Representations of Ancient Australia

Representations of Ancient Australia

Representations of ancient Australia have historically been shaped and dictated by their implications for contemporary politics, presenting ancient Australians as a primitive hunter-gatherer society to support policies aimed at ‘civilising’ present day Aboriginal people. This first syllabus point allows students to consider this dominant representation of ancient Australia, and the foundations it is based upon, against other, less pervasive, representations of ancient Australia. Students should consider the implications of a living culture, adapted but continuing, on studying the ancient past.

Ancient Australians are frequently remembered merely as primitive nomadic hunter-gatherers without any estates or farms. More recent explorations of ancient Australian culture and agricultural practices have, however, revealed an array of advanced farming techniques and practices such as fire-stick farming, fist traps and damns, and granaries and store houses.

The question of how ancient Australians came to be within Australia has also been debated and contested. Archaeological evidence such as the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Woman has placed Aboriginal occupation within Australia back to roughly 40,000-42,000 BP (before present). Some represent ancient Australian’s migration to Australia as an accidental occurrence, while others argue that such a migration could not have occurred accidentally, requiring deliberate intent and extensive navigational skills.

Sources for Representations of Ancient Australia

AHM 007199. Australian History Museum, Macquarie University

PIX June 1938

  • Children's Book:

Fletcher, Jane Ada, Little Brown Piccaninnies of Tasmania. Illustrations by Margaret Senior. (Sydney 1950).

AHM 004538. Australian History Museum, Macquarie University

LBP cover page

View a selected extract of the Introduction here.

Gammage argues that First Australians practiced sophisticated agricultural practices and thereby were incorrectly and unfairly represented as primitive hunter-gatherers.

Further Sources:

Representations of Ancient Australians' Agricultural Practices


Wilson, Cameron.“Rethinking Indigenous Australia’s Agricultural Past.” Bush Telegraph. (May 2014).
View pdf. version of this article here.

A news article that summarises the main arguments for the presence of sophisticated Indigenous agricultural practices by the time of colonisation.

King, Charlotte & Banks, Deb. “Hunter gatherers: Invented to undermine first nations people.” (July, 2014).
Article published on the website: Sovereign Union – First Nations Asserting Sovereignty.

Contains useful text, images and video content.
The site discusses Bruce Pascoe's book Dark Emu and his contention that the image of a primitive Indigenous hunter-gatherer society was invented to legitimise colonisation.

Kinslea, Alethea, Ancient Australia Unearthed, (Melbourne, 2014), p.56-57.

Description of the Indigenous agricultural practice of Firestick Farming with student investigation questions.

Representations of Ancient Australians' Origins


Dorey, Fran. “The Spread of People to Australia.” Australian Museum. (November 2018)

Represents current views on the origins of Indigenous Australians.

Sargeant, Chloe. “Project uses DNA in hair to scientifically prove 50,000 years of Aboriginal history.” NITV (9 March 2017)

Presents evidence for the presence of Indigenous Australians in Australia for 50,000 years using mitochondrial DNA from hair samples.

Kinsela, Althea, Ancient Australia Unearthed, (Melbourne, 2014), p.24-27 PDF, 3567.82 KB.

Summarises the argument in current discourse that the eruption of Mt Toba (approx. 73,000 years Before Present) was an impetus for deliberate migration of ancient people to Australia.

Australian Associated Press, Aboriginal Settlement in Australia was ‘No Accident’. SBS News, (21 May 2018)

News article that presents current research findings of Professor Sean Ulm from James Cook University. His study refutes the contention that Ancient Indigenous people arrived to Australia "accidentally":

"What this study has shown ... is that it's so absolutely improbable that you can explain any of those lines of evidence with accidental voyaging."

He uses wind and current modelling to show that the arrival of First Australians was purposeful, co-ordinated and large-scale.

National Museum of Australia, Defining Moments, “Evidence of first peoples.”

A useful summary of archaeological evidence for the presence of Indigenous Australians at least as far back as 65,000 years Before Present. Includes Indigenous perspectives of continuous connection to Country through the Dreaming.

Sample lesson plan (min. 45 mins)

Representations of Ancient Australia - sample lesson plan [pdf 184KB].

This lesson could easily be extended to a 60 minute lesson by allowing more time for the group work and/or questions and class discussion at the conclusion of the lesson.

Sample worksheet

Representations of Ancient Australia - worksheet [pdf 104KB]

Use this worksheet in conjunction with the lesson plan above.

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