't think much of Australia!

In 1616 another Dutchman, Dirk Hartog landed on an island off the coast of Western Australia. The island is now called Dirk Hartog Island. His discovery was an accident. His ship had been blown off course while on the way to what we now call Indonesia.

A replica (copy) of Captain Cook's ship Endeavour

A replica (copy) of Captain Cook's ship Endeavour

In 1642 a third Dutchman, Abel Tasman sailed to Tasmania, before discovering New Zealand, Fiji and visiting Papua New Guinea. He named Tasmania 'Van Diemen's Land'.  He didn't find the mainland of Australia!

In 1699 William Dampier became the first Englishman to see Australia. William Dampier (he'd once been a pirate!) explored the north-west coast of Australia in 1699.  Dampier was the first European to tell about seeing Australia's 'large hopping animals'!

Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779)

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook

In 1770 Captain James Cook was the first European to explore the eastern coastline of Australia.