Australia’s long-lost megafauna

In 2011, a genetic study led by the University of Copenhagen confirmed that Indigenous Australians were the first modern humans to leave Africa approximately 75,000 years ago. This means that today, Indigenous Australian culture is the oldest continuous culture on Earth. But what was Australia like all that time ago, and how has it changed since then?

One thing is for sure; the animals that inhabited Australia’s natural wilderness back then were very different from those that we see around today. Early Australians lived alongside what are classified as ‘megafauna’ – giant birds, reptiles and marsupials, most of which weighed more than 500 kilograms.

One was the Diprotodon optatum, a large-bellied, lumbering herbivore and the largest marsupial known to man. Another was the Genyornis newtoni, a large and flightless bird that stood more than two metres tall, with strong hind legs and a powerful jaw. Remains of this long-extinct species have been found alongside human artefacts and cave paintings, indicating the coexistence of humans and megafauna.

While whole and intact remains of megafauna have been difficult to come by, pieces of their colossal skeletons have been found all over the country. At Lake Callabonna, remains of a herd of the Diprotodon optatum have been found, while the remains of the Megalania prisca – an enormous monitor lizard up to five metres long – have been unearthed in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.

As impressive as the megafauna are on their own, they’re made even more fascinating by the fact that, despite significant advances in scientific and archaeological technology, no-one has been able to determine definitively why they became extinct. Theories include habitat changes, the widespread use of fire on the landscape and climate change.

Recent discoveries have, however, confirmed that Indigenous Australians lived alongside these enormous megafauna for thousands of years before the megafauna became extinct, surviving into the present day only in fossilised remains, bones and oral histories passed down through generations.

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