Traditional Life

Housing

Simple shelters covered with overlapping sheets of paperbark. Northern Territory. PH 412/189, J.A. Austin Collection, Northern Territory Library. Simple shelters covered with overlapping sheets of paperbark. Northern Territory.

With much of Australia having a mild climate, people often slept in the open, warmth and comfort provided by the campfire, and often people kept warm by sleeping between two small fires. The dingo, as a camp dog, also slept beside people providing warmth.

Aboriginal housing mostly consisted of simple shelters made from a framework of straight branches, then covered with leafy branches or sheets of bark.

Larger, more elaborate shelter made from frame of branches, covered with bark. Northern Territory. PH 731/22, Caledon Bay Peace Mission Collection, Northern Territory Library. Larger, more elaborate shelter made from frame of branches, covered with bark. Northern Territory.

The covering depended on locally available materials at the time. In some areas sheets of soft paperbark, easily pulled from trees, were available. In other areas stiffer sheets of thick stringy-bark were cut from trees, but if these were unavailable, then bushes and leafy branches were used.

In the tropical north, where a richer environment allowed people to camp in the one area for longer, more elaborate structures were built, sometimes elevated platforms with a fire below designed to make smoke and repel mosquitos.

One type of simple bark shelter consisted of bending or folding a length of bark and burying the ends into the ground to fix them.

Simple shelter made from bent over stringy-bark. Northern Territory. PH 412/222, J.A. Austin Collection, Northern Territory Library. Simple shelter made from bent over stringy-bark. Northern Territory.

In wet and cold conditions, closed dome-shaped shelters were made, commencing with a framework of sticks bent over and meeting in the centre. These were between one to two metres (three to six feet) high and this framework was covered with available materials – sheets of bark when available, but in desert regions, layers of spinifex grass, twigs and leaves.

In the tropical north, broad palm fronds were sometimes used, the shelters had one or two entrances, and sometimes were as large as 3 metres across, allowing a small fire to be made inside. While a fire provided warmth in cold conditions, it was also used to make smoke to repel mosquitos when they were bad. The shelters could be closed to prevent either rain or mosquitos entering by placing bushes at the small entrance.

Winter shelter covered in spinifex grass used throughout inland Australia. Winter shelter covered in spinifex grass used throughout inland Australia.

Very simple wind breaks and lean-tos were used during the day. These were temporary shelters to protect a person or their campfire from the wind, and made in various ways. Where bark was available, this could be curved and placed sideways, partially dug into the ground to fix it. Another way was to construct a simple frame of saplings and make a wall from branches and other vegetation.

Sometimes a pile of bushes was used as a low windbreak to protect a daytime fire.

In many regions of Australia shallow caves below rock overhangs provided natural shelters from the weather. A bed of paperbark or leaves was used and sometimes the walls were adorned with paintings.

Stone housing is only known from two regions of Australia, on High Cliffy Island off the Kimberley coast and in one district of Victoria. In these regions, stone circles about two metres across and 1.5 metres high were erected forming the shelter walls. Branches and vegetation were placed over these to form a roof.