Skip to main content

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware this website contains images, voices and names of people who have died.

An isolated island

About 12,000 years ago: Sea level rises, separating Tasmania from the mainland

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania
Earlier 1700
Year level


Learning area


Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. The separation of Tasmania isolated both the people and animals from the Australian mainland. The thylacine, also known as the ‘Tasmanian tiger’, once lived throughout Australia but by the time Europeans arrived it lived only in Tasmania. Why do you think the thylacine survived only in Tasmania? Hint: you will find some clues in this other Defining Moment: 


1936 Benjamin, the last thylacine – Extinction of thylacine

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the separation of Tasmania is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Map of Tasmania by James Sprent, 1859</p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

Tasmania was connected to mainland Australia by a land bridge for thousands of years. This allowed the Aboriginal peoples who lived in these regions to travel back and forth. About 12,000 years ago, sea levels rose and separated Tasmania from the Australian mainland. Because of this, the Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania could no longer travel between Tasmania and Victoria.

Map of Tasmania by James Sprent, 1859

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. How were Aboriginal peoples able to travel between what we now call Victoria and Tasmania?

2. Why were convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land?

3. What was the impact of colonisation on Tasmania’s Aboriginal people?

How did Tasmania become an island?

Tasmania was and continues to be known as lutriwita and truwana by the Aboriginal peoples who live there.

The first people arrived in Tasmania on foot around 40,000 years ago. They could travel this way because, for tens of thousands of years, Tasmania and Victoria were connected by a land bridge. Now Bass Strait separates the two.

About 30,000 years ago an ice age began. A lot of seawater froze in ice sheets and glaciers, and sea levels dropped by about 120 metres. This created a continuous land mass between Papua New Guinea and Tasmania. Aboriginal peoples lived on this land, now known as the Bassian Plain, and could travel easily between Victoria and Tasmania.

When the ice melted — which took about 6,000 years — Bass Strait formed. By about 12,000 years ago, Bass Strait had become a wide and rough strait, isolating the people of Tasmania for thousands of years.

‘They were alone for five hundred generations, knowing no other people in the world, living with the knowledge and beliefs derived from those they had known before the sea surrounded them.’

Iain Davidson and David Roberts, ‘14 000 BP – On being alone: The isolation of Tasmania’

When did Europeans colonise Tasmania?

In the 1640s the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to visit and map parts of Tasmania. He named the island Van Diemen’s Land after Anthony van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies.

In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip set up a British convict settlement at Sydney Cove. But the Europeans hadn’t explored much of Australia yet. Between 1798 and 1799 explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders sailed south from Sydney. They circumnavigated Van Diemen’s Land, proving that it was an island.

Research task


How do Aboriginal cultural practices and languages continue in Tasmania today? Do some research to find out.

Photograph of Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Truganini, by Charles Alfred Woolley.

In 1803, 49 people were sent to set up a British settlement on the Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land. This settlement grew and later became Hobart.

Soon convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Most came straight from Britain, but some were sent from New South Wales for committing a crime there. The penal settlement set up at Port Arthur operated between 1833 and 1853.

When the British stopped transporting convicts to Van Diemen’s Land in 1853, the island’s name was changed to Tasmania.

<p>An early map of parts of Australia and nearby countries, made by Dutch explorers, 1644</p>

National Library of Australia nla.obj-334686747

<p>An early map of parts of Australia and nearby countries, made by Dutch explorers, 1644</p>

How did colonisation affect Aboriginal peoples in Tasmania?

Some of the worst clashes between white colonists and Aboriginal peoples happened in Tasmania. In 1830 thousands of white colonists formed a ‘Black Line’; a human chain that crossed the settled districts of Tasmania. This line of people moved south over many weeks and tried to frighten, capture and relocate the remaining Aboriginal people.

The ‘Black Line’ did not successfully achieve its goal right away but the campaign did frighten many Aboriginal people, who later surrendered to the colonists. Around 200 Aboriginal Tasmanians were removed to Flinders Island in Bass Strait, where many died from the extremely poor living conditions.

Because of this resettlement, many white colonists believed that Aboriginal peoples in Tasmania had died out. But Aboriginal culture survived through the children of Aboriginal women and white sealers who lived on the Furneaux Group islands.

Research task


Research Truganini and write a short summary of her life and achievements. Include information about when and where she was born, her family, how colonisation affected her, the challenges she faced, and what she achieved in her lifetime.

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. How were Aboriginal peoples able to travel between what we now call Victoria and Tasmania?

2. Why were convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land?

3. What was the impact of colonisation on Tasmania’s Aboriginal people?