Updated: Jan 16
Australian Aboriginal peoples
Australian Aboriginal peoples, one of the two distinct groups of Indigenous peoples of Australia, the other being the Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Fish-trapping fence in north-central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. Traps such as this seem to offer evidence of the practice of aquaculture by early Australian Aboriginal peoples.
Courtesy of AIATSIS; creator, Jon C. Altman (collection no. N03211_35)
Know about the efforts to bury the remains of indigenous Australians that were taken away for study or exhibition in the 21st century
Overview of efforts in the 21st century to bury the remains of indigenous Australians that had been taken for scientific study and museum displays.
It has long been conventionally held that Australia is the only continent where the entire Indigenous population maintained a single kind of adaptation—hunting and gathering—into modern times. Some scholars now argue, however, that there is evidence of the early practice of both agriculture and aquaculture by Aboriginal peoples. This finding raises questions regarding the traditional viewpoint that presents Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples as perhaps unique in the degree of contrast between the complexity of their social organization and religious life and the relative simplicity of their material technologies. (For a discussion of the names given to the Indigenous peoples of Australia, see Researcher’s Note: Britannica usage standards: Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia.)
It is generally held that Australian Aboriginal peoples originally came from Asia via insular Southeast Asia (now Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, and the Philippines) and have been in Australia for at least 45,000–50,000 years. On the basis of research at the Nauwalabila I and Madjedbebe archaeological sites in the Northern Territory, however, some scientists have claimed that early humans arrived considerably sooner, perhaps as early as 65,000 to 80,000 years ago. That conclusion is consistent with the argument made by some scholars that the migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa and adjacent areas of Southwest Asia to South and Southeast Asia along the so-called Southern Route predated migration to Europe. Other scholars question the earlier dating of human arrival in Australia, which is based on the use of optically stimulated luminescence (measurement of the last time the sand in question was exposed to sunlight), because the Northern Territory sites are in areas of termite activity, which can displace artifacts downward to older levels.
In either case, the first settlement would have occurred during an era of lowered sea levels, when there were more-coextensive land bridges between Asia and Australia. Watercraft must have been used for some passages, however, such as those between Bali and Lombok and between Timor and Greater Australia, because they entail distances greater than 120 miles (200 km). This is the earliest confirmed seafaring in the world. By about 35,000 years ago all of the continent had been occupied, including the southwest and southeast corners (Tasmania became an island when sea levels rose sometime between 13,500 and 8,000 years ago, thus isolating Aboriginal people who lived there from the mainland) as well as the highlands of the island of New Guinea. Archaeological evidence suggests that occupation of the interior of Australia by Aboriginal peoples during the harsh climatic regime of the last glacial maximum (between 30,000 and 18,000 years ago) was highly dynamic, and all arid landscapes were permanently occupied only roughly 10,000 years ago.
The dingo, a type of wild dog, appeared in Australia only 5,000 to 3,000 years ago, which postdates the time that Aboriginal people began hafting small stone implements into composite tools some 8,000 years ago. Whereas the dingo was introduced from Southeast Asia, the small implements appear to be independent inventions from within Australia. Within the past 1,500–3,000 years, other important changes occurred at the general continental level: population increases, the exploitation of new habitats, more efficient resource exploitation, and an increase in the exchange of valued items over wide areas.
There is evidence for complex social behaviours much earlier, however, including cremation before 40,000 years ago, personal ornamentation (shell beads) by 30,000 years ago, and long-distance trade in objects before 10,000 years ago. It has not yet been ascertained whether there were single or multiple waves of migration into Australia, although recent genetic evidence indicates multiple donor groups, whether from a single heterogeneous migration or multiple waves. While there is no doubt that only anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) have ever occupied Australia, skulls found in the southeast suggest to some the existence of two distinct physical types. However, most now accept that there was a wide range of variation in pre-European populations. It has also been argued that one group on the Murray River practiced a form of cosmetic cranial deformation that led to their different appearance. Some have posited that Aboriginal cultures have one of the longest deep-time chronologies of any groups on Earth.
Traditional sociocultural patterns
By the time of European settlement in 1788, Aboriginal peoples had occupied and utilized the entire continent and adapted successfully to a large range of ecological and climatic conditions, from wet temperate and tropical rainforests to extremely arid deserts. Population densities ranged from roughly 1 to 8 square miles (2.6 to 20.7 square km) per person in fertile riverine and coastal areas to more than 35 square miles (90 square km) per person in the vast interior deserts. Estimates of Aboriginal population vary from 300,000 to more than 1,000,000.
Hear linguists talking about various aspects and linguistic diversity of Australia's indigenous languages
A discussion of the languages of indigenous Australians, including Aborigines.
University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (A Britannica Publishing Partner) See all videos for this article
More than 200 different Aboriginal languages were spoken (and hundreds of dialects; see also Australian Aboriginal languages), and most Aboriginal people were bilingual or multilingual. Both languages (or dialects) and groups of people were associated with stretches of territory. The largest entities recognized by the people were language-named groups, sometimes referred to by Europeans as “tribes.” There may have been as many as 500 such named, territorially anchored groups. Their members shared cultural features and interacted more with one another than with members of different groups. These groups were not, however, political or economic entities, and, while language names may have been commonly used by groups as labels for one another, individual and group identity was grounded in much more locally oriented affiliations and memberships. There was no consciousness of a shared national identity. However, the worldview of Aboriginal peoples tended to be expansive, with a perception of society as a community of common understandings and behaviours shared well beyond the confines of the local group.
Just as there was no one-to-one relationship between language and tribe, cultural differences did not correlate closely with ecological zones. The blurring of such boundaries accords with strong cultural emphases on diffusion and the expansion of networks of relationships through kinship, marriage alliance, exchange, and religious activities. Greater emphasis on maintaining boundaries, together with higher levels of ethnocentrism and intergroup conflict, were more likely (but not invariably) to be found in resource-rich areas with higher population densities.
According to traditional scholarship, Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers who grew no crops and did not domesticate animals (apart from the dingo), so they were directly dependent on their natural environment. On the other hand, some historians and archaeologists in the 21st century argued that Aboriginal people employed agricultural practices that were far too sophisticated to be characterized as hunting and gathering. Nevertheless, the conventional interpretation holds that the Aboriginal people, though nomadic, had a very strong sense of attachment to sites and areas in their home territory, where most of their hunting and gathering was done. The need to balance population with resources meant that most of the time people were dispersed into small food-gathering groups. But several times a year, when food resources permitted, large gatherings would be organized, and much of the social and religious business of the society would be transacted over a two- to three-week period of intense social activity. This rhythm of aggregation and dispersal was fundamental, but over much of this dry continent ecological factors made dispersal the predominant fact of life.
Australian Aborigines at an event commonly called a corroboree. This ceremony consists of much singing and dancing, activities by which they convey their history in stories and reenactments of the Dreaming, a mythological period of time that had a beginning but no foreseeable end, during which the natural environment was shaped and humanized by the actions of mythic beings.
Courtesy of the Australian News and Information Bureau, New York
The worldview of Aboriginal peoples centred on “the Dreaming,” or “dream-time,” a complex and comprehensive concept embodying the past, present, and future as well as virtually every aspect of life. It includes the creative era at the dawn of time, when mythic beings shaped the land and populated it with flora, fauna, and human beings and left behind the rules for social life. After their physical death and transformation into heavenly or earthly bodies, the indestructible creative beings withdrew from the earth into the spiritual realm.
As Aboriginal people understand it, the Dreaming beings retained control of all power and fertility, which they would release automatically into the human realm as long as humans followed their blueprint; this included the regular performance of rituals to ensure a continued flow of life-giving power. Spirit beings were used as messengers to communicate with the living and to introduce new knowledge into human society. Through dreams and other states of altered consciousness, the living could come into contact with the spiritual realm and gain strength from it. Diverse features of the landscape provided tangible proofs of the reality and world-creating powers of the Dreaming beings, and a rich complex of myths, dances, rituals, and objects bound the human, spiritual, and physical realms together into a single cosmic order. Despite the uncertainties involved in getting a living, Aboriginal people had a strong sense of self and a religious confidence in their ability to cope with and control their physical and social world.
Social groups and categories
Aboriginal society was the outcome of interplay between economic, ecological, social, and religious forces. An appreciation of all these forces is essential to an adequate understanding of Aboriginal social life. For example, religious responsibilities lay behind the operation of the “estate group,” a major social unit that shared ownership of a specific set of sites and stretch of territory—its “estate.” Kinship was also implicated, in that an estate group was often composed largely of people related patrilineally—that is, who traced connections to one another via descent through males, although various other criteria of affiliation (such as birth or initiation on the estate, a close relative who was buried there, or a demonstrable totemic link with major creative beings associated with the estate) generally existed and enabled others to claim membership.
The adult males of the estate group were the principal guardians of its sacred sites and objects and organized appropriate rituals to renew and sustain the land. Residence rules generally required women to move into the groups and territories of their husbands after marriage, so women’s role in the affairs of their natal estate group was diminished, even though strong ties remained.
Ownership of land was nontransferable; estate group members held land in trust collectively by means of an unwritten charter deriving from the Dreaming. Most of the time, however, the estate group’s members were scattered in bands across and beyond the estate on their “range” (the area covered by bands in the course of their frequent movements in search of food and water). Normally, a band’s range would include its estate, but in times of prolonged drought a band could be forced into the territories of neighbouring groups. In the interior deserts particularly, boundaries tended to be permeable, and a variety of cultural mechanisms allowed bands to exploit the resources of their neighbours in hard times.
The band, consisting of two or more families, was the basic economic and face-to-face group (i.e., the group with which one normally travels and interacts on a daily basis). Flexible in size and composition, it was the land-utilizing group, highly mobile and able to respond quickly to altered ecological and social circumstances. The individual family, or hearth group, was the fundamental social unit; each family generally cooked and camped separately from other families in the band. The family could function self-sufficiently as an economic unit, but Aboriginal people preferred the enhanced sociality made possible by traveling and living together in bands.
In most of Australia people were also members of various kinds of social categories, based on a division of the society into two moieties, four sections or semi-moieties, or eight subsections. People were born into them and could not change membership. These categories, in addition to being useful as labels of address and reference, indicated intermarrying divisions, were basic to the organization of many rituals, and served as a useful guide in classifying distant kin and strangers. Also widespread, and interposed between the level of the band and the wider society, were clans—that is, groups whose members claimed descent from a common founding ancestor through either the male line (patriclan) or female line (matriclan). Patriclans were the more common form, and they played a very important social role in certain areas, such as northeast Arnhem Land.
Kinship, marriage, and the family
The smooth operation of social life depended on obedience to religious precepts and on the operation of kinship, which was the major force regulating interpersonal behaviour. Kinship is a system of social relationships expressed in a biological idiom through terms such as mother, son, and so on. All Aboriginal kinship systems were classificatory, that is, a limited number of terms was extended to cover all known persons. Thus, terms for lineal relatives, such as father, also referred to collateral relatives, such as father’s brothers. Likewise, mother’s sisters were classed as mother. Aboriginal people inhabited a universe of kin: everyone with whom one interacted in the normal course of life was not only classified and called by a kin term, but the behaviours between any two people were expected to conform to what was deemed appropriate between kin so related. A person thus showed respect and deference to almost all kin of the first ascending generation (i.e., “fathers,” “mothers,” “uncles,” and “aunts”) and claimed the same from all members of the generation below (i.e., “sons,” “daughters,” “nieces,” and “nephews”). These terms did not indicate the emotional content of such relationships, however, and between close relatives the intensity of feeling was bound to be greater (see also kinship terminology).
Kinship terms provided everyone with a ready-made guide to expected behaviour, indicating, for example, the expectation of sexual familiarity, a joking relationship, restraint, or complete avoidance. Friendships and temperament led many to bend the rules, and at times of heightened emotion, as during conflicts, some broke them; however, repeated flouting of kinship conventions brought censure, since it threatened the social structure. Children were not bound by such rules and did not normally begin to observe them until early adolescence. Affines (relatives by marriage) were often classified with consanguineal (blood) relatives, and certain terms indicated potential spouses or affines. Relationships between actual brothers and sisters were often restricted and involved some form of avoidance. The most outstanding avoidance relationship was between a man and his actual or potential mother-in-law—not just his wife’s mother but all women and girls who were classified as “mother-in-law.”
Reciprocity was a fundamental rule in Aboriginal kinship systems and also in marriage. Marriage was not simply a relationship between two persons. It linked two families or groups of kin, which, even before the union was confirmed and most certainly afterward, had mutual obligations and responsibilities. Generally, throughout Aboriginal Australia those who received a wife had to make repayment either at the time of marriage or at some future time. In the simplest form of reciprocity, men exchanged sisters, and women brothers. Such exchanges took place between different moieties, clans, or families. Most kinship-and-marriage systems provided for the possible replacement of spouses and for parent surrogates.
Infant betrothal was common. If arranged before the birth of one or both of the prospective spouses, it was a tentative arrangement subject to later ratification, mainly through continued gift giving to the girl’s parents. In some Aboriginal societies parents of marriageable girls played one man against another, although this was always a potentially dangerous game. Also, there might be a considerable age discrepancy between the members of an affianced pair. Generally, a long-standing betrothal, cemented by gift giving and the rendering of services, had a good chance of surviving and fostering a genuine attachment between a couple.
For a marriage to be recognized, it was usually enough that a couple should live together publicly and assume certain responsibilities in relation to each other and toward their respective families, but it might be considered binding only after a child was born. All persons were expected to marry. A girl’s marriage should be settled before she reached puberty, and, ideally, a husband should be older than his wife, although in some cases a man would receive an older widow in marriage.
Apart from formal betrothal, there were other ways of contracting marriages, such as elopement, capture during feuding or fighting, and redistribution of widows through the levirate (compulsory marriage of a widow to her deceased husband’s brother). Elopement was often supported by love magic, which emphasized romantic love, as well as by the oblique or direct approval of extramarital relations.
Although most men had only one wife at a time, polygyny was considered both legitimate and good. The average number of wives in polygynous unions was 2 or 3. The maximum in the Great Sandy Desert was 5 or 6; among the Tiwi, 29; among the Yolngu, 20 to 25, with many men having 10 to 12. In such circumstances, women had a scarcity value. Having more than one wife was usually a matter of personal inclination, but economic considerations were important; so were prestige and political advantage. Some women pressed their husbands to take an additional wife (or wives), since this meant more food coming into the family circle and more help with child care.
To terminate a marriage, a woman might try elopement. A man could bestow an unsatisfactory wife on someone else or divorce her. A formal declaration or some symbolic gesture on his part might be all that was necessary. In broad terms, a husband had more rights over his wife than she had over him. But, taking into account the overall relations between men and women and their separate and complementary arenas of activity in marriage and in other aspects of social living, women in Aboriginal societies were not markedly oppressed.
A child’s spirit was held to come from the Dreaming to animate a fetus. In some cases this was believed to occur through an action of a mythic being who might or might not be reincarnated in the child. Even when Aboriginal people acknowledged a physical bond between parents and child, the most important issue for them was the spiritual heritage.
In early childhood, children’s focus was on their actual parents, especially on their mothers, but others were close at hand to care for them. Weaning occurred at about two or three years of age but occasionally not until five or six for a youngest child. Through observation of camp life and informal instruction, children built up knowledge of their social world, learning through participation while becoming familiar with the natural environment. Children were also constantly having kin identified to them by their elders and receiving detailed instructions about correct kinship behaviours. Small children often went food collecting with their mothers and other women. As girls grew older, they continued to do so, but boys were thrown more on their own resources. Parents were, on the whole, very indulgent. Infanticide, even in arid areas, was much rarer than has been suggested by some researchers.
For girls, the transition into adulthood, marriage, and full responsibility was a direct one. Even before puberty, having already become a knowledgeable and efficient food provider, a girl normally went to live with her husband and assumed the status of a married woman. For a boy, on the other hand, his carefree life changed drastically with the advent of initiation. His formal instruction into adulthood began, and he was prepared for his entry into religious ritual. His future was henceforth in the hands of older men and ritual leaders who exercised authority in his community. But he was not among strangers; the relatives who played an active role in his initiation would also have significant roles in his adult life. A boy’s age at the first rite varied: in the Great Sandy Desert it was about 16, in the Kimberley about 12, in northeastern Arnhem Land 6 to 8, and among the Aranda 10 to 12 or older. Generally, once he had reached puberty and facial hair had begun to show, he was ready for the initial rituals.
Initiation in Aboriginal Australia was a symbolic reenactment of death in order to achieve new life as an adult. As a novice left his camp, the women would wail and other noises would be made, symbolizing the voice of a mythic being who was said to swallow the novice and later vomit him forth into a new life. The initiation rites themselves were a focal point in discipline and training; they included songs and rituals having an educational purpose. All boys were initiated, and traditionally there were no exceptions.
Circumcision was one of the most important rites over the greater part of Australia. Subincision (incisura of the urethra) was especially significant in its association with secret-sacred ritual. Other rites included piercing of the nasal septum, tooth pulling (in New South Wales this was central in initiation), and the blood rite, which involved bloodletting from an arm vein or a penis incisura—the blood being used for anointing or sipping (red ochre was used as a substitute for blood in some cases). Hair removal, cicatrization (scarring), and playing with fire were also fairly widespread practices. All such rites were usually substantiated by mythology.
For girls, puberty was marked by either total or partial seclusion and by food taboos (also applied to male novices). Afterward they were decorated and ritually purified. Ritual defloration and hymen cutting were practiced in a few areas, but, in general, puberty among girls was not ritually celebrated.
Boys, after circumcision, became increasingly involved in adult activities. Although they were not free to marry immediately, even if they had reached puberty, they might do so after undergoing certain rites, such as subincision. By delaying the age of marriage for young men, sometimes until they were in their late 20s, and keeping the age of first marriage for girls as low as 12 or 13, the practice of polygyny was made more workable. Initiation was a prelude to the religious activity in which all men participated. It meant, also, learning a wide range of things directly concerned with the practical aspects of social living. Adulthood brought increased status but added responsibilities. A vast store of information had to be handed down from one generation to the next. Initiation served as a medium for this, providing a basis of knowledge upon which an adult could build. This process continued through life and was especially marked in men’s religious activity.
For Aboriginal people, birth and death were an open-ended continuum: a spiritual religious power emerged from the Dreaming, was harnessed and utilized through initiation (as symbolic death-rebirth) and subsequent religious ritual, and finally, on death, went back into the Dreaming. Life and death were not seen as being diametrically opposed. The Dreaming provided a thread of life, even in physical death.
Leadership and social control
Aboriginal people had no chiefs or other centralized institutions of social or political control. In various measures, Aboriginal societies exhibited both hierarchical and egalitarian tendencies, but they were classless; an egalitarian ethos predominated, the subordinate status of women notwithstanding. However, there is evidence in some areas, such as northeast Arnhem Land, Bathurst and Melville islands, western Cape York Peninsula, and among the Aranda of central Australia, that strong leaders akin to the Melanesian “Big Man” existed and their preeminence in ritual matters carried over into the secular domain.
Aboriginal warrior bearing traditional body paint and ritual scars, Western Australia, 1923.
Courtesy of AIATSIS; creator, Commander H.T. Bennett D.S.Q. (collection no. D00029608)
Everywhere, age and sex were the major criteria in differentiating status and roles, and it was in the religious arena that the greatest differentiation occurred. Women were excluded from the core of men’s secret-sacred ritual activities, and areas of privilege were further defined by graded acceptance of youths and adult men as they passed through rites of learning. Essentially, however, Aboriginal societies were “open”: there were no social barriers to prevent a man from becoming a leader in religious matters by his own efforts. Both men and women acquired prestige through knowledge of ritual performance and expertise in directing or performing ritual. In Great Sandy Desert rituals, for example, leadership roles were situationally determined—that is, the personnel changed as the ritual being performed changed such that most senior men adopted such roles at some stage in the protracted ritual proceedings. Although desert women were far less differentiated, they did have a ritual status hierarchy. In religious affairs everywhere, women took orders from, rather than gave orders to, initiated men.
Australia: Aboriginal people
Economic development by Europeans had as its necessary complement the ravaging of Aboriginal life. Especially if it is accepted that the...
Traditionally, most dissension arose over women, religious matters, and death. Some women fought with husbands, eloped, and engaged in unsanctioned extramarital liaisons. Such behaviour could mean serious fighting involving relatives of the parties concerned. Infringement of sacred law was less direct in its social repercussions but was nevertheless regarded as the most serious of all. In many cases an ordinary or accidental death had wide ramifications, particularly if they were accompanied by accusations of sorcery. An inquest was held, and, through divination, a supposed “murderer” was found, against whom punitive measures might or might not be taken.
Aboriginal people relied heavily on effective socialization and the inculcation of a high level of self-regulation, reinforced by strongly developed emotions of shame and embarrassment, to ensure individual conformity to society’s rules. Wrongdoers were generally more afraid of secular sanctions or sorcery than they were of supernatural punishment, since the withdrawn creative beings did not punish individuals. The rules were unwritten but known to all, and an array of sanctions, positive and negative, supported them. When action was called for against transgressors, role allocation depended on the kinship relationships involved. For example, elder brothers were often the major punishers of errant younger brothers but were also their nurturers and defenders in the case of an unwarranted attack.
The maintenance of law and order was quite narrowly localized. Authority was limited and qualified by kinship claims. Precedents were sought in order to guide or influence actions resulting from a breach, and all societies followed approved procedures for maintaining the peace. There were no judicial bodies as such, though on the lower Murray River a formal council, or tendi, of clan headmen and elders did arbitrate disagreements between adjacent groups. Generally, simple informal meetings of elders and men of importance dealt with grievances and other matters. There was also settlement by ordeal—the most outstanding example of this sort being the Makarrata (magarada, or maneiag) of Arnhem Land. During a ritualized meeting, the accused ran the gauntlet of his accusers, who threw spears at him; a wounded thigh was taken as proof of guilt.
Although it is inaccurate to speak of a gerontocracy in Aboriginal Australia, men of importance were easily distinguished. They were usually elders who had this status not necessarily because of their age or gray hair but because of their religious position and personal energy.
The Aboriginal peoples’ nomadic way of life was a direct result of a major limitation of the hunter-gatherer economy: the certainty of reduced food volume and ever-greater expenditure of effort to obtain it the longer a group stayed in one place. Aboriginal people had to be intimately acquainted with all the country within their range of movement and possess detailed knowledge of the location, distribution, and characteristics of its water holes, fauna, flora, and climatic conditions. Their ability to read the ground like a map greatly improved their efficiency as hunters. Knowledge of the topography and resources of huge areas of country was also gained through religion (see below), which related closely to their economic life.
As valuable as secular lore was, it was of a lower order in Aboriginal peoples’ worldview than religious knowledge. Aboriginal peoples believed that the Dreaming legacy gave them responsibility for and control over the fertility and reproduction of plants and animals and that it was therefore only through the use of ritual that resources were replenished and social life could continue. This heavy responsibility was claimed by senior males, though all adults shared in the maintenance of the land and its resources through ritual participation and obedience to the law.
Before Aboriginal life was transformed as a result of the European invasion, there were two basic patterns of movement. In fertile regions there were well-established camping areas, close to water and having important mythological associations, where people always camped at certain times of the year. Camps were bases from which people made forays into the surrounding bush for food, returning in the late afternoon or spending a few days away. The second pattern involved a much larger territory in arid or desert areas across which Aboriginal peoples moved in small family groups from water hole to water hole along well-defined tracks. The whole camp moved and rarely established bases. Only in good seasons and at sizable permanent waters was it possible for a large number of people to remain for an extended period.
These two patterns were reflected in domestic arrangements. In the north, people made bark shelters and during the monsoonal rains used caves and stilted huts as protection against flooding, mosquitoes, and sand flies. In the desert, windbreaks—bough shelters or saplings covered with brush or bark—were common. During fine weather, most Aboriginal people preferred to sleep in the open with a windbreak; when it was too cold, dogs helped to provide warmth. Fires were kept burning, and, when moving from one place to another or even when hunting, people carried live fire sticks. Throughout Australia, Aboriginal people generally went naked.
Outside the arena of religion, material objects were minimal. A useful threefold classification for Aboriginal tools was proposed by the archaeologist Richard A. Gould. Multipurpose tools, such as the digging stick or spear, were lightweight and portable. Appliances, such as large base stones on which food or ochre was ground, were left at a site and used whenever groups were in the vicinity. Instant tools, such as stone pounders or the grass cushions used by women when carrying heavy loads or wooden dishes on their heads, were fashioned as needed from raw materials available close at hand.
Men carried spears and spear throwers and, in some areas, boomerangs. There were bark canoes and rafts and dugout log canoes, some with pandanus-mat sails. Women’s digging sticks could double as fighting weapons. Their large, deep wooden dishes held seeds, vegetables, water—or even babies. In some areas painted bark baskets, plaited pandanus bags, and net bags served the same purposes. Rarer objects were the kangaroo-skin water bags of the arid central areas and the skull drinking vessels of the Coorong in South Australia. Implements included a large selection of stone tools, wedges, bone needles, bobbins, and sharkskin files.
An Australian Aboriginal warrior preparing to throw a boomerang.
Replica of the bark canoes historically used by Australian Aboriginal peoples.
Courtesy of AIATSIS; creator Jon C. Altman (collection item no. N03187_23)
Australian Aboriginal people demonstrating combat with waddies (traditional war clubs), Western Australia, 1923.
Courtesy of AIATSIS; creator, Commander H.T. Bennett D.S.Q. (collection no. D00029609)
The major division of labour was sex-based. In general, men and youths mostly hunted large game, while women collected vegetable foods and hunted small game, such as lizards. However, adults of one sex could easily subsist for long periods without members of the other—for example, when men absented themselves from their bands to undertake journeys related to religious concerns. All adults of each sex normally possessed the full range of skills required for getting a living.
Men’s networks of obligations were generally wider than those of women. They included payment in meat for ritual knowledge until their achievement of senior status and wisdom earned them roles as directors of ritual and guardians of sacred objects and lore. Food gathered by women was not usually shared throughout the band, whereas large game was always butchered and distributed to all members according to conventions surrounding a man’s kinship obligations. In most of Australia, women provided the major proportion of the food consumed—estimated at 60 to 80 percent, depending on area and season. Women were the major child minders, though children often played and foraged in groups and snacked on food they obtained. As girls approached their teens, they were expected to become providers, while boys had few responsibilities until initiation began.
Exchange and trade were important elements of the Aboriginal economy, but there were no markets, and the promotion of intergroup harmony and alliance was generally the primary goal. Nomadic culture allowed no place for the accumulation of material goods, nor was there any attempt to link status or prestige to the possession of objects. The dominant Aboriginal values were unselfishness and the dutiful discharge of kinship and religious obligations. In gift exchanges, especially, the emphasis centred on the social bond being reinforced rather than on the objects being transferred. Scarce goods passed along defined routes from one group to another in an intricate pattern that crisscrossed the continent. Boomerangs, for example, went in one direction, red ochre in another; pearl shells from the Kimberleys found their way, gradually, to the Great Australian Bight. To exchange red ochre for the pituri (a form of chewing tobacco), Dieri people east of Lake Eyre traveled several hundred miles.
Beliefs and aesthetic values
Aboriginal people saw their way of life as already ordained by the creative acts of the Dreaming beings and the blueprint that was their legacy, so their mission was simply to live in agreement with the terms of that legacy. There was thus no notion of progress and no room for competing dogmas or rebellion against the status quo. Everything that now existed was fixed for all time in the mythic past, and all that the living were asked to do, in order to guarantee the continuance of their world, was obey the law of the Dreaming and perform correctly the rituals upon which physical and social reproduction were said to depend. Human creativity was not excluded but was explained away. The Dreaming legacy was not a static deadweight of tradition but was forever being added to and enlivened, despite an ideology that proclaimed non-change and the need only to reproduce existing forms. This view of the world gave precedence to spiritual powers and explanations over mundane knowledge or human intellect, and it placed everyone squarely under the authority of the law rather than that of other people. Aboriginal people were constantly surrounded by proofs of the existence and power of spiritual forces—the landscape itself was a dominant representation of the Dreaming’s reality—and their everyday activities were in large measure a reenactment of those of the creative beings, making religion indivisible from the mundane concerns of daily life. Outside the ritual arena, and notwithstanding the superior rights of men over women and of older men over younger men, people valued their personal autonomy highly and were likely to react with anger and violence to any attempts by others to deny or diminish it.
Cave painting from Northern Territory, Australia, of a spirit figure associated with the meeting of the legendary kangaroo and serpent heroes in the Dreaming.
Courtesy of AIATSIS; creator, Robert Edwards (collection no. N07706_07)
Through systems of totemic belief, individuals and groups are linked in many different ways to both the things of nature and the all-powerful beings of the spiritual realm. Totemic beliefs are more highly elaborated among Aboriginal people than among any other people. Totemism has been defined as a representation of the universe seen as a moral and social order, a worldview that regards humanity and nature as one corporate whole, or a set of symbols forming a conventional expression of the value system of a society. Such symbols provided intermediate links, both personal and social, between humans and the mythic beings. Many of the mythic beings in Australia are totemic in the sense of exemplifying in their own persons, or outward forms, the common life force pervading particular species. Others, originating in human or near-human form, at the end of their wanderings entered some physiographic feature, were metamorphosed as hills or rocks, or turned into various creatures or plants.
Totemism’s importance lies in providing individuals and groups with direct and life-sustaining links back to the very beginnings of society itself, the Dreaming, and to the enormous powers emanating from the spiritual realm. Conception totemism connects individuals to particular places and events and provides them with a unique account of their coming into being. It thus underpins individual identity while at the same time linking a person to many others who share similar associations. The plants, animals, or minerals that are selected as totems are not in themselves of religious significance, though in the case of foods a person may choose not to eat his or her totem, considering it to be of the same flesh. What is important is the connections symbolized by totems—the ties that bind people simultaneously to one another, to sites in the physical world, and to the omnipotent spiritual powers on which all worldly life depends.
Throughout the year, religious activity was often taking place or being planned or discussed, particularly by initiated men. However, the high points were large gatherings, made possible periodically by the local superabundance of a major food resource. These occasions enabled Aboriginal people to conduct their religious life in an atmosphere of heightened excitement and tension. The main ritual roles in most major religious sequences were reserved for initiated men, and much secret-sacred activity excluded all others, but women had important roles in many religious activities. Children also took part in many rituals. In some areas, such as the Great Sandy Desert, women had their own secret-sacred rites and objects. New rituals were always being composed or exchanged with other groups, and this diffusion added a vital dynamic element to religious life.
Take a tour of Cooktown, Australia and learn the history, culture, rock art, and dance of the indigenous Aboriginal people
A tour of the area around Cooktown, Queensland, Australia, including ancient Aboriginal rock art and an Aboriginal dance festival.
Fun Travel TV (A Britannica Publishing Partner) See all videos for this article
Sacred ritual provided immense scope for aesthetic expression, especially in dramatic performances with stylized posturing and complicated dance movements. Less intense but sometimes almost as elaborate were the nonsacred ceremonies (corroborees) with dance, mime, and singing designed for entertainment and relaxation. Songs ranged in style from the succinct verses or couplets of central Australia and the Great Sandy Desert, which were made up of three, four, or more words repeated in linked sequences, to the more elaborate songs of northeastern Arnhem Land, which were long verses building up complex word pictures through symbolic allusion and imagery. There was no poetry in terms of spoken verse, but there were chants, some of them outstandingly beautiful. The majority of secret-sacred songs comprised mythic cycles, each containing several hundred verses. The wide repertoire of songs on everyday events included the “gossip” songs of western Arnhem Land, composed by songmen with the aid of spirits. Instrumental music in the north was provided by the didjeridu and clapping sticks. In southern and central regions boomerangs or clubs were rhythmically beaten together or pounded on the ground; in southeastern Australia women used skin beating pads. Tunes and rhythms varied greatly from area to area.
Australian Aborigine playing a didjeridu.
Spectrum Colour Library/Heritage-Images/Impact Photos
Oral literature was rich. In addition to sacred mythology there were ordinary stories and tales, either historically true or presumed to be true. Some existed in several versions, depending on the situation in which they were told and the individual background of the storyteller.
Each cultural area had its own distinctive style of art. Tjurunga (sacred object) art, consisting of incised patterns on flat stones or wooden boards, was representative of a large area of Australia, although centralized in Aranda territory. In central Australia body decoration and elaborate headdresses on ritual occasions, using down, blood, and ochres, were especially striking. Everywhere, sacred ritual provided the incentive for making a large variety of objects—mostly impermanent, because the act of making them was itself one of the appropriate rites. In western Arnhem Land maraiin objects—realistic and stylized carved representations of various natural species—were made. The rangga, or ceremonial poles, of eastern Arnhem Land, many of durable hardwood, bore ochre designs and long pendants of feathered twine. For mortuary rituals the Tiwi made large wooden grave posts, and shaped and decorated receptacles for bones were common in eastern Arnhem Land. Also common were carved wooden figures of mythic beings and contemporary persons; some were used in sacred ritual, others as memorial posts for the dead.
Ochre, traditionally used by Aboriginal Australian peoples to decorate objects, to create art, and in body decoration.
Courtesy of AIATSIS (collection item no. 000125440)
Paintings in ochre on sheets of bark were indigenous to Arnhem Land, although examples could be found in the Kimberley and in southeastern Australia. They were used mostly on the initiation ground for the instruction of novices. In western Arnhem Land naturalistic patterns showing figures against an open background were the norm; there was also a unique kind of “X-ray” art that depicted the internal organs of animals and human beings. Also widespread were cave and rock paintings or engravings and sand paintings associated with desert rituals. (See also art and architecture, Oceanic.)
Rock painting of a lizardlike creature, Hawker, South Australia.
Holle Bildarchiv, Baden-Baden, Germany
Aboriginal rock painting in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia, which may represent a Makassarese house or bêche-de-mer (trepang) smokehouse.
Courtesy of AIATSIS (collection item no. 73746)
Aboriginal peoples in Australian society
Early alien contact
Aboriginal peoples who lived on the north coast were the only ones to encounter foreign visitors before European settlement. Seagoing Makassarese traders from the Indonesian archipelago began making regular visits to Arnhem Land sometime before the 1700s to harvest bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber, or trepang) for export to China. They had a powerful impact on local art, music, ritual, and material culture. In the northeast, on Cape York Peninsula, Papuan visitors from New Guinea also had an influence; bows and arrows, dugout canoes, masked ritual dancing, and the use of the drum can all be traced to them. Yet these influences did not penetrate into the rest of the continent, the inhabitants of which had no knowledge of non-Aboriginal people and no need to develop cultural mechanisms aimed at withstanding the impact of alien and culturally different peoples.
British settlement, dating from 1788, was altogether different. The arrival of carriers of a powerful imperialist culture cost the Aboriginal people their autonomy and the undisputed possession of the continent, and it forced them into constant compromise and change as they struggled to accommodate the newcomers. Initial contacts were often tentative but friendly. Although the Colonial Office in London prescribed the safeguarding of Indigenes’ rights and their treatment as British subjects, friction soon developed between the colonists and local Aboriginal peoples. Communication was minimal and the cultural gulf was huge. Once European settlement began to expand inland, it conflicted directly with Aboriginal land tenure and economic activities and entailed the desecration of Aboriginal sacred sites and property. Clashes marked virtually all situations where conflicting interests were pursued, and the Europeans viewed Aboriginal peoples as parasites upon nature, defining their cultures in wholly negative terms.
The frontier was a wild and uncontrolled one for a long period. Aboriginal peoples in some areas used their superior bushcraft to wage prolonged and effective guerrilla campaigns until they were finally overwhelmed by force of arms. In the period of “pacification by force,” up to the 1880s, a large number of Aboriginal people were killed. Others were driven into the bush, remaining in small pockets subject to the “civilizing” influence of missions, or were left to fend for themselves in the fringe settlements of cities and towns; still others remained in camps or pastoral and cattle stations to become the nucleus of a labour force.
Pemulwuy, an Australian Aborigine warrior who fought European settlers and was killed in 1802; etching by Samuel John Neele, 1804.
In James Grant "The narrative of a voyage of discovery, performed in His Majesty's vessel the Lady Nelson ..."; Whitehall, T. Egerton, 1804. Courtesy of the Rare Books Collection of the State Library of Victoria, Australia
Introduced diseases exacted a terrible toll and probably killed many more Aboriginal people than did direct conflict. The disappearance of Aboriginal people in southeast Australia was so rapid that the belief arose that all would soon die out. Growing humanitarian concerns and reactions to frontier excesses led the Australian colonies to pass laws, beginning in 1856 in Victoria, concerning the care and protection of Aboriginal peoples. They were put into reserves and given food and clothing to “smooth the dying pillow” as they awaited what the Europeans took to be cultural extinction. These laws offered Aboriginal people no place in the economy or society of the colonists, and in practice they resulted in much greater restriction and control exerted by whites over the lives of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people were kept off their land and were therefore unable to survive by hunting and gathering. Those who survived were drawn—often forcibly, always uncomprehendingly—into wretched poverty on the margins of life in the developing colonies. Armed conflict was superseded by a more passive but nonetheless determined opposition to cultural absorption by the invaders. Forced adaptation entailed impoverishment, both material and cultural, but no alternatives were left. Gradually, missionaries and government welfare agents began to have some effect, and questions of humane treatment came to have a more practical meaning. But in outlying areas, maltreatment, violence, and the forced removal of children of mixed descent lingered on beyond the 1940s. Further, wherever European settlement was intensive, miscegenation took place, and Aboriginal people of mixed descent eventually outnumbered those with full Aboriginal ancestry in southern and eastern Australia.
Postcard image of a man, woman, and child from a “native family” sitting at a campsite, reproduced from an illustration in the legislative report The Aboriginals and Half-Castes of Central Australia and North Australia (1929).
Courtesy of AIATSIS; creator, J.W. Bleakley (collection item no. N06453_02A)
Reserves were established in the late 1920s and early ’30s to serve as a buffer between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans. But many were attracted to, or forced into, the fringe settlements, where they formed tribally and linguistically mixed communities. This meant the emergence of a new form of living, structurally linked to the wider Australian society. It was not until the 1960s that the frontier period finally ended, with the move into settlements of the last few nomadic groups from the Great Sandy Desert. Their traditional life ceased to exist as a living reality over much of the southwestern, southeastern, and middle-eastern areas of the continent, though continuities with the past remained important in the values and modes of behaviour surrounding kinship and social relations, and at the turn of the 21st century there was a strong emphasis on cultural revival. In the central and northern regions traditional life remained, even on some pastoral, mission, and government stations, although in a modified form. In more remote areas it was still possible for Aboriginal peoples to live approximately in the way they had before European colonization but with notable modifications, particularly in the arena of law and order. (See Sidebar: The Quality of Life for Indigenous Australians in the 21st Century.)
Australian Aborigines demonstrating at the first Day of Mourning protest, Sydney, January 26, 1938.
State Library of New South Wales
Ronald M. BerndtRobert Tonkinson
In the late 20th century there were growing calls for the Australian government to apologize to Aboriginal people for abuses they had suffered under earlier administrations. For decades the government resisted releasing such a statement, but in February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology for the past mistreatment of Aboriginal people.