Arts & Culture

Human colonization of Australia and the Americas examined

4 min read

A recent symposium about the prehistory of Australia and the Americas brought together scholars from 10,000 miles apart. But that’s nothing compared to the journey early humans made to populate Australia and the Americas tens of thousands of years ago.

The “Harvard Australian Studies Symposium: People Colonizing New Worlds” took place on April 17 and 18 at the Gutman Conference Center. The symposium brought together 27 scholars from Australia and the Americas to examine issues surrounding the colonization of these two landmasses, the last populated by modern Homo sapiens. Humans first inhabited Australia about 50,000 years ago, while the Americas were colonized about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

With presentations from archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and geneticists, symposium participants discussed the circumstances under which people came to inhabit these continents, and what the early populations might have looked like.

The symposium’s topic was conceived by Iain Davidson, visiting chair of Australian studies at the University of New England in Australia, who co-hosted the program with Harvard’s Noreen Tuross, Landon T. Clay Professor of Scientific Archaeology. The program was supported by Harvard’s Australian Studies Committee, which is chaired by David Haig, professor of evolutionary biology. It was the first Harvard Australian Studies symposium in what is intended to be an ongoing annual series.

“The parallels and differences between the Americas and Australia are useful for gaining new perspectives on many of these research topics,” says Haig. “By organizing these meetings between scholars and seeing things from different perspectives, both the Australian and the American scholars benefit from one another.”

The presentations were organized thematically by topic, such as “Initial Colonization,” “Adaptation,” and “Art, Identity and Society.” Each topic featured an American and an Australian.

Presentations ranged from the extinction of megafauna — giant birds, mammals and reptiles — to the adoption of agriculture and the cultures and rituals of these early peoples. June Ross of the University of New England spoke on how different rock art traditions showcase the diversity of the region, which is home to more than 1,200 languages.

The symposium also included discussions about what these areas looked like before the arrival of Homo sapiens. Mike Morwood of the University of Wollongong described the faunal diversity of southeastern Asian islands hundreds of thousands of years ago, including evidence of tiny early humans, popularly called “hobbits,” whom he and his colleagues discovered in 2003.

According to Davidson, a key similarity between the colonization of the continents was the cognitive ability necessary for early humans to journey into these new worlds.

In Australia, this included the ability to build boats and cross the ocean from southern Asia. Jane Balme, of the University of Western Australia, presented on the role of maritime watercraft in colonization, particularly for fishing, which was made possible by the use of nets.

Likewise, to cross into America from northeast Asia, housing, clothing, and storage were needed to survive harsh northern temperatures.

“For a long time I have been playing with the idea that the cognitive abilities that you need to build a boat, go fishing, and perhaps cross to the other side of the ocean … are perhaps very similar to the cognitive abilities that you need [to be able to do] to survive in the very cold environments of the north, which you need to get across to the Americas,” says Davidson. “That for me was the breakthrough, that here is a similar cognitive process.”

Questions about the timeline for the colonization of the continents were addressed through archaeological evidence, such as stone tools, and genetic data.

“Genetics can tell us when people arrived on these continents,” says Davidson. “However, they can’t tell us as much about what people did once they arrived, whether they did agriculture or not, or about their social choices and organization. And they can’t tell us anything at all about art, or about ritual.”