This month in Archaeology: When did dingoes first come to Australia?
For this month’s blog, we examine a paper recently published by Loukas Koungoulos and Melanie Fillios in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, in order to answer the question: when did dingoes first come to Australia?
When did dingoes first come to Australia?
Koungoulos and Fillios believe that dingoes have been in Australia for at least 5,000 years. Although the oldest directly dated dingo, which comes from Madura Cave on the Nullarbor in South Australia, only dates to 3348–3081BP (BP = 1950) (Balme et al., 2018), this paper also looks at molecular dating which indicates that dingoes arrived nearly two thousand years before this. Molecular dating can estimate the time passed since the dingo diverged from its closest relatives, the New Guinea Singing Dog and Indonesian village dogs. This suggests that the dingo first arrived in Australia closer to 5,500 years ago.
This predates the oldest dog skeletons in either Australia or Southeast Asia by thousands of years. Koungoulos and Fillios argue the most likely reason for this gap is that the skeletal remains of earlier dingos and their ancestors have not been preserved in hot, humid northern Australia and Southeast Asia.
Where did dingoes come from?
The dingo is only found on mainland Australia and some of its closest islands. Dingoes are descended from early dogs that previously lived in Southeast Asia (Fillios and Taçon, 2016), however the skeletal remains of these direct ancestors are yet to be found. Recent molecular work by Dr. Kylie Cairns shows that modern dingoes are most closely related to New Guinea singing dogs, but are also closely related to some Indonesian village dogs. This suggests that a common ancestor of the dingo and singing dog arrived in Australia and New Guinea from somewhere in Indonesia at the same point in time.
How did they get here?
Koungoulos and Fillios think that contact between an Indonesian or New Guinean maritime culture and First Nations people brought dingoes to Australia. New Guinea was separated from Australia around 6,000-8,000 years ago by rising sea levels, and the Indonesian islands have never been connected to Australia by land. This means that the watercraft used to bring dingoes were large and stable enough to transport humans and dogs across this open sea voyage.
After arriving in the north of Australia, dingoes spread rapidly across Australia, just as we have seen recently with the spread of foxes and cats across the continent.
How did they live with First Nations people?
Dingoes appear to have lived both independently in the wild and closely with First Nations people. Some dingoes became integrated into families, communities and skin-name systems, in much the same way as children do.
Historical and ethnographic sources describe how dingoes were used for hunting both small and/or medium sized animals such as goannas, possums and bandicoots, and also large animals such as kangaroos and emus. Dingoes mainly helped to find, track and trap or flush out game rather than capturing and killing it themselves.
Man or Woman’s best friend?
There are many descriptions of Aboriginal women and children using dingoes to help catch small and medium-sized animals (Balme and O’Connor 2016). These practices were captured in drawings, such as the one below, made by an early squatter in the area north of Melbourne depicting groups of women and children travelling and procuring food with dogs.
As previously mentioned, dingoes were also used in the form of game drives to run down and capture larger animals such as kangaroo, wallaby or emu. These game drives involved the dingo moving game towards an armed hunting party, which was waiting to kill the prey. Fires or landscape features were used to funnel the game in the right direction. The hunters formed a line or used large nets, fences, or pitfall traps to capture the prey. ‘Spears and clubs were then hurled at the game as it was run up against lines of armed men, entangled in nets or boggy ground, or shocked into a standstill by shouting hunters jumping out from ambush’ (Koungoulos and Filios 2020:12).
What’s next in dingo research?
In the months ahead, Dr. Fillios will lead a multidisciplinary team of researchers from University of New England, the University of Sydney and the University of NSW to study several newly discovered dingoes that died thousands of years ago when they fell into deep caves. The dingoes are well preserved in these cave environments because of the constant cool temperatures. This new project will involve morphological (shape) and isotopic analyses, as well as genome sequencing of the ancient dingo skeletons. Koungoulos will create 3-D models of the bones which will enable very precise measurements to be taken so that features like tooth size can be compared with modern dingoes. This will help the team to see what the similarities and differences between ancient and modern dingoes are, and will in turn help determine how many different populations of dingo lived in Australia in the past.
Amy Mosig Way, Scientific Officer, Archaeology, Australian Museum Research Institute; and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney
Loukas Koungoulos, PhD candidate, The University of Sydney.
- Interview with Dr Melanie Fillios. The future - and distant past - of the dingo. Credit: UNE Media: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FT7pTYhyJZ4&feature=youtu.be
- Balme, Jane, Sue O’Connor, and Stewart Fallon. "New dates on dingo bones from Madura Cave provide oldest firm evidence for arrival of the species in Australia." Scientific reports 8.1 (2018): 1-6.
- Balme, Jane, and Susan O'Connor. "Dingoes and Aboriginal social organization in Holocene Australia." Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7 (2016): 775-781.
- Fillios, Melanie A., and Paul SC Taçon. "Who let the dogs in? A review of the recent genetic evidence for the introduction of the dingo to Australia and implications for the movement of people." Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7 (2016): 782-792.