Australian Aboriginal culture is complex and extraordinarily diverse. It is one of the world's longest surviving cultures, which goes back at least 50,000 years (some think it is closer to 150,000 years).
There were over 500 different clan groups or 'nations' around the continent, many with distinctive cultures and beliefs. Hundreds of languages and dialects existed (although many are now extinct), as well as a variety of different customs and rituals, art forms, styles of painting, forms of food, and hunting habits.
A common heritage
Before Europeans came to Australia, the very distinctive and culturally unique groups that made up Aboriginal Australia shared a number of common traits. Two examples are:
Hunters and gatherers
Claude-Marie-François Dien (1787-1865), Terre de Diemen, armes et ornemens [Tasmanian Aboriginal implements], 1824, print: engraving. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
All of Australia's Aboriginals were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, with each clan having its own territory from which they 'made their living'. These territories or 'traditional lands' were defined by geographic boundaries such as rivers, lakes and mountains. They all shared an intimate understanding of, and relationship with, the land. It was the basis of their spiritual life.
It was this affinity with their surroundings that goes a long way to explaining how they survived for so many millennia. They understood and cared for their different environments, and adapted to them.
While their tools varied by group and location, Aboriginal people all had knives, scrapers, axe-heads, spears, various vessels for eating and drinking, and digging sticks.
Not all groups had didgeridoos and, contrary to popular belief, many did not have boomerangs. Some groups developed more tools than others.
There were between 200 and 250 Aboriginal languages spoken, with many different dialects, producing up to 700 varieties. This makes Aboriginal Australia one of the most linguistically diverse areas on the planet. Within the space of 80 kilometres you can still pass through the territories of three languages 'less closely related than English, Russian and Hindu.' (The Oxford Companion to Australian History, 1998)
Language is vitally important in understanding Aboriginal heritage as much of their history is an oral history. Interestingly, various oral histories have been backed up by geological data, such as the flooding of Port Phillip Bay which occurred about 10,000 years ago!
Climate and location
Arthur Groom (1904-1953), A fine type of native spear thrower, Victoria River, Northern Territory, 1952, photo: gelatin silver. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
Aboriginals were supremely expert in adapting to their environments. There were coastal and inland tribes. Their 'territories' ranged from lush woodland areas to harsh desert surroundings. Different groups needed to develop different skills and build a unique body of knowledge about their particular territories.Their tools and implements reflected the geographical location of these different groups. For example, it is known that coastal tribes used fishbone to tip their weapons, whereas desert tribes used stone tips.
Land - at the core of belief
Living within the landscape
For Aboriginal people all that is sacred is localised in the landscape:
Our story is in the land ... it is written in those sacred places ... My Children will look after those places, that's the law.
Bill Neidjie, Kakadu elder
The relationship between a clan and its 'territory' involves certain rights, such as the right to use the land and its products. With these rights comes a duty to tend the land through the performance of ceremonies.
We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavoured to live with the land; they seemed to live off it. I was taught to preserve, never to destroy.
Aborigine Tom Dystra
J. Redaway & Sons, Aborigines of Australia, corrobori [i.e. corroborree] or native festival, 1855, print: engraving. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
Individuals within the clan also have special relationships with places in their territory. Where a person's mother first became pregnant may mean an ongoing responsibility, in terms of right and duties, towards that place.
In a nutshell, the land and identity are inseparable.
Knowledge of a clan's law and the Dreamtime is accumulated through life. Ceremonies, such as initiation ceremonies, are avenues for passing on this knowledge.
The system of kinship puts everybody in a specific kinship relationship, each of which has roles and responsibilities attached to it. It can influence marriage decisions and governs much of everyday behaviour. By adulthood people know exactly how to behave, and in what manner, to all other people around them.Kinship is therefore about meeting the obligations of one's clan, and forms part of Aboriginal Law.
Skimming the surface
There is so much to know about the heritage of this continent's people. Explore the links listed below to find out more.
Related Culture and Recreation Portal stories
- Australian Indigenous art
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- European discovery and the colonisation of Australia
- Indigenous Australia
- ATSIC - The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
- Jinta DesertArt: Aboriginal Culture
- Australian Museum: Aboriginal Heritage Unit
- NSW Heritage Office: Aboriginal Heritage
- NPWS: Aboriginal people & cultural life
- Australian Sacred Sites
- Indigenous art, culture and heritage sites from Australia's Culture and Recreation Portal
- Maningrida Arts and Culture
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Last updated: 15th February 2007