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.

aboriginal housing

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.


aboriginal shelter

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:

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.

food collecting


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.

Aboriginal housing



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