Introduction

INTRODUCTION TO AUSTRALIA'S ABORIGINAL CULTURE

Australia's Aboriginal culture probably represents the oldest surviving culture in the world, with the use of stone tool technology and painting with red ochre pigment dating back over 60,000 years. Australians never developed an "iron age", "bronze age", or pottery, and the terms "palaeolithic" (old stone age) and "neolithic" (new stone age) are not used in Australia, because stone technology did not progress in the same way as the rest of the world.

Aboriginal men sharpening stone axes on flat rock. PH 416/43, ABC TV Collection, Northern Territory Library.

Humankind's most ancient stone tool technology, the percussion method of chipping away at the edge of a rock to make a sharp edge for cutting, dates back 2.5 million years, and was still practiced by Aborigines until the 1960s and later. Many stone choppers and flake scrapers commonly made until the last few decades are similar to these earliest tools. These flaked tools are used to shape wooden weapons and implements. The manufacture and use of ground edge axes, still occasionally made today, date back over 20,000 years on the northern mainland, and back to 40,000 years in Papua New Guinea, once attached to present day Australia. However, on present evidence, it appears that the manufacture of ground edge axes spread slowly south, dating back only 4,500 years in southern Australia, and not being used in Tasmania, which was cut off from the mainland by rising seas about 11,000 years ago.

A new technology, creating stone blades, was developed about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago and led to the addition of stone spear points, small stone spear barbs, and blade shaped stone knives and scrapers.

It was once thought that Modern Man (Homo sapiens sapiens) began with the arrival of Cro-Magnon man in Europe about 40,000 years ago. However, current thinking, based on archaeological finds and genetic studies of mutations of mitochondrial DNA in populations of different people of the world, is that Modern Man evolved in Africa about 190,000 years ago, moved into the Middle East by 120,000 years ago, then into Asia, and on to Australia at least 60,000 years ago. This was at a time when Neanderthal Man was the dominant hominid in parts of Europe. Modern Man later moved into Europe about 40,000 years ago and into the American continent about 14,000 years ago. While other world cultures developed and changed, the Australians remained relatively isolated on their island continent. Still more isolated were the Tasmanian Australians, left alone from the other Australians 11,000 years ago when the seas rose and created the island of Tasmania in Australia's south. The Aborigines who once colonised Asia and Indonesia were displaced by later waves of people who have developed into modern-day Chinese, Indonesian, and the many other cultures of those regions.

Wandjina(s) are the Ancestral Beings of the Kimberley region, Western Australia. Photo: David M. Welch.

The longest continuing religion in the world belongs to Australia's Aborigines, with the Rainbow Serpent mythology recorded in rock shelter paintings believed to be 7,000 years old in the Kakadu National Park region, where this Ancestral Being is still important to local people. Other ancient rock art shows the many customs and Ancestral Beings (deities or gods) important in Aboriginal religion tens of thousands of years ago.

Ancient Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley, Western Australia. Photo: David M. Welch.

Although lacking a formal written language, for thousands of years Aborigines have recorded their culture as rock art. Their art shows images of the environment, such as the plants and animals, including images of animals believed to have become extinct 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. This rock art tradition, mainly as paintings in rock shelters and as engravings on exposed rocks, has continued to the present. Some of the most ancient paintings, in rock shelters in northern Australia, depict people dressed for ceremony and dancing, with similar body decoration and accoutrements to those worn in ceremonies to this day, again revealing the great age of Aboriginal culture.

We can only suppose how ancient people of the past lived and thought by what is left behind of their culture. For mankind in different world regions 60,000 years ago, there is generally just the stone tools and camp fires remaining. However, by understanding Aboriginal societies, one can see how stone tools are just a very small part of any culture. Stone and wooden industries provided most tools and weaponry, but there was knowledge and technology connected with the use of shell and resins, and the making of string, rope, bags, baskets, and weaving. Furthermore, as well as the technological side of life, it seems very likely that mankind had already developed art by 60,000 years ago.

Aborigines did not build large stone monuments, did not farm animals and did not cultivate the soil for crops. Because they did not form cities, their culture is not described as a "civilisation", yet it contains all the elements of a civilised world. The arts – great paintings, lengthy songs and dances with accompanying stories that continue for days like great operas, are all present. Law and order was strict and religion is of greatest importance.

Wilfred Goonak examining Aboriginal rock art. Photo: David M. Welch.

One might think about how we define "advanced" and "primitive" when one considers that our modern cultures are only several hundreds to thousands of years old, while Aboriginal culture was 60,000 years old when Europeans stumbled upon it. Some of the important issues facing our world today and in the future, such as maintaining social cohesion, avoiding major wars, dealing with overpopulation, preventing the degradation and destruction of our environment, and the use of non-renewable resources, had been overcome by Aborigines and their ancient culture as they filled every part of the Australian continent. In these areas, perhaps we should regard Western culture as "developing" and Aboriginal culture as "advanced".

Australia is the world's largest island and its smallest continent. It is the driest land mass overall, with much of the centre being desert, yet has rainforests along its coasts, and the north is tropical, with bountiful rivers and vegetation. Aborigines occupied all of Australia, adapting incredibly to the harshness of the desert interior by digging small wells and memorising their locations, along with other natural water holes and soaks, through folklore and ritual. In these desert areas, where no significant trees could be found, they learned to make their long, straight spears by digging out straight roots hidden deep in the ground, reaching out from low desert shrubs.

Two Aboriginal men with long spears and spearthrowers, central Australia. PH 579/136, Reso Tour 1947 Collection, Northern Territory Library.

While European influence commenced in 1788 in the Sydney region of south east Australia, it did not reach central Australia until the 1880s. Many Aboriginal groups in these remoter areas were virtually unchanged by European influence until the 1940's and the last traditional nomadic families moved from the desert regions to settlements in the 1960's.

Many customs and activities have ceased or changed following European contact, and as these new ways become passed down through the generations, they become considered as "traditional". In other words, new customs today may become entrenched and be called "traditional" by those in the future. There were changes in Aboriginal culture over the past thousands of years, revealed by archaeological studies, especially the study of rock paintings, showing changes in deities, the development of the spearthrower, and new stone tool technology. So, in many ways, there is no single Aboriginal "traditional" culture, as it varies in time and place. However, this site refers to a "traditional" time, or way, in order to indicate the state of Aboriginal culture at the time of first European contact.

Aboriginal language and culture is not uniform throughout the continent, but varies in different regions. For example, the two great icons of Aboriginal culture, the curved returning boomerang and the didgeridoo, were not very widespread. The returning boomerang was limited to south-eastern Australia, and the didgeridoo was used in ceremonies only along the very northern part. Australia had over 400 tribes, each with their own language and traditions. In this sense, Australia was a group of nations, just as Europe is today. Certain aspects of culture found in one region may be absent in others. So, it is important to realise that when discussing finer details of their culture, some practices described may only occur in some areas, by particular tribes (also called "language groups" or "nations"), or by particular people.

Mary Pandilo (foreground) and Manuella Punan collecting plant foods. Photo: David M. Welch.

The Aborigines of Tasmania, the island state south of the mainland, were separated from the mainland by rising sea levels 11,000 years ago and may have had no further contact with the mainland, or anyone else, until European arrival. The sea level continued to rise and reached its present level about 6,000 years ago. These were truly the most isolated people in the world, missing out on mankind's later inventions such as the spearthrower and innovations in stone technology.

The people of the Torres Strait Islands in far north Queensland do not consider themselves as Aborigines, but rather, as a distinct group. Their culture is a mixture of Aboriginal from mainland Australia and that of Papua New Guinea, to their immediate north. In earlier times, this land formed part of the one land mass linking Papua New Guinea to mainland Australia.

People today live across the full spectrum of change from traditional Aboriginal culture to European culture. At one end are family groups living in remote areas away from larger Aboriginal communities, trying to maintain traditional hunting, food gathering and ceremonial life. But even at this level, people now wear clothes, may own a car or four wheel drive vehicle, and the men will hunt with rifles as well as spears. In the middle are people living on larger Aboriginal communities, buying most of their food and other needs from the local store, occasionally carrying out traditional hunting and food gathering, and trying to maintain traditional ceremonies and rituals. At the other end of the spectrum are urban Aborigines living European life styles.

Modern transport, communication and life styles, with subsequent loss of craft skills and tribal knowledge are inevitable changes. It is the spirituality and the heritage, the sense of belonging to the land, some arts and crafts, and the importance of family and ancestry, which continue as the modern essentials of Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal man making string and rope from natural plant fibres. PH 256/60, Bleakley Collection, Northern Territory Library.

A few notes about terminology:

The word "aborigine" (with a little "a") means one of the original native inhabitants of any country. The word "Aborigine" (with a capital "A") is used to describe the indigenous people of Australia. In Australia, many non-Aboriginal people use the terms "Aboriginal" and "Aboriginals" as singular and plural nouns for the people. Aborigines describe themselves using the various words which mean "person" from each of their own different language groups (tribes). A person from the Sydney region might describe themselves as Koorie, from Darwin as Larrakeyah, from northeast Arnhem Land as Yolgnu, and central Australian has Pitjantjatjara, Pintubi etc.

Aborigines have differing views on how their culture should be described. On the one hand, people are proud of their culture and want outsiders to know of it. They have seen the impact of European culture in Australia and the threat this has to their own. Fearing the loss of their knowledge, both secular (non-religious) and sacred, they have imparted much that was once secret, known only to the most senior members of their clans, to explorers, missionaries, pastoralists, interested visitors and anthropologists.

On the other hand, in order to continue their cultural traditions and maintain law and order, they need some of the secrecy of their initiation rites and ceremonies kept. This secrecy makes the process meaningful for future generations.