The study is among the first to specify just how many adventurers weathered the trip to become the original Aussies, although researchers are divided on whether the new numbers are accurate. The study has also stirred debate on exactly when and why the aboriginal population ballooned to hundreds of thousands of individuals.
“People remained at low levels, we believe, for 40,000 years and suddenly, for no apparent reason, we see … their numbers start to build,” says study author and archaeologist Alan Williams, a graduate student at the Australian National University in Canberra. “We need to ask what changed.”
To determine the head count in Australia’s founding population, Williams compiled the most complete estimate to date of the continent’s prehistoric population. He turned to a database of 5000 cooking pits, human burials, shell heaps, and charcoal deposits. All were from Australian archaeological sites, and all had been assigned a date using radiocarbon dating methods. As the human population grows, the number of archaeological sites and artifacts available for radiocarbon dating grows, too. That makes radiocarbon dates a yardstick of population, or so think Williams and some other researchers who employ this technique” (read more).