Innovative studies using a supercomputer have found that the Aboriginal population 60,000 years ago was much larger than previous estimates suggest.

Researchers developed a simulation model and used a supercomputer that tested 125 billion potential pathways across the continent and found Aboriginal people settled across the country in record time, indicating that the population could have been as high as 6.4 million.

The researchers, from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, are calling these paths “super-highways” and they stretched from the Kimberley to Tasmania.

Professor Corey Bradshaw from Flinders University, who led the study, said despite rhino-sized wombats and giant kangaroos also roaming the country in the late Pleistocene (or Ice Age), there was a reason the population was so high — people weren’t just surviving.

“They were thriving, they were doing really well,” he said.

“It’s not only important to appreciate that people were very clever, ingenious and innovative, but to not fall into the trap of thinking they were barely surviving.”

The research group wrote in The Conversation that previous estimates of the Aboriginal population pre-invasion were based on the accounts of European colonisers and that these estimates were uncertain as they relied heavily on “haphazard or incomplete data collection, and even a healthy dose of guesswork”.

Professor Bradshaw said the new findings offer a more complete picture of life back then and that it’s possible the super-highways have influenced more modern pathways and roads thousands of years on.

“There is a striking resemblance to some of the trading routes and stock routes, which of course, were based on Aboriginal knowledge,” he said.

“It’s possible that quite a few of these major pathways have persisted for 60,000 years, which is mind blowing.

“No culture in the world can claim to have any sort of knowledge and transfer going back that far, and it seems to be the case here because these pathways would have been passed down from generation to generation.”

But Professor Bradshaw said it makes sense as to why the pathways have persisted for so long.

He said the super-highways showed the most navigable routes, where water was accessible and where people were most likely to get from place to place within their physiological capacity.

“Naturally, [the pathways] would have been attractive, and people would have remembered them and passed them down. They did that over tens of thousands of years – there’s no equivalent anywhere else on the planet.”

The Professor said this study not only helps to understand the past but also assists in preserving significant sites, knowledge and culture for the future. He stressed for non-Indigenous people to think about the importance of the rich culture of Australia.

“We’ve got a lot of heritage in this country that’s been destroyed or not been valued, or hasn’t been found yet and I think that richness needs to be preserved.”

Professor Bradshaw and the team now hope to use the simulation model to uncover more recent history and compare researchers’ predictions with traditional Aboriginal knowledge and utilise this to find and preserve significant sites.

“Going from about 5,000 [years ago] onwards, when Australia was the Australia we know today in terms of its shape and coastlines and roughly the same climate, and then try to add in more traditional knowledge aspects and see how they are congruent or different from what we’re predicting,” he said.

“And then we want to identify, on the land but also underwater, heritage sites that need to be protected and linked into the stories of different Nations around the country.”

By Madison Howarth