Almost eradicated by the British invasion, the Aborigines of Australia have managed to not only survive modernity but to recapture much of their ancient heritage and cultural traditions. This segment of Aborigine history is discussed in this article.
An ancient culture without change
Of no surprise, the Australian Aborigine has no word for “time” as we of the modern world understand it. To these master practitioners of nature magic who maintained a thriving culture without change for over 50,000 years, time is cyclical; the end of each cycle marking the beginning of an identical cycle which has been repeated countless times before. (This temporal perception is not unlike that of the Yucatan Maya.) But those cycles were forever interrupted in 1788 when the British began settling this spectacular and untamed continent that had long been isolated by both space and time. Sadly, the coming of the White Man—as has been the case far too many times throughout history—was nearly the end of the Aboriginal culture.
“Devils Island” and the British
In their conquest of the “Land Down Under,” the British did not send skilled and learned colonists to stake their claim but convicted criminals who referred to this prehistoric land as “Devil’s Island.” With their arrival—“deposit,” being more accurate–the Aborigines were pushed out of their villages and away from their sacred homelands, and forced to suffer inconceivable cultural trauma. Without a sense of spiritual grounding and natural purpose, they soon became disoriented and culturally lost. Without ties to the land they believed to be under god’s watchful eye, life for them ceased to make sense. Surviving legends echo loudly the grim plight of the Tribal Elders who believing the world was coming to an end, led their people into the desolate nothingness to face the inevitable. Soon, the death toll among them rose to staggering numbers.
Execution, starvation, rape, and disease
With little understanding or respect for the “naked heathens” whose strange behavior was not even to be tolerated by the exiled criminals whose numbers continued to grow, a systematic plan of extermination was put into effect, first by the intentional cutting off of native food supplies. When the Aborigines responded by stealing the settlers’ cattle rather than stave to death, thousands were shot, poisoned, or corralled and slaughtered in mass executions. Those who managed not to fall prey to the invaders’ weapons, soon succumbed to the White Man’s diseases for which they had no natural defenses: influenza, tuberculosis, and with the rape of their women, syphilis.
Reclaiming lost heritage
Believed to number somewhere near 1,000,000 (700 tribes speaking 400 dialects) at the peak of their cultural advancement, the Aborigine steadily diminished in number until only an estimated 66,000 had survived as of a 1990 British census. But to their credit, the British enacted a post-WWII plan to repopulate the beautiful island with the help of improved nutrition and medical care, resulting in their numbers reaching near 300,000 by 1990. But this repopulation did not mean the restoration of the culture and lands that once existed. Having no written language to record their history, the loss of Tribal Elders by execution or disease meant the loss of the ancient knowledge and wisdom they guarded so carefully—most of their remarkable Stone Age heritage lost forever. Aboriginal mythology, concepts of birth and reincarnation, their music and art, and of course, Aboriginal Magic, had to undergo a tedious process to be recaptured by contemporary Aborigine Elders. Fortunately, modern Aborigine tribesmen discovered cultural parallels in many neighboring tribes of the region and have been able to piece together the roots of their wondrous traditions.
The concept of the Dreamtime, an idea that connects the past to the future, underlies all spiritual and societal aspects for the Aborigines. Fundamental to their life-affirming rituals and ceremonies, the interconnectedness of Dreamtime creates cohesion between their day-to-day lives and their worldview.
Although many aspects of the Aborigine religion remain a mystery to the outside world, a cursory examination suggests a kindred link with many other nature-based cultures around the world, African Witchdoctors, North American Shaman, Caribbean Voodoo Priestesses—to mention just a few. But what is quite apparent is that the concept of Dreamtime, a belief that connects past and future into one temporal reality, is the most essential aspect of their ancient belief system, as well as their day-to-day lives.
In the beginning…
The Aborigines believe that in the beginning, the earth was featureless, flat, and grey. There were no mountains, no rivers, no plants, or animals–not one living thing. Then the Dreamtime came. The Dreamtime was a time when giant, mythical “Beings” that looked like plants or animals (and often, insects) but behaved like humans, rose from the earth where they’d been asleep for countless eons. As they wandered across the vast grey expanses of the wilderness, they dug for water and searched for food, leaving ravines and places where rivers formed in their wake. Thus the world began to take on the physical form it has today. Using the Christian Bible as a comparative narrative, we can get an idea of the Aborigine concept of creation:
Genesis: And the Earth was without form and void.
Aborigine: Long, long ago before there was Dreamtime before time was, the world was soft and wobbly and had no shape.
Genesis: And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Aborigine: Then, at the beginning of Dreamtime, Warramurrungundii came out of the sea.
Genesis: And God called the dry land Earth.
Aborigine: Warramurrungundii, a female in human form, created the land.
The Mythical Beings
The Aborigines believe that in the Dreamtime, the traditional Aboriginal way of life was established by the mythical Beings. Much as the Ten Commandments were given to the Hebrews to guide their moral and social conduct, the traditions to be observed by the Aborigines were imparted to the ancestors. They were taught of the social and cultural heritage that was to be maintained, and the rites and ceremonies designed to preserve their tribal lands and all the forms of life contained within them. When Dreamtime ended, which no one knows why or how, time and life as it is now known, began.
One single life-force
Today, the Aborigine maintain a very special bond with the land, believing that everything has life and is related, and came into being from one single life-force. They see every rock, mountain, tree, and river as part human, and therefore their brethren. All animals, birds, insects, reptiles, plants, and other life forms–including man–are part of the same nature, and it is only their outward appearances that differ. So as the Aborigine outlook across the Australian landscape, they don’t see just the natural world at its most spectacular, they see reminders of those giant Beings of the Dreamtime from whom they descended. And to them, they are constant reminders representing reality and eternal truth.
The Aborigines believe that each tribe is descended from the Beings of the Dreamtime. Today, every Aboriginal has a special symbol, a unique totem, which represents their spiritual attachment to a particular ancestral Being. In Tribal society, the family is very important, but the Aboriginal idea of family is quite different from that of Western thinking. For example, the family name is taken from the mother, not the father, because it is the woman who creates life by giving birth. The family structure is also different as it pertains to the various totems, a person of another tribe with the same totem being regarded as a brother (or sister, or uncle, as the case may be), even though he or she was not born of the same parents. These totems help all Aboriginals maintain close, familial bonds with one other, with the concept of kinship taking on a comparatively unique cultural perspective. Because of their wide-reaching family ties, every child experiences a wonderful and deep sense of security, warmth, and protection that lasts throughout life.
To the Aborigine, death is not the end of life, but simply the last ceremony in the present existence before the soul is reborn. Thus all living people are reincarnations of the dead whose souls now live on in new bodies they’ve chosen. This belief provides a direct and unbroken link back to their ancestors of the Dreamtime. And perhaps ironically, although Aboriginal beliefs are perhaps 50,000 years old, they include the idea that the universe is composed of only energy, and that everything that can be seen is that energy in visible form, a concept that science is only now advancing.
Tribal Laws, Art, and Music
For the Australian Aborigine, their relationship with their Tribal lands, how they make their art, and how they produce the music that accompanies their ceremonies, all speak of their relationship with the natural world around them–both past and future.
Ancient ways in modern times
For the Australian Aborigine, the rituals set forth by the mythical Beings in the Dreamtime are an integral part of their Tribal laws, art, and music. Their relationship with their Tribal lands, how they make their art, and how they produce the music that accompanies their ceremonies, all speak of the Aboriginal relationship with the natural world around them–both past and future. Each an integral part of the others.
Much as the moral and ethical codes set forth by the Ten Commandments guide Christians through their day-to-day lives, likewise, the rituals established in the Dreamtime determine life for the Aborigine. While the encroachment of modernity has taken its toll on many aspects of traditional Aboriginal life, many Aborigines, nevertheless, continue to abide by centuries-old Tribal laws of conduct–most of which apply to marriage customs and protection of Tribal lands. While no single set of laws exist, per se, with so many different tribes spread out across the vast Australian landscape, most follow a set of general principles that focuses on what is considered fair for all. And while outsiders often comment that Aboriginal law seems unorganized and unreliable, it does appear to be an effective system of delivering justice, the compensation opportunity, and when appropriate, revenge.
By ancient prescription, traditional marriages are never loving matches, but rather purposeful arrangements. As with many other ancient cultures around the world who follow this tradition, women are generally selected by Elders from neighboring tribes, a process intended to prevent inbreeding as well as build inter-Tribal alliances. While men are permitted to have more than one wife–if they can afford it–adultery and incest are strictly taboo and can be grounds for banishment or even death. As there is no formal dissolution (divorce), marriages typically span an entire lifetime.
Until recent times, disputes over Tribal lands and hunting grounds were common occurrences in Aborigine society. Aborigines take stewardship of their designated Tribal lands most seriously, and it is tantamount to sin to allow the land to be disturbed, or permit outsiders to do so. In the past, land disputes would result in a prearranged battle at a “kippa-ring,” a designated battle site, where both men and women would engage in combat while neighboring tribes would look on to guarantee a fair and just outcome. (The Roma Street Parklands of Brisbane was once a preferred battle site). Accounts from early European colonists who witnessed such battles attest that they were often quite fierce and bloody. While no such confrontations have been reported in recent times (much of the Aborigine Tribal lands now under government seizure), the laws stand should such a dispute erupt.
While modern Aboriginal art with its vivid colors and bold strokes of black, yellow, white, and blood-red is considered amongst the finest in the world, it is their rock art that continues to draw the greatest fascination. The array found in West Australia’s Pilbara region and the Olary district of South Australia, dated to around 40,000 years BP, has proven invaluable in allowing the Western World to gain insight into Aborigine culture. As much of it depicts traditional social activities, their material culture, economy, environmental changes, and most importantly, elements of their myth and religion, their art speaks of much the Aborigine themselves cannot.
Among the most popular types of rock art is a very bold method of painting called the Bradshaws (named for Joseph Bradshaw, a European pastoralist who first reported the discovery in 1891), which was discovered in caves in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, (shown here).
While traditional Aboriginal art is composed of organic colors made from natural materials, many modern artists have made the transition to synthetic paints when creating traditional Aboriginal styles. Utilizing a wide variety of media–painting on leaves and bark, wood carving, rock carving and painting, sculpture, sandpainting, as well as traditional designs painted on ceremonial clothing and everyday tools, then as now, Aboriginal art illustrates the Aboriginal relationship with the natural world. But the form of art that is perhaps most closely related to the Aborigine people (thanks to movies like Crocodile Dundee) is also one of the earliest forms of art known to humankind: body painting.
The Yolngu of Arnhem Land (in the Northern Territory), for example, typically cover their bodies in elaborate, mystical designs for ceremonies and traditional dances. The preparation for such events can take many hours, and only the finest artists of the area are sought. (Bodies become living canvases to display creativity and skill much as with a tattoo artist.) Typically, body designs involve fine cross-hatching and lines of dots, patterns owned by the clan of the person being decorated.
With the growing popularity of “World Music,” Aborigine music has very much come into its own in recent years. An interesting fact setting Aboriginal music apart from most indigenous music of the world is that the Aborigines have no strung or drumming instruments. Instead, their music comes from two primary sources, “sticks,” which are two sticks struck together to keep rhythm (not unlike Afro-Cuban claves), and the mournful sounding didgeridoo, the long, hollow wind instrument which has become a major curiosity in the US in recent years. Both instruments are standard features of ceremonial dances known as corroborees (making them sacred instruments) which reenact creation mythology tales, or in some cases, the accomplishments of great elders who have left a notable legacy. Though the corroborees are secret, private ceremonies, dances, and instruments are regularly seen at public gatherings and demonstrations.