Australian Aborigines were nomadic people, hunting and food gathering as they travelled within their tribal boundaries. They made semi-permanent stops, camping for days or weeks in one place, depending on the availability of food and water. In the well-watered tropical north of Australia, particularly during the wet season, people often camped at one location for several months at a time.

Simple shelter made from bent-over stringy-bark.
Northern Territory.

Photograph courtesy of the Northern Territory Library.

Simple shelter made from bent-over stringy-bark. Northern Territory.

With much of Australia having a mild climate, people often slept in the open, warmth and comfort provided by the campfire. On cold nights, rather than several people sleeping around a single camp fire, they often kept a number of small fires burning or smouldering, and each person had a fire on either side. People also kept warm by sleeping close to their camp dogs, dingos, using them like hot water bottles.

A mother and her children beside their simple camp, consisting only of small fires and the brushwood wind break behind.
Central Australia, 1903.

Photograph by Herbert Basedow, from Notes on some Native Tribes of Central Australia.

The shelters built by Aborigines depended on how long they intended to stay at a particular location, the available resources, the weather (varying with wet or dry), and time of year (varying with summer, winter, and wet season in the north).

Aboriginal housing and shelters include:

  • Sleeping beside an open fire with a simple wind break made from leaves and branches. (This method was common in the arid interior.)
  • Sleeping beside a rock outcrop or at the base of cliffs where the rock provides a wind break.
  • Natural recesses and caves in sandstone, quartzite and limestone rock formations. (These provided wet season and wet-weather shelters.)
  • simple lean-to consisting of leafy branches orx large sheets of bark leant against a tree, rock or sapling frame.
  • Adjacent shrubs were pulled together and their top branches intertwined, effectively tying them together, providing a leafy arch. (This method was used in the arid interior to provide temporary shade during the heat of the day.)
  • Shelters made from a framework of saplings lashed together, and then covered with leafy branches or sheets of bark. (This method was common across northern Australia.)
  • Shelters made by bending and lashing cane into a dome-like structure and covering with palm fronds. (This method was common in northern Queensland rainforests.)
  • Shelters made by leaning branches against each other in dome-like fashion, then covering the lot with spinifex grassother vegetation, and a layer of earth and sand. (The earth and sand formed a crust, providing a winter shelter in arid regions.)
  • Stone structures survive from two regions of Australia, on High Cliffy Island off the Kimberley coast, and in one district of Victoria. These are stone circles about two metres across with shelter walls 1.5 metres high. Branches and vegetation were placed over each structure to form a roof.

When it came to more substantial dwellings during wet or cold periods, the type of structure people used depended on the available resources. Throughout Australia, paperbark trees (Melaleuca species) are common along water courses, providing large sheets of bark suitable for housing and bedding. In northern Australian woodlands, large trees have relatively soft stringy bark which can be chopped away in large sheets (using stone axes and stone choppers in past times). These are then placed over a wooden frame to provide a water-proof structure. In dense rainforests where palm fronds are numerous, these are used instead.

Two women carrying large sheets of paperbark (Melaleuca species) with which to make their hut.
One carries her child.
Cape York Peninsula, circa 1912.

Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

A small bark shelter (gunyah) built over a wooden frame, used in woodland areas of northern Queensland, circa 1912.

Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

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

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

An elderly couple commencing their hut in the rainforest. This shows the wooden frame of interlocking sticks before the palm leaves are applied. When making these homes, the men build the wooden frame while the women collect the palm fronds. Atherton, north Queensland.
Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

A group of rainforest people outside one of their palm leaf huts.
Atherton-Herberton, north Queensland.
Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

Winter shelter covered in spinifex grass used throughout inland Australia.
Photograph by George Aiston, from Savage Life in Central Australia.

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.

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 three 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.

Shelters had earth floors, but in regions where paperbark and stringybark were available, people slept on bark sheets of these materials. Some rock shelters in northern Australia still hold the remains of sleeping beds made from stringybark placed over a low wooden frame. In Arnhem Land, people also slept and rested on large woven mats.

Early explorers in several regions of Australia noted that the inside walls of bark shelters were often adorned with paintings and drawings. Today, similar paintings and drawings which have survived in cave shelters are what we regard as Aboriginal rock art.