The first humans to reach Australia likely sailed east from northern Indonesia and island-hopped to New Guinea which was then part of the Australian continent, according to a scientific study published on Wednesday.
Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) identified the “least-cost,” or easiest, path as being through Borneo to the Sulawesi islands and several smaller islands to Misool Island off the coast of New Guinea’s West Papua.
The study, co-led by Shimona Kealy and which was published in the Journal of Human Evolution, examined two routes to Australia first suggested by US anthropologist Joseph Birdsell in 1977.
It was his second suggested route that was likely used by the ancestors of Aboriginal people between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago, Kealy said in a statement.
Sea levels were then 25-50 metres below the current level, meaning people could walk across to Australia.
The study considered factors affecting the route from South-East Asia to Australia such as travelling up slopes, visibility at sea, access to fresh water and sophistication of maritime technology at the time.
Birdsell’s first proposal, a route via Timor to the north-west coast of Australia, was less likely given evidence that archaeological settlements in Timor were younger than others found in northern Australia, researchers said.
The East Timor sites show proof of human occupation not older than 45,000 years old, while artefacts from Madjedbebe rock shelter, the oldest known site in Australia, are thought to be 65,000 years old.
Human occupation on the Australian-New Guinea continent, known as Sahul, represented the earliest and indirect evidence for sea faring by humans anywhere in the world, according to the researchers.
“This study helps to tell the Australian story, particularly for Indigenous people, and acknowledges the bravery, innovation and maritime technologies and skills of these early modern humans,” Kealy said.
“These people hopped their way along these islands, probably looking for a place to live where they would have access to reliable food staples and other resources — the visibility between islands would have been very favourable in terms of enabling this adventurous spirit,” she added.
Kealy said they had identified islands they wanted to explore to testtheir theory, saying those in northern Indonesia “could hold the key” to the mystery of how the first humans made it to Australia. — dpa