The Last 1000 Years: Trade, Religion And Art

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More than 50,000 Aboriginal archaeological sites have been formally recorded in Australia. The vast majority of these sites belong to the last 1000 years. From this time span, thousands of shell middens lie around the coast, dozens of camp sites and canoe trees line the banks of large rivers, while hundreds of rock-shelters contain paintings, engravings and occupation deposits. In New south Wales alone, more than 15 000 sites have been recorded, in Western Australia and Victoria some 13 000, and between about 3000 and 6000 in Queensland (3700), Tasmania (5500) and the Northern Territory, together with a few hundred sites in the Australian Capital Territory.


Many other archaeological sites are known to exist but have not yet been formally recorded. And thousands of natural landmarks are associated with mythology. These traces of Aboriginal culture. However, the life of the spirit is all-important in Aboriginal society, and these sites that lack tangible remains nevertheless usually hold as great or even greater significance for Aborigines than sites containing spectacular rock paintings. A number of the archaeological sites from the last 1000 years provide revealing evidence of Aboriginal religious life, ceremonial exchange and trading networks. They do not, of course, provide a complete account of the rich and complex Aboriginal social and religious life, much of which is not related to material culture.


The exchange of artefacts and other goods among prehistoric societies is usually referred to as 'trade', but 'exchange' and 'distribution' are better terms, for the far-flung Aboriginal network of exchange systems was based on social and ritual needs as well as utilitarian requirements and the laws of supply and demand. The exchange might well be rooted in systems of reciprocal gift-giving, rather than a need for raw material or a desire for exotic goods not available locally. Not just artefacts were exchanged, but also raw materials such as ochre and spinifex gum, myths, corroborees, dances and songs. There was little or no trade in food, but a roaring trade in native tobacco. The stems and leaves of the narcotic plant pituri, which grows in southwestern Queensland and Central Australia, were dried, broken into small pieces, packed in special net bags and traded as far as 800 to 900 kilometres from their source, over a region of 500 000 square kilometres. Pituri contains nicotine and is a psychotropic plant: it has a considerable effect on the mind. It induced voluptuous dreamy sensations according to Walter Roth, and was found highly intoxicating by explorer W.J. Wills. Aborigines mixed it with alkaline wood ash, which reduced its hallucinogenic effect, and they used it as a tobacco, as a stimulant on long journeys, and for ceremonies.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

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Pearl shell from the northwest of Western Australia travelled further perhaps than any other object. The broad, gleaming, silvery-white shells of the Kimberleys, often incised with geometric patterns and perforated by a small hole, were seen worn as 'aprons' or pendants by Aborigines as far away as the Great Australian Bight, 1600 kilometres from their place of manufacture. Likewise, baler shells from Cape York were chipped, ground and perforated to make oval ornaments up to 10 centimetres long. These were exchanged in many transactions between neighbouring groups, along trade routes that carried them into the deserts of Central Australia and even Western Australia, as well as down Cooper's Creek to Lake Eyre, the Flinders Ranges and, eventually, the coast of south Australia. These shells were items of enormous significance and were used in both sorcery and the most sacred rituals.

Axe stone was a more utilitarian item that was traded great distances. In southeastern Australia axes have been shown by the doyen of axe trade studies, Isabel McBryde, to have been traded 600 to 700 kilometres from their source, and some even as far as 800 kilometres. Aboriginal quarry sites are not immediately obvious to the untrained eye, but on the southeastern slopes of Mount William (near Lancefield in Victoria, evidence of intensive exploitation of rock outcrops and stone-working activity is found for over a kilometre along a ridge.

Aboriginal woman

On the western side of the ridge, quarry waste and flaked stone have accumulated in heaps of up to 50 metres in length. About thirty distinct flaking floors are also visible. These are circular mounds, about 20 metres in diameter, made up of worked stone and waste flakes. On the eastern and northern sides of the ridge, over 250 circular or oval pits have been quarried to obtain stone from below the ground surface. The stone is a volcanic greenstone, which has the hardness, toughness and fine grain needed to make heavy-duty stone axes with a ground edge.

Work at the quarry would have consisted of the stone being extracted and roughly trimmed into 'blanks', pieces of a convenient size and shape for making into axes. The final trimming of the axe and the grinding of the blade would have been done elsewhere. very few finished axes or other stone tools have been found on Mount William, and it lacks the soft rock, such as sandstone, and water needed for the grinding process. Axes were finally hafted to wooden handles by means of resin from the grass-tree or spinifex gum and sinew from kangaroo tails. The use of the Mount William axe quarry is known through the work of an Aboriginal information, Barak, who witnessed its final operations. The last man responsible for working the outcrops was Billi-billeri, who died in 1846. Mount William was the centre of a vast exchange system. Tribes came from more than 100 kilometres away to conduct negotiations for the exchange of goods. It is known that axe stone was traded for reed spear shafts from the Swan Hill district on the Murray River, some 300 kilometres away to the northwest. Mount William stone was also exchanged for sandstone from St Kilda, Melbourne, 160 kilometres to the south.

The 'rate of exchange' is unknown, except that in the 1840s the donor of one possum skin rug received three axe blanks. Since it would take much longer to make a possum skin rug, which involved obtaining, preparing and sewing together as many as seventy skins, than the two hours or so of work to turn an axe blank into the finished tool, this indicates the high value placed on axe stone. The distribution of axes has been studied in detail and the distinguishing characteristics of the stone from this and other quarries were identified by microscopic examination. Then thin sections - tiny slivers of stone - were sawn from ground-edge axes in museums and private collections.

Aboriginal camp

The specimens were then ground down to transparent thinness and examined under the microscope. In this way the axe could be matched with quarry and distribution maps drawn up for axes from the various quarries. The painstaking study showed that axes from Mount William were very widely dispersed: more than half the axes were carried over 100 kilometres away from their source quarry. Even greater distances were covered by axes from the Moore Creek quarry near Tamworth, in New south Wales. This is the largest quarry in the New England region. It is based on a greywacke deposit, which runs for about 90 metres along a saddle-back ridge. Aborigines apparently levered the stone from a trough cut into the outcrop, and the concentration of broken rock, flakes and cores indicates the prolific quarrying undertaken there.


Ochre pigments, used regularly for cosmetics, body and artefact decoration, and cave painting, were traded widely from the main ochre quarries. Expeditions were made from western Queensland all the way to the Yarrakina red ochre mine at Parachilna, in the flinders Ranges in south Australia, to obtain the special, sacred iridescent ochre mined there. Paint was made from ochre by crushing up lumps of the soft pigment-bearing rock into a powder and mixing it with water, or sometimes with the blood or fat of fish, emu, possum, kangaroo or goanna, or with orchid juice for a fixative. There are several ochre mines in Australia. One near Mount Rowland in Tasmania was visited by Robinson in 1834. There, Aboriginal women were the miners. They levered out the red ion ore using the hammer and chisel method, except that their hammer was simply a stone and their chisel a pointed stick. The women enthusiastically squeezed themselves down narrow cervices to get at the red ochre - one even became stuck and had to be pulled out by the legs! Everywhere there were signs of strenuous mining: heaps of stone, old workings and narrow holes. The ochre was packed into kangaroo skin bags and carried off in heavy loads by the women.

The most remarkable Aboriginal mine in Australia is that of Wilgie Mia (or Wilgamia), northwest of Cue in the Murchison district of Western Australia. This site was almost obliterated by European quarrying, but it is now a protected area. On the northern side of a hill, Nganakurakura, an immense open cut has been excavated, between 15 and 30 metres wide and 20 metres deep. The pit opens into a cavern from which numerous small caves and galleries branch off, formed as the miners followed the seams of red and yellow ochre. Ochre was mined at Wilgie Mia by men battering at the rock with heavy stone mauls and prying the ochre out with fire-hardened wooden wedges up to half a metre long. Pole scaffolding was erected for working at different heights. The lumps of stone were carried out to the top of the northern slope, where they were broken up to get the ochre. The ochre was then pulverised with rounded stones, dampened with water and worked into balls to be traded.

The cavity floor is stratified in places to a depth of 6 metres, and excavations have revealed stone implements and wooden wedges going back 1000 years in time. The several thousand tonnes of rock that have been removed and broken up imply a considerable antiquity for the mining, which was still going on in 1939. Red ochre was the most highly prized pigment in prehistoric Australia, and pieces from deposits created by ancestral spirits were essential for use in rituals. Long expeditions were therefore made to these sites, or sometimes the special ochre was obtained by barter.

Aboriginal children with dingo.

Wilgie Mia is known as 'a place of fabulous wealth' to all Aborigines in the west, and it is told how the ochre was formed by the death of a great kangaroo, who was speared by the Spirit Being called Mondong. The kangaroo leapt in his death agony to Wilgie Mia, where the red ochre represents his blood, the yellow his liver, and the green his gall. The last leap took the kangaroo to another hill, called Little Wilgie, which marks his grave. This hill was apparently mined for ochre before Wilgie Mia, which would make it an extremely ancient mine.

Aborigines traditionally regarded the ochre mine with fear, except for the elders who were its custodians. Areas that were unsafe for the uninitiated to enter were marked by piles of stones, and no mining implements could be taken away. People leaving the site had to walk out backwards and sweep away their tracks, so that the spirit Mondong did not follow and kill them. The ochre from Wilgie Mia was used in a huge area of Western Australia and is said to have been carried as far afield as Queensland. Not only is it an impressive example of the quarrying techniques of Aborigines, but the archaeological evidence from excavation at Wilgie Mia has also shown that the large-scale and highly organised exploitation of ochre in Australia goes back at least 1000 years and probably much further. The major trade routes that criss-crossed the continent show that Aboriginal tribes were not isolated groups, but part of the complex social and economic network.

Historical and cultural image available on request

Aboriginal group, 1900s

Nearly all communities traded with their neighbours, and this exchange system served to pass on not only goods but also ideas. This is important to remember when considering the spread of new artefact types. Change could come about through the diffusion of an idea as well as of the actual artefact. It could also come about very quickly. For example, a ceremonial dance, or corroboree (the Molonga), appeared on the Great Australian Bight only twenty-five years after it was first 'exchanged' in northwestern Queensland, over 1600 kilometres to the north. If the exchange has been of a stone tool, the archaeological record would seem to show the appearance of the same tool in the extreme north and south of the continent simultaneously. 


In a country with natural wonders such as Uluru (Ayers Rock), where every major topographical feature was endowed with mythological significance, it was not part of Aboriginal culture to build monuments such as megalithic tombs or pyramids. Much of the prehistoric monumental architecture in other parts of the world is associated with religious worship, but Aboriginal religion takes a different form. Natural landmarks are the centres of religion and ceremony. The places where Aboriginal people gather for the great ceremonies are not marked by formal structures - the land is their cathedral.

Aboriginal ceremony

In Aboriginal Australia concern for the dead is expressed not through buildings but through complex rituals, which may go on for weeks. The rituals are to safeguard the living from the spirit's anger, to avenge the deceased, and to ensure the safe return of the dead person's spirit by way of the sky, a waterhole or an offshore island, to the spirit home or totemic centre. Totemism is the religious system in which people are identified with a particular animal, plant or natural feature, which, like themselves, was endowed with life essence by creation ancestors in the Dreamtime. These totems are used to distinguish groupings in society and can be influenced by ceremonies conducted by the totems' human 'kinsmen', such as ceremonies to maintain the natural species. Some totemic increase sites are marked by arrangements not of stones, but of bones. Thus, in the Northern Territory, a striking star-shaped pile of crocodile bones was found on the floor of Sleisbeck rock-shelter, and a group of emu skulls was found at Ingaladdi. These are rare examples of evidence of ceremonial life surviving in the archaeological record.

Elaborate drawings in the sand or earth were part of the ritual in many ceremonies. ON the ceremonial or boar grounds of New south Wales, large, elaborate mythological figures up to 10 metres long were often moulded in earth or clay in the centre of the bora ring (plate 33). Such sand or earth sculptures were not meant to last. The most usual form of bora ground was two circles surrounded by low earth banks., linked by a connecting path, which was also marked by earth banks. One of the bora rings was a public place', where women and children participated in the corroborees and preliminary ceremonies. At the climax of ceremonies like these, the young men to be initiated would be led away by tribal elders to the second, secret ring for the further rituals of initiation, which might involve tooth avulsion or circumcision.

Aboriginal man making fire

The trunks of trees surrounding the ritual site were often carved, and ceremonial grounds are on record as being surrounded by between six and 120 trees carved with massive geometric designs. Carved trees, also called dendroglyphs, have designs carved into the wood, whereas a tree from which bark has simply been removed to make a container, shield, canoe or other artefact is known as a scarred tree. Carved trees were associated particularly with burial or initiation sites; initiation trees tend to have carvings only in the bark, whereas the engravings on the burial trees are in the inner sapwood or heartwood.

Carved trees have a limited distribution in Australia: they are confined to eastern and central New south Wales and southeastern Queensland, the region occupied largely by the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people. They are particularly vulnerable. In 1945 all the carved trees reported from New south Wales were catalogued: 131 sites were listed and contained between 700 and 1000 trees, but many of these trees have now died or disappeared in bushfires, as was found in a modern survey. Moreover, carvings on many still-living trees have been almost covered over by overgrowth of the bark. The designs carved onto trees were usually geometric and linear patterns cut with  stone hatchet or, in the nineteenth century, with a metal axe. The motifs include circles, spirals and concentric lozenges, and diamonds. They resemble the pattern used to decorate wooden weapons and akin cloaks, patterns which were often said to indicate ownership. it may be, therefore, that the designs carved on trees beside a grave indicate the totem or kinship affiliations of the dead person.

Aboriginal mystic bora ceremony, 1906

Four carved trees still guard the grave of Yuranigh, guide to the explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell. When Yuranigh died near Molong in New south Wales in 1850, he was buried according to traditional custom, but Mitchell also had a tombstone erected over his grave, expressing his appreciation of Yuranigh's fine qualities. (this site is open to the public). Bora grounds are also vulnerable sites, and many have disappeared under the plough or bulldozer, but a few still remain. They are almost the only Aboriginal sites to be visible on aerial photographs. Most Aboriginal ceremonies left no material traces behind. It took several months to carve and intricately decorate the huge grave posts used by the Tiwi of northern Australia in the final rites of the Pukimani ceremony. These were erected around the grave during the lengthy mourning ceremony, in which dancers wearing elaborate body decoration mimed events in the life of the deceased and drove the spirits away from the grave into the bush. Yet when the great collective mourning gathering was over, the magnificent poles were simply left in the ground. They were not repainted, maintained or reused, but allowed to rot away naturally. 

Aboriginal Corroboree 1900

In 1972-73 the Gidjingali of Arnhem land organised two major Kunapipi ceremonies, which brought together 200 to 300 people. Some 400 human-weeks were invested in carrying out these ceremonies, but Rhys Jones wrote that 'visiting the great camp of Ngaladjebama three months after the religious climax there, all we saw was the wind, whirling red dust over midden debris, and strips of paperbark rattling against bleached poles of collapsed hut structures. The investment had been made into the intellectual and not the material sphere of life. The only prehistoric Aboriginal religious structures that have lasted well were made of stone. Stone arrangements are very difficult to date, but thy probably have been part of Aboriginal culture for a long time. A wide range of types of arrangement, or alignments, of stones occur.

Aboriginal man/dancer playing didgeridoo.

There are circles, lines, 'corridors', single standing stones or piles of stones heaped up into a cairn (plate 34). The significance and mythology of stone arrangements is unfortunately generally unknown even to local Aborigines, for most of the sites have not been used for many decades or even for centuries. In most cases all that is known is that the stones were used to tell a mythological story and represented either certain totemic beings or enclosed areas where special events took place. The only stone arrangement so far dated is that of the Bay of Fires in northeastern Tasmania, where a new arrangement had been set on top of an earlier one covered with shell midden and charcoal, 750 years old. This gives at least a minimum antiquity for this type of prehistoric monument.


Rock art sites are found in their thousands in Australia, especially in the north of the continent, and have been studied by many researchers. One of the reasons prehistorians are interested in rock art is that some of it is certainly prehistoric and thus opens a window into the past. Some petroglyphs and hand stencils belong to the Pleistocene, and some paintings may have a similar antiquity. It was explorer George Grey who first recorded the huge Wandjina figures of Western Australia, paintings of such quality and aesthetic accomplishment that he could not believe they were the work of Aborigines. Indeed, for over a century, Aboriginal culture was held in such low esteem that simple figurative paintings were considered to be primitive, child-like daubings and anything fine or spectacular was attributed to visiting Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Romans, the lost tribes of Israel or visitors from outer space. it is only since the 1970s that Aboriginal art has been recognised for what it is at its best: great art of world heritage quality.  

The great diversity of recent Aboriginal culture is mirrored in the very different art styles found in different parts of the continent. These differences do not stem from the different types of rock surface available as 'canvas', but appear to reflect different culture areas. Tasmanian rock art is virtually all petroglyphs, that of Victoria almost all paintings. Only two petroglyph sites have been found so far in Victoria, but some hundred painting sites have been identified, mainly in the Grampians. They are small figurative paintings and symbolic marks, such as rows of short strokes whose significance is unknown. These have been thought to be hunters' tallies of their success in the chase, but thee is no evidence to support this interpretation.

The most colourful galleries in New south Wales lie in the west, in the Cobar region, where small, lively, red and white figures dance across the walls of dozens of shelters. In contrast, on the coast of New south Wales, in the Hawkesbury region, sandstone paintings, are larger and include more marine subjects, but the outstanding feature of the Sydney region is the engraved art. There are thousands of outline petroglyphs, and the figures usually approximate life size. Subjects range from whales to lyre birds, from dingoes to sailing ships, from emus to what appears to be a lady in crinoline dress. Petroglyphs are also found in western New south Wales, but these tend to be pecked rather than outlined. These are dominated by tracks and circles, like the ancient petroglyphs of southern and Central Australia.

Arnhem Land spears and throwers.

The art of the engravers reaches its height in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. There the development of this art medium can be seen in all its richness and variety. Ancient geometric figures, concentric circles, tracks and lines have weathered back to the same dark colour as the parent rock, a process that takes many thousands, even tens of thousands, of years, suggesting great antiquity. There are realistic, linear drawings of animals, often life size, and pecked-out human and animal figures, standing out in a fresh cream colour against the brown of the background rock. Although it is impossible to date most of these petroglyphs, the fresher, lighter-coloured ones are in general younger than those almost obliterated y cracks, heavy weathering and patination.

A particularly dramatic series of apparently recent motifs occurs among the engravings at Woodstock. This younger art is full of life and movement for such a difficult medium as rock engraving, executed with stone implements. elegant figures are shown in bold silhouette and dramatic compositions - running, dancing, fighting, love-making. The many humans include strange anthropomorphs - human-type figures. These male figures have forked hands instead of fingers, gigantic genitals, protruding muzzles and long 'antennae' waving from their head. The Woodstock petroglyphs were not kept secret, for they are often placed on tiers high on pyramidal piles of huge boulders, where they look out, as if from the walls of a gigantic picture gallery, across the featureless sand plains. Gallery Hill contains one of the finest collections of these animated figures, which occur in sites throughout the Western Australian Museum reserve of Abydos-Woodstock, and at numerous other sites within the Pilbara region.

Not only could these sites be seen by women and children as well as by men, but some may also have been the work of women, for many are close to a waterhole and usually within a few metres of oval patches of rock worn smooth from seed grinding. Often, the upper millstone is still left on the milling floor, and debris consistent with grass seeds has been found in the cracks of some of the ground surfaces. Gridning of seeds to be mixed with water and made into dough was traditionally a woman's activity in Aboriginal Australia. There is a consistently close association between seed-grinding patches and engravings. The virile Woodstock men seem likely to be women's art, in the same way that voluptuous female figures have been painted as 'love magic' by male Aboriginal artists elsewhere.

In visual splendour, the rock paintings of the Kimberley, the Northern Territory and Cape York rival those anywhere in the world. The Kimberley is famous for its huge, colourful Wandjina figures, but these replaced an equally fine earlier tradition of animated, small 'Bradshaw' figures, outstanding for their delicate drafting and bold, simple lines. Equal vigour and artistic excellence appears in the tiny Mimi figures of early Arnhem Land art. Impressionistic and dynamic, they still depict in remarkable detail lively scenes of prehistoric life. Much better known is the later style of Arnhem Land, the elaborate x-ray rock art, in which the skeleton and internal organs of creatures are portrayed as well as the external features. This tradition is continued on bark paintings. rock art is only one aspect of Aboriginal art, which can perhaps now be more readily appreciated through bark painting. Bark paintings are easier to relate to Western art, for they have a representational form with which we immediately feel familiar. And even when decorated with what is to us an abstract pattern, this can still be assessed in terms of our own abstract art, and its technical excellence and beauty of line and colour can be admired. 

The rock art of Queensland is different again. The Cape York Peninsula contains one of the most colourful prolific bodies of rock art in the world, recorded by the pioneering endeavours of local bushman and pilot, Percy Trezise. Enormous naturalistic figures of animals, birds, plants, humans and spirit figures adorn the walls of hundreds of rock-shelters. Mythological ancestral beings are finely executed with careful decoration. Other paintings were used in magic or sorcery; one shows a pack rape, others depict men and women, upside down with distorted limbs and genitals, being struck by a spear or bitten by a snake. This use of art as an aid in death sorcery was still active in the nineteenth century, for one painting depicts a European clutching at the reins as he falls off his giant horse. However, sorcery was no match for the guns of the miners who flocked to the region during the Palmer River goldrush, and soon the rock painters were wiped out or forcibly moved away from their land.

Stencil art is found over most of Australia but is most highly developed as an art form in the Central Highlands of southern Queensland. Here, most of the paintings are stencils. The motifs of hands, feet, pendants, axes, clubs, boomerangs and other artefacts are arranged in decorative patterns and stencilled with red, yellow and black pigment, which stands out vividly against the white sandstone walls. Colourful and striking as art, these stencils are also a valuable record of local material culture, although they have been subjected to innumerable graffiti and other vandalism. Paintings decay from natural weathering and few survive more than a few hundred years unless special processes are at work, such as the natural accumulation of a siliceous film over the surface or the penetration and staining of the rock by the pigment. Traditionally, paintings were regularly retouched and repaired, or in regions such as the Kimberley, they were often whitewashed over and completely repainted. Since the disruption of Aboriginal society by European settlement, this process has largely stopped, partly because Aboriginal art is owned by individuals and no one but the traditional owners may repaint the figures.

rock painting now seems to have ceased in Arnhem Land: the last painting was done at Nourlangie Rock (in what is now the Kakadu National Park) in 1963. This fine work depicts in colourful orange and white a group of stylised male and female spirit figures, some x-ray fish and a 'Lightning Man', who has stone axes growing from his head, arms and knees, ready to strike against the ground when angered, thereby making thunder, lightning and storms. Already the white pigment is beginning to flake off, but there are no rock painters to repaint such paintings and few scientific techniques yet available to preserve them. Aborigines traditionally believe that if paintings are not being regularly repaired or replaced by the traditional owners, they should not be artificially conserved but should be allowed to die a natural death. Non-Aborigines think differently - it seems tragic to us that this rich rock art should be vanishing.

Aboriginal art is a part of religious life and a vital accompaniment to ceremonies and rituals: it was never 'art for art's sake'. The aesthetic value has always been secondary to the religious or practical use of the decorated item. There were no professional artists in traditional Aboriginal society, although some individuals were recognised as particularly gifted. The best and most significant art is a manifestation of spiritual beliefs. It conveys aspects of myth through symbolic representations of the great Spirit Beings, linking Aborigines to the Dreamtime. it is the tangible expression of the relevance and reality of myth and of Aboriginal unity with nature. Art is woven into the whole fabric of Aboriginal life: through art, music and dance the stories of the Dreamtime are re-enacted.

Even if the messages of Aboriginal art are not accessible, the beautiful patterns, vivid colours and elegant forms are readily appreciated. Deceptively simple, the designs are often subtle, ingenious and sophisticated. Aboriginal art has a beauty, diversity and vitality all its own.


Prehistoric Aboriginal society was dynamic. Neither the land nor the people were unchanging, and it is the constant human adaptation to a to a changing environment that provides both the challenge and fascination of Australian prehistory. Much further research in many fields remains to be done before we will know even the outline of the full story, but what we know now from the archaeological record attests to a complex and sophisticated prehistoric culture. We will never know precisely when the first human footprint was made on an Australian beach, but it was certainly more than 50,000 and most probably at least 60,000 years ago. At that time much of the world's water was frozen into ice sheets and the level of the sea was more than eighty metres lower than it is today. This made the passage from Asia to Australia rather easier, but there was never a complete land bridge. The first humans to reach Australia must have crossed at least 70 kilometres of open sea. It may be that the craft used by the 'first boat people' were made of bamboo. Bamboo does not grow in Australia, so the first migrants might have unknowingly been blown by the northerly monsoonal winds into a trap, with no possibility of return.

Most of the earliest camp sites in Australia are now underneath the sea, for in the Pleistocene the continental shelf was dry land, so the coastline extended much further than it does today. New Guinea was linked to northern Australia by a wide plain, and it was possible to walk across what is now Bass Strait to Tasmania. The earliest occupation of the continent would have been off the present Kimberley coast or on what is now the Arafura Sea or gulf of Carpentaria. The oldest camp sites now known in Australia are in Arnhem Land in the Top End of the Northern Territory. These are Malakunanja II and Nauwalabila rock-shelters, which have remarkably similar cultural sequences, soundly dated by a combination of the radiocarbon and luminescence methods from the present back to between 53,000 and 60,000 years ago. Sites dating to more than 40,000 years have now been found in the southeast and extreme southwest of the continent. Whilst the earliest colonisation was probably coastal, with people moving along the beaches and up the river valleys, exploiting fish, shellfish and small land animals, they seem to have moved inland fairly rapidly. By 60,000 years ago they were in the Willandra Lakes region, which is now semiarid but was then in the lacustral phase, when Lake Mungo and the other now-dry lakes were full of fresh water. By 30,000 years ago people were inhabiting the arid heart of the continent, evidenced by the Puritjarra rock-shelter west of Alice Springs, and some caves on the Nullarbor Plain. They were scattered from the highlands of New guinea to within sight of glaciers in southwestern Tasmania; from the escarpments of tropical Arnhem Land to the arid red centre.

The first Australians were some of the earliest representatives of Homo sapiens. There is no evidence that Homo erectus ever entered Australia, and all the archaeological and physical anthropological evidence suggests that this was not the case. The existing fossil evidence is extremely sparse, fragmentary, generally undated, and very difficult to interpret. On the basis of recent research and use of three different, independent dating methods, it has been suggested that people with a light, gracile build were living on the shores of Lake Mungo in New south Wales by 60,000 years ago. The problem is that all known remains of the apparently more archaic, robust type are far younger than WLH 3. Are they simply two genders, a continuum, or two distinct population? Or, who is descended from whom? 

More than 150 Pleistocene sites have now been discovered in Australia. These for decoration, wore ornaments, and honoured their dead. The earliest burial in Australia dates to 60,000 years ago, and includes ochre scattered over the already mining flint - the finest tool-making material in Australia - from deep within Koonalda Cave in South Australia. In northern Australia by that time, they had mastered the technique of hafting handles to stone tools and of grinding the blades of axes to the cutting edges, remarkably early technological skills which are only rivalled by similarly early developments in Japan.

It is interesting to compare Australia's earliest stone tools with contemporary industries of the Old world, now that we know that human occupation in Australia goes back over 60,000 years. Australian industries are distinctive and have some special tools such as large waisted 'axes' and the horsehoof core, a single-platform core which was sometimes also used as a chopping tool. Nevertheless, they also bear a general resemblance to the Mousterian industries of Europe and the Middle East, and to the Middle Stone Age of Africa, including the use of the Levallois technique of flake production. If the 'Out of Africa' scenario is correct, one could imagine modern humans with a basic, genealised type of tool kit, and just the beginnings of art but with sea-going skills, crossing to Australia 60,000 years ago. Their subsequent relative isolation meant that they did not experience the 'creative explosion' or 'cultural big bang' that western Europe underwent. (An interesting theory by Wobst is that Europe suffered 'Arctic hysteria' and so developed every cultural trick they could devise to aid their economic and social survival through the rigours of the Last glacial Maximum.)

In Australia thee was a less dire need for change, and both artefacts and rock art seem to show a more gradual development. although dating of rock art is still very problematic, the outline of a cultural sequence has been established which suggests that simple, non-figurative art preceded the representational style such as the dynamic figures of Kakadu and the lively Bradshaw scenes of the Kimberley. Likewise the oldest petroglyphs seem to be confined to geometric motifs such as circles together with animal tracks. There are now tantalising hints that the art of rock painting may be as old as, or even older than, the petroglyphs. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry dating of tiny samples of pigment containing organic material has yielded several Pleistocene dates, and used pieces of ochre have been found in the lowest, 50,000-yar-old layers of the Nauwalabila and Malakunanja rock-shelters. Blood has apparently been found mixed with pigment in some subterranean caves in southwestern Tasmania, suggesting early ritual use of caves. Later, the art of figurative painting developed, and the relationship between the art of the engravers and painters is one of the fascinating, unsolved questions of Australian prehistory.

Another enigma is the impact of the earliest Australians on the giant marsupials which then roamed the continent. Did they become extinct because of the extreme aridity at the end of the Pleistocene, or did they fall victim to game hunters? No doubt both played a part, but high-game hunting is indicated by the otherwise inexplicable coincidence in timing between the arrival of humans in a region, such as the Willandra Lakes or southwest Western Australia, and the speedy extinction of the megafauna in that area. And at least we do have a 'kill site' or, at the very least, a scavenging site - Cuddie Springs, in northwestern New south Wales. Flannery has put forward a blitzkrieg overkill model, Miller and Magee a relatively sudden extinction by ecosystem disruption through Aboriginal burning, and Murray a gradual decline due to population attrition by human predation.

At the same time as they developed a rich culture, Pleistocene Australians successfully adjusted to profound environmental and climatic changes and the loss of millions of square kilometres of their land as the polar ice caps melted and the seas rose. The economic achievements of Aborigines over the last few thousand years are remarkable. Their economy supported a healthy population in some of the harshest areas of the world's driest inhabited continent, areas where, later, explores such as burke and wills died of thirst and malnutrition. It is ironic that such unsuccessful explorers were hailed as heroes, whereas the Aborigines who had successfully adapted to the rigours of the desert thousands of years before were given no credit for this, and belittled because they did not develop agriculture.

Hunter-gatherers have been described as the original affluent society, and an examination of archaeological and ethnographic evidence lends support to this view. Whether gathering bogong moths or hunting seals, leaching poison out of cycads or replanting yams, Aboriginal people evolved a series of successful and varied economies. These broadly based economic systems allowed them to exploit, and to survive in, a wide range of environments where European agriculture proved to be an abysmal failure. Extensive use was made of fire as a hunting tool, modifying the Australian vegetation so profoundly that contemporary flora has been called an Aboriginal artefact. A far cry from the usual view of Aborigines as nomadic, hungry hunters is the picture of well-fed people living in groups of well-built huts beside their eel and fish traps, traps that were cunningly engineered to ensure an abundant and reliable food supply. And these experts of stone age economics had a healthier, more nutritious diet that have many Europeans today.

Testimony to he innovations that occurred over time is provided by the evidence of many sites. In the technological sphere there is the development of barbed spears, the spear-thrower, projectile points, ground-edge tools, and special stone adzes for working the iron-hard timbers of the desert. And by 10,000 years ago, Aborigines had become skilled in the sophisticated aerodynamic principles of boomerangs. Far-flung trading networks were developed, and much time and energy was devoted to ceremonial life. It is in the creativity of the spirit, rather than in material goods, that aboriginal society excelled. Society was so organised that there was ample leisure time. Prehistoric Australians had more leisure to devote to matters of the mind - art, ceremonies, music, dance and story - than did all but a few Western artists until recent times. The achievements of early Australians are constantly underestimated by those Europeans who judge a society solely by its material possessions. The real richness of Aboriginal culture is thus only now beginning to be appreciated, as anthropologists reveal the Aborigines' complex social and religious systems, and archaeologists uncover the distant past of this heritage.

The coming of white people proved almost disastrous for Aboriginal society. Yet the present renaissance of traditional culture and lifestyle and the renewing of the Dreaming may help overcome this near-fatal impact, for the evidence of archaeology has demonstrated the extraordinary adaptability and creativity of these intellectual aristocrats of the prehistoric world. 

Australia - An Ice Age Walk to Tasmania

Australian Aboriginal Sites in Temperate Australia

Australian Aboriginal Anthropology

Australian Aboriginal Music

Australia Postcards and Picture Galleries
Australia Home Page
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