The story of how the continent of Sahul was peopled is one of the most remarkable migrations in human history. For the first time, new research has revealed the incredible journey of the ancestors of Indigenous people, and the scale of the challenges they faced. In this blog post, we’ll explore the fascinating findings of this research and the implications it has for our understanding of human migration.

The research, led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), used models of demography and wayfinding to reconstruct the journey of the ancestors of Indigenous people across the supercontinent more than 60,000 years ago. It was found that the ancestors of Aboriginal people likely first entered the continent 75,000-50,000 years ago from what is today the island of Timor, followed by later migrations through the western regions of New Guinea.

These migrations led to a rapid expansion both southward toward the Great Australian Bight, and northward from the Kimberley region to settle all parts of New Guinea and, later, the southwest and southeast of Australia. However, the topography of Sahul led to a slower pace of migration, with the peopling of the entire continent taking 10,000 years.

The researchers combined two existing models predicting the routes taken and the demographic structure of these first populations, to estimate the time for continental saturation more precisely. By programming populations to survive in and move successfully through their new territory, it was found that navigating by following landscape features like mountains and hills and knowing where to find water led to successful navigation strategies.

The study’s lead author, Corey Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology at Flinders University and CABAH Models Theme Leader, says that the sophisticated model developed by the researchers could be modified for other parts of the world to investigate the timing and patterns of initial peopling by humans.

The findings of this research have massive implications for understanding migration in other places and other times. It goes to show the power of combining computational models with archaeology and anthropology for refining our understanding of humanity.

We hope this blog post has given you an insight into the incredible journey of the ancestors of Indigenous people, and the scale of the challenges they faced.