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FactCheck: might there have been people in Australia prior to Aboriginal people?

Senator David Leyonhjelm has said he is not taking sides in the debate, saying only that anthropologists disagree. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

“There may have been people in Australia prior to the Aborigines… if there is any doubt at all, why would you put history in the Constitution?” – Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, speaking with reporters, June 25, 2015.

Not for the first time, the Liberal Democrat crossbencher, Senator David Leyonhjelm, has expressed scepticism about the idea that Aboriginal people are the first Australians.

He suggested last week that “the fact that there is even a doubt raised about it would suggest to me that it is not necessarily a good thing to put in the Constitution.”

When asked for evidence to support his statement, a spokesman for Senator Leyonhjelm said that:

Some anthropologists have suggested different cultures once existed in the Kimberley as in the study referred to here. Nobody knows for sure when the people who painted this unique rock art first arrived. The oldest known human remains found in Australia, Mungo Man, were found not to be related to modern day Aborigines in at least one study. Of course people disagree with this, which once again proves Senator Leyonhjelm’s main point as manifestly true… the Senator is not expressing an opinion one way or the other, except that anthropologists do debate these things.

So, does research show that the first people to live in Australia were different from Aboriginal people? And is there disagreement among anthropologists on this question?

The evidence on skeletons

In one sense, Leyonhjelm is correct. There have been a handful of anthropologists who have argued that Aboriginal people were not the first Australians, but the way science proceeds is that ideas are constantly questioned, tested and replaced.

Some researchers once argued that there may have been three separate population migrations into Australia. Later, other researchers argued there were two. More recently, researchers have assessed the earlier work and argued there was only one source population of all known skeletal remains in Australia.

Famously, one early study compared Australian remains to very early ones from Java but as more remains were uncovered, and as methods for comparison improved, that claim was dismissed and is no longer held by most people working in the field.

Senator Leyonhjelm’s spokesman said 42,000 year-old skeletal remains found at Lake Mungo (“Mungo Man”), and an analysis of DNA from one of those skeletons, suggest another argument for a pre-Aboriginal population.

These claims, from a 2001 study, are not widely accepted in the anthropological community, and not even really debated any more. The 2001 DNA study was a very early attempt to extract DNA from an ancient skeleton in conditions that could be expected to be very bad for the survival of ancient DNA. Subsequent studies demonstrated that the DNA signature was most likely contamination from the scientists that handled the fossil remains.

The evidence on rock art

In his response to The Conversation, Senator Leyonhjelm’s spokesman referred to studies on the Gwion Gwion rock art in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The Gwion Gwion figures are best known through the long term research project by the late Australian researcher, Grahame Walsh, who called the figures “Bradshaws”. They are also well described in a book co-authored by Aboriginal people from the region.

Walsh claimed that the Gwion Gwion images were like other images of people from outside Australia (most of which are much more recent than he thought the Bradshaws were), and concluded they were made by people other than Australian Aboriginal people.

But careful analysis of a sample of images from all over the world has shown that the comparison is not convincing, and that the closest similarity is with rock art images from Arnhem Land.

The late rock art researcher, Andrée Rosenfeld, wrote that the claims were speculative and that the argument:

that the finely executed Bradshaw paintings are too fine to be Aboriginal and must be the work of earlier people… have no archaeological basis.

More recent research (page 54) shows that there are other images that seem to be intermediate between the Gwion Gwion figures and the Wandjinas, another group of paintings that use a different style to depict figures.

This suggests strongly that there is no strong evidence base suggesting that the painters of the earlier images were anything other than the ancestors of the people who painted the later images.

It should also be remembered that Walsh’s interpretation of the Gwion Gwion paintings was a product of its study in colonialist Australia. As noted by Australian researcher, Ian J McNiven:

During conservative government in Australia in the 1990s and 2000s, high profile media attention was given to amateur research on Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) paintings of the Kimberley region and notions of non-Aboriginal authorship. The disassociation of Aboriginal people from the paintings played into the hands of conservatives wishing to undermine Aboriginal land claims.

‘Why would you put history in the Constitution?’

Senator Leyonhjelm jumps from casting doubt on Aboriginal people as the first Australians to arguing that academic debate on this question shows that constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians might be a mistake.

I would argue that is a logical fallacy.

The issue in the constitutional recognition debate is about recognising that there were people in Australia when Europeans arrived to colonise it.

There is no possible doubt that the Australian Aborigines were in Australia when Europeans arrived. Whether there were people in Australia before them is irrelevant to the recognition of Aboriginal people in the Constitution.


As previously discussed on The Conversation, there is a strong research case for the biological continuity between pre-European and modern Aboriginal populations of Australia.

It is true that there has been, historically, a small number of claims that there were people in Australia before Australian Aborigines, but these claims have all been refuted and are no longer widely debated. The overwhelming weight of evidence supports the idea that Aboriginal people were the first Australians.

The disagreements that can be found in the literature are normal in the accumulation of knowledge but do not undermine the strength of the modern consensus that the first people to live in Australia were ancestors of the Aboriginal people who lived here when Europeans first arrived and colonised.

Although there is a small amount of truth in the Senator’s claims about what is in the literature, the claims do not stack up against modern knowledge of the evidence.

The Senator’s claim is irrelevant to the question about recognition in the Constitution.


This is a sound analysis. The evidence from DNA of today’s Aboriginal populations, as well as those from the past recovered through ancient DNA is revealing new insights into the complexity of the First Australians population history. What we see in the DNA is evidence of an unbroken Aboriginal lineage for well over 2,000 generations.

Attempts to recover the ancient DNA from Mungo Man reported over ten years ago were subject to considerable critique. Consensus generally agreed that the reported results probably represented contaminated DNA, and not ancient DNA dating back over 40,000 years. The Elders of the Mungo Lake today have given consent for Griffith University researchers, under the direction of Professor David Lambert, to see if ancient DNA can be recovered from Mungo Man and numerous other individuals from the ancient Willandra Lakes system. This work is currently underway but really is at the edge of what is possible in ancient DNA studies.

The anatomy of the very first physical records for the First Australians also complements this picture. We see a morphology in the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Woman, from some 42,000 years old, that would not look out of place in Aboriginal Australian populations today. Mungo Man and Woman are fully modern people in every sense of the word, and indeed represent some of the earliest modern human remains within the whole Australian-Asian region. Europe at this time was still the domain of the Neanderthals.

Finally, the study cited by Senator Leyonhjelm’s spokesperson seems to be misquoting the research of UQ Professor Hamish McGowan. While Prof McGowan does note that climatic conditions in the region around the Gwion Gwion rock art complex in northwest Australia probably meant that Aboriginal people abandoned the region for 1,500 years, he does not suggest the region was populated by an entirely different non-Aboriginal population. As noted above, there is no evidence to support such a proposal. -– Michael Westaway

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