Over the last few years, the term ‘aboriginal’ used to refer to indigenous populations in Australia has been called to question for its racist connotations.
However, this word is perfectly fit for use without capitalising the first letter; it is Latin for ‘original inhabitant’.
Another good reason to not use that word when speaking of Australia’s native people is the diversity of cultures, languages and histories of the various tribes.
Whether considered singly or overall, encapsulating all that they represent in a single – some say hurtful adjective does them a great disservice.
That puts us in a rather difficult position, seeing as we aim to uncover as much of their history, culture and achievements as possible in a reasonably lengthy article rather than a ponderous tome.
Still, your Superprof is up to the challenge; in fact, the thrill of discovery is upon us!
Let us not tarry, then...
A Brief History of Migration
The challenge of establishing the history of indigenous Australians lies in the fact that, until European ships arrived, there were no records save for oral histories.
To establish a tentative record of past events, archaeologists rely on the tools of their trade: radiocarbon and luminescence dating and, more recently, DNA testing.
Such a test, conducted on a human skeleton found in Lake Mungo’s dry bed puts humans on the Australian continent around 65,000 years ago.
Other remains, found in Victoria, indicated by their skeletons – thick brow ridges and very large teeth, that they were from a different branch of the hominid tree.
Taken together, the difference in species seems to suggest that there was more than one migration event into Australia. This is a topic that is hotly debated still today.
In spite of those (and other) indications, the prevalent theory is that a single migration populated the continent between 64,000 to 75,000 years ago.
Even within that single postulate is room for discussion: whether they island-hopped, built boats or walked over the land bridge across the Arafura Sea to arrive in Australia.
As sea levels were around 100 meters lower at that time, it may have been possible to walk but the more likely happening was that they were the first mariners ever.
Once there, they became one of the most remarkable cultures – not for their evolution but for their seeming lack thereof.
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The People of Australia
Today, we recognise two distinct groups of people indigenous to Australia: Australians natives and Torres Strait Islanders.
Within those major categorisations, there exist several tribes unique onto themselves even though they share certain cultural elements.
The largest tribes or groups were identified by the language they spoke which, in turn, was recognised at a part of the territory they occupied.
Quite possibly, there are more than 500 such groups; some of the most prominent aboriginal tribes include:
- The Murrawarri people: New South Wales/Queensland region
- The Koori in New South Wales and Victoria
- The Ngunnawal of the Australian Capital Territory
- The Goori in Southeast Queensland
- The Nyungar in southern Western Australia
- The Anangu in northern South Australia
- The Arrernte in Central Australia
- The Palawah in Tasmania
- The Tiwi on the Tiwi Islands
While some groups who lived fairly close spoke a dialect of that territory and shared cultural features, by no means could these alliances be considered political or economic in nature.
As the tribes were all nomadic, they laid no claim to any territory. As they were hunter-gatherers, they had no crops to defend.
They had no political agenda and no economy to cultivate or support... but that doesn’t mean that there were no conflicts!
Encroaching on another tribe’s hunting ground could spark tribal warfare, often resulting in revenge killings. Also, women and children often fell victim to violence from other tribes and even within their own tribe.
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Other than that, how was life before European colonization?
Life in Indigenous Australia
Until 1788, when European explorers first arrived, the tribes of Australia were still using stone tools.
In fact, the entire period prior to the arrival of colonists is considered a continuation of the Stone Age because there was no metal in use.
As mentioned before, the tribes were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers; they did not plant crops or harvest until after European settlers had commanded vast portions of the most habitable land.
For millennia, they lived in harmony with their land, their beliefs and their gods.
Indigenous Australian spiritual beliefs had no hierarchy – each deity and spirit was equally powerful and important.
Thus, the people native to Australia endeavoured to mirror their beliefs by not establishing any social hierarchy.
Healers and elders, with their long life experience and deep spirituality, were revered for those qualities, not for having been selected to lead.
Even so, their status as leader was/is only conditional; another member may emerge as a leader if s/he offers a more effective solution to a situation.
In some groups, women played a powerful leadership role, but only insofar as women’s issues were concerned.
The issue of government did not bear any significance until the British started colonising the land; they felt that some delegate from the groups in question should be available to talk with them.
Thus, unwittingly, the British established hierarchies within the native tribes.
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Though each tribe had their own oral traditions, belief systems and spiritual values, the overarching theme was respect for the land and the significance of The Dreamtime.
The Dreamtime refers both to the creation of the land and to the state of dreaming that humans enjoy.
According to this creation myth, ‘First Peoples’ rose from the land and walked across it, naming plants and animals as they went.
Contrary to many other belief systems, theirs does not indicate that humans are above or apart from other animals or even the land; a remarkable equality among living things and the land permeates these beliefs.
The Rainbow Serpent is considered the ultimate Creator; it resides under the land, in a permanent water hole. As the legend goes, it moved beneath the land, creating mountains and gorges.
Where it emerged would be a body of water – the Serpent controls all of the water.
In some groups, the serpent is male and in others, female. Yet others assign it both genders while still others maintain its gender is ambiguous.
For many groups, Baiame is the Sky Father; creator of the land and hills, the trees and beasts. He gave people their laws of life, their traditions and their songs.
He also created the first bora, a place where boys are initiated into manhood.
Women are forbidden from seeing any depictions of Baiame, nor may they approach any such sacred sites.
It would be difficult to give a rundown of every deity and belief the many tribes of Australia hold sacred but, looking at their most powerful symbols of creation gives us a good idea of their venerations.
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As you might imagine, indigenous people observed many rites, holding ceremonies when required.
For instance, fire-stick farming was seen as good land husbandry; people felt it was their duty to take care of their natural environment. We talk more about the use of fire a little further on.
Other rituals include:
Male Initiation Ceremony
For a male to reach adulthood is a lengthy process; first, he must engage in what used to be called a walkabout: a period of several months in which he would leave his group and fend for himself.
Once he returned, the bora would ensue. Physical ordeals they might have endured included scarification, circumcision and tooth loss.
Also during this time, they would be told of the tribe’s legends and religious visions. They would be taught all of the sacred songs and dances. For some groups, the solemnity of the occasion would be broken by feasting.
Females were barred from this rite.
The Smoking Ceremony
After a bora or after a new child was born, members of the groups would set various plants to smoulder, producing a smoke believed to have cleansing properties.
It was also believed to ward off bad spirits.
This event gave people the means of interacting with The Dreamtime.
Wearing costumes, paint and adornments not commonly worn, people would dance, sing and act out parts of The Dreaming.
This word is actually an anglicisation of ‘caribberie’, a word which, in turn, means different things to different groups of native Australians.
Conversely, the concept of celebrating The Dreamtime is represented differently across all of Australia.
Between territory squabbles and internal conflict, constant migration and rituals, was there any time for fun?
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Sadly, much of what entertained the aboriginal people of Australia has been lost to history. However, there is some retelling of games involving a ball made of possum hide.
Marn Grook, a word from the Weiwurung language that means ‘ball’ or ‘game’ is taken to represent all manner of pastimes involving kicking and catching a ball.
Although this activity’s rules varied from group to group across the regions, it bore a strong similarity to football... although more than 100 people may have played in any match-up.
Art features prominently in these cultures; examples of such date back thousands of years.
the didgeridoo, considered one of the oldest musical instruments to date, is a long tube of eucalyptus with no finger holes that the player blows into to create sound. Typically, playing that instrument was a 'males only' proposition.
Other musical instruments include: clapsticks, bull roarers and gum leaf - a free reed instrument.
Three major regional styles of aboriginal art include a simple figurative style found in Queensland; a complex figurative style Arnhem Land and a geometric style that radiates out from Central Australia.
In terms of age and abundance, aboriginal art is said to be on par with the caves in Lascaux; in fact, experts agree that this is the world’s oldest continuing art tradition.
The paint used to render these works is the same ochre that they adorn themselves with for ritual celebrations.
Technology of the Australian aboriginal People
As a hunter-gatherer society of the Stone Age, nothing went to waste; not even women’s hair.
A woman’s long hair would provide ample material to make a string that could fasten arrowheads to spear poles. They would braid strands of hair together to make general-purpose belts that held tools or from which a loincloth could hang.
Hair was also used to make baskets and fishing nets, headbands or supports for a coolamon – a carrying vessel generally borne on the head.
Tree bark also had many uses, from building shelters to building canoes.
More advanced devices included the boomerang and the message stick – symbols engraved on a piece of wood approximately 30cm long, which would be delivered to other groups.
Sometimes, the purpose of these message sticks was to invite a nearby tribe to a corobboree.
The Use of Fire
In Australia, evidence of fire was found that dates back 100,000 years.
What’s remarkable is that people had discovered a way to harness fire’s power to clear otherwise impenetrable brush, to drive game animals and to produce new growth of food plants.
In that sense, you might say that the original Australians were fire farmers.
Fire was also used to communicate with distant tribes, drive dangerous inhabitants out of underbrush – snakes and poisonous insects, and to increase diversity in food plants.
However, care was taken to not burn the jungles that were home to their guiding spirits.
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Legacy of Australia's Native People
If it hadn’t been for European explorers, native Australians might have continued to live the way they had for centuries.
What truly impacted the native people of Australia was British Colonisation.
To be sure, we weren’t the first ones to land but we were the ones to stay... and we brought our social ills and diseases with us.
Influenza, measles and smallpox especially proved devastating; within a year, approximately half of the native population in the Sidney area had succumbed to them.
It is true that Governor Phillip, the first ‘leader’ of the colonies, did his best to adhere to his orders: find a way to live with the natives, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once. Several of his underlings got away with massacring entire tribes.
Although he did eventually find a cooperative liaison, it took a few more centuries to finally accord indigenous Australians the right to live according to their culture and beliefs.
It is difficult to assess the legacy of the oldest continuous civilisation because they still live and we hope they will continue to do so – under their own rites and laws.
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