Aboriginal people first arrived in Australia from Java and perhaps China at least 50,000 years ago and 15,000 years later (approximately 35,000 years ago) arrived in Tasmania. When the rising sea finally flooded the Bass Plain, the Tasmanian Aborigines were isolated for the next 12,000 years. As a result, they developed physical and cultural differences from mainland Australian Aborigines.
Archaeologists have found remains such as bones and charcoal at many sites and have used radiocarbon techniques to date these materials, showing where and what Aborigines were hunting and eating, and how long ago.
Some sites were occupied several times through the ages. Cave Bay on Hunter Island, off the north-west coast of Tasmania, was an inland hunting camp about 22,000 years ago. It was abandoned during the Ice Age but when the sea reached its present level about 6,000 years ago, people returned to Cave Bay, this time to fish rather than hunt land animals.
In the 1800s Aboriginal people still went to Hunter Island in the summer to hunt wallabies and gather shellfish and mutton-birds (shearwaters).
Early Aboriginal culture
Stenciling and rock carving are perhaps the most notable evidence of early culture. There are rock carvings in Tasmania's remote north-west, at Mount Cameron West and at High Rocky Point; the ones at Mount Cameron West have been dated to 1,600 BP (Before Present , the accepted radiocarbon dating reference year).
Hand stencils on cave walls and rock faces in the south-west and in the Derwent Valley used a mixture of ochre, blood and animal fat. Many of the Aboriginal cave art sites are now part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Shell middens – pits used by aboriginal people as domestic waste dumps - are easily found across Tasmania, including at Bruny and Maria Islands, Friendly Beaches and the largest - at several metres deep - at Hazards Beach in Freycinet National Park. You can even find middens at Midway Point, just 20 km from Hobart.
Contact with Europeans
The first Europeans to meet Tasmanian Aborigines were the French sailors involved in Captain Nicholas Marion du Fresne's expedition of 1772. It is reported that the Aboriginal people rejected the French offers of gifts, and with misunderstandings came suspicion, anger and violence. When a French sailor was injured by a thrown stone, du Fresne ordered a volley of musket shots, which killed one Aborigine and wounded others.
Numerous, friendly encounters between Europeans and the Aboriginal people have been recorded at Adventure Bay on Bruny Island: Captain James Cook in 1777; Lieutenant William Bligh in 1788; and Rear Admiral Bruny D'Entrecasteaux in 1792, who stayed a month on the island, having friendly meetings with the Aborigines, exchanging gifts and sharing meals of roasted shellfish.
The first European explorers came to Tasmania with noble intentions of gathering knowledge about the world, as well as looking for trading opportunities. However, it was with scant attention to human rights that the British developed their colony of Van Diemen's Land. The full story is a troubled one, with European administrators and business people concentrating on trade, industrial development and financial and physical security. Today Tasmanian Aborigines still strive for recompense for the loss of their land and culture.