The paper “ Aboriginal Modification of Australian Landscape“ is a meaty variant of case study on sociology. The ancestors of Australian Aboriginal people probably came to the southern continent on rafts, when the climate and sea-level fluctuations created portals that allowed human movement from west to east across the Indonesian Archipelago. In Australia, the first human settlers found a unique flora and fauna. Over many millions of years, the tectonic plate upon which the Australian continent rides has drifted in comparative isolation from the processes of biological evolution occurring in the rest of the world.
The human migration from Asia across the Timor Sea to Australia must have involved a number of sea crossings and represents a remarkable feat of endeavour. For about the last two million years the world has been subjected to cycles of climate change, including cold periods called ‘ ice ages’ , each lasting about 100,000 years. In between the ice, ages were ‘ interglacials’ , brief periods of warmth that lasted a few thousand years. The last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago and we are now in an interglacial. As the world became colder at the beginning of an ice age, the growing polar icecaps absorbed more of the ocean's water, lowering global sea levels.
With the weight of water upon the earth's crust reduced, seabeds also rose, further lowering sea levels. At the height of each ice age, the continent of Australia was generally a much cooler, drier and windier place than it is now. Weather patterns and the shapes of landmasses vary considerably through the ice age cycles. The lowering of the present sea level by 30 metres would reveal the landmass connecting Australia and New Guinea.
From about 80,000 to 6500 years ago, sea levels were consistently low, revealing combined landmass scientists have called Greater Australia. When sea levels were 65 metres below present levels, Tasmania and mainland Australia were also joined. This occurred during several long periods of lower seas between 60,000 and 10,000 years ago. At times when sea levels were extremely low, say 160 metres below present, the combined landmass of Australia and New Guinea was up to a quarter more than its present size, including much land now covered by the Arafura Sea.
At those times when New Guinea and Australia were connected, the Asian landmass was also much larger. At present, world sea levels are higher than they have been for over 100,000 years. The movement of hominids eastwards from South East Asia towards Greater Australia possibly began hundreds of thousands of years ago, with Homo erectus or another hominid species reaching as far as Flores in Indonesia using some kind of seafaring watercraft. It is generally thought that humans first encountered the shores of Greater Australia sometime about 50,000 years ago, during a period of low sea level.
This continent was then, cultural geographers would agree, a complete wilderness— a natural place waiting to be made into a cultural landscape. The first people to arrive here were neither Papuans nor Australian Aboriginal people as we recognise them today, although they would have been the biological and cultural ancestors of both these groups.
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