Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Who Were the First Australians, and How Many Were There?

Some of the successes in science are being able to interpret when humans first inhabited certain areas of the world to comprise the first ancestors, when population spurts occurred and why population spurts occurred.  It is important to know these kinds of facts so that we can learn cause- effect relationships in order to modify our environment or make preparations for dealing with environmental phenomena to induced desired outcomes for our future environment. When archaeologists and historians try to piece the parts of the puzzle together to understand the people of the past, their lands, and how they changed through time, it is important to note the tools used to elucidate such findings. In this sense, we must be cognizant of the assumptions we make based on the accuracy of our conclusions in relation to the observations and questions involved in scientific studies and research.  Well new research has been conducted to specify the question of just how many adventurers endured the trip to become the original Aussies, when, and why the aboriginal population grew to hundreds of thousands of people. The methodology and conclusions of the study however raise uncertainty as to its accuracy.
                The research encompassing studies conducted by author and archaeologist Alan Williams who used several techniques to answer various questions.  He used shell, heaps, charcoal deposits, human burials, and a database of 5,000 cooking pits in conjunction with radiocarbon dating methods as his source of information. Since the number of archaeological sites grows with a growing human population, the artifacts available for radiocarbon dating also grow.  Thus the more artifacts found during certain periods of time correlates to a greater human population at that time.  This technique has some ambiguities though as archaeological sites are more readily preserved in some landscapes than in others, which could lead to a high number of radio carbon dates at a site with good preservation and low numbers of dates at a site with poor preservation. Another ambiguity of the study was that because Williams data relied on a low number of data points from the early years of human occupation, there was no way to distinguish between a founding population of 5,000 that grew little and a founding population of 100 that quickly multiplied to 5,000
                Why the population spurt happened somewhere between 12,000 and 5,000 years ago could be answered by looking at the behavior of the environment.  It is likely that the warming climate during this period allowed more plant life which therefore fostered a population growth.  Furthermore, possible reasons why people immigrated to Australia in the first place could have been due to the desire to explore new lands or to escape from competition for resources. These conclusions are reasonable seeing as having the proper watercraft to make such a perilous journey across the sea would have taken more than just a makeshift boat and instead would require intentional effort towards building a suitable ship.
                Although there is some disagreement about the conclusions drawn by Williams from other archaeologists (James O’Connell), radiocarbon method analysts (Simon Holdaway) and Barry Brooks, there are still strong points to the conclusions drawn by the results in terms of the data collected for the more recent years.  This study relates to many other undertakings that involve dancing around the uncertainties given from data and making up for them with new and improved techniques, methods, and tools for discovering more accurate conclusions.  In the eyes of Williams though, he doesn’t consider this paper the last word on the subject.  However, he believes there are still a lot more questions than answers.

Posted by Marshall Moini (2)


  1. What were the new techniques you referred to? Was is the correlating more artifacts with a larger population?

    That seems a little unreliable for a lot of reasons, one being that certain populations may be more productive during a given time period, producing more datable artifacts during that time even though the population may not have increased. How do they get around this possibility?

    Joseph Starrett (3)

  2. You are exactly right. There were other scientists that criticized this same point. However, these are recognized as estimates of population size and Williams states that he doesn't consider this the last word on the subject as there still are many more questions to be answered.
    Marshall Moini (2)