Aboriginals stagnated for 50,000 years as hunter-gatherers and missed the agricultural revolution

Australian Aboriginals are regarded in a very romantic light these days but the reality is that they are an example of a human population which, whether for cultural or genetic reasons or both, missed the agricultural revolution which swept the world between 10 and 15,000 years ago. They are an example of a human population which remained isolated for 50,000 years and which eked out a survival as hunter-gatherers and did not develop either cognitively or in technology. The colonisation which followed the rediscovery of Australia in 1606 (or 1592?) met no resistance from an indigenous population that was in any way capable of protecting their habitat. They were still hunter-gatherers then – and fairly backward hunter-gatherers at that.

How Did Aboriginal Australians Arrive on the Continent? DNA Helps Solve a Mystery

By Carl Zimmer, March 8, 2017

Human skeletons and archaeological remains in Australia can be traced back nearly 50,000 years before the trail disappears. Before then, apparently, Australia was free of humans. So how did people get there, and when? Where did humans first arrive on the continent, and how did they spread across the entire landmass?

Answers to some of these questions are stored in the DNA of Aboriginal Australians. A genetic study of 111 Aboriginal Australians, published on Wednesday, offers an interesting — and, in some respects, unexpected — view of their remarkable story. All living Aboriginal Australians descend from a single founding population that arrived about 50,000 years ago, the study shows. They swept around the continent, along the coasts, in a matter of centuries. And yet, for tens of thousands of years after, those populations remained isolated, rarely mixing.

The DNA used in the new study comes from aboriginal hair collected during a series of expeditions between 1926 and 1963. The Board for Anthropological Research at the University of Adelaide sent researchers to communities across Australia, where they collected vast amounts of information about aboriginal languages, ceremonies, artwork, cosmologies and genealogy.  …….

………… Fifty thousand years ago, sea levels were so low that Australia and New Guinea formed a single continent. Humans moved from Southeast Asia onto this landmass, some settling in what is now New Guinea, others traveling farther south into Australia.

They kept to the coastlines until they reached southern Australia 49,000 years ago. But once this great migration was finished, the new study suggests, the ancestors of today’s aborigines hunkered down in their new homes — for tens of thousands of years.

The mitochondrial DNA contains no evidence that these populations mixed in any significant way, ………… 

Farming explains the difference, Dr. Cooper suggests. Unlike Africa, Asia and Europe, Australia did not experience the rise of agriculture several thousand years ago. “If you don’t have cheap carbohydrates, you don’t increase in population size,” he said.

Populations grew on other continents, but they often risked catastrophic crop failure. When that happened, Dr. Cooper said, “there’s only one response — mass migration.” In Australia, however, aborigines did not depend on crops and lived as nomads in discrete regions. They never needed to move across the continent.

So the narrative is of ancient but anatomically modern humans arriving in Australia when sea levels were low, spreading around the coast, but then of becoming fairly sedentary local populations without much intercourse with each other, let alone with any non-Australian populations. They eked out a survival as hunter-gatherers. They had neither the impetus of cultural exchange or of any genetic exchange with other populations to instigate development. The agricultural revolution that swept the rest of the world never happened for them. Without access to carbohydrates the population never grew significantly. Language existed as did some pictorial representations but writing never took off. Without farming and its attendant population growth, settlements never developed to become towns or cities. There was no surplus to drive specialisation. There was no development of any significance for 50,000 years and there were no cultural or genetic impulses which could lead to development.

It may not be politically correct to say so but the reality is that before the colonisation by Europeans, the Australian Aboriginals were in a cultural and genetic dead-end.

image wikipedia


About ktwop

Scientist, technologist, salesman, manager, executive and now a consultant and author.
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8 Responses to Aboriginals stagnated for 50,000 years as hunter-gatherers and missed the agricultural revolution

  1. James Cross says:

    A couple of thoughts.

    For about 35-40,000 years of this time humans everywhere were similarly stagnated.

    One possibility is that climate and low CO2 levels did not make agriculture viable. By the time climate did make agriculture possible the aboriginals were too spread out to make agriculture a necessity. It is also possible they did not have access to native species that could be breed to be high producing carbohydrate sources and with sea level rise those species would not be able to be imported.

    • ktwop says:

      I suspect that because of their isolation, they stagnated more than their counterparts in other areas who through gene mixing and emigration and cultural developments were inventing script and animal domestication and herding and weapons and tools which preceded the agricultural revolution.

  2. Living Soils says:

    Yes, the aboriginals are essentially a dead end. The hunter/gatherer model did not allow for the formation of specialists. Thanks for the post.

  3. David Gonsiorowski says:

    James Cross has the right idea. Carbs were needed to support brain tissue growth–key point is that the carbs must be cooked so the salivary amalyse can break it down properly. Additionally, I recall that an unknown hominid/early human contributed salivary response to AMHs. See this carb study:


  4. Jason B King says:

    Seriously we were not hunter gathers. On the Eastern seaboard we were farmers (grain) we had aquaculture systems and we traded between tribal groups – please read Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu

    • ktwop says:

      Some hunter-gatherers surely had limited agriculture, and no doubt the aboriginal peoples exploited whatever grew along their nomadic routes. They may even have exploited some natural features and crops and even created some dams (but so do beavers). They had no settled agriculture and certainly no established irrigation.
      Whatever farming existed it was not enough to give the population growth necessary for development. “Settlements never developed to become towns or cities. There was no surplus to drive specialisation. There was no development of any significance for 50,000 years and there were no cultural or genetic impulses which could lead to development”.

  5. Your unself-reflexive comment ‘It may not be politically correct to say so but the reality is that before the colonisation by Europeans, the Australian Aboriginals were in a cultural and genetic dead-end.’ reflects the shallowness of your analysis, both of Indigenous Australia and your self. You are indeed one of the great little thinkers. Thankyou. Amusing.

  6. Sabine Lechtenfeld says:

    I take issue with the implication that remaining hunters and gatherers – with a bit of additional farming – is inherently bad and a dead end! This is simply not true! New studies show that those populations who started to remain in a chosen area and who started to farm, were in a decidedly poorer physical shape than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. And while they produced more calories they had to work much harder. Agriculture also introduced a higher degree of inequality. All our sacred hallmarks of so-called higher civilisation had a very steep price tag!
    The Australian continent was and still is incredibly unsuited for long term agriculture. And since it was also very isolated for thousands of years, the aboriginal populations may have not have the benefits of new ideas, but they apparently worked out an equlibrium which suited them well. You can call it stagnation, but it only became a dead end when the Europeans arrived. And the early Europeans quickly found out how unsuited most of the Australian continent was for their style of farming!
    I am much more puzzled by the fact that the Australian aboriginals remained completely isolated for such a long time! Why did the Maori discover and populate New Zealand without ever touching Australia? The dingoes whose ancestors were an early form of Asian dogs, arrived in Australia roughly 4000 years ago according to the newest studies. If this is correct the dingoes must have come with boats steered by humans. But there are no genetic or archeological traces of these humans. Were they early traders who left no traces for some reason? Was there a taboo which prohibited and punished matings with outsiders? Considering that the different aboriginal tribes didn´t even have a lot of contacts and exchanges with tribes of other regions, it is a possibility.
    Why did most of the aboriginal tribes abandon maritime boating, although they must have come with some kind of sea faring vessels eons ago?
    There are still a lot of interesting questions which have not been answered, yet. But it is silly to label the culture of the aboriginals with the tags “stagnation” and “dead end”! They managed to create a life style which apparently worked for them for an incredibly long time! And since they were so isolated they could not forsee that the contact with the rest of the world would destroy their way of life!

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