The brutal Civil War in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka ended in 2009, with the help of Chinese military advisers. Since then democracy and respect for human right had declined to the lowest level in the country’s post-colonial history. The conflict and its aftermath resulted in the killing of many thousands of people. Numerous families were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and some placed in concentration camps. Over 12,000 people disappeared in acts of repression in recent years. Media freedom became severely restricted.

It is not surprising that many people sought refuge and protection in other countries, including Australia. It was reported, with some pride, that Australia deported about 1000 Sir Lanka refugees, most of whom were promptly arrested back in their country and some disappeared. It was less prominent in the media that some asylum-seekers attempted a direct boat journey from Sri Lanka to reach the Australian waters. Just look at the map – it’s astounding! A former minister for immigration, Chris Bowen absurdly asserted that they did not ask for asylum, hence were rapidly deported. Now we know that many refugees were denied a proper interview or any opportunity to present their case.

Canoe model from Sri Lanka
Model of canoe with outrgger, Sri Lanka. Canoes with outriggers were introduced to Sri Lanka and India from Southeast Asia probably in the 2nd millennium BCE. Allowing navigation in the open sea, they were vital equipment for the long-distance trading across the Indian Ocean. This model shows the 19th century watercraft, but it displays the essential design elements that may have a very long history of cultural exchange, as well as the movement of people and goods throughout Oceania and the Indian Ocean. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

But in the background of this humanitarian tragedy and political cunning, are layers of history that slowly are coming to light. Recent research on the genetic material at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, suggests that direct contact between the people of the Indian subcontinent and Australian indigenous people occurred over 4,000 years ago. Researchers detected a good imprint of Indian influence in Aboriginal genes.

We don’t know how this has happened, but it is instructive to speculate. In the second millennium BCE, various domesticated food-plants and animals (and some wild species) were moved across the Indian Ocean in both directions. For example it is possible that the banana – native to Southeast Asia and Papua - was introduced to Africa about 4000 years ago. The outrigger canoe, present in east Africa and Madagascar, South India and Sri Lanka has also Southeast Asian origins. Equally malaria of African origin surfaced in Southeast Asia and Asian Elephantiasis in Africa.

Researchers hypothesise that this early translocation of plants, animals and exchange of cultural ideas was carried out by entrepreneurial traders, who in small boats travelled west and east. They speculated that the adoption of plants from Austronesia on the Indian subcontinent would most likely occur via Orissa and Sri Lanka - regions most ecologically compatible with the wet tropics of Southeast Asia. We don’t understand yet the social and economic reasons driving these travellers ‘with little more than basic seafaring technology to take on voyages that even in today’s world appear to be exceptionally dangerous and even foolhardy’ (Fuller at al 2011).

If native people of the Indian subcontinent reached our shores, they could have introduced a domestic dog – the dingo – to Australia about 4000 years ago. It is likely that the dingo caused the extinction of the Thylacine - Tasmanian Tiger - on the mainland. Archaeologists observe numerous changes in technology and material culture at that time. Tasmania, isolated from the mainland, preserved not only the Thylacine until colonial times, but also the physical appearance of Tasmanian Aborigines – different from their mainland brothers.

It is puzzling why people from India travelled to Australia and even more so how they managed to influence the local indigenous population as they did. The historical context does not tell the whole story, but in the first millennium BCE and the first millennium of the Common Era, the contacts between Indian civilisations and these of Southeast Asia shifted to early major urban centres and trading become more organised, leading to big enterprises. It resulted in the adoption of Hindu philosophy and practices in the large part of Southeast Asia and further propagation of goods, ideas, plants and animals.

Sri Lanka’s asylum seekers, driven by current political and social unrest, can be seen as a minor episode in the long history of connection across the ocean.


BCE – means Before Common Era, and indicates the years counted back from the first year of the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 BCE Rome conquered Egypt and Cleopatra took her own life.


Dorian Fuller, Nicole Boivin, Tom Hoogervorst and Robin Allaby: Across the Indian Ocean: the prehistoric movement of plants and animals. Antiquity: 85 - 2011