Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Dingoes Reached Australia More Recently Than Previously Thought

Researchers from The University of Western Australia and the Australian National University have uncovered new evidence that dingoes arrived in Australia between 3348 and 3081 years ago – more recently than previously thought.

A more precise date for the arrival of dingoes in Australia is important as it answers questions about the relationship between dingoes and Aboriginal people, as well as the dingoes’ possible role in the extinction of animals such as the Tasmanian devil and Tasmanian tiger on mainland Australia.

The timing of the arrival of dingoes has been the subject of great debate, with estimates ranging from about 4000 years ago based on archaeological deposit dates to as much as 18,000 years ago based on DNA age estimates.

Now direct radiocarbon dates on dingo bones from Madura Cave on the Nullarbor Plain have allowed scientists to paint a clearer picture of when dingoes first inhabited Australia.

“The dingo is the only placental land mammal aside from rats, mice and bats to have made it over water to reach Australia prior to European arrival, and their arrival provides the only evidence of external visits by people to mainland Australia after first Indigenous settlement 65,000 years ago,” said Prof Jane Balme of UWA.

“Because Australia is separated from South-East Asia by water, with the minimal distance between the two more than 90 km, it is extremely unlikely that dingoes arrived in Australia independently of humans,” Balme said. “These new findings indicate it is most likely that dingoes were brought here as tamed animals around 3000 years ago.”

ANU archaeologist Prof Sue O’Connor said dingoes would have spread rapidly throughout Australia “because it would have been aided by people; as they were useful animals or pets they were likely transferred between groups. Once in Australia they became feral, but were tamed by Indigenous Australians and used as companions animals in much the same way as dogs today.

“Dingoes would have been used in the food-gathering process to find small game that the women would then catch, such as bandicoots, rodents, goannas and even small kangaroos. They were also useful for guarding the camp and keeping you warm at night,” she said. Balme added that dingoes “may have contributed to the extinction of a number of species, including the Tasmanian devil and Tasmania tiger on mainland Australia, because of the increased hunting pressure”.

Balme said the next step would be to examine bone fossils from archaeological and palaeontological sites to identify how dingoes may have changed people’s subsistence activities and the impact that dingoes have had on the Australian environment.

“We have made a start on this by dating of dingo bones from the Nullarbor, but analysis of dingo bones from other parts of Australia will help test our hypothesis of their rapid rate of spread.”

The research was published in Scientific Reports (https://goo.gl/NHiunt).