In 1990 archaeologists excavated materials in the Warreen Cave in the Maxwell River valley of the south-west proving Aboriginal occupation from as early as 34,000 BP making indigenous Tasmanians the southern-most population in the world during the Pleistocene era. In 2010, following protests that the construction of the Jordan River valley bridge that was part of the new Brighton Bypass would disturb a traditional Aboriginal meeting place that had been identified in 2008, the government agreed to an archaeological investigation although stating that while artifacts would be protected the construction would go ahead. Archaeologists excavating a 600 metre long section of river bank found a large number of stone tools and later estimated that the bank contains up to three million artifacts. Preliminary dating indicates that the site was continuously occupied from 40,000 BP to 28,000 BP making the site 6,000 years older than the Warreen cave if confirmed.
After the sea rose to create Bass Strait, the Australian mainland and Tasmania became separate land masses, and the Aboriginal people who had migrated from mainland Australia became cut off from their cousins on the mainland. Because neither side had ocean sailing technology, the two groups were unable to maintain contact.
Some have claimed that because of the ocean divide, and unlike other populations around the world, the small population of Tasmania was not able to share any of the new technological advances being made by mainland groups such as barbed spears, bone tools of any kind, boomerangs, hooks, sewing, and the ability to start a fire thus making Aboriginal Tasmanians the simplest people on Earth. It is claimed that they only possessed lit fires with the men entrusted in carrying embers from camp to camp for cooking and which could also be used to clear land and herd animals to aid in hunting practices. However, other scholars dispute that the Aboriginal Tasmanians did not have fire; and, indeed, a document from 1887 clearly describes fire-lighting techniques used among Tasmanians. Another school of thought holds that because food was so abundant compared to mainland Australia the Aboriginal people had no need for a better technology, pointing out that they did in fact originally possess bone tools which dropped out of use as the effort to make them began to exceed the benefit they provided.
It has been suggested that approximately 4,000 years ago, the Aboriginal Tasmanians largely dropped scaled fish from their diet, and began eating more land mammals such as possums, kangaroos, and wallabies. They also switched from worked bone tools to sharpened stone tools. The significance of the disappearance of bone tools (believed to have been primarily used for fishing related activities) and fish in the diet is heavily debated. Some argue that it is evidence of a maladaptive society while others argue that the change was economic as large areas of scrub at that time were changing to grassland providing substantially increased food resources. Fish were never a large part of the diet, ranking behind shellfish and seals, and with more resources available the cost/benefit ratio of fishing may have become too high. Archaeological evidence indicates that around the time these changes took place the Tasmanian tribes began expanding their territories, a process that was still continuing when Europeans arrived.
Estimates made of the combined population of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, before European arrival in Tasmania, are in the range of 3,000 to 15,000 people. Genetic studies have suggested much higher figures which is supported by oral traditions that Aboriginal people were "more numerous than the white people were aware of" but that their population had been decimated by a sudden outbreak of disease prior to 1803. It is speculated that early contacts with sealers before colonisation had resulted in an epidemic. :pp 84-85 Using archaeological evidence, Stockton (I983:68) estimated 3,000 to 6,000 for the northern half of the west coast alone, or up to six times the commonly accepted estimate, however he later revised this to 3,000 to 5,000 for the entire island based on historical sources. The low rate of genetic drift indicates that Stockton's original maximum estimate is likely the lower boundary and, while not indicated by the archaeological record, a population as high as 100,000 can "not be rejected out of hand". This is supported by carrying capacity data indicating greater resource productivity in Tasmania than the mainland.
The Aboriginal Tasmanians were primarily nomadic people who lived in adjoining territories, moving based on seasonal changes in food supplies such as seafood, land mammals and native vegetables and berries. They socialised, intermarried and fought 'wars' against other tribes.
According to Ryan, the population of Tasmania was aligned into nine tribes composed of six to fifteen bands each, with each band comprising two to six extended family units (clans) who were distantly related to each other. Individual bands had a specific home range with elaborate rites of entry required of visitors. However, the band was a land using group not a land owner with the clans making up the band each owning the rights to their own "estate" in the range. There were more than 60 bands before European colonisation, although only 48 have been located and associated with particular territories. The Eastern and northern Group consisted of the Oyster Bay Tribe, North East Tribe, and the North Tribe. the Midlands Group consisted of the Big River Tribe, North Midlands Tribe and Ben Lomond Tribe. The Maritime Group consisted of the North West Tribe, South West Tribe and South East Tribe.