Australia is estimated by some to have begun between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago, possibly with the migration of people by land bridges ( Land bridges can be created by marine regression, in which sea levels fall, exposing shallow, previously submerged sections of continental shelf) and short sea-crossings from what is now Southeast Asia. These first inhabitants may have been ancestors of modern Indigenous Australians. At the time of European settlement in the late 18th century, most Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers, with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, were originally horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers.
Discovery of the remains at lake Mungo (a dry lake in NSW) of Mungo Man, the oldest human remains found in Australia, and Mungo Lady, the oldest human remains in the world to be ritually cremated.
They may be as much as 60 000 years old.
Painting of life at Lake Mungo by Giovanni Caselli.
Following sporadic visits by fishermen from the Malay Archipelago, the first recorded European sighting of the Australian mainland and the first recorded European landfall on the Australian continent were attributed to the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon. He sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula on an unknown date in early 1606, and made landfall on 26 February at the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York, near the modern town of Weipa.
The indigenous population, estimated at 350,000 at the time of European settlement in 1788, declined steeply for 150 years following settlement, mainly due to infectious disease.
There were about 600 different clan groups or 'nations' around the continent when Europeans arrived, many with distinctive cultures and beliefs. Their 'territories' ranged from lush woodland areas to harsh desert surroundings. Different groups developed different skills and built a unique body of knowledge based on their particular environment.
The system of kinship put everybody in a specific relationship to each other as well special relationships with land areas based on their clan or kin. These relationships have roles and responsibilities attached to them.
Kinship influences marriage decisions and governs much of everyday behaviour. By adulthood people know exactly how to behave, and in what manner, to all other people around them as well as in respect to specific land areas. Kinship is about meeting the obligations of one's clan, and forms part of Aboriginal Law, sometimes known as the Dreaming.
Language is vitally important in understanding Indigenous heritage as much of their history is an oral history. Hundreds of languages and dialects existed (although many are now extinct), and language meaning, as well as geographic location, is used today to identify different groups.