Indigenous Australia Timeline - Pre-Contact

A timeline of events relating to Indigenous Australians from the time of human colonisation of Australia until 200 years ago.

Grinding stone E049213

Grinding stone E049213
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

Timeline - Pre-Contact

65 000 years ago

The timing of arrival in Australia and the “Out of Africa” hypothesis is an unresolved question. Recent findings of more than 10 000 artefacts including 1500 stone tools, a grinding stone and ground ochres were discovered in Madjedbebe, Mirrarr Country, formerly known as Malakunanja in Northern Arnhem Land. These findings raise questions about the timing of the initial occupation of Australia.

This site revealed that Aboriginal people made and used elaborate lithic technology (techniques used to produce stone tools), ochre crayons and other pigments including the oldest known examples in the world of the use of the micaceous pigment. They collected and processed plant foods, revealed by microfossils and artefact residue found on grinding stones in the deepest and most dense part of the excavation. This site was dated to be at least 65 000 years old and is the earliest evidence of seed grinding and pigment processing and use of edge-ground hatchets in the world.

49 000 years ago

Giles Hamm a consultant archaeologist with local Adnyamathanha Edler Clifford Coulthard discovered a rock shelter in the Northern Flinders Ranges. They found 4300 artefacts and 200 bone fragments from mammals and one reptile. Dating of the fossils, artefacts and ochre revealed that the site was 46 000- 49 000 years old. This pushes back the dates of the development of technologies such as bone needles (38 000 - 40 000 years), wooden handled stone tools (24 000 years) and gypsum use (33 000 - 40 000 years). They also found evidence of Aboriginal people living alongside megafauna with the discovery of bones from the Dripotodon and eggs from a giant bird in the Warratyi Rock Shelter dated to be around 45 000 – 50 000 years old. 

45 000 years ago

Professor Sue O’Connor found a fragment of a hafted stone axe in a large rock shelter in Winjana Gorge National Park, WA. Dating of the charcoal sediments around the fragments revealed that they are 45 000 - 49 000 years old.

43 000 years ago

Rock engravings found in the Olary region of South Australia are the earliest dated petroglyophs (rock engravings) found in Australia.

42 000 years ago

Aboriginal people were living on the banks of the Jordan River, just north of Hobart. 1440 artefacts were found including stone tools and spear tips buried along the river bank.

40 000 years ago

The discovery of Lady Mungo and Mungo Man in 1968 by Archaeologist Jim Bowler revolutionised our understanding of the antiquity of Aboriginal civilization in Australia. Mungo Man was discovered in 1974 and was dated to be 40 000 years old.

The dating of Mungo Lady’s remains increased the length of time by at least 20 000 years. Lady Mungo was dated initially to 26,000 years, however further investigations revealed the remains to be 42,000 years old. Lady Mungo and Mungo Man are some of the oldest remains of modern humans ever discovered outside of Africa. Lady Mungo is the oldest known cremation in the world.

35 000 years ago

Limestone deposits were used to date cave paintings in Warreen Cave in the Maxwell Valley in southwest Tasmania.

31 000 years ago

Archaeological evidence from charcoal found in a hearth suggests that Aboriginal people were living at the Keilor site in Victoria around 31 000 years ago.

30 000 years ago

Fragments of grinding stones dating back 30,000 years to late in the Pleistocene Epoch have been found at the archaeological site at Cuddie Springs in western NSW.? The excavation revealed the bones of large, now extinct animals, other animals that are still alive, as well as stone artefacts dating from 30 000 -36 000 years old. This is only one of two sites in Australia that contains such clear and complex evidence of the coexistence of mega fauna with humans.

22 000 years ago

Kings Tableland in Blue Mountains, NSW is listed as a heritage site. The site has a rock shelter with a set of grinding grooves (rock engravings) of bird and kangaroo tracks. Excavation of this shelter has revealed that Aboriginal People occupied the shelter 22,000 years ago; making it the oldest dated Aboriginal site in the Blue Mountains.

20 000 years ago 

Aboriginal people are well established throughout coastal and mainland Australia and Tasmania.

Some 10% of Tasmania is covered by glacial ice. Kutikina Cave is occupied by Tasmanian Aboriginal people at the height of the last ice age with the evidence of flaked stone artefacts found at the site. 

18 000 years ago

Artwork discovered in Ubirr Kakadu National Park of the thylacine and zaglossus (long beaked echidna) was dated to 18 000 years old.

16 000 years ago

Sea levels begin to rise as ice caps melt. Inland lakes such as Lake Mungo have dried up.

Wasp nests surrounding Rock Art were used to date paintings in the Mitchell Plateau in the Kimberley’s region of Western Australia to be at least 16 000 years old.

13 000 years ago

Land bridges between mainland Australia and Tasmania are flooded. Tasmanian Aboriginal people become isolated for the next 12 000 - 13 000 years.

In a cave on Salisbury Island, 60km off the Esperance coast in Western Australia, researchers from Applied Archaeology Australia discovered stone tools that are at least 13 000 years old. The Island would have risen 80-100m above sea level during the Pleistocene and researchers believe it may have been used as a shelter during the height of the last ice age.

10 000 years ago

Present day Australian climate established.

9 000 years ago

The Dampier Archipelago is a group of 42 islands off the coast of W.A. On Rosemary Island researchers from the University of Western Australia found evidence of stone houses making them the oldest houses in Australia. They found shell middens and a grinding stone in the house.

Three retuning boomerangs made of wood from the Drooping Sheoak; Casuarina stricta were found at the bottom of Wyrie Swamp. These were dated to be at least 9000 years old.

8 000 years ago

The Torres Strait Islands are formed when the land bridge between Australia and New Guinea is flooded by rising seas.

6 000 years ago 

The Furneaux Group is made up of more than 50 islands of the north east coast of Tasmania. Archaeologists have found evidence of Aboriginal occupation and have dated these to be 4000-6000 years old.

The 'shape' of Australia's coastline is defined by present sea level.

Settlement of Pacific Islands.

5 000 years ago

The dingo arrives in Australia.

There is evidence of Aboriginal occupation sites and tool making along the Nepean River at Penrith Lakes in NSW.

Stone flakes have been dated to be at least 5000 years old.

500 years ago

Dutch documents record the journey of Macassan trepangers to Northern Australia. From 1588 Macassam praus sail to the north-eastern coast of the Northern Territory. They trade sea cucumber (trepan)and introduce glass which Aboriginal people adapted and used to make spear tips. Trade between the Macassan and Aboriginal People continues until 1906.

400 years ago

Bone tool deposits at Otway Peninsula, Victoria suggest Aboriginal people were working with animal skins.

The following references were used in compiling this timeline:

  • Bostock, Lester, 1990, The Greater Perspective, Special Broadcasting Service
  • Fraser, Bryce, (ed) 1983, The Macquarie Book of Events, Weldon,
  • Directorate of Special Programs, NSW Department of Education, 1982, Aboriginal Australia, a Preliminary Chronology
  • Jonas, Bill and Langton, Marcia 1994 The Little Red, Yellow and Black (and Green and Blue and White) Book, AIATSIS
  • Horton, D (ed) 1994, Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press
  • Butler, Kevin, Cameron, K & Percival, B., 1995, The Myth of Terra Nullius, Invasion and Resistance -the early years, Board of Studies
  • Stockton 1974, p42, Blue Mountains Stockton 1996, p32.

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