Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • discuss the colonization and early occupation of Australia
  • understand the impact of environmental change on the economic and social structure of Aboriginal culture
  • describe change in Australian technology and subsistence through time
  • relate the effects of the impact of European colonialism on Aboriginal people in Australia
  • discuss the Austronesian dispersal, as a language family and material culture system
  • describe the colonization and development of agriculture in New Guinea and Melanesia
  • understand the long and vast migration of Austronesian speakers, from Taiwan through island Southeast Asia (East Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines) and Oceania (the islands of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia), Madagascar, southern Vietnam and New Zealand
  • discuss the cultural losses, through “bottlenecks” and the innovations that occurred during this dispersal
  • describe the Lapita complex and its significance
  • understand why some regions developed complex, stratified societies while others continued with simpler political forms
  • relate details of the theories advanced to explain both the development of intensive agriculture and complex societies and the collapse of certain social groups
  • discuss the impact of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in the Southeast Asian islands

Chapter Summary


People arrived in Australia by perhaps at least 50,000 years ago when the continent was 50 percent larger and climate cooler and drier. Beginning around 9600 bc as climate warmed the continental shelf became submerged, isolating communities and generating landscape changes.

Sea level rose until about 5000 bc, forcing groups inland into areas already occupied by others. Arnhem Land rock panels depicting battles may reflect this. Rising seas created islands such as Tasmania, where people adapted, but on King Island and Kangaroo Island people were stranded and died out. Whitsunday Island inhabitants invented outrigger canoes around 1000 bc to resolve isolation. Excavations in Moreton Bay show that coastal people adapted by exploiting molluscs and coastal fish.

Inland, stone artifacts changed dramatically in almost every area. The most common tools of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition were scrapers. Around 2500–1000 bc, standardized, finely made stone tools were produced and discarded in abundance, with different forms appearing in different parts of Australia, reflecting local environmental and social change.

The same environmental shifts were responsible for changes in settlement, foraging, and social patterns in Tasmania, notably the complete cessation of fishing around 1800 bc. Hunters shifted to hunting terrestrial game and fat-rich seals and birds, minimizing lean fish.

Similar changes to territory, group movements, and landscape use are seen on the mainland, linked to changing conceptualizations of place and stories about powerful beings such as the Rainbow Serpent, seen in rock art.

Group identity and territorial boundaries are linked to the emergence of extensive trade networks through formal markets or reciprocal ceremonial gift-giving, linking distant groups through exchange of narcotics, ochre, stone axes, grindstones, and shell pendants.

Large Aboriginal encampments near early colonial outposts also suggested sedentism to some, but these resulted from drastically changed Aboriginal social and economic systems, due to disease, power and knowledge vacuums, and the rise of new status through controlling negotiations with colonizers who had trade goods.


Lowered sea levels during the Pleistocene created an ancient landmass extending from Asia, termed Sundaland, which included present-day Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and Bali. The Philippines and eastern Indonesia were never connected to either Asia or Australia, although distances between them were reduced. Thus, migration to Australia has always involved sea crossings for animals, plants, and humans. Some islands were reached before 40,000 years ago, while others were only accessible after 1500 bc

Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands witnessed two dispersals of agricultural populations: pre-Austronesian, and Austronesian. Pre-Austronesian people arrived by at least 4000 bc in the New Guinea highlands, favourable for farming and free of malaria. Taro, yams, bananas, and sugarcane were grown. The absence of cereals and domesticated animals led to small, scattered populations. Pigs were not introduced until c. 1000 bc by Austronesians, and the American sweet potato arrived as late as ad 1550. Lowland New Guinea had a low population and endemic malaria, and no agricultural colonization of Australia occurred: it was the last completely hunter-gatherer continent to survive until European contact.


Over 1000 Austronesian languages make it the second-largest language family in the world. Economic variation was also great: rice cultivation, tubers, and fruits provided mainstays. Fish, pork, and chicken were used in most regions, with bovids important in island Southeast Asia. Iron Age hunter-gatherers were juxtaposed with boat-dwelling fisher-foragers. By ad 1500, many had possessed bronze and iron technology for 1700 years, while in other areas people were technologically Neolithic.

The Austronesian dispersal is recent, particularly in Oceania, where they comprised the first settlers, arriving within the past 3500 to 800 years. Languages indicate that the primary dispersal was not uniform or continuous, as they share a common ancestor and spread outwards from a homeland. The archaeological record is crucial for understanding the spread of artifact types, production systems, and domesticated crops and animals.

A Basic History of the Austronesian Languages

Ancestral groups migrated from the southern Chinese mainland to Taiwan, but the Austronesian language family first “crystallized” in Taiwan, the “Austronesian homeland.” The break-up of the original Proto-Austronesian dialect into separate languages occurred within populations spreading across Taiwan. A millennium later, an ancestral Malayo-Polynesian language was carried by sea to the Philippines. After Philippine occupation, a rapid, massive dispersal occurred throughout island Southeast Asia and into the central Pacific. Following the rapid language spread, there seems to have been a pause. Archaeologically, this could reflect the crossing of much wider sea gaps, necessitating major innovations in canoe technology.

Dates for the colonization of Borneo, Sumatra, and Java are uncertain, but settlements in the 2nd millennium bc seem very likely. Madagascar and the Comoro Islands were probably only reached by Austronesians in the mid-1st millennium AD, or Iron Age.

The Colonization of Oceania

In the western Pacific, between 1350 and 900 bc, Neolithic sites of the Lapita cultural complex were established from the Admiralty Islands to Samoa, correlating with a linguistic spread. Settlers found rich resources and malaria-free areas not subject to high infant mortality rates. Site sizes and numbers indicate rapid population growth.

The Lapita had a mixed horticultural and maritime economy. Pigs, fowl, and dogs are all present, though not everywhere. Village settlements about 1 to 8 ha in size contain sherds, earth ovens, hearths, postholes, and other features. Inter-island exchange brought obsidian and other stone. Lapita colonists reached Tonga and Samoa by about 1000 bc. Pottery grew simpler over time and eventually went out of use in Samoa and southern Micronesia. Rice, millet, and spinning and weaving were also lost; Austronesians may have experienced “bottleneck” losses of cultural knowledge.

Polynesians invented the double sailing canoe allowing colonization with transported domesticates, and terraced and canal irrigated agricultural systems were impressive, as were New Zealand’s palisaded earthwork fortifications and Eastern Polynesia’s massive stone platforms used by competing chiefs in the Hawaiian, Society, and Marquesas Islands. On Easter Island, platforms included statues.

Settlement of central and eastern Polynesia lying beyond the Lapita linguistic zone occurred after a pause in colonization. Radiocarbon dates show they were only settled around ad 700 or later. Most central and eastern Polynesian colonization occurred between about ad 700 and 1200. The rapid spread after such a long pause may be related to resource shortfalls after 1500 years, frequent El Niño events, or improved canoe technology. Once settlement began, population growth was rapid in the disease-free and food-rich environment, until the onset of introduced diseases in the 18th and 19th centuries.


In the millennia since initial colonization the Pacific Islands maintained Neolithic traditions in relative isolation while west of New Guinea people incorporated metal-working after about 300 bc, and successive arrivals of Indian, Chinese and Islamic influences after ad 1250.

On fertile Oceanic islands complex societies with chiefs, social ranks, and frequent warfare developed, such as Easter Island (Rapa Nui), colonized around ad 900. Massive stone statues (moai), carved c. ad 1100–1650, were erected on raised stone platforms (ahu), perhaps representing deified chiefs. Other island chiefdoms display impressive stone shrine/temple platforms (marae), sometimes in stepped pyramidal forms.

Eastern Polynesian development is related to local environment. Settlers brought domesticated plants and animals to the lush Hawaiian Islands, and resulting population growth led to ranked chiefdoms. Eventually, several such societies were unified by force into a single kingdom in the 19th century.

New Zealand is larger and temperate, rich in the north but nearly outside agricultural limits in the south, creating two different social outcomes. The first Maori arrived c. ad 1200. In the north, warlike chiefdoms with a population of perhaps 100,000 competed for farmland, constructing over 5000 fortified earthwork enclosures (pa) in agriculturally rich regions. Southern Maori hunted and gathered until depletion occurred, then cultivated American sweet potato, with the dog as the only domesticate. Their population remained sparse.


Around the western Pacific rim, contact with India, the Mediterranean, and China had social and religious impacts, such as the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism, seaborne trading activities, and the spread of ironworking and bronze-working as empires in China developed and traded for tropical products. Urban settlements appeared in Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, but never in the Pacific Islands east of New Guinea. Instead, there was an active long-distance trade between them.

During the 1st millennium ad, Austronesian societies were transformed into complex societies, though local cultures continued to evolve, seen archaeologically through local styles of bronze axes, drums, ornaments, stone-carvings, and mortuary materials. After ad 1200 Islam, the Portuguese, and the Dutch arrived. The Southeast Asian islands thus experienced very different historical trajectories from the Pacific Islands during the past 2000 years.

Box Features

Key Controversy: Explaining Technological Change in Australia

Key Controversy: Why Did the Tasmanians Stop Eating Fish?

Key Controversy: The Origins of the Austronesians

Key Controversy: The Origins of Lapita

Key Controversy: Expert Navigation or Sheer Good Luck?

Key Controversy: Causes Of Landscape Change

Key Controversy: Easter Island and South America

Key Discovery: Early Farming in the New Guinea Highlands

Key Site: South Molle Quarry: Aboriginal Foragers at the End of the Ice Age

Key Site: Barlambidj: Aboriginal Contact with Southeast Asia

Key Site: Beinan and the Jade Trade

Key Sites: Talepakemalai and Teouma

Key words and terms

Environmental changes

  • rising seas
  • island creation
  • marine food resources
  • broad spectrum subsistence


In Australia

  • Tasmania
  • King Island
  • Kangaroo Island
  • Arnhem Land
  • Whitsunday Islands

In Southeast Asia and Oceania

  • Indonesia
  • Micronesia
  • Polynesia
  • Malaysia
  • Philippines
  • Java
  • Sumatra
  • Moluccas
  • Borneo
  • Bali
  • Tonga
  • Fiji
  • New Zealand
  • Sulawesi
  • Lesser Sundas
  • New Guinea
  • Wallacea
  • Near Oceania
  • Solomon Islands
  • Remote Oceania
  • Santa Cruz Islands
  • New Caledonia
  • Vanuatu
  • Mariana Islands
  • Palau
  • Caroline Islands
  • Hawaiian Islands
  • Society Islands
  • Marquesas Islands
  • Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
  • Futuna
  • Cook Islands
  • Austral Islands
  • Tuamotu Islands


In Australia

  • Moreton Bay
  • Kenniff Cave
  • Bass Strait Islands
  • Mount Cameron West
  • Ngarrabulgan
  • Wilgie Mia
  • Lake Moondarra
  • Lake Eyre
  • McArthur Creek
  • Allambie, High Cliffy Island
  • Toolondo
  • Barlambidj

In Southeast Asia and Oceania

  • Niah Cave
  • Tabon Cave
  • Nan-kuan-li
  • Suo-kang
  • Chih-shan-yen
  • Beinan
  • Andarayan
  • Gua Sireh cave
  • Bukit Tengkorak
  • Magapit and Nagsabaran
  • Talepakemalai
  • Nan Madol
  • Leluh


In Australia

  • Rainbow Serpent
  • rock art: battles, resource change, religious change, territoriality
  • Aboriginal trade networks
  • population rise
  • population nucleation
  • sedentism
  • European contact

In Southeast Asia and Oceania

  • Homo erectus as possible contributor to modern gene pool
  • The Austronesian Dispersal
  • boat-borne human diaspora
  • Taiwanese homeland
  • “bottleneck” losses
  • “the wet and the dry”
  • founding as a high-status activity
  • sea-borne trade with Asia
  • globalism
  • introduction of metal
  • Borobudur


  • Aboriginal
  • Proto-Austronesian
  • Austronesian
  • Dabenkeng
  • Beinan
  • Lapita cultural complex
  • Kamehameha
  • Hawaiians
  • Maoris
  • Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam


In Australia

  • outrigger canoes
  • standardized, finely made stone implements
  • backed artifacts
  • earth mounds, low stone walls
  • eel traps
  • European technologies: metal, dugouts

In Southeast Asia and Oceania

  • Hoabinhian industries
  • Toalian industries
  • microliths
  • Neolithic Austronesians
  • red-slipped and stamped pottery, stone adzes, rice, pigs, dogs, chickens
  • Lapita: stone adzes, stone chisels, shell adzes, shell ornaments, trolling and angling, fishhooks, obsidian; stilt houses, earth ovens
  • “bottleneck” losses: rice, millet, and loom weaving, ceramic
  • Polynesia: aceramic, double sailing canoe, barkcloth, stone adze, terraced-field and canal-fed taro irrigation, palisaded earthwork fortification
  • moai, ahu, Rano Raraku
  • marae
  • earthwork fortifications
  • langi
  • latte


  • New Guinea highlands: drained swamp agriculture
  • taro, yams, bananas, sugarcane, pigs, American sweet potato
  • Lowland New Guinea, endemic malaria
  • Lapita: horticultural and maritime, pigs, fowl, and dogs
  • taro, coconut, candlenut, pandanus, canarium nut


  • John Mulvaney
  • Harry Lourandos
  • Tsang Cheng-hwa
  • Marshall Sahlins
  • Irving Goldman
  • Patrick Kirch
  • Nicholas Thomas
  • Thor Heyerdahl