The making and unmaking of Papua New Guinea
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First humans to reach Australia island-hopped to PNG then walked

Pathways to Australia
Two possible routes used by the first humans to reach Australia identified by Joseph Birdsell in 1977. Research by the Australian National University shows the red northern route was more likely (Shimona Kealy, ANU)


SYDNEY - The first people to arrive in Australia are likely to have sailed east from Borneo to Sulawesi and island-hopped to New Guinea, according to research.

A study led by Australian National University PhD candidate Shimona Kealy and published in the Journal of Human Evolution has modelled the most likely route from south-east Asia to the Australian mainland based on which pathway would have required the least expenditure of energy and resources.

Kealy said she hoped the research would help answer the question of why archaeological sites in Australia — which show human occupation around 65,000 years ago — are so much older than sites that have been discovered in the countries that were long suspected to be en route.

Her modelling identified the least-cost route as going from Borneo to Sulawesi and through a series of smaller islands to Misool Island off the coast of West Papua. New Guinea was connected by land to Australia until about 10,000 years ago, meaning the first people could walk down through what is now Cape York to the rest of the continent.

“The visibility and the shorter distances between the islands is what really makes [this route] much more feasible for travel,” she told Guardian Australia. “Most of the time that visibility is shore-to-shore visibility.”

Kealy also tracked other factors, like whether a particular route would involve going over or around a hill, in order to determine the most likely path of travel.

“We are looking at the first sea journey of our species,” she said.

The route follows roughly the same path as the northern route described by US anthropologist Joseph Birdsell in 1977, who theorised two likely paths that have been largely accepted and used as a model for researchers.

Birdsell’s northern route goes through Sulawesi to West Papua and the southern route goes through Timor and ends with a significant sea crossing to the Northern Territory or Kimberley coastline.

Archeologists have since found a number of sites in East Timor that show proof of human occupation, but none are older than 45,000 years old.

Artefacts from the oldest known site in Australia, a rock shelter at Madjedbebe in the Jabiluka mining lease within the Kakadu national park, on Mirarr country, have been dated at 65,000 years old.

A site on Barrow Island off the coast of Western Australia has been dated at 50,000 years old.

“Obviously people had to travel through these islands somehow to get to Australia so presumably the dates that we found in Australia should be younger or around the same age as the dates that we are getting from these East Timor sites,” Kealy said.

The fact that those sites are significantly younger, she said, suggests that maybe the first peoples took a different path.

Islands along Birdsell’s northern route have received comparatively little archeological attention due to isolation, expense, and political conflict in West Papua.

Kealy and co-author Prof Sue O’Connor, are applying for research grants to investigate some likely sites along the northern route next year.

“If we can find something that’s older than 60,000 years old, I would be super-dooper happy,” she said.

The timeframe of 65,000 plus years is not universally accepted in the academic community. Another recent study asserted 50,000 to 55,000 years was the most likely timeframe but Kealy said her modelling tracked changes in both coastline and sea level from 45,000 to 70,000 years ago.

The sea level was at its lowest point 65,000 years ago and highest 70,000 years ago.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I think the point is that languages are probably not a good indicator of migrations way back 65,000 years ago.

That bunch of multiple languages in the Top End and Kimberleys is very interesting.

I'd assumed that they come from a northern influence in the form of visitors to Australia like the Macassans who were pottering around the coast after trepang etc several centuries before the Europeans arrived and are credited with teaching the locals how to built seaworthy canoes.

I was being a bit mischievous about turning the equation around but whose to say that people didn't go back and forth across the land bridge while it was there.

The good old Marind raided far and wide, including towards the Fly River and into Torres Strait. Maybe they picked up a few influences as well as heads on their travels.

Martin Auld

Phil writes that "the main [indigenous] language in Australia is called Pama-Nyungan."

The language family, much disputed. Non Pama-Nyungan languages in the Top End and the Kimberleys may have come with the earliest arrivals. Or not.

A couple of linguists now claim to have models that produce enough evidence to unite Pama-Nyungan and non-Pama-Nyungan.

Then there are Pama-Nyungan speaking groups in the Torres Strait who were probably there before Austronesian speakers.

Languages can be replaced completely very quickly. Evidence of Sepik and Pama-Nyungan cognates isn't good, so the hunt is on for 'semantic primes.'

"Or it may be that people actually travelled the other way," Phil post-scripted (perhaps miscievously).

Back-migration? Some of the first Formosan Austronesian speakers returned to Formosa.

There's rock art in West Papua's coastal Birdshead; hand stencils and boomerangs, perhaps from people who went north instead of south when old 'Arafuraland' was inundated.

For what it's worth, possible cultural similarities between the Marind around Merauke and Nunggubuyu (both have bullroarers) on the mainland west of Groote look promising for researchers.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The Austronesian languages in PNG and the Pacific are a fairly recent thing, maybe in the last 4,000 years. The Motu language is an Austronesian language for instance. Austronesian comes from around Taiwan.

Most languages in PNG are Trans-New Guinean and are much older.

The main language in Australia is called Pama-Nyungan. Attempts to compare that to Trans-New Guinea have been tried but not very successfully.

One would assume that, since PNG and Australia were part of the same continent (Sahul) up until about 10,000 years ago, there would be similarities.

Ed Brumby

Chronolinguistic research of languages spoken throughout the Pacific region suggests strongly that the forebear/root Austronesian language - the predominant language type of Polynesia, Micronesia and the coastal regions of Melanesia, Indonesia and Malaysia (but not mainland Australia where indigenous languages are generally classified as Non-Austronesian) is in Taiwan - not Africa.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Or it may be that people actually travelled the other way.

We seem to be hooked on the 'out of Africa' story but maybe humans also developed somewhere else. Like Australia for instance.

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