Landscape rules predict optimal superhighways for the first peopling of Sahul

Nat Hum Behav. 2021 Oct;5(10):1303-1313. doi: 10.1038/s41562-021-01106-8. Epub 2021 Apr 29.


Archaeological data and demographic modelling suggest that the peopling of Sahul required substantial populations, occurred rapidly within a few thousand years and encompassed environments ranging from hyper-arid deserts to temperate uplands and tropical rainforests. How this migration occurred and how humans responded to the physical environments they encountered have, however, remained largely speculative. By constructing a high-resolution digital elevation model for Sahul and coupling it with fine-scale viewshed analysis of landscape prominence, least-cost pedestrian travel modelling and high-performance computing, we create over 125 billion potential migratory pathways, whereby the most parsimonious routes traversed emerge. Our analysis revealed several major pathways-superhighways-transecting the continent, that we evaluated using archaeological data. These results suggest that the earliest Australian ancestors adopted a set of fundamental rules shaped by physiological capacity, attraction to visually prominent landscape features and freshwater distribution to maximize survival, even without previous experience of the landscapes they encountered.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Physical
  • Archaeology
  • Australia
  • Environmental Indicators
  • Geography
  • Human Migration / trends*
  • Humans
  • Population Dynamics / trends*
  • Sociobiology