Prehistoric Aboriginal society was dynamic. Neither the land nor the people were unchanging, and it is the constant human adaptation to a changing environment that provides both the challenge and fascination of Australian prehistory. Much further research in many fields remains to be done before we will know even the outline of the full story, but what we know now from the archaeological record attests to a complex and sophisticated prehistoric culture.
We will never know precisely when the first human footprint was made on an Australian beach, but it was certainly more than 50,000 and most probably at least 60,000 years ago. At that time much of the world's water was frozen into ice sheets and the level of the sea was more than eighty metres lower than it is today. This made the passage from Asia to Australia rather easier, but there was never a complete land bridge. The first humans to reach Australia must have crossed at least 70 kilometres of open sea. It may be that the craft used by the 'first boat people' were made of bamboo. Bamboo does not grow in Australia, so the first migrants might have unknowingly been blown by the northerly monsoonal winds into a trap, with no possibility of return. Most of the earliest camp sites in Australia are now underneath the sea, for in the Pleistocene the continental shelf was dry land, so the coastline extended much further than it does today. New Guinea was linked to northern Australia by a wide plain, and it was possible to walk across what is now Bass Strait to Tasmania. The earliest occupation of the continent would have been off the present Kimberley coast or on what is now the Arafura Sea or Gulf of Carpentaria.
The oldest camp sites now known in Australia are in Arnhem Land in the Top End of the Northern Territory. These are Malakunanja II and Nauwalabila rock-shelters, which have remarkably similar cultural sequences, soundly dates by a combination of the radiocarbon and luminescence methods from the present back to between 53,000 and 60,000 years ago. Sites dating to more than 40,000 years have now been found in the southeast and extreme southwest of the continent. whilst the earliest colonisation was probably coastal, with people moving along the beaches and up the river valleys, exploiting fish, shellfish and small land animals, they seem to have moved inland fairly rapidly. By 60,000 years ago they were in the Willandra Lakes region, which is now semiarid but was then in the lacustral phase, when Lake Mungo and the other now-dry lakes were full of fresh water. By 30,000 years ago people were inhabiting the arid heart of the continent, evidenced by the Puritjarra rock-shelter west of Alice Springs, and some caves on the Nullarbor Plain. They were scattered from the highlands of New Guinea to within sight of glaciers in southwestern Tasmania; from the escarpments of tropical Arnhem Land to the arid red centre.
The first Australians were some of the earliest representatives of Home sapiens. There is no evidence that Homo erectus ever entered Australia, and all the archaeological and physical anthropological evidence suggests that this was not the case. The existing fossil evidence is extremely sparse, fragmentary, generally undated, and very difficult to interpret. On the basis of recent research and use of three different, independent dating methods, it has been suggested that people with a light, gracile build were living on the shores of Lake Mungo in New South Wales by 60,000 years ago. The problem is that all known remains of the apparently more archaic, robust type are far younger than WLH3. Are they simply two genders, a continuum, or two distinct population? Or, who is descended from whom?
More than 150 Pleistocene sites have now been discovered in Australia. These have revealed that these early hunter-gatherers used fire, ground up ochre pigments for decoration, wore ornaments, and honoured their dead. The earliest burial in Australia (WLH 3) dates to 60,000 years ago, and includes ochre scattered over the corpse. The people used stone and bone tools and, more than 20,000 years ago, were already mining flint - the finest tool-making material in Australia - from deep within Koonalda Cave in south Australia. In northern Australia by that time, they had mastered the technique of hafting handles to stone tools and of grinding the blades of axes to fine cutting edges, remarkably early technological skills which are only rivalled by similarly early developments in Japan.
It is interesting to compare Australia's earliest stone tools with contemporary industries of the Old world, now that we know that human occupation of Australia goes back over 60,000 years. Australian industries are distinctive and have some special tools such as large wasted 'axes' and the horsehoof core, a single-platform core which was sometimes also used as a chopping tool. Nevertheless, they also bear a general resemblance to the Mousterian industries of Europe and the middle East, and to the Middle Stone Age of Africa, including the use of the Levallois technique of flake production. If the 'Out of Africa' scenario is correct, one could imagine modern humans with basic, generalised type of tool kit, and just the beginnings of art but with sea-going skills, crossing to Australia 60,000 years ago. Their subsequent relative isolation meant that they did not experience the 'creative explosion' or 'cultural big bang' that western Europe underwent. (An interesting theory by Wobst is that Europe suffered 'Arctic hysteria' and so developed every cultural trick they could devise to aid their economic and social survival through the rigours of the Last Glacial Maximum.)
In Australia there was a less dire need for change, and both artefacts and rock art seem to show a more gradual development. although dating of rock art is still very problematic, the outline of a cultural sequence has been established which suggests that simple, non-figurative art preceded the representational style such as the dynamic figures of Kakadu and the lively Bradshaw scenes of the Kimberley,. Likewise the oldest petroglyphs seem to be confined to geometric motifs such as circles together with animal tracks. There are now tantalising hints that the art of rock painting may be as old as, or even older than, the petroglyphs. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry dating of tiny samples of pigment containing organic material has yielded several Pleistocene dates, and used pieces of ochre have been found in the lowest, 50,000-year-old layers of the Nauwalabila and Malakunanja rock-shelters. Blood has apparently been found mixed with pigment in some subterranean caves in southwestern Tasmania, suggesting early ritual use of caves. Later, the art of figurative painting developed, and the relationship between the art of the engravers and painters is one of the fascinating, unsolved questions of Australian prehistory.
Another enigma is the impact of the earliest Australians on the giant marsupials which then roamed the continent. Did they become extinct because of the extreme which then roamed the continent. Did they become extinct because of the extreme aridity at the end of the Pleistocene, or did they fall victim to game hunters? No doubt both played a part, but big-game hunting is indicated by the otherwise inexplicable coincidence in timing between the arrival of humans in a region, such as the Willandra lakes or southwest Western Australia, and the speedy extinction of the megafauna in that area. And at least we do have a 'kill site' or, at the very least, a scavenging site - Cuddie Springs, in northwestern New South Wales. Flannery has put forward a blitzkrieg overkill model, Miller and Magee a relatively sudden extinction by ecosystem disruption through Aboriginal burning, and Murray a gradual decline due to population attrition by human predation.
At the same time as they developed a rich culture, Pleistocene Australians successfully adjusted to profound environmental and climatic changes and the loss of millions of square kilometres of their land as the polar ice caps melted and the seas rose. The economic achievements of Aborigines over the last few thousand years are remarkable. Their economy supported a healthy population in some of the harshest areas of the world's driest inhabited continent, areas where, later, explorers such as Burke and wills died of thirst and malnutrition. It is ironic that such unsuccessful explorers were hailed as heroes, whereas the Aborigines who had successfully adapted to the rigours of the desert thousands of years before were given no credit for this, and belittled because they did not develop agriculture. Hunter-gatherers have been described as the original affluent society, and an examination of archaeological and ethnographic evidence lends support to this view. Whether gathering bogong moths or hunting seals, leaching poison out of cycads or replanting yams, Aboriginal people evolved a series of successful and varied economies. These broadly based economic systems allowed them to exploit, and to survive in, a wide range of environments where European agriculture proved to be an abysmal failure. Extensive use was made of fire as a hunting tool, modifying the Australian vegetation so profoundly that contemporary flora has been called an Aboriginal artefact.
A far cry from the usual view of Aborigines as nomadic, hungry hunters is the picture of well-fed people living in groups of well-built huts beside their eel and fish traps, traps that were cunningly engineered to ensure an abundant and reliable food supply. And these experts of stone age economics had a healthier, more nutritious diet than have many Europeans today. Testimony to the innovations hat occurred over time is provided by the evidence of many sites. In the technological sphere there is the development of barbed spears, the spear-thrower, projectile points, ground-edge tools, and special stone adzes for working the iron-hard timbers of the desert. And by 10,000 years ago, Aborigines had become skilled in the sophisticated aerodynamic principles of boomerangs. Far-flung trading networks were developed, and much time and energy was devoted to ceremonial life.
It is in the creativity of the spirit, rather than in material goods, that Aboriginal society excelled. Society was so organised that there was simple leisure time. Prehistoric Australians had more leisure to devote to matters of the mind - art, ceremonies, music, dance and story - than did all but a few Western artists until recent times. The achievements of early Australians are constantly underestimated by those Europeans who judge a society solely by its material possessions. The real richness of Aboriginal culture is thus only now beginning to be appreciated, as anthropologists reveal the Aborigines' complex social and religious systems, and archaeologists uncover the distant past of this heritage. The coming of white people proved almost disastrous for Aboriginal society. Yet the present renaissance of traditional culture and lifestyle and the renewing of the Dreaming may help overcome this near-fatal impact, for the evidence of archaeology has demonstrated the extraordinary adaptability and creativity of these intellectual aristocrats of the prehistoric world.