Aboriginal people arrive in Tasmania at least 34,000 years ago (during the last glacial period), and there are several subsequent waves of south-moving people – until the rich and low-lying country linking what is now Tasmania to the Australian mainland becomes submerged about 10,000 years ago. That’s roughly 1500 generations of continuous Aboriginal occupancy.

Tasmania’s Aborigines develop in distinct ways once the land bridge is gone, their tools and other technologies becoming progressively simpler as favourable post-ice age conditions emerge. There is no wild dog in Tasmania, and the throwing stick, the lughrana, is less aerodynamic than the mainland boomerang (though probably better suited to Tasmania’s wooded environments). As security against the prevailing environmental dampness, fire is carefully nurtured and carried along when groups are on the move.

Not only did the island’s people develop in ways that distinguished them from the indigenous people of mainland Australia, but within the island they also differ tribe to tribe; many cultural practices are regionally distinct, and there are 12 languages. The language group is the overarching unit of Aboriginal society, with neighbouring tribes often, but not always, closely allied and cooperative. Aboriginal people are mobile, and at certain times of the year they move to fixed locations in neighbouring or even distant territory, or welcome others into theirs, for ceremonial purposes and seasonal hunting and gathering activities.

A more basic unit still is the ‘hearth group’ – a semi-autonomous extended family group of 12 or so people. When on the move men hunt and carry the crucible of fire. As well as children, woman carry a wide range of utensils and other gear, including containers, ‘digging sticks’, stone tools, necklaces, fire-making materials, and ochre. The women are superior swimmers, and it is they who dive for shellfish (scale fish mysteriously disappear from the Aboriginal diet around 4000 years ago). The members of each hearth group understand the country through which they move with a deep intimacy.

Aboriginal people’s resourcefulness enables them to live through periods of glaciation, during which average temperatures are about six degrees colder than now, and there is only half of today’s rainfall. In much of Tasmania the land is buried by many metres of ice. If you stand right here you are inland – to reach the coast you will need to travel another 20kms sou-sou-east, well beyond what is now the southernmost edge of Bruny Island.

Further reading

Johnson, M., and McFarlane, I. (2015) Van Diemen’s Land: An Aboriginal History, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Plomley, N.J.B. (1983), The Baudin Expedition and the Tasmanian Aborigines 1802, Blubber Head Press, Sandy Bay (Tas.).

Robinson, G.A. (2008), Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Reports of George Augustus Robinson 1829-1834, 2nd edn, NJB Plomley (ed.), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery/Quintus Publishing, Launceston’ espec. Prelude.

Ryan, L. (1981), The Aboriginal Tasmanians, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia (Qld.).

Taylor, John, Companion to Tasmanian History.


The image of the Aboriginal people and canoes is from Lesueur and Petit’s, Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands, An historical record; Atlas. (Artus Bertrand, Paris: 1824). It was sourced from a facsimile edition published by The Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 2008. (Translations by Peter Hambly and Introduction by Sarah Thomas).

Lesueur’s sketch of a wombat was sourced from NJP Plomley, The Baudin Expedition and the Tasmanian Aborigines, 1892, (Blubber Head Press Hobart, 1983).

Piron’s sketch of Aboriginal baskets is from the collection of the Museum of Quai Branly, Paris (ref. 54-3341).

Here is a beautiful recent Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) image of Bass Strait, showing the underlying topography and areas that would have served as a ‘land bridge’.


(Click to enlarge images)