Ancient Australia

One of the last regions to be colonized by Europeans, Australia remained isolated for centuries, a remote landscape where a unique Aboriginal culture flourished.

Windradyne, Aust. Aboriginal warrior from the Wiradjuri and Bedgi-bedgi
The Ancient World of the Aboriginies

Figure of Ibarama, First Ancestral Being, Northern Territory

Australia is a beautiful and rugged landscape teeming with animals that exist nowhere else on earth. Both a cultural and ethnographic isolate, the unique aboriginal culture that flourished here had to adapt to conditions that many would find difficult if not impossible to survive in. The great Australian outback rises form the central plains of this giant island nation, developing into an incredibly dry and difficult environment to not only sustain life, but to simply eek out an existence. Regardless of this, several hundred Aboriginal tribes thrived here, and adapted to the challenges of this region. They shared amazing abilities to hunt, and could find water where none seemed to be found. Throughout this time they had a rich cosmology and belief system that culminated in the “Dreamtime”, the ancestral time from which all life began.

Origins of the Australian Aborigines

Aboriginal warrior, North Queensland photograph by Henry King (c 1900) The subject holds a shell tipped spear-thrower of the Cape Grenville type, and a boomerang, with the band representing his clan

The literal translation of the word ‘Aborigine’ is: the people who were here from the beginning. It is not synonymous (doesn’t have the same meaning), as the word ‘indigenous’ as this means originating in an area (latin: indigena = in (in) + ginere (be born) in a particular place. There is no written record regarding prehistoric Aboriginal Australia. Knowledge of the past is found in archaeological evidence and Aboriginal oral traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation. Therefore using reliable dates derived from archaeological evidence, theories of the initial colonization of Australia have been determined.

Prior to colonization which began in January 1788, the Australian Aborigines lived a lifestyle based on their Dreamtime beliefs. They had survived as a race for thousands of years and their lifestyle and cultural practices had remained virtually unchanged during that time. We refer to this as the traditional period.

However colonization imposed changes on the Aborigines as people who lived in areas that were being settled by the Europeans, were forced off their land as towns and farms were developed. We identify the period in which the changes took place, as the historical period. The sort of changes that took place usually commenced with explorers entering the area of a tribe and being challenged by the people for trespassing on their land. The Europeans often (usually) responded by shooting at the people. Many were killed. When settlers followed the explorers and began felling trees and building farms, they restricted the ability of the Aborigines to move freely around their land. They also destroyed their traditional food sources.

These changes took place throughout the continent at different times. They began in the Sydney and Parramatta districts from 1788; in the Cow pastures (Campbelltown / Camden) area from the early 1800s and in the Illawarra district from 1815. Gradually – but with increasing speed colonization spread throughout the entire continent.

The settlers had arrived in this country to build a new life for themselves and their families and had ‘no time for the Dreamtime’. In other words most were not interested in the affects colonization was having on the Aborigines. In fact they were often considered to be a pest and a nuisance. Many were killed by diseases such as influenza. Thousands were massacred to make way for farms and settlements.

On the other hand some Aboriginal people adapted to the European’s laws and the new lifestyle. In doing so, many were reduced to pauperism and were beggars. Others broke the traditional tribal lore’s by accepting Brass Plates and by moving into the traditional lands of other tribes. In many cases they had no option in doing this as they were facing starvation or the gun.

Map showing Aboriginal migrations into Australia

Map showing Aboriginal migrations into Australia

Overall, the Australian Aborigines went through stages of being conquered through an ‘invasion’ and taking of their lands. Many adapted to the new lifestyle (when many became reliant on alcohol, tobacco and handouts of food and clothing. However the settlers were often contemptuous of the Aborigines and separated them from their society and the people became the fringe dwellers of society. Others were removed from their families and placed into institutions. From the late 1830s the remnants of the tribes in the settled areas were moved onto Reserves and Missions where they were ‘managed’ by settlers and were forbidden from teaching their children their language and customs.

During the 1900s separation was an official government policy which lasted for many decades and today, many Aboriginal people do not know their origins. In other words, which tribe they are descended from or the names of their parents and or grandparents. They are a lost generation.

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Misconceptions about Aboriginal Australians

Aboriginal chief with club and shield, Photographer: Captain Sweet – South Australia 1870’s The designs on the shield suggest this photograph was taken in the Murray River area near the New South Wales border

Australian Aborigines – the original inhabitants of the continent – are one of the best known and least understood people in the world. Since the nineteenth century they have been singled out as the world’s most primitive culture and the living representatives of the ancestors of mankind. Aborigines are therefore probably more familiar to the rest of the world than are the white Australians who immigrated to the continent from Britain and other European countries. In reality, Aboriginal culture, as anthropological work over the last hundred years has revealed, is a complex, subtle, and rich way of life. On our way toward describing and understanding Aboriginal art, we need to look briefly at this culture, what it was in the past and what it has become today.

Aborigines have occupied Australia for at least forty thousand years. They came originally from southeast Asia, entering the continent from the north. (Present-day Australia, including Tasmania, was then one continent with what is now New Guinea.) Although Aborigines are Homo-sapiens, biological isolation has meant that they are not racially closely related to any other people. Because of their relative cultural isolation, Aborigines were forced to develop their own solutions to the problems of human adaptation in the unique and harsh Australian environment. The result was a stable and efficient way of life. Probably because of its effectiveness, the society was slow to change, especially technologically. This gave to Aboriginal Australia the appearance of primitiveness. The archaeological record reveals, however, a number of innovations, among them the earliest known human cremations, some of the earliest rock art, and certainly the first boomerangs, ground axes, and grindstones in the world.

The stereotype of Aborigines passively succumbing to the dictates of their environment has also been recently questioned. We now know that they altered the landscape in significant ways, using what has been called “firestick farming” to control underbrush growth and to facilitate hunting. Aborigines also altered species occurrence of flora and fauna by resource management and possibly assisted in the extinction of prehistoric animals.

The notion of pristine natives with a “pure” culture was an artificial one – many Aborigines had considerable contact with Melanesians and Indonesians long before the European colonists arrived in Australia. Aboriginal groups also influenced each other. Waves of change swept the entire continent – changes in tools and implements, in social organization, and in ceremonial practices and mythological concepts. Aboriginal culture was dynamic, not static. The Aboriginal culture of the last two hundred years, the period after the arrival of the colonists, has also been dynamic. This is why it is difficult to speak of a hard and fast dichotomy between Aborigines “before” and “after” contact with the Europeans. Nevertheless, it is useful to look at Aboriginal culture at the point of first contact and as it is today.

The population of Australia at the time of the arrival of the whites in 1788 was probably between 250,000 and 500,000. The pattern of Aboriginal settlement was like that for present-day Australians, except in the tropical north, with most of the population living along the coasts and rivers. Densities varied from one person for every thirty-five square miles in the arid regions to five to ten persons for every one square mile on the eastern coast. Residential groups ranged in size from ten to fifty people, with some temporary ceremonial gatherings reaching up to five hundred.

Most people tend to think of Aborigines as a unified, homogeneous group. Yet the Aborigines never used one collective term to describe themselves. No one individual Aborigine, in the precolonial past, would have known of the existence of many of the other Aboriginal peoples and regions of the vast continent of Australia, which covers nearly three million square miles – almost the area of the United States.

Recent scientific studies have concluded that the Australian Aborigines were the original Americans! In other words, the theory is that ATSI people were adventurers who arrived in the North American continent before the Vikings or Columbus. This theory states that the ancestors of the American Indians. are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. “Separate studies by both Brazilian and US scholars are revealing that the first humans to enter the New World more than 14,000 years ago were not Mongoloid peoples as has always been thought – but were instead people of the same race as present day Australian Aborigines.”

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Tasmanian Genocide

The Tribes in Tasmania Prior to their Extinction

The Tribes in Tasmania Prior to their Extinction

The Tasmanian Aborigines are the indigenous people of the island state of Tasmania, Australia. (Aboriginal name: lutrawita or trouwunna). In the space of thirty years (1803-1833), genocide was committed against the Tasmanian Aborigines, reducing their population from around 5,000 to around 300. Twentieth-century historians, scientists and anthropologists held that they had become extinct with the death of Truganini in 1876. Many still hold this view especially outside of Australia. Some modern aborigines can claim ancestry to the indigenous Tasmanian population but they have interbred heavily. Much of the Indigenous Tasmanian language (which had several different dialects), and a lot of Tasmania’s Aboriginal cultural heritage has been lost.

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Australian Land and Culture

“We don’t own the land, the land owns us
The Land is my mother, my mother is the land
Land is the starting point to where it all began. It is like picking up a piece of dirt and saying this is where I started and this is where I will go
The land is our food, our culture, our spirit and identity
We don’t have boundaries like fences, as farmers do. We have spiritual connections”
An Aboriginal Elder with the Traditional Pearl Shell Necklace

An Aboriginal Elder with the Traditional Pearl Shell Necklace

Land means many things to many people. To a farmer, land is a means of production and the source of a way of life. It is economic sustainability. To a property developer, it is a bargaining chip and the means of financial progress and success. To many Australians, land is something they can own if they work hard enough and save enough money to buy it. To Indigenous people land is not just something that they can own or trade. Land has a spiritual value.

We are the Indigenous people of Australia. Aboriginal people are those traditional cultures and lands lie on the mainland and most of the islands, including Tasmania, Fraser Island, Palm Island, Mornington Island, Groote Eylandt, Bathrust and Melville Islands. The term “Aboriginal” has become one of the most disputed in the Australian language.

The Commonwealth definition is social more than racial, in keeping with the change in Australian attitudes away from racialist thinking about other people. An Aboriginal person is defined as a person who is a descendant of an Indigenous inhabitant of Australia, identifies as an Aboriginal, and is recognized as Aboriginal by members of the community in which she or he lives.

This definition is preferred by the vast majority of our people over the racial definitions of the assimilation era. Administration of the definition, at least by the Commonwealth for the purposes of providing grants or loans, requires that an applicant present a certificate of Aboriginality issued by an incorporated Aboriginal body under its common seal. Sometimes non-Aboriginal people get confused by the great range and variety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people, from the traditional hunter to the Doctor of Philosophy; from the dark-skinned to the very fair; from the speaker of traditional languages to the radio announcer who speaks the Queen’s English. The lesson to be learned from this is that we should not stereotype people ; that people are different, regardless of race. Their people, of course, did not use the word “Aborigene” (from the latin ab, origin meaning “from the beginning” to refer to ourselves before the coming of non-Aborigenes. Everyone was simply a person.

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Aboriginal Beliefs, The Creation Myth

Aboriginal warrior, Northeastern Queensland, Australia, 1910 The subject poses with a large fighting club and a shield of the Queensland rainforest type, decorated with a characteristically vibrant totemic design. Around his neck he wears a so-called King breast plate. Annotation on reverse reads: His Majesty King Yei-i-nie of Cairns, NQ

There was a time when everything was still. All the spirits of the earth were asleep – or almost all. The great Father of All Spirits was the only one awake. Gently he awoke the Sun Mother. As she opened her eyes a warm ray of light spread out towards the sleeping earth. The Father of All Spirits said to the Sun Mother,“Mother, I have work for you. Go down to the Earth and awake the sleeping spirits. Give them forms.” The Sun Mother glided down to Earth, which was bare at the time and began to walk in all directions and everywhere she walked plants grew. After returning to the field where she had begun her work the Mother rested, well pleased with herself. The Father of All Spirits came and saw her work, but instructed her to go into the caves and wake the spirits.

This time she ventured into the dark caves on the mountainsides. The bright light that radiated from her awoke the spirits and after she left insects of all kinds flew out of the caves. The Sun Mother sat down and watched the glorious sight of her insects mingling with her flowers. However once again the Father urged her on.

The Mother ventured into a very deep cave, spreading her light around her. Her heat melted the ice and the rivers and streams of the world were created. Then she created fish and small snakes, lizards and frogs. Next she awoke the spirits of the birds and animals and they burst into the sunshine in a glorious array of colors. Seeing this the Father of All Spirits was pleased with the Sun Mother’s work.

She called all her creatures to her and instructed them to enjoy the wealth of the earth and to live peacefully with one another. Then she rose into the sky and became the sun.

The living creatures watched the Sun in awe as she crept across the sky, towards the west. However when she finally sunk beneath the horizon they were panic-stricken, thinking she had deserted them. All night they stood frozen in their places, thinking that the end of time had come. After what seemed to them like a lifetime the Sun Mother peeked her head above the horizon in the East. The earth’s children learned to expect her coming and going and were no longer afraid.

At first the children lived together peacefully, but eventually envy crept into their hearts. They began to argue. The Sun Mother was forced to come down from her home in the sky to mediate their bickering. She gave each creature the power to change their form to whatever they chose. However she was not pleased with the end result. The rats she had made had changed into bats; there were giant lizards and fish with blue tongues and feet. However the oddest of the new animals was an animal with a bill like a duck, teeth for chewing, a tail like a beavers and the ability to lay egg. It was called the platypus.

The Sun Mother looked down upon the Earth and thought to herself that she must create new creatures less the Father of All Spirits be angered by what she now saw. She gave birth to two children. The god was the Morning Star and the goddess was the moon. Two children were born to them and these she sent to Earth. They became our ancestors. She made them superior to the animals because they had part of her mind and would never want to change their shape.

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Ceremonial Life

Aboriginal Dancers in an early photo of a Ceremony

Most ceremonies practiced in Aboriginal communities cannot be discussed fully due to their sensitive and sacred nature. When discussing specific ceremonies it is important to have a local Aboriginal person present.

There are many ceremonies and reasons for ceremonies in Aboriginal society, all have a firm place with The Dreaming. Great Ancestral Spirits arranged the earth by creating people, animals, plants and birds and these were all put in their respective places according to the land forms and spirits surrounding them. These Ancestral Spirits made rules and the law to govern the land, it’s people, animals and plants. If life on earth was to continue, these rules would need to be followed. Ceremonies ensure that vital components of this law and The Dreaming stay intact. They provide a time where all people in a language group work together for the survival of The Dreaming.

All beliefs and stories of The Dreaming are individually owned and kept secure by individual members of a language group ensuring that they are protected for all people. These members of a language group had and continue to have the great task of ensuring that these stories were correctly remembered and passed on, and that the correct practice of rituals and ceremonies were performed to do this.

Aboriginal ceremonies are concerned with acting out The Dreaming, it’s laws and stories. Men and Women had different roles in ceremonies and these roles varied from language group to language group. In many areas men were given the role as guardians of a special spiritual site where a ceremony was performed. This role meant that the site would need to be cared for accordingly so that that particular spirit would continue to live there. Women were the guardians of a special knowledge and therefore hold great religious and spiritual power within the language group.

Roles in ceremonies would vary considerably depending on the reasons why the ceremony was being held. Some ceremonies were for men only, others were for women only and both men and women had their own particular Spiritual and sacred objects. Sometimes this is talked about as man’s business and woman’s business.

Neither men nor women posses greater spiritual needs than the other, they just coexisted in different ways to ensure that sacred elements of The Dreaming would be practiced and passed on.

Ceremonies and rituals take on many different forms. Some were very private and involved only people in that language group while others involved all people belonging to the language group, even children. Sometimes the creation of special and sacred objects of drawings in sand and/or earth (sand painting), the moulding and carving of spirit figures in clay or wood, the painting of bark, the making of specific body design were used in many ceremonies. Often the objects or drawings made were placed in a bora ring or near the site where the ceremony was to be held. That is the reason why we find many scarred trees marking the site where sacred ceremonies were once held or continue to be held Special and sacred songs and dances were also created for these ceremonies.

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The Dreamtime and the Sacred World

Music plays a vital role in the life of the male throughout the Dreamtime, with this individual playing the Didgeridoo, which was traditionally only played by males

According to Aboriginal belief, all life as it is today – Human, Animal, Bird and Fish is part of one vast unchanging network of relationships which can be traced to the great spirit ancestors of the Dreamtime.

The Dreamtime continues as the “Dreaming” in the spiritual lives of aboriginal people today. The events of the ancient era of creation are enacted in ceremonies and danced in mime form. Song chant incessantly to the accompaniment of the didgeridoo or clap sticks relates the story of events of those early times and brings to the power of the dreaming to bear of life today.

The Dreamtime is the Aboriginal understanding of the world, of it’s creation, and it’s great stories. The Dreamtime is the beginning of knowledge, from which came the laws of existence. For survival these laws must be observed.

The Dreaming world was the old time of the Ancestor Beings. They emerged from the earth at the time of the creation. Time began in the world the moment these supernatural beings were “born out of their own Eternity”.

The Earth was a flat surface, in darkness. A dead, silent world. Unknown forms of life were asleep, below the surface of the land. Then the supernatural Ancestor Beings broke through the crust of the earth form below , with tumultuous force. The sun rose out of the ground. The land received light for the first time.

The supernatural Beings, or Totemic Ancestors, resembled creatures or plants, and were half human. They moved across the barren surface of the world. They traveled hunted and fought, and changed the form of the land. In their journeys, they created the landscape, the mountains, the rivers, the trees, waterholes, plains and sand hills. They made the people themselves, who are descendants of the Dreamtime ancestors. They made the Ant, Grasshopper, Emu, Eagle, Crow, Parrot, Wallaby, Kangaroo, Lizard, Snake, and all food plants. They made the natural elements : Water, Air, Fire. They made all the celestial bodies : the Sun, the Moon and the Stars. Then, wearied from all their activity, the mythical creatures sank back into the earth and returned to their state of sleep.

Sometimes their spirits turned into rocks or trees or a part of the landscape. These became sacred places, to be seen only by initiated men, and these sites had special qualities.

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