The Idea of Human Antiquity in Australia, 1860-1960

In 1859, European men of science reached a consensus that overthrew traditional chronologies and asserted that humans had existed on Earth for upwards of hundreds of thousands of years. For Australian historians and archaeologists, the consensus on human antiquity was an intellectual revolution that would not be fully realised for another one hundred years. The reality of Australia’s extensive Aboriginal occupation, it is argued, was not ‘discovered’ or broadly understood until the 1960s, when professional archaeology and radiocarbon dating propelled the country’s human history into a national and international spotlight. Until this point, common settler understandings placed Aboriginal Australians at only a few thousand years old. This paper is part of a broader study that contests the claim it took a century to apply an understanding of human antiquity to Australia's Aboriginal population. By tracing settler understandings of human antiquity in Australia, it subverts conventional narratives of apparent ignorance, and instead reveals an insidious process of intellectual dispossession that Australian scientists were consciously embroiled in.

Dr Amy Way is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Research Centre for Deep History at the Australian National University. She specialises in the history of human antiquity and deep time in Australia, and its conceptualisation within geology, archaeology, anthropology and public discourse. She received the Vice Chancellor's Commendation for Academic Excellence for her dissertation (2020), and her work has been recently published in History Australia and Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science. She is also working on a biography of palaeontologist and museum director Robert Etheridge Junior (1846-1920), and is a Visiting Fellow with the New Earth Histories Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. 

Zoom Details  
Meeting ID: 860 8458 6054
Password: 148910

Date & time

Wed 30 Mar 2022, 4.15–5.30pm


Zoom and the RSSS Auditorium, Level 1, 146 Ellery Crescent, Acton


Dr Amy Way


School of History


RSSS Administration


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