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Indigenous Australians perform a cultural ceremony
Indigenous Australians perform a cultural ceremony | © Malcolm Williams / Flickr
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Australia is Home to the World's Oldest Surviving Civilisation

Picture of Tom Smith
Updated: 5 April 2018
Australia is a relatively young country, federated only in 1901, but its history stretches back much further than that — longer than 60,000 years to be precise. Read on to learn more about Indigenous Australian culture, the oldest continuously surviving civilisation on Earth.

Indigenous Australia culture is tens of thousands of years older than many other ancient civilisations that are revered around the world, such as Mesopotamia (dating back as early as 3500 B.C.), Egypt (3100 B.C.), Greece (2700 B.C.), Maya (2600 B.C.) and China (1600 B.C.).

Genetics

A study published by the Journal of Nature in 2016 analysed the DNA of 83 Aboriginal Australians and discovered ancestors stretching back 75,000 years. The group of international researchers — including nine Aboriginal elders as co-authors — revealed that Indigenous Australians originate from an exodus from Africa 75 millennia ago, and diverged from northern neighbours, the Papuans, 37,000 years ago. These groundbreaking findings affirmed that Aboriginal Australians are the most ancient civilisation on Earth.

Indigenous Australian ceremony © Malcolm Williams / Flickr
Indigenous Australian ceremony | © Malcolm Williams / Flickr

“The importance of this study for me is to have some proof of how long we’ve been in Australia,” Aboriginal elder and study co-author Colleen Wall told CNN. “To have that credibility is really important to us as we know from our point of view that we’ve been here for thousands of years, but people look at our stories as myth.”

Culture

Despite some archaic and racist misconceptions, Indigenous Australian culture thrived for millennia before brutal British colonisation. For millennia, distinct societies of Aboriginal people carefully managed the fertile land, developed their own number systems and medicine, navigated territory using the stars and stories — and when the British invaded their land in 1788, the First Australians mounted stoic resistance.

Indigenous Australian © Steve Evans / Wikimedia Commons
Indigenous Australian | © Steve Evans / Wikimedia Commons

There are a series of archaeological sites around Australia that prove Indigenous people have been inhabiting the continent for many thousands of years. A 2014 dig of Ganga Maya Cave in the Pilbara region of Western Australia revealed artefacts dating back 45,000 years, while the Malakunanja rock shelter in the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land is home to tools and paintings of a similar age. The Devil’s Lair limestone cave in southwest Western Australia, Lake Mungo in western New South Wales, and Nauwalabila rock shelter in Arnhem Land are all more than 40,000 years old too.

Visit

There are dozens of places around Australia where you can experience the world’s oldest continuously surviving civilisation firsthand. The most famous is Uluru, the symbolic heart of the Australian continent, which has hosted cultural ceremonies for more than 10,000 years. The nearby Kata Tjuta rock formations are every bit as spectacular too.

The Northern Territory is another hotspot of Indigenous landmarks — Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park near Darwin are renowned for their Aboriginal rock art sites and archaeological dig sites — as are the northern expanses of Western Australia around the Pilbara and the Kimberley.

Indigenous painting © Jeroen Moes / Flickr
Indigenous painting | © Jeroen Moes / Flickr

Down south, the Grampians National Park in Victoria and the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park north of Sydney are peppered with rock paintings and marvellous engravings. Examples of Indigenous art can be found in world-class art galleries all over the country, including Sydney, Melbourne, Perth.