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“Superhighways” of the Original Australians Uncovered by Virtual Migrant

“Superhighways” of the Original Australians Uncovered by Virtual Migrant

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When the first human migrants arrived in Australia tens of thousands of years ago, they spread out across the land following a series of heavily traveled pathways that scientists have identified as the world’s first “superhighways.” With the assistance of a powerful supercomputer supplied by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, these scientists have now produced a map that traces the twists and turns of these superhighways, and the migratory patterns of these original Australians, in exquisite detail, explains a news release by Sandia National Laboratories.

One of the mapping project leaders, Sandia National Laboratories archaeologist and remote sensing specialist Devin White, has been using remote sensing, geospatial analysis, and high-performance computing strategies to produce detailed maps of migratory movement patterns for many years. “One of the really big unanswered questions of prehistory is how Australia was populated in the distant past,” he acknowledged, “Scholars have debated it for at least 150 years.”

White confirms that the Sandia supercomputer project has been his most challenging assignment in the field to date. But he and his co-participants were delighted by the results of their ambitious study of the migratory patterns of original Australians, the results of which have just been published in the journal Nature.

Map of the giant Pleistocene-era supercontinent known as Sahul, as it looked approximately 50,000 years ago. The green lines mark the primary travel routes or “superhighways” that emerged as result of billions of computer simulations. (Meg Davidson / Sandia National Laboratories)

Map of the giant Pleistocene-era supercontinent known as Sahul, as it looked approximately 50,000 years ago. The green lines mark the primary travel routes or “superhighways” that emerged as result of billions of computer simulations. (Meg Davidson / Sandia National Laboratories)

Decoding and Mapping Ancient Movements of Original Australians

Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea were once part of a giant Pleistocene-era supercontinent known as Sahul. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the first humans arrived there by sea approximately 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, from another supercontinent to the northwest that included what are now the islands of Indonesia. These early settlers in Sahul were the ancestors of the Aboriginal Australians, who occupied the giant landmass in its entirety and continued to occupy the land after Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea were separated by rises in sea level.

While there has been general consensus about the approximate date of arrival of these ancient migrants, scientists knew little about the paths that the newcomers to Sahul traveled, as they moved across the continent and established their settlements or carved out niches as hunter-gatherers so long ago. Archaeological sites linked to these distant times are difficult to find, and what has been discovered so far has not been sufficient to provide definitive answers about overland travel routes.

“We decided it would be really interesting to look at this question of human migration because the ways that we conceptualize a landscape should be relatively steady for a hiker in the 21st century and a person who was way-finding into a new region 70,000 years ago,” said study leader Stefani Crabtree, an archaeologist and computational social scientist affiliated with a New Mexico-based scientific think tank known as the Santa Fe Institute. “If it’s a new landscape and we don’t have a map, we’re going to want to know how to move efficiently throughout a space, where to find water, and where to camp — and we’ll orient ourselves based on high points around the lands.”

Original Australians Recreated Using Virtual Migrant

To satisfy their quest for knowledge, the researchers created an imaginary virtual migrant, personified as a 25-year old Pleistocene-era woman who would be carrying 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of water and tools as she charted a path either down the shore or into the Sahul interior. Her mission would impel her to find a route across the supercontinent that would require the smallest investment in calories, while offering access to enough food and water and proper shelter to ensure survival. As her travels continued, she would be expected to stay close to visible landscape features, which would be used for the purposes of navigation.

The idea behind the experiment was to send this explorer, a supposed member of the original Australians, out on repeated trips across the ancient landscape, equipped with the capacity to adapt to local conditions and make sensible choices based solely on survival needs. To make sure all possible starting points and potential routes were covered, the scientists ran more than 125 billion simulations on the Sandia supercomputer. Computer algorithms were then used to analyze the data, to discover which routes this virtual rational actor chose most often. 

As predicted, the data revealed that the virtual explorer returned to certain paths repeatedly, her choices dictated by crucial landscape-related factors. These paths were the “superhighways” that ancient migrants would have traveled, assuming they were in survival mode as they continued their journeys. Not coincidentally, the superhighways identified by the supercomputer passed right by many of Australia’s most ancient archaeological sites. This would have been expected, if prehistoric explorers were traveling these paths and settling or camping at various spots along the way.

Uluru is a natural landmark with which Australian Aboriginal people have a strong connection. (bennymarty / Adobe Stock)

Bringing the Landscape Witnessed by Original Australians to Life

One of the primary assumptions of this project was that ancient peoples exploring and settling on new lands would have been heavily influenced by geographical, geological, and ecological realities. "Our research shows that prominent landscape features and water sources were critical for people to navigate and survive on the continent,” said Sean Ulm, an archaeologist from James Cook University in Queensland and the deputy director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage.

As further proof of this assertion, Ulm highlights the strong connection Australian Aboriginal people have formed with the landscape and its diverse natural landmarks. “In many Aboriginal societies, landscape features are believed to have been created by ancestral beings,” he said. “Every ridgeline, hill, river, beach and water source is named, storied and inscribed into the very fabric of societies, emphasizing the intimate relationship between people and place. The landscape is literally woven into peoples' lives and their histories. It seems that these relationships between people and country probably date back to the earliest peopling of the continent."

The scientists involved in the mapping project of the original Australians believe their work will be useful to archaeologists seeking promising locations for new excavations. They also hope their methodology can be exported to other areas of the globe, to identify “superhighways” responsible for settlement patterns on other continents. If indeed this procedure can be universally applied, it may even allow researchers to trace human movements back to the beginning, to 220,000 years ago when Homo sapiens first began migrating out of Africa.

Top image: Scientists have produced a map that traces the migratory patterns of a virtual migrant programmed to represent one of the original Australians, a 25-year old Pleistocene-era woman, such as the one in this illustration. Source: intueri / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde



Brent Daglish1's picture

I agree. The path of travel would be logical for a 10 year old with limited school geographic understanding. The sciecne behind this articvle is poiintless. What does it prove…? Humans moved around? 

The leading graphics show a woman (in my view, looking remarkably African) holding a spear with a metal tip.

I know that rewriting Australian prehistory is fashionable these days, but isn't this a step too far?

What is wrong with the truth? We should think no less of Aboriginal prehistory for being one of stone technology. To thrive in the Australian landscape is no easy feat with metals and even more so without.

The way we're going, future young Indigenous Australians will have poor knowledge indeed of their own cultural heritage. Years ago, the movie industry wanted the first leading Aboriginal film actor to play an African. He refused, but paid the price of losing a budding career.

The illustration above reeks of Hollywood wokeness.

As for the mapping, I'd like to say that it is brilliant but, quite honestly, I could have knocked up something similiar on a piece of paper in an hour based on knowledge of the landscape and an up-to-date listing of the oldest known sites. And I'm a secondary school dropout.

The first Australians never even saw a map or a school. Yet, they survived and thrived. I'm not sure the researchers here would last five minutes in the prehistoric Australian bush under the same circumstances.

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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