INTRODUCTION TO AUSTRALIA'S ABORIGINAL CULTURE - PART 3

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 few suitable trees could be found, they learned to make their long, straight spears by digging out straight roots hidden underground, growing out from certain 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.

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

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 may only occur in some areas, by particular tribes (also called "language groups" or "nations"), or by particular people.

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.

 

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