When conceptualising ‘history’, most people will likely picture a collection of written documents, archival records, chronological accounts, and tangible evidence of construction in the landscape. But what happens when a place has no written records or clearly identifiable infrastructure? Does the term ‘history’ still apply? Or must the chronological narrative take on another title, such as ‘prehistory’?
Typical historical research methods are rarely used when interpreting and documenting Australia’s past. With no written records in the ‘Western’ sense, Ancient Australia must be mapped with the help of multiple disciplines and a variety of evidence types.
Some of the main disciplines used to construct historical and prehistorical narratives for Ancient Australia are:
Archaeology is the study of the human past using scientific analyses of material remains. Archaeology is the principal discipline when it comes to understanding Australia’s ancient past. In Australia, material remains are often the only evidence available, so they become the lens through which the continent’s ancient history is viewed and subsequently written. Archaeology provides information about specific sites, land use and available technology. Often, this evidence is a mere snapshot of a much larger picture that can only be realised with a combination of more archaeological investigation and the help of other key disciplines.
Palaeoclimatology is the study of past climates. Palaeoclimatology is crucial to understanding Ancient Australia because it reveals information about changing sea levels, fluctuating temperatures, and the climate conditions in different parts of the continent at particular points in time. This information assists with answering major questions about Australia’s ancient past, such as when was the best time for people to arrive, how they crossed the continent, and what impacts the changing environment had on lifestyle and mobility.
Palaeontology is the study of fossils and fossilised organisms. In the context of Ancient Australia, Palaeontology, along with palaeozoology and palaeobotany, is vital to understanding how ancient species have changed and adapted over time, how climate and environment impacted upon their existence, and whether humans were responsible for their extinction.
Anthropology is the study of the origins of people and their physical and cultural development. Many anthropologists have attempted to document and record Indigenous languages, cultures and customs, and their work is important to understanding the culture and customs of Aborigines and continues to inform contemporary research.
Drawing on multiple disciplines helps us understand things like:
- past sea levels, environments and climates
- time and method of human arrival
- movement across the continent
- impact of humans on the environment
When we put all this information together, we can begin to construct a comprehensive picture of the past.