In recent talks, I have expanded the usual acknowledgement to traditional owners, elders past and present, to include reference to all indigenous people who have occupied the Australian continent over the last 65,000 years. In saying this, I make special mention of those lands now under the sea.

One can envisage that over the period before sea level has been around its present position (last 6000-7000 years), thousands of generations would have occupied “Country” that is now part of the continental shelf out to c. 100m below present sea level. Just as with terrestrial land, these drowned surfaces would have possessed spiritual sovereignty, and hence today we can see the need to recognise these areas as “Sea Country” to which is attached Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories.

In 1975 at the 13th Pan Pacific Science Conference in Vancouver, Canada, a series of papers were presented by archaeologists and others on the prehistory of the archipelago extending from South East Asian mainland to New Guinea and Australia. A book appeared in 1977 entitled Sunda and Sahul, published by Academic Press (eds. Allen, Golson and Jones). This book captured the growing interest in the biophysical as well as prehistory of the region, including a section on “peopling the new lands”. There were some quite provocative papers in this section, such as one by Birdsell and another by Bowdler on the migration patterns of early colonisation (see discussion in the recent book by Billy Griffiths, 2018, p.283). Sandra Bowdler proposed that Australia was colonised by people who were adapted to a coastal way of life. She envisaged that rising seas may have had a beneficial effect as river valleys get flooded leading to more diverse habitats and thus more protein-rich coastal resources. Others have shown certain weaknesses in this model, but it nonetheless offers food for thought about the way landscapes and changing coastal areas were occupied. I was very fortunate to have shared a paper in this book with John Chappell on sea level history and habitat change.

My interest in continental shelf prehistory was further stimulated by an invitation to join the Sirius Expedition in 1982. A marine archaeologist, Nick Flemming, asked a group of us from Australian universities to help survey the Cootamundra Shoals, located 200km northwest of Darwin. John Chappell was also invited along with Rhys Jones. It was a diving expedition with the aim of searching for geological and archaeological material which will give information about climate, sea level, and coastal environments when people may have lived there when migrations were presumed to have occurred in the late Pleistocene. There was much conjecture as to what we would find. However, no archaeological evidence was discovered. Other findings can be found in reports located in the National Library.

What has emerged in recent years are studies that preserve Aboriginal stores of rising sea levels. These are vital additions to our heritage as they bring to life human experiences of one of the greatest events in Australia’s recent geological history, the drowning of the continental shelves. I would like to pay particular tribute to the work of Patrick Nunn and Nick Reid, of University of Sunshine Coast and UNE respectively. In 2015 they published in The Conversation and in 2016 two substantiative articles appeared, one in the Australian Geographer ( 47, 11-48), the other in the journal, Environment and History (22, 393-420). They tell tales of coastal flooding from an array of locations. They used many different sources including that from linguists. Here is another part of the nation’s long or “deep” time history, one that must be shared and cherished by all as we gather around us a deeper understanding of the continent which we now share with the Indigenous first peoples.


Bruce Thom


Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2018, posted 30 May 2018, for correspondence about this blog post please email austcoastsoc@gmail.com