“Rust red sand underlies the heart of Australia, where the huge monoliths known as Olgas shoulder above spinifex and grevilea. This old and worn continent has a look like no other – celebrated [… ] by both the native born and brief sojourners to the land down under” (“Portraits” 159). This old continent also has also a spirit like no other, embodied by the people who inhabited it for so long that they have come to “identify spiritually with the land” (Terrill 200) – the Aborigines.
They have developed a unique culture, centered on religious beliefs, and a lifestyle that unites them to he earth. Many times they have been categorized as primitive, but views are changing, and their civilization has come to be recognized as sophisticated, their influential role in modern Australia being no longer denied. Aboriginal history stretches long into the past. They have inhabited Australia for thousands of years before the European arrival. Sites discovered around the continent prove that they have been there for at least 38,000 years (Judge).
However, new archeological techniques have expanded this figure to 116,000 years, stretching the limit almost to the irth of Homo sapiens, and it is unclear whether they are the descendants of modern man (Fullagar), or of a more archaic type (Judge). It is generally accepted that the Aborigines have migrated here from Asia, although there are still questions whether they have crossed a land bridge, or have sailed the seas (Fullagar; Judge). Whatever the means they used to get to Australia, the Aborigines have adapted to the continent and have managed to survive isolated from all other human groups.
They only came in contact with another human population some 200 years ago, at the time of the European colonization. At that time there were from 300,000 to 700,000 Aborigines (Gonen; Moore, “Aboriginal”), and their numbers have decreased to about 250,000 today (Rajendra, “Old people”). The British settlers destroyed the Aboriginal communities and way of life by taking over the land and introducing new animals into the Australian ecosystem. The natives died of diseases introduced by the Europeans, or starved as the newly introduced animals displaced the ones they traditionally hunted (Gonen).
Although recently the Australian government gave them back some land to turn into national parks (Terrill 200) or mine for minerals (Gonen), the Aboriginal community is still the one with the highest rate of unemployment, disease and illiteracy in the country (Rajendra, “Old people”). The geography of a place will always influence the societies that live there, and this is especially true of the Aboriginal culture that has perfectly adapted to the Australian landscape. Australia is a flat and low continent, with an average elevation of 1000 feet.
The western side consists of a great, arid plateau and several deserts, while the eastern part is a mountainous region. The center of the continent is made up of large plains and is perfect for agriculture. The same area is also host to Uluru or Ayers Rock, the world’s largest monolith (Powell) and a sacred place for the Aborigines (Rajendra, “Aboriginal”). An estimate of 700 Aboriginal tribes, were spread throughout the continent at the time of European arrival (Moore, “Aboriginal”). Many tribes still survive today, although more than half of the Aboriginal population has moved to urban areas (Rajendra, “Old people”).
Besides inhabiting all the provinces of mainland Australia, Aborigines also live in Tasmania, an island on the southern tip of the continent (Gonen). The structure of the Aboriginal society is different from the forms of government known in most modern societies. Related people are organized in subunits called clans or family units (Moore, “Aboriginal”). Several of these subunits make up a tribe. They speak the same language and gather for religious ceremonies. A tribe’s population can vary from a few members to 2,000 people (Gonen).
All male members of the tribe that have gone through the initiations are considered equal. There are some leaders in each clan – people who have qualities that others admire or that can perform certain roles. The Elders are the wisest men in the tribe, knowing both the laws and the tribe’s mythology. They are the ones who can give advice or settle disputes. In large tribes, the Elders form a council for the purpose of conducting initiations and regulating other social and religious events, but they are not a government in the modern sense of the word (Moore, “A to Z”).
Because of this organization and the small size of a clan, Aborigines are not divided into social classes. Men and women have separate roles in the society, and, similar to other aspects of Aboriginal culture, these are strongly influenced by their pirituality. People of both sexes have to go through initiation rituals in order to become adults, and these rituals are kept secret from the eyes of the opposite sex (Moore, “A to Z”). Among the Aborigines, non-initiated males are considered women until their initiation, because they only have their mothers’ blood in their veins (Eliade 27).
During initiations, the novices are instructed in the religious traditions of their tribe and their gender’s sacredness is revealed, thus establishing a connection between their adult life and that of mythological beings (Eliade 4 and 42). The separation of sexes continues later in life, when each one has a specific role. Men hunt and carry only their weapons, while women collect plant food, small animals and take care of babies and household utensils (Humphrey).
Because each subunit consists of people related to each other, the family ties in the Aboriginal society are more extensive that those in contemporary societies. Children consider their mother’s sisters as mothers and their father’s brothers as fathers. Their cousins are to them brothers and sisters. The only people seen as aunts and uncles are the parent’s iblings of opposite sex, and their children are cousins. As tribes are closed communities, they are divided into two intermarrying groups. People from one group can only marry people from the other and this prevents inbreeding.
Marriages are arranged when children are very young, and girls become wives at the early age of 11 or 12 years old. Polygamy was not unusual, but both the husband and wives had love and respect for each other, because this is what they were taught by stories and tradition (Moore, “A to Z”). Little children are taken care of by all members of the clan, but they still have to learn to fend for themselves. Therefore, from an early age, they try to imitate their parents, girls helping their mothers and boys going hunting or fishing with their fathers (Humphrey).
In the Aboriginal culture, education is meant to prepare children for their life as members of a nomadic society and to help maintain the traditional spiritual values of this society. Because of its practical purpose, education is strongly tied to entertainment, art and religion. It begins at an early age, when children are taught about the world around them and how to survive in it (Breeden, “The first”), and continues until death, as eople learn more of their tribe’s traditions and spirituality (Humphrey).
Children begin by playing games that increase their agility and teach them to work like a team. Games like running, climbing, wrestling and throwing sticks prepare boys to their future role as hunters, and both girls and boys learn tracking by drawing animal tracks on the ground (Moore, “A to Z”). These games help children learn about their world and survive in one of the most arid areas of the world. Besides learning about the natural world, children, as well as adults, learn about the parallel spiritual world through stories (Berndt, Catherine 551).
These stories describe the deeds of legendary beings who have played an important role in the creation of the world and institution of human tradition, therefore they help people learn and maintain tradition (Moore, “A to Z”). Art is also used as a mean to transmit traditions from generation to generation. 20,000 years old stone engravings still portray animals and people, showing the continuity of Aboriginal culture (Doherty). The Aborigines believe that shy spirits created the first rock paintings and that they also taught people how to paint (Breeden, “The first”).
Ever since, people have painted rocks with ntricate designs representing people and animals as a tradition. Even today, some boys come and share a picture with their fathers (Breeden, “The first” 287), although rock painting has made room for bark painting in recent years. This type of painting takes a very long time and the works are extremely valuable to collectors. The bark is coated with red ochre and the designs outlined in white are filled with complex fine lines (Breeden, “Living” 291).
A defining part of a culture, and very important in relation to education, is language. Each tribe has its own language that separates it from other tribes. Some tribes that speak the same language have formed trade alliances and they conduct certain ceremonies together. At the time of European contact and estimate of 600 languages were spoken throughout Australia by the 700 Aboriginal tribes. Some Aborigines even spoke more than their own language and appeared to have no difficulty in learning English (Moore, “Aboriginal”; Moore, “A to Z”).
This great variety of languages seems inconsistent with the theory that the Aborigines are descendants of a single race that migrated to Australia, but linguists have considered the fact that languages evolve, thus permitting such diversity. Today it is accepted that all the Aboriginal languages come from one ancient language, and to support this affirmation stands the fact that before European contact, Aborigines spoke only 200 languages, compared to the 600 spoken at the time of contact (Gonen).
Because more that half of the Aboriginal population has left the traditional setting to live in the cities (Rajendra, “Old people”), the languages are not spoken widely anymore and they tend to be forgotten. Forgetting the language is almost equivalent to forgetting the whole culture, as the Aboriginal way of life is deeply rooted in spirituality, and story telling is the most important ay of conveying the traditions. As people die, the language and stories die with them and the whole tradition will be forever lost, especially to the young people who have chosen an urban lifestyle.
This is how Big Bill Neidjie puts it: “All these stories tell of the earth, the animals and Aboriginal people. The old people, they know this. That’s why for thousands and thousands years this country not change. We learned this from our fathers and mothers. [… ] We are old men now, we have not got many years. If you don’t learn now, in 20 years’ time you will cry because you don’t know your story. But too late then. We will be gone. ” (Breeden, “The first” 289) The supernatural is forever present in Aboriginal life. Their religion explains the world as a place full of spirits.
People have no other choice than to interact with these spirits, and the purpose of education is to teach how to exist in the world. Aborigines have to face an arid and hostile environment every day, but they also have to face the spirits and to help the world survive by Dreaming. Dreaming is the name given to human activities that connect this world to Dreamtime and give it new life and power (Elwood 34). Dreamtime is a world that existed long before the reation of time, and it continues to exist in parallel with this world (Rajendra, “Aboriginal”).
Spirits from Dreamtime have created the land, animals, people and have set in place the customs of Aboriginal society. All the places where they have retreated to reside (Elwood 34; Moore, “A to Z”), or where important acts of creation have taken place are considered to be places of power, tying this world with Dreamtime (Berndt, Ronald 531). Everything has a spirit and is alive because of Dreamtime’s power, thus turning Aboriginal religion into a form of animism (Rajendra, “Aboriginal”). The Aborigines believe that people are born when spirit- hildren come from Dreamtime and enter a mother’s body.
When they die, the spirit-children return to Dreamtime and await a reincarnation (Elwood 34; Moore, “A to Z”). People have been created by the spirits to help maintain this world and in order to do so, they need to learn the secret spiritual life that animates the world. This can only be revealed in time, during several initiations. Girls’ initiation into the secrets of fertility and creation of new life begins with their first menstruation and only ends with the birth of their first child (Berndt, Ronald 533; Eliade 42).
Boys’ initiations are done in groups and include several ordeals. During these initiations, they are told stories explaining the creation and structure of the world and taught how to use their knowledge of the spirits to preserve the world (Eliade 4). Religion and its purpose of maintaining life transforms all social events like weddings, funerals, births, and migrations into re-enactings of events that took place in Dreamtime, thus linking the two worlds together and transferring power from one to another (Berndt, Ronald 531).
The Aborigines tied their life to a higher purpose and learned to honor spirituality, yet European settlers have often misunderstood them. As the Aborigines are nomads, moving each season to a place that can provide them with food in the harsh Australia, the habit of going on a walkabout is entrenched in their culture. In the 1800s and 1900s, Aboriginal workers on white-owned farms would disappear for days as they left on a walkabout.
The term was coined by the farmers who saw the Aboriginal need to travel as ingratitude, instead of recognizing that it was something fundamental to their culture. Walkabouts are spiritual journeys that take travelers to a place where they feel they belong, and in some cases to their place of birth (Moore, “A to Z”). The Aborigines have adapted to Australia and they learned to live as hunters and gatherers. They do not practice agriculture, but move from place to place, following the pattern of the seasons that makes food available in some areas, and scarce in others (Humphrey).
They eat all sorts of animals, from kangaroo stews and soups, to crocodile steaks, snakes, lizards, turtles, fish, worms, and even wild ants and bees. The vegetarian diet is also diverse, focusing on roots, cereals and grasses, occasionally fruits and even resin. Food can be eaten raw or roasted on coals (Rajendra, “Bush tucker”). Although the Aborigines do not need an ndustry, they are involved in mining (Gonen), and in tourism, as they turned their lands into national parks (Terrill 200).
The ancient Aboriginal society has changed more in the last 200 years than in the thousands of years before, yet is still maintains a lot of its original culture. In most cases, it managed to adapt to the European colonization, yet still maintain its own spirit. Some of the Aborigines have chosen to follow the path of their ancestors, others to seek a new life in urban Australia. Whatever their choice, they all are important to Australia, giving this 200-year old country a 100,000 year-old perspective on life.