Aboriginal Traditional Society

White colonisation from 1788 shattered the Aborigines' sole occupation of Australia. The Aboriginal people, settlers in the continent for at least 30,000 years, found their land being wrenched away from them. The process was sometimes violent, and white settlers made little effort to justify what they were doing. When they bothered to give reasons, they talked about Australia being an empty continent, about Aborigines apparently not owning land, and about whites having a superior culture which ought to be spread among uncivilised peoples. But whites made little effort to find out what Aboriginal life was really like. Instead, Aboriginal life was quickly branded as primitive: features of it were soon described as quaint or hostile, and Aborigines were often simply condemned as a people of boomerangs, 'corroborees' and spears.

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Such judgments were hasty and inaccurate. Aborigines had developed a society that was well organised and on a much higher level than most white people realised. It also suffered much less from disease. Nor had traditional Aboriginal society been unchanging since ancient times, as whites often thought. The impact of white invasion, however, brought change on a scale not known before. Traditional Aboriginal society was broken down rapidly as white settlement occurred, especially in coastal districts; inland, chiefly in drier and remote districts, it survived much longer in its original form. Indeed, traditional aboriginal society did not die out completely - today Aborigines in rural and urban Australia retain many elements of the traditional way of life and often try to revive lost features of it. But a clearer understanding of traditional society comes from looking not at the present but at the past - at the period before so much destruction of Aboriginal life, and lives, took place.

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The People

In their traditional society Aborigines, a people of brown skin pigment and with hair that was usually dark brown or black, varied little in appearance throughout the continent. They had adapted well to the severe Australian environment. Their physique was suited to the exertions of hunting and gathering food. Younger Aborigines in particular were erect, long-limbed and agile. An ob server who knew Northern Territory Aborigines well was impressed by their grace of movement, and remarked:

Have you ever seen the desert man on the move? Chest thrown out and head back, he does not appear to walk but glides over the ground with springing stride; no fuss, no worry, the same pace, mile after mile, singing as he goes to make the distant object come nearer to him.

This kind of graceful movement was noted, too, in Aboriginal women, who while travelling could carry water in bark containers on their heads without spilling it, or piles of firewood in the same fashion. Aborigines displayed the same easy, assured movement in other activities demanding strenuous effort, such as stalking game, tree climbing and swimming. In climbing trees, for example, the Aborigines were expert. They cut notches to assist their foothold, used a strong piece of vine or rope to hoist themselves, or merely pulled and levered their bodies up the butt with hands and feet. (They also used the other method of reaching a treetop - lighting a fire around the base of the trunk to enable the flames to topple the tree.)

A tree-carving of Biami

Aborigines also had good eyesight, suffering less from short-sightedness than Europeans, though their keen perception of objects was above all a matter of knowing what to look for. Thus an /Aborigine would observe bubbles of air or pieces of nibbled seaweed rising to the water's surface, indicating perhaps a crocodile of dugong beneath. Eye disease, however, was common among Aborigines, in a land where the effects of dust and flies were severe.

Adapting to the Climate

Part of the Aborigines' success in surviving in the Australian environment came from their ability to cope with extremes of temperature. In very hot weather they took care to conserve energy, travelling by night if necessary. A Central Australian Aborigine described how his people journeyed in such weather.

...when Aborigines are forced to travel in summer over long, dry stages, they do not set out on their journey until nightfall. Before leaving the last waterhole, they drink as much as possible, then keep going until a little after sunrise. When the day starts to warm up, the Aborigines dig a hole under a tree until they reach the cool sand. Then they put a rough shelter over the top, reduce their skin temperature by throwing sand over their bodies, bury themselves up to the neck, and remain covered until the cool of the evening allows them to continue their way.  

In cold weather Aborigines would often sleep between fires at night - though it might bring the risk of rolling on to hot embers. The explorer Captain S.A. White recorded that the Aborigines would laugh at whites, who when camping made large fires that scorched one side of the body without warming the other. Captain White noted that Aborigines would 'sleep upon the ground in a row, hollowing out a place for their hips to rest in. A small fire is kept going on either side, and when it dies down the cold awakens them, and they put on fresh fuel. They do not really sleep for any time, just dozing off for a little while, and awaken with a start in case the fires are out. Generally Aborigines preferred to live and sleep in the open, though on rainy or windy days they could erect a hut or windbreak, or if travelling carry burning sticks to provide warmth for their bodies. Grease could be smeared over the skin to ward off the cold. In some parts of Australia, especially in the south, Aborigines wore possum , wallaby or kangaroo skin rugs, the result of much careful treatment of skins and sewing them together.

Mangrove log lashed together to form a raft, Northern Australia, early 19th century.

Aboriginal huts were known by a variety of names, such as mia-mia, wiltja, wurley and gunyah, and were ideally suited to the needs of the people. They could be erected in a very short time from materials near at hand, and were surprisingly strong and resistant to wind, rain and dust. A small fire at the entrance gave warmth and deterred mosquitoes, while the dark interior discouraged flies. Bark, branches and grass were the materials commonly used. A hut usually had a circular base, with a roof fastened at a peak or left rounded. In the wet season in Arnhem Land, Aborigines built a bark-covered platform, below which a fire burned to ward off insects. In some places, where people made seasonal camps, huts were sturdier and could be insulated with a layer of leaves, mud, seaweed, animal skins or sand. Rock shelters provided a natural sleeping place in many areas.  

The Search for Water

Finding water often took much knowledge and skill. Of course water from rivers and waterholes might be readily available, but in drier parts the search for water was less easily solved. Water might then have to be obtained from the roots and stems of trees such as the mallee, the mulga, the kurrajong, the needlebush and the desert oak. It might also be found stored in the hollow of a tree, notably the bottle-shaped baobab tree. The explorer Davie Lindsay saw an Aboriginal woman suck water from a cavity in a tree through tubes of bark. She had found the water after noticing small ants going in and out of a hole in a fork of the tree. Often Aborigines were guided to water by the presence of finches, pigeons or parrots. Aborigines could also get water from rockholes and carefully concealed wells, which they often enlarged, but kept secret from other groups. They also took care to cover the mouth of a well to prevent animals from drinking or fouling the water.

Woureddy, a Tasmanian Aborigine of the 1830s

The explorers Ludwig Leichhardt and Ernest Giles noticed another means by which Aborigines conserved water - using wooden shovels to build small dams. Occasionally, while travelling, Aborigines also carried water in a skin bag or wooden vessel, or even, as in southern South Australia, in a human skull container (frequently the skull of a deceased relative). Often in dry areas Aborigines would simply rely on getting water from dew-laden grass, wiping or shaking the grass over a wooden vessel known as a coolamon or pitchi. A more unusual, but still effective, method in these areas was to dig beneath the surface of a claypan and find a species of frog patiently awaiting the end of a drought. The frog had shored water in its body to tide it over the drought, and the water was perfectly fresh and drinkable. The key to the water quest in drier areas was detailed knowledge of the country. This knowledge was jealously guarded. W.E. Harney, who knew the Aborigines well, records:

There is nothing mysterious about it, just tradition handed on from mother to daughter and father to son, but with that tradition is a rigid law - none may disclose the secret watering-paces of the tribe. To dos so is to betray the people; therefore the native who divulges the secret is doomed to death. Observing this law they never camp near the water. No road leads to these places. Each person must take a different route and all tracks must be erased. To the Aborigines, living in a drought-prone continent, water was life. A few other beverages, such as wild honey, were available. Sweet drinks could be made by soaking nector-laden flowers in water, or by adding wild-bee's honey to water. It is said that in northern Australia a drink was made by soaking the fruit of the pandanus palm; if the liquid fermented it produced a mildly intoxicating substance to be drunk on festive occasions. In south-western Australia another drink, made by soaking grasstree cones, had a similar effect. Water, however, remained the universal drink, and when drought pressed sorely and water was unobtainable there was scarcely any substitute.

The Search for Food

The search for food could also demand skill and perseverance. Once again Aborigines showed their close knowledge of the environment, acute powers of observation, and ingenuity in attaining their goal. Considerable differences existed throughout the continent in the type and quantity of food available, but Aborigines became adept at hunting and food gathering in all kinds of condition s. Along the coasts they were proficient in winning food from the sea. Inland they were expert hunters of game. Along rivers and steams away from the coast the arts of fishing were again employed, while in hilly or mountainous country, in rainforest or the vast inland desert. Aborigines had other skilful means of obtaining food.

Hand axes formerly used by Tasmanian Aborigines

Different methods of finding food led to different forms of daily life. Hunters and gatherers in the interior often had to move widely to find food on the arid-surroundings, and had few possessions to burden them as they searched. But near the sea and along the bigger inland rivers (especially in the Murray-Darling basin, there the food supply could support a comparatively large population) it was possible to lead a much more settled existence. Here Aborigines had more equipment, such as nets, fishing lines and canoes. But for women and children methods of food-gathering did not vary much - their task was to forage for such things as plant food, birds' eggs, small mammals, lizards, edible grubs and even honey. Moreover they often had greater success in finding food than the men, who could return empty-handed from a long day's hunting. While the men's hunting is often considered the adventurous and typical way in which food was obtained, the women in fact were the chief food-suppliers among the Aboriginal people. Gathering rather than hunting - and women rather than men - supported most Aboriginal groups. 

Food gathering was usually a matter for the small local groups of Aborigines. Each sex and age group had tasks to perform. Food was shared according to rules. The time and energy needed to gather food varied with the conditions, but it usually left plenty of time for leisure. Agriculture was not practised, and only occasionally did some Aboriginal groups store food. In northern Queensland palm nuts and kernels were stored for months, and turtle eggs and birds' eggs were pulped and kept; in Central Australia Aborigines dried and preserved strips of kangaroo meat; along Australia's southern coast whale meat was sometimes stored. But food was normally procured only for immediate needs. It was a tribute to Aboriginal skills that the people could exist fairly easily without the larders and barns so necessary in other societies.

Food from the Sea

At the coast Aboriginal groups obtained a variety of seafood, often allowing them to live more easily than Aborigines elsewhere. In shallow water fish were caught in traps or driven into hand-sewn nets. Other methods of catching fish included spearing them from above or below the surface and using a hook and line. Quite large fish were also caught - it was not uncommon for Aborigines to feast on mulloway, dolphin for Aborigines to feast on mulloway, dolphin or shark, or even a stranded whale. In northern Australia canoes were often used in fishing. Aborigines would throw harpoons attached to a long cord line, occasionally spearing a turtle or dugong by this means, if the desperate victim did not succeed in breaking tree, a large amount of food could be won. Aborigines on the North Queensland coast had a remarkable way of getting such a prize. A sucker fish - a species which fastens itself to a turtle or dugong by a disc above its head - was caught and a line was fastened to it. Then, sighting their prey from a canoe, the Aborigines would cast the sucker fish towards it. After the sucker attached itself to the dugong or turtle, a tense struggle would begin, often ending with the animal being drawn near the canoe and harpooned. The task demanded great skill. One observer declared:

How they accomplish the feat of securing a turtle that may weigh a couple of hundredweight from a trail bark canoe, in which a white man can scarcely sit and preserve his balance, is astonishing. In a lively sea the blacks sit back, tilting up the stem to meet the coming wave, and then put their weight forward to ease it down, paddling, manoeuvring with the line and baling all the time. The mere paddling about in the canoe is a feat beyond the dexterity of an ordinary man.

In North Queensland, too, Aborigines showed their ingenuity in fishing by constructing tidal fish traps on Hinchinbrook Island. Other seafood at the coast included crabs, crayfish and many varieties of shellfish. Elsewhere at the coast great middens (mounds of shells) have been found, reminders of the Aboriginal liking for, and occasional reliance on, this seafood. An observer records that a sand midden on the west coast of Tasmania bore abundant traces of continuous Aboriginal feasting on shellfish, with occasional banquets on the carcasses of sea-leopards, seals, whales and other marine creatures cast ashore.

Engraved boulders, Mount Cameron West, Tasmania

Coast-dwellers, of course, also obtained food from sources other than the water itself. Tasmanians used their canoes to visit islands (muttonbird eggs, for example, could be found at Bruny Islands), and mainland Aborigines also journeyed to small islands offshore. Birds and birds' eggs, an occasional seal or dugong, plant food and small mammals,- all were added to the coast-dwellers' diet. But the sea itself gave a wonderful harvest, so that it was seldom necessary to travel far from it. The coastal campsites, each used fairly regularly, and the rather small local territories around them were centres of Aboriginal life at the land's edge. At the coast there were also tidal areas and lakes (as in Arnhem Land and at the Coorong in South Australia) where nature's harvest was particularly bountiful. 

Freshwater Food

Along inland rivers and streams Aborigines usually had a plentiful food supply, not only in the form of shellfish but also waterfowl, fish, tortoise and platypus. The Aborigines paid careful attention to weirs, nets and traps which they set up in these waterways. The best known and largest of the fish traps were built on the Barwon river at Brewarrina in New south Wales. Here stone pens trapped fish when the river level was falling. Elsewhere the falling water level was also helpful - in Arnhem Land it allowed Aborigines to spear the fine barramundi as billabongs dried up. Another method was simply to poison the water by soaking poisonous leaves, bark or fruit in it, so that fish could be readily gathered.

An Aboriginal man hunting in the Fraser Range, Western Australia, late in the nineteenth century.

The abundant food along the rivers allowed many Aborigines to live there. The lands along the River Murray were greatly favoured, as the explorer Captain Sturt found on his journey down that river. To many people, Aborigines in traditional society have usually been thought of as essentially hunters of land animals, but they also secured much food from fresh water and the sea. In this they were versatile and skilful, as their talents in eel fishing revealed. Eels, highly valued were common along the coast and several inland waterways, and were captured by various means. Often they were simply speared, but in North Queensland worms were skewered along a bobbing cane as a lure. In south-eastern new South Wales bark soaked in water was found to stun them. In Western Victoria a clever system of drainage channels was devised to trap the eels in their seasonal movement. In this district an early white settler described fishing techniques on a river's swampy margins:

At these places we found many low sod banks extending across the shallow branches of the river, with apertures at intervals, in which were placed long, narrow, circular nets (like a large stocking) made of rush-work.

The eel traps and associated structures in Western Victoria were engineering achievements of an astonishing kind. They guaranteed a large food supply, enabling Aborigines there to live in a very settled fashion. A village of more than a hundred stone houses has been discovered at Lake Condah. Hundreds of Aborigines would gather each year at Lake Bolac, south of Ararat, to work its eel traps. Large camps were made and meetings held. Details about this and similar sites suggest that Aborigines skillfully managed, or 'farmed', the eel supply. In Queensland there was also a trade in dried eels.

Hunting Game

Aborigines were highly proficient as hunters on land. Men and older boys normally undertook the hunt for larger animals such as kangaroos. This could be arduous, for native animals were often scarce and shy. In lean times it could take more than a day to track and kill a kangaroo or wallaby. It was vital to know the habits of the game being hunted, and vital to employ the skills of stealthy movement and patient observation. These sills were well described by an early writer:

As he walks through the bush, his step is light, elastic, and noiseless; every track on the earth catches his keen eye; a leaf or fragment of a stick turned, or a blade of grass recently bent by the tread of one of the lower animals, instantly arrests his attention; in fact, nothing escapes his quick and powerful sight on the ground, in the trees, or in the distance, which may supply him with a meal or warn him of danger.

Camouflage and imitation, were also employed when hunting. Bushes, grass and animal skins could be carried or worn, while the smell of human body could be disguised by plastering the skin with mud. A spear might be dragged between the toes; the movements of animals could be imitated as the hunter followed the quarry. Family members would often help to find and surround the game, which was driven towards the spear-thrower or flushed out with fire. In the kill, the Aborigine relied on a keen eye and a strong arm. The spear was the weapon most often used, and it was thrown with great accuracy. The hunter could also bring down a bird with a quickly thrown club or stone.

Fishing with nets in the sea at Rapid Bay, South Australia, in the 1840s

Animals like fish, were often taken to nets, placed along pathways. Another method was to dig a large pit on an animal track and conceal it beneath branches. Game such as wombats and echidnas usually had to be dug from their burrows. Tree-dwellers such as possums and flying foxes were pulled or smoked out of their hollows, or knocked from the branches with a boomerang. Waterfowl could be taken by an underwater swimmer breathing through a reed and pulling the birds below the surface.) Major Mitchell, the explorer, witnessed another well-known method - frightening birds into a net suspended across a waterway. Snares, nooses, decoys and brush fences were further aids in the taking of game.

Seeking Other Food

The search for other sources of food was less spectacular, though persistent. Aborigines in local areas often relied on a single kind of food, such as seed food in Central Australia, for their basic diet, but a varied food supply was usually available. The general diet in traditional Aboriginal society seems to have been adequate and nutritious, often requiring only a few hours a day to collect it. The task thus left ample time for leisure. Food gathering, however, demanded sharp eyes and patience. Aboriginal women played a vital role by collecting plant natural world intimately and used dozens of its plants for other parts of a number of trees, bushes, and smaller plants were collected. Items were prepared and eaten in different ways. Berries were eaten raw and seeds ground into a paste, while other foods were baked, pounded or soaked. Soaking in water was commonly done to remove poisonous substances found in several native plants. In places such as Central Australia, where game was often scarce, plant food was relied on. In northern Australia there was usually a wider variety of this type of food, though food such as yam tubers which women probed for with their digging-sticks, was found to colder as well as tropical areas.

Cooking a kangaroo in an earth oven

Several kinds of insect life, such as white ants, larval grubs and wasps, were also gathered. The wood grub was keenly sought, but took skill to find it. This grub lived in the roots of bushes or the trunks of trees, and had to be detected by patient testing of the roots or by sharp observation of the bark. Occasionally the sound of the grub inside the bark would indicate its presence. Once found, the grub could be withdrawn from its hole by means of a hooked twig and then lightly cooked. Its flavour has been likened to that of scrambled egg, slightly sweetened, or even butter. To Aborigines, wood grubs (often called witchetty grubs in inland areas) were an important part of their diet, providing good nourishment. Sometimes the food search led to delicacies such as swain or emu eggs, freshwater crayfish, goannas, the honeycomb ('sugar bag') of the native bee, or the sweet substances produced by smaller insects. Sometimes, too, certain foods (like the eels mentioned earlier) were abundant, and neighbouring groups were invited to share the harvest. Thus in south-eastern Queensland many Aborigines assembled at the annual ripening of the Bunya Bunya pine cones to feast on the seeds. Another annual summer feast occurred in south-eastern Australia: Aborigines from neighbouring groups congregated in the Australian As he walks through the bush, his step is light, elastic, and noiseless; every track on the earth catches his keen eye; a leaf or fragment of a stick turned, or a blade of grass recently bent by the tread of one of the lower animals, instantly arrests his attention; in fact, nothing escapes his quick and powerful sight on the ground, in the trees, or in the distance, which may supply him with a meal or warn him of danger. s to collect and roast Bogong moths migrating into the bushlands. Hundreds of Aborigines feasted on the nutritious moths. This occasion was not solely a food festival: camps were carefully organised, social arrangements, including marriages, were made; goods and ceremonies were traded.

Though they would eat a wide variety of foods, for sacred reasons individual Aborigines, for example, would not eat fish other than shellfish, and uninitiated Aborigines were not allowed to eat female Aborigines at certain stages, or for the whole, of their lives. In effect these taboos amounted to conservation laws protecting game which would otherwise be hunted. Even great hunger might not result in these sacred restrictions being broken. Knowledge of the environment and still in using its resources enabled Aborigines to survive quite well in areas where Europeans could soon perish. Medical tests of Aborigines living in traditional societies confirmed this. A white medical doctor noted:

We have encountered Pintubi, members of a nomadic Western Desert tribe, immediately after they had completed a two-hundred-mile trek across apparently barren desert where the only possible food was little more than lizards and snakes. These people were hard, lean and fit and our studies of their blood showed no deficiencies whatever.

Occasionally conditions bore hard on the Aboriginal people. Hunger could force an Aboriginal man to tighten the hair belt around his waist, and thirst could make him cover this stomach with earth. Extended droughts could even lead to death. But the Aborigines' ability not only to find enough food for a balanced diet but to have plenty of time for leisure and other activities was a tribute to their resourcefulness. Aborigines in fact could support themselves in higher numbers in drier parts of the continent than Europeans could do in later times - and with much less damage to the natural environment. In general Aborigines in traditional society were unacquainted with intoxicants, and used narcotic substances only to a limited degree. Apart from the habit of smoking introduced by the Macassans, Aborigines chewed the dried and powdered leaves of the wild tobacco bushy (Nicotiana), which contained very small amounts of nicotine. Another practice widely known in Central Australia was the chewing of pituri - the dried stems and leaves of a shrub of the Duboisia species. This practice, which was a regular habit among men, women and occasionally children across a wide inland area, gave a stimulating effect from the nicotine released, especially when burnt acacia ash was added. The source of the best pituri, and the recipe for treating it, was kept a close secret, but eager traders brought the substance from south-western Queensland to other groups. Pituri also had another use: it was placed in waterholes from which an emu was likely to drink, causing the bird to become drunk and an easy prey to the hunter. An observer described the shrub and the vigorous trade in its product:

The plant has the form of a small, still shrub with a number of straight stems, from four to six feet high, carrying yellow flowers and hard, narrow leaves. The leaves and little twigs are gathered ... and packed tightly into bags of woven fur-string ... These bags are traded for hundreds of miles, principally along an old trade route, passing from the north across the interior of Queensland and New South Wales, right to the south of Lake Eyre, shields, boomerangs, spears and other articles being traded back in return for them.


Aborigines in traditional society were not a solitary people. They spent much of their time in groups, mostly in small family parties, occasionally they would gather in larger numbers, of perhaps dozens or even hundreds of people, for special purposes. In daily life different campsites in a local territory would be used, according to food and other requirements. Some sites near available water were occupied frequently. Often the preparation and cooking of food was a central task in the camps, but they were also centres of social life, including child rearing and leisure activities. (Aborigines did not observe the sharp distinction between 'leisure' and 'work' that Europeans were to do, but it seems that Aborigines in their traditional societies usually needed less than forty hours a week to sustain their material requirements.) Although white settlers later thought that Aboriginal camp life was casual, it operated according to the strict rules that governed Aboriginal affairs. some of these rules dealt with food distribution in which the basic principle was sharing.

Spears from south-eastern Australia: the four on the left were used for fighting;
the two on the right are reed spears, with a hardwood end fastened into a reed.

Blackened oven stones and fire stones still mark a number of the former campsites, where large animals such as kangaroos, wallabies and emus were often baked in ovens hollowed out of the ground. Hot stones could be placed in the ovens to provide heat; hot coals and ashes were used to cook smaller animals, fish, lizards and birds. A thick coating of mud might be smeared around a large bird, such as a black swan, before cooking. Cooking methods varied throughout the continent, but baking and roasting were always popular. Boiling and stewing, however, were not practised, as there were no suitable containers.

In temporary camps Aborigines normally made do with shelters of a lighter kind or just simple windbreaks. In dessert areas separate shelters could be erected for shade during the day. A specialist hut-builder could do the work. 'substantial huts were erected in the more frequented camps. Some camps resembled small villages of an almost permanent kind. In fertile areas many Aborigines were living in these camps, in virtually non-nomadic fashion, when Europeans arrived in 1788. Coastal huts in the Botany Bay district and in Tasmania indicated this. Captain Sturt also found a group of about seventy huts on the bank of the Macquarie River in New South Wales, and J.T. Gellibrand reported a group of about a hundred while on a trip to Port Phillip in 1836. These campsites could feature the large material articles such as canoes and rafts used by groups along the coasts of rivers, or animal and fish nets, often reaching about a hundred metres in length. But personal possessions were not conspicuous: traditional Aboriginal society needed no store of personal goods for daily living. In fact such goods would have proved burdens to a people who wanted freedom of movement. Even essential items like grinding stones were often too heavy to carry and had to be left at different camps.

Weapons and other Material Items

Weapons could be noticed in many Aboriginal camps. Spears were usually the most prominent. These were used chiefly for hunting, but occasionally, too, for fighting, ceremonial purposes and play. Varying in type and length - the longest being about four metres - spears were tipped with bone, hardwood, stone or even an echidna spine. some spears had several barbs, capable of anchoring the spear in its target. The reed spear, made by inserting a shaped and pointed piece of hardwood into a shaft of stout reed, was common along the River Murray. (To fasten the hardwood end of the reed spear, Aborigines tied it with sinews from a kangaroo and then applied gum.) Spears, however, as in Tasmania, were often simply long, slender sticks, straightened by hating and being pointed at the end - and still very effective. To provide more leverage, many spears were thrown with a spear-thrower or throwing-stick (woomera, or wommera), which had a peg attached to fit into the notched end of the spear. A stone chisel could be fastened to the handle end. The spear-thrower had several other users, for example as a handy bowl or digging implement. The spear-thrower was not known in Tasmania (nor were barbed spears), but in its various designs - broad and bowl-shaped, or narrow - it gave greater speed and accuracy to the spear. One early European observer noted:

It enables a man to throw a spear with much force and great accuracy. Its simplicity and its perfect adaptation to the uses for which it is designed, strengthen one's belief in the natural genius of this people.

The Aboriginal spear-thrower has become well known. So has the boomerang, especially the returning boomerang. Boomerangs were known among other peoples, in America, India and Egypt, but the Australian Aborigines invented the returning type and were its only users. Boomerangs were patiently carved from curved hardwood, which was heated and bent to give the returning boomerang its distinctive lengthwise twist. A returning boomerang was mostly for play, though it could be thrown to scare birds into a net strung across a river and then itself return to land. Non-returning, or killing, boomerangs were often larger and not so curved. These were dangerous weapons, capable of inflicting serious injury during fights. They were used for hunting, too, and for cutting meat, for stirring the fire when cooking, and for clearing the site for a camp. Non-returning boomerangs were unknown in Tasmania and parts of northern Australia, while returning boomerangs had an even more restricted range. 

Another weapon was the club, or waddy, often known as a nulla nulla. Like the boomerang, it had a variety of shapes and decorations and was employed for hunting, as well as fighting. To ward off such weapons, the best defence was to use a shield or the base of the broad throwing-stick. Aborigines in Central Australia also used the shield to defend themselves in fights in which stone knives were used. Stone, wood and bone were serviceable materials for making implements. Stone implements enabled many tasks to be performed. Grinding stones crushed fruits of the inland nardoo plant and grass seeds into a paste, stone pounders beat mallee bark into fibrous mats; stone hatchets gouged footholds in trees or cut bark sheets for a canoe. To carve sacred objects, to fashion spears, to cut meat, in fact to accomplish a host of cutting, carving and scraping operations, the Aborigines used other stone implements, often finely shaped and of quite small size. The patience and skill required to make such objects is explained in the description of an Aranda man making a hatchet:

First, a large, rounded, diorite pebble is taken; then with a lump of quartz the workman removes fairly large chips, bringing the stone down to something like the proposed dimension s. This done, a rounded pebble of quartzite is brought into requisition, and for a day or even two, he will sit probably upon his heels, and patiently tap away, hour after hour, at the surface, taking off small flakes, until no sign of the original rough working is left. Then one of the nardoo mills, blocks of stone which are brought long distances, sometimes on the backs of women, for grinding seeds, is brought into use as a grindstone. With sand and water the axe is rubbed down until the surfaces are smooth, next comes the hafting; a withy is made and bent round the blunt portion of the stone till it holds it tightly; then the two halves of the withy are joined half-way down with two pieces of grass or other string. The next operation is to squeeze a lump of softened porcupine grass resin in between the haft and the stone; this done, a fire-stick smooths down the resin, and nothing more remains than to decorate the haft with red ochre.

(diorite - a variety of stone; hafting - the fixing of the handle; withy - a light, flexible wooden tie)

Stone tools survive from some of the oldest Aboriginal sites in Australia. Aborigines were possibly the first people in the world to use certain techniques for grinding stone. A study of stone tools of different ages, especially of methods of flaking and sharpening, shows that techniques of working stone changed over the centuries - revealing again that Aboriginal society was not static. Stone tools were originally core tools of the 'horsehoof' type - lumpy, hand-held choppers with a flaked cutting edge - together with flakes for cutting and scraping. These tools were used in crafting wooden tools, as well as being useful for other tasks. Later, especially in the last 5,000 years, smaller stone tools such as spear points, adze flakes and blades became common. some of the finest stone tools were the hatchet heads, with their carefully ground edges, these were used in hatchets (wielded in one hand) as early as 20,000 years ago in northern Australia and from more recent times in southern Australia.

A nineteenth century Western Australian shield, about 84 cm long
and 15 cm wide, used in a half-kneeling or stooping position in combat.

Like stone, wood was very important and frequently used for different purposes. Log rafts, weapons, domestic utensils, sacred objects and message-sticks were some of the wooden products. The wooden digging-stick was one of the best-known items in Aboriginal daily life - at least to women. This implement, sharpened at one or both ends and usually fire-hardened, was invaluable in the women's skilful daily foraging. Its use in finding yams gave it the name of a yam-stick, though women also wielded it for fighting. Many other items came from bark: buckets in the Kimberley's, canoes, huts, sleeping mats, clothing, sandals, and wrapping material for carrying food or keeping a baby warm. Shell, bone, gum, grass, palm-leaves, animal skins and human hair were among other useful materials. The shell of an emu egg, for example, made a handy cup. Animal bone and tortoise-shell were ideal for awls or fish-hooks. Resin, or gum, obtained from spinifex and several varieties of trees, was the Aboriginal plastic, important as a cement. Kangaroo-grass was suitable for making nets, while water containers could be made from possum skins or palm leaves. The Aborigines were thus skilled in using all the resources of the environment to meet their needs.


The trading (exchanging) of goods and ideas was a feature of Aboriginal life. Traders followed pathways - some being the pathways along which spirit-ancestors were supposed to have travelled - across the continent. Items of value found their way to distant groups and helped to keep traditional Aboriginal life vital. Through trade, local groups could get raw materials unobtainable in their local territory, together with articles made by skilled craftsmen elsewhere. Materials highly desired, such as ochre, pituri and skin rugs, were thus spread far and wide. shell from northern Australia was traded far into the south of the continent. sometimes trading was centered at a special place such as Kopperramanna on Cooper Creek in north-eastern South Australia - here soft-wood shields, spear cane, boomerangs, hatchet-heads from Queensland and the south, and prized red ochre from a quarry near Beltana in the flinders Ranges were among the items exchanged. Groups of Aborigines also opened up small quarries of stone for special purposes. Victorian greenstone - especially from the Mount William quarry in Central Victoria, which was supervised by a special custodian - was coveted for axe-heads. (Billi-Billeri, Mount William's last custodian, died in 1846.) Stone from this and other quarries, such as the Moore Creek quarry in the New England district of New South Wales, was widely traded. Skilled craftsmen in Aboriginal societies found a ready demand for their manufactures - the Warramunga and Tjingilli peoples, for example, made knives eagerly sought among their Central Australian neighbours.

Traders had not special from of currency, and the trade in ideas, art forms and rituals also spread over vast areas. The Indonesian and Papuan influences were carried into the interior. Other ceremonial practices, language and social customs were transported between Aborigines when trade in material items took place. (Today surviving rock engravings show representations of objects or fauna remote from their original localities.) Aboriginal traders would occasionally travel hundreds of kilometres on their journeys, carrying message-sticks or decorated spears to enable them to pass easily through other groups' lands. But such travel, often occupying about ten days, could also be dangerous, and trading parties had to be ready to fight. The return of traders to a camp was often the cause for great celebrations.

Camp Life

A powerful element in Aboriginal daily life was fire. By day it could be used for cooking; during the night small fires could be kindled alongside sleeping-places. Yet fire was not just a source of heat. As well as its use in 'fire-stick farming', fire could be employed for driving out game, for sending signals, and for light at night. (A tiny fire on a canoe could even be lit to attract fish at night for spearing.) The smoke from a fire at the front of a hut served to ward off mosquitoes. Fire also played an important role in ceremonies such as initiation ordeals. Fire had even further importance:

The (Aborigine) looks upon fire as one of the great indispensable quantities of his social existence; it is the element which dispels the evil spirits from his camp; it is the means b which comfort and friendship are made accessible to him ; it is his universal companion. More than this, it is the fire, with its warmth and its light, which draws individuals, families, groups, and tribes together and through as agency and influence that social concourse is established which lies at the bottom of all conviviality, oracular discussion, and ceremony.

A hatchet, as used by Aborigines who lived near Melbourne.
The wooden handle was 38 cm long; the stone head, 13 cm long and 5 cm wide.

The Aborigines had a number of explanations for the origins of fire. The Warramunga people believed two hawk ancestors first made fire by rubbing two sticks together. This story was passed down through the generations, and mentioned a common method by which Aborigines made fire. The method took skill: it involved rubbing a hardwood stick or boomerang vigorously across a piece of softwood to produce smouldering wood powder. The powder, placed on dry grass, leaves or bark, was then blown until a flame resulted. Another method, more widely adopted, followed the same principle. An Aborigine used a stick as a drill, twirling its point rapidly into a shield or into another stick held firmly underfoot. Again smouldering wood powder was produced to ignite other material. a third method, practised at times in south Australia and western New south Wales, was to strike a piece of flint against ironstone. The resulting sparks started dry tinder burning.

Aboriginal men were responsible for making fire and for carrying the fire-making sticks when the camp was moved. But making fire required patience and effort, so glowing fire-sticks were frequently taken from one campsite to another. This was often the job of the women, whose duties included gathering firewood as well as carrying children, domestic articles and water. Men travelled more lightly burdened, prepared for hunting as they moved along. On the Australian mainland, dogs were as much a part of camp life as fire. Before 1788 these dogs were dingoes that had been tamed, usually from the puppy stage' dingoes also remained in the wild. When white people arrived in Australia new breeds of dogs were introduced, often interbreeding with those of the Aborigines. There was a great bond of affection between Aborigines and their dogs: dogs were treated as family members and allowed to share the warmth of fires and beds They were not trained to hunt, but remained about the camp, eating scraps of food and giving companionship to the people. The dogs also contributed to the sense of the camp, adding their yelping to the gossip of the people and the laughter of the children at play.

Aboriginal camps could be scenes of much activity. Women spent time there caring for children, preparing food, weaving baskets and mats, and carrying out other tasks. Men could be busy making or repairing weapons and implements, cutting their hair, or simply recovering energy after vigorous hunting. Ceremonial occasions were also planned in the camps, with ornamentation being prepared for them. But whatever activity was undertaken, the special rules applying throughout Aboriginal society were maintained. Not only was the camp itself carefully sited in relation to water and weather, but the position of each hut and the sleeping-place of each person were fixed according to customary laws, so that married people and single individuals, children and visitors, all had their own places in the camp.

The Pattern of Aboriginal Life

Traditional Aboriginal society was quite different from many other societies. The idea of working a certain number of hours each day and building u a store of possessions or money was absent. Aborigines were nevertheless skilled in satisfying their needs. It was an advantage, too, for a hunter-gatherer people to have only essential physical items to carry. To survive in the demanding Australian environment Aborigines needed a vast knowledge and understanding of the land. With this knowledge and understanding they fared quite well in conditions which later overcame many Europeans. Although they did not build great reservoirs, cultivate the soil, or rear animals, Aborigines had an unrivalled ability to find food and water. They could read the signs of the bush to perfection - every track was recognised, every seasonal change mean t new things to hunt, every watering-place on their land was known.

From 1788 European settlers in Australia described Aboriginal society as 'primitive' and 'stone age'. This judgment was made by people who not only believed in the natural superiority of European civilsation but were anxious to justify their seizure of the land. Among other things Europeans pointed out the Aboriginal lack of metals and machines. They tended to ignore the fact that Aborigines had managed their environment effectively and could skillfully perform a multitude of tasks. This ability to manage the environment had not been acquired easily, and years of instruction were necessary for each new generation to learn the arts of living in this environment. Europeans also usually regarded Aboriginal society as much the same across the whole continent. This opinion was formed too hastily. It ignored the variations in material culture, languages and ritual between different groups. Other hasty European judgments were that Aboriginal society was static and unchanging, and that Aborigines did not alter their environment. yet evidence from the past shows that Aborigines refined their technical skills during centuries of living in Australia. They did not have a static society, nor did they passively accept the conditions around them - the building of dams for catching eels, the practice of fire stick farming, and the speedy adoption of Indonesian and Papuan customs were examples of that.

Europeans made a further judgment about Aborigines and their culture. Noticing that Aborigines could often be seen resting and sleeping in their camps, European settlers accused them of laziness. This charge came from misunderstanding the nature of Aboriginal society. Apart from attending to their various daily tasks in camps, Aborigines usually preferred not to follow the European pattern of work, with its emphasis on gaining material goods and profit. Instead, with its rich ceremonial life and its carefully framed rules, the Aborigines' daily pattern of living emphasised a different relationship with the land, one which aid not involve 'profit', 'work', 'laziness' or other European ideas.


 Previously, Aborigines satisfied their physical needs in their traditional societies, developing a material culture to enable them to live in often inhospitable parts of Australia. They came to terms with their environment, learning how to obtain food, how to craft implements and how to perform other daily tasks. It may seem that their obvious skill in providing for material needs was the main reason for the continuing existence and survival of Aborigines in Australia for more than thirty thousand years. Yet Aborigines did not rely solely on their ability to perform material tasks. A powerful reason for the strength and persistence of the Aboriginal occupation of Australia was the carefully regulated social life of the people. Aboriginal society was not loose or without structure, and thus did not resemble the usual picture that whites gave of it. Nor was it unrefined or barbaric, nor lawless. Aborigines were very careful about their personal relationships. Each person had a clearly defined place in Aboriginal society. Rules were carefully drawn up and observed, so that arrangements about matters such as marriage, religious duties and contact with other people were all part of a strict pattern of behaviour binding social groups together. Courtesy, too, was a feature of much of their conduct.   

This Web site looks at the social life of the Aboriginal people. Once again it describes their traditional society in the past tense, examining social life at its fullest stage before the white invasion of Australia altered it so much. It should be remembered, however, that Aborigines today observe many of the traditional social customs, obligations and relationships.

Birth and Childhood

Aborigines have always been noted for giving fond attention to their children. In traditional society this was done from birth to the time of initiation into the secrets of adulthood. A child's birth, as with other events in the Aboriginal world, was believed to be not solely a human affair. It was commonly believed that a spirit-child, from somewhere in the landscape, entered a woman's body at the time of conception. This belief carried with it the idea of reincarnation - the spirit-ancestors had left spirit-children behind them, who were then born again through humans. In turn the spirit of a dead person would go back to an old camping-place, often to a certain tree or waterhole, and wait until it chose a woman for birth again, perhaps changing its sex at each reincarnation.

Often a pregnant woman, and sometimes her husband too, had to observe certain restrictions, especially about eating particular foods. It was common for a woman about to give birth to remove herself from a camp. A companion might help her, though childbirth usually occurred without difficulty. In many areas a woman would have to resume her normal life as quickly as possible, perhaps even on the day of the birth having a long walk to rejoin her local group. A baby would be cradled and carried in a sheet of bark or animal skin, or carried in a coolamon which was sometimes placed on the mother's head. The baby was not clothed, but a mother's body would give warmth at night. When older, a baby was often carried on its mother's back. Babies were breast-fed for a considerable time, and brought up in close daily contact with adults and other children. From early days young children became familiar with the company of others and life in a group. Yet they retained a strong bond to their parents, who took special care of them. Parents taught children their first words, though there was care about the names given to children. At first, children were known simply by a term such as 'child' or 'little brother', depending on the relationship. Older relatives would decide a child's name to be given at initiation, but this adult name, regarded as having sacred significance, would often be kept quite secret - 'our fathers have told us that we must never speak of our secret names', said  Kurnai man from Gippsland, describing the common practice in his area. This sacred aspect of the use of names usually led to a dead person's name not being mentioned. In life a person's nickname was commonly employed, or the person might simply be known by the name of the clan or group. 

In the family group a child also had a special relationship to a certain person. Often, with a boy, this was to his mother's brother or brothers. This person, the child's uncle, would act as a guardian and be responsible for educating him in the secret life of his people at initiation and other times. The same person might select a husband for a girl child, his niece.These relationships were of extreme importance and at the heart of the Aboriginal social system. Young children enjoyed considerable freedom.Ttheir parents frequently played with them and taught them dances and songs. Some activities were good training for adult life: boys took part in sham fights, throwing toy spears or balls of mud, while girls had mock duels with sticks. Games such as handball, hide-and-seek, mud sliding and skipping were popular, as were water games and swimming. Children also played make-believe games and fashioned clever string figures from a length of vine cord or string made from plants. Mimicking the activities of adults was another favourite pastime.

Older children undertook many practical activities. These gave children training for adult life, imparting skills through experience rather than theory. Girls learned about gathering food and preparing meals by assisting their mothers. Boys were directed more towards the hunting carried out by males, beginning to recognise the calls and notes of animals and birds. They came to recognise the tracks of game, until they could even distinguish between individuals of the same species. They began to hunt for reptiles and birds and gather food for the camp. Parents gradually demanded more from their children, requiring them to understand their responsibilities as members of a group. Proper behaviour towards parents was expected. Then as children grew older they learned songs and dances, preparing for the important future learning of ceremonial songs and dances. They also learned to bear pain and hunger, which they would probably experience in ceremonies and on other occasions in  later life.


The end of childhood was an important stage, in which the respected adult members of an Aboriginal group played a major role. For boys it was the occasion for ceremonies, instruction and ordeals, forming the period of initiation. In general, traditional Aboriginal society emphasised the importance of males, and boys' initiation was regarded as very significant.  Yet, girls too, often had to undergo a similar, though less intense, process.Girls' initiation activities began as puberty was reached; these sometimes involved some physical marking, considered a test as well as a sign of more adult status. At the end of her training a girl left her parents' camp and, with little fuss, was married, usually to someone quite a few years older. But her performance of rituals remained important to her women had their own ceremonies and sacred observances in their adult years.

Traditional Aboriginal ceremony

For boys, initiation was a landmark in their lives, although its timing and manner could vary in different groups. It usually began at the age of puberty, between twelve and sixteen, when boys were separated from most of their close relatives and normal camp life. It could continue for a very long time, beginning with various tests and ordeals and extending through several other ceremonies. Sacred objects could be revealed to the initiates; secret life of the people. In physical terms the testing and ordeals were intended to strengthen a person's physical and mental qualities as a preparation for adult responsibilities. The physical part of initiation was merely the outward sign of the vital process - the recognition of a person's maturity and the passing on of some of the sacred ritual and secrets of the group. Initiation meant the end of childhood; it also meant the beginning of the full ceremonial and religious life which adults observed. Initiated people began to play an increasing role in rituals and ceremony, learning more and more about the secret life. They gained great respect for the elders, those who were the guardians of the wisdom passed down from generation to generation.

Marriage and Womanhood

At birth or perhaps before, a girl often had a husband chosen for her, according to strict rules, by a close male relative or relatives. The families involved carefully respected this arrangement. As the girl grew up, the families saw that certain duties were carried out and exchanged gifts. Often the marriage arrangements included the exchange of other sisters and nieces between the groups. A girl began to live in her husband's camp at the age of puberty. Since her husband could have more than one wife - often Aboriginal males had several - the girl might have to share the camp with an older wife. To the Aborigines, a practical people, a new wife was valued for the help she could give in food gathering and the carrying of family belongings. Her life did not seem easy, and she might even suffer occasional physical punishment from her husband, though she was capable of defending herself by well-chosen words or actually fighting back. She had to be courageous, enduring difficulties and physical pain with little complaint. Yet an Aboriginal woman's life was not always harsh, nor was she a person whose nature became hardened by it. It has been said of her:

Generally speaking she can be as kind and generous as any other woman: loving and fiercely defensive of her children, charitably tolerant of her husband and readily aroused to sympathy by the misfortune of others, especially children. The women love to chatter, gossip and joke among themselves, banter with the men and watch their children play. They enjoy adorning themselves ... Above all they endure a harsh existence stoically ...

When Europeans arrived in Australia they were quick to criticise the apparent lack of affection in traditional Aboriginal society between some husbands and their wives. They also attacked the wife-lending, polygamy and jealousy that occurred from time to time. Yet a

Aborigines as mentioned before, were careful about their personal relationships. Their society consisted of a number of different social groups in which the position of each person was carefully established. Non-Aborigines have usually misunderstood this system, those who have tried to understand it in detail have noted how complicated the system can be, but how carefully and how well it controls social life. 

Language ('Tribal') Groups

After 1788 the European term most commonly used in referring to units of traditional Aboriginal society was the word 'tribe'. White settlers also referred to 'chiefs' leading the tribes. At the time, such terms were commonly used about American Indians., Africans and other peoples. But Aborigines had no 'chiefs' in the usual sense, nor did Aborigines themselves strongly identify with a larger group of people like a tribe. Nor did they actually feel themselves to be members of a race called Aborigines, another term used by whites. (Because 'Aborigines' had been imposed on them, the people today often reject that name.) IN the case of the term 'tribe', while it has proved convenient to use it for large, somewhat distinct groups of people, a 'tribe; was not the most vital group in traditional society to which Aborigines felt they belonged. All the members of a language group or 'tribe', for example, seldom or never met together. There was no central governing body that organised the affairs of such a group, nor did the group work as a single economic body. Clans and the small local groups were of much greater importance in Aboriginal society.

What, then, was the larger, 'tribal' group? It was a collection of people, numbering from about a hundred to as many as fifteen hundred, speaking a common language and sharing similar customs and beliefs. There were probably several hundred such groups inhabiting the continent in 1788. Each unit should thus be called a language group rather than a tribe; its members also usually acknowledged a distinct name for the group. It occupied a recognised area of land, and all members living within that area believed themselves to be related. sometimes the differences between the language groups were blurred: the dialects or languages of neighbouring groups could be quite similar, allowing easy communication between them, and common boundaries might not be firmly fixed. sometimes a common name was applied to several groups or sub-groups (such as the Ngarrindjeri along the lower Murray in South Australia). Normally, however, different language groups had no strong bonds. The language group was a loose-knit body, which in Australia, appeared to be in process of breaking up into separate groups.

While each language group had its own territory, this territory was not regarded merely as a place for obtaining food and performing other daily tasks. It was the Aborigines' spirit-home, in which ancestral spirits had lived and still lived. Thus Aborigines were bound to their land by strong Dreaming ties, which made them very reluctant to leave it. When Aborigines referred to 'their country' they meant not just the area where they gathered food but the home of their ancestral spirits. Within that land were many sacred sites, which gave the land far more than economic importance. In fact it has been said that the land really owned the Aborigines, rather than the reverse.

The Local Group, the Family, and Kinship

As mentioned, the language group or 'tribe' was a less important unit than the local group. The local group has often been known as a horde or hand. (Unfortunately terms such as horde, band and clan have been used in various ways by different observers - a sign of the difficulty of understanding the complex social life of the Aboriginal people.) the local group was composed of closely related families who lived together from day to day, hunting and food-gathering over their own area of land, to which they also had close spiritual ties. This was the group in which they were very loyal. Members worked together for the common good. Food was shared according to strict rules, so that the old as well as the young were provided for. The families within such a local group when acted by themselves, and were the basic units of the group, they were related to other families in the group usually through the father, so that the group was formed around close male relatives of different generations. sons born to members of the group would stay in it all their lives, but normally could not marry a girl within it. Daughters would leave the group when joining their husbands, but remain members of the clan which had spirit-homes in the old locality.

In Aboriginal society the basic family unit - a man, his wife or wives, and their children - was always very important. Strong bonds existed between its members and members of the local group. In fact the bonds went further, since Aboriginal people regarded themselves as linked in groups of relatives. Behind this idea were the beliefs of kinship, which varied in some places and can be very difficult to understand. Basically, kinship rules considered some of the relatives of the same generation as equal, so that to an Aboriginal male his father's brothers were all regarded as 'fathers', not uncles, while their male children were regarded as 'brothers', not cousins. On his mother's side, her sisters were regarded as 'mothers', and their daughters as 'sisters'. (On the other hand, father's sisters and mother's brothers were regarded as 'aunts' and 'uncles'.) Aborigines thus grouped a number of relatives under a similar name. Kinship groups existed, and each 'skin group', as it was sometimes known, had its own name and customs. Marriages were arranged to members of other kinship groups, often between people recognised as cousins. Great care was taken to see that incest was avoided. Thus Aborigines grew up learning carefully about relationships. Their ideas about how relatives were classified, and about the proper manner of conduct towards them, formed strict rules governing personal behaviour.

These ideas of kinship and of groupings such as moieties, sections and subsection within Aboriginal society remain complicated. Moieties, for example, were two other divisions into which people were often classified, according to their fathers' or mothers' bloodlines, this system helped to guard against marriages between close relatives. Sections (there were four sections in many language groups) were further divisions. Though little detail about these groups can be given here, the important point is that social relationships and patterns of behaviour towards other people were strongly influenced by the kinship system, which dealt with many matters besides th allowable choice of a marriage partner. Under this system Aborigines avoided possible conflict with certain people, such as mothers-in-law, by limiting contact between them (they were not to speak to each other). The same system required the performance of religious and other duties, and guided arrangements about the proper sharing of food. In this well-ordered society rules had to be respected, for the welfare of all. If rules were broken, punishment followed, either by verbal admonishing or by physical means, and in extreme cases even death. Disagreements were often settled by duelling with spears, clubs or digging-sticks until first blood was drawn. Usually disputes were settled as soon as possible, so that the peaceful pattern of group life could be restored. Occasionally, however, some hostile attitudes between different parties lingered for years, overflowing into violent clashes, injuries and deaths. But wide-scale fighting - 'tribal wars', as Europeans imagined it - was not part of traditional Aboriginal society.

Law and the Elders

Early European settlers in Australia generally thought that Aborigines lived in a lawless state. Yet respect for Aboriginal laws was required - and enforced - among Aborigines in traditional society. The ancestral spirits, above all, had laid down expected patterns of behaviour. Neglect of these sacred obligations was an offence from which punishments resulted. There were also offences against people and property. It is important to note, however, that laws and patterns of expected behaviour were not established by Aboriginal 'governments', of the European kind. There was no single, central government, nor were there law courts to decide disputes and punishments. Perhaps the nearest thing to a ruling body in traditional society was the group of elders, usually men. Great respect was shown for these recognised elders, whose grey hair usually marked them out from others. Yet is was not merely old age that distinguished them, for some were younger, active men whose abilities and wise counsel were acknowledged. The elders were known for their experience in practical affairs and for their knowledge of sacred matters. From time to time they could act as an informal council and make decisions affecting group members. They could settle arguments and decide courses of action to be followed. Perhaps one elder would be particularly important and his advice would thus be specially heeded, though he was not a king or chief. In fact the elders were not simply judges or lawmakers but rather teachers of their fellow people.

The Spiritual Life

Behind all social arrangements - indeed behind all Aboriginal life - was a powerful set of religious beliefs. Aboriginal life can not be understood without reference to them. Again this can be seen in the Aboriginal relationship to the land. Individuals did not own land in the European sense - the land they occupied was passed down from previous generations and entrusted to them. As has been mentioned, the land seemed to own them, not the opposite, since the land was the spiritual home of their ancestors, who included the ancestral beings who had wandered the land in the creation time. Thus Aborigines regarded this land, and the parts of it occupied by local groups, as entrusted to their care, rather than owned for practical purposes. The clans were important in land-owning matters. Clans were groups of people related by descent from a common ancestor, sometimes human, sometimes non-human. These groups would jealously guard their spirit-homes, including the sacred sits of their clan and their sacred rituals, totems and songs.

The Aborigine was a very religious person whose life was strongly shaped by spiritual beliefs. The anthropologist F.D. McCarthy explained the importance of religion in traditional Aboriginal society:

To the initiated man his religion explains the origin of life itself and of his tribal customs, the source of supply of food and raw materials, and the mysterious word beyond the comprehension of his scientific or general knowledge. To hi it is a religion of great sanctity, inspiring in its mythology and songs, and impressive in its often colorful ceremonies ... it becomes a most important part of the adult life of the men, demanding a great deal of time and energy in the enactment of ritual, a tremendous concentration of intelligence in the memorisation of the myths, song-cycles, ritual procedure and art designs, and an absolute faith in the efficacy of the beliefs and ceremonial activities.

At eh heart of Aboriginal religion was the idea of the Dreaming, outlined earlier on this Web site. This idea was kept alive in the stories about the spirit-ancestors, stories varying among Aboriginal groups but usually rich in detail. These are often referred to as myths, though to Aborigines they were not myths but truths forming the basis of social life. The spirit-ancestors, as outlined above, laid down patterns of behaviour that had to be followed - failure to observe these and carry out the proper rituals could lead to a lack of rain or food, as well as punishment for the wrongdoer. Again it was customary for the fully initiated men, and especially the elders, to be the guardians of these traditional cults and responsible for passing them on to the next generation. These men had the greatest knowledge of the traditions and determined when the appropriate rituals were to be held. The rituals were dramatic performances in which acting, singing and dancing were very important. The parts had to be learned by heart, and the whole performance had greater significance because the actors seemed to become the ancestral beings themselves. The ceremonies were held on sacred ground and usually could not be seen by the initiated or members of the female sex. As part of the rituals, designs of great totemic significance were painted on the bodies of the participants, on the ground, on rock surfaces or on sacred objects for this purpose the Aborigines used ochre, human blood and birds' down. A headdress of grass, twigs and human hair could complete the decoration.

The whole effect of the material decoration was very colourful. Other objects, too, gave vital meaning to the sacred ceremonies. These were the visual representations of the sacred life. Natural features such as trees, hills and groups of boulders frequently had sacred significance, but smaller portable objects of wood or stone also had special meaning. 'they were part of the separate sacred life of both men and women, and were kept secret by each sex.

The Natural World and Totemism

The Aboriginal people clearly lived very close to nature, or more correctly, regarded themselves as at one with nature - part of a natural order in which animals, plants and Aborigines were linked together. The heavens, too, were part of this natural order. The sky seemed always close, in fact only a little higher than the highest tree; it was the home of the heroes, some of whom, after their earthly deeds, lived on as stars. The Milky Way was a path over which the sky-people travelled, while the sun-woman with her fiery torch and the Moon-man with his smaller torch gave light to all the world. The Aurora Australis was the blood shed by men fighting a great battle, and a shooting star was a medicine-man's fire-stick dropping to kill someone. Explanations might vary, but almost nothing was strange and impossible to understand in the heavens or on the earth. The Aborigines' task was to learn to live in harmony with the many living things that shared the world with them.

This task was made easier through belief in totemism. For Aborigines totemism brought humans and the environment together. Aborigines were not alone in this belief: the American Indians held a similar idea. In Aboriginal society individuals had their own totem, which identified them with a natural object. The members of the bandicoot totemic group, for example, believed in a special link with the bandicoot, which as their totem became their guardian. It was even more than this, for it became the symbol of common ancestry to members of that group, linking them to the Dreaming and its heroes. Each Aboriginal clan had its totem and, since the clan could also include plants and animals, a special relationship existed between its human and non-human members. Like other matters in Aboriginal society the concept of totemism could be quite complicated. There were differences, for example, in the way totemism was observed. sometimes a person's totem was identified by  the elders, who decided exactly what spirit-child could have entered a mother's body through a particular food she had eaten, or through her being near a totem centre at some stage. some types of totem were inherited - a child could inherit the totem of the father's or maternal uncle's cult group./ but everywhere the totems were greatly honoured, and normally Aborigines could not kill or eat their own totem animal or plant; instead, they would carry out rituals to increase its numbers. Thus totems were held in great respect. The anthropologist Herbert Basedow gave an instance of this:

I well remember on one occasion on the Alberga River I discovered a small black and yellow banded snake which I killed. An Alundja man who was attached to the party at the time was greatly shocked at this, and, with genuine sorrow, told me that I had killed his 'brother'. Turning to an Arundta he lamented aloud. 'Kormye! Nanni kailye nuka kalla illum,' which literally translated mans: 'Oh dear! This brother of mine is dead.'


Totems were vital in Aboriginal life, emphasising the close link between Aborigines and the spirit-world around them. Aborigines believed the world abounded with spirits, some friendly, some hostile. This belief led to explanations about the origin of human life, and also helped to explain what happened at death. Death was the end of physical life only, for a dead person's spirit was then released from the body. It would make this way to a home in the sky with the spirit-ancestors, or to a spirit-centre such as a waterhole, where it could await rebirth in another human form. In some groups it was believed the spirit was carried across the sea to a land of the dead.

Death was a complex issue. Aborigines often believed there was another form of the dead person's spirit, called the 'trickster spirit'. This mischievous spirit sought to remain near the body and cause trouble. It was best not to disturb it. After mourning their loss, often with loud wailing and gashing of their bodies, the family members left the scene of death, though mourning ceremonies could still follow. To prevent arousing the trickster spirit, the use of the dead person's name was avoided for a long time, possibly for ever. But there were often visible reminders of death, such as mound grave, a cremation site, or a tree-platform on which the body was placed, together with white clay and bark armlets worn by mourners. Graveposts were often erected. In northern Australia, where funeral rituals were important and prolonged, the graveposts of the Tiwi people on Bathurst and Melville Islands were grandly decorated, and were features of the sacred (Pukamani) mourning ceremonies held there. 

'Magic', Doctors and Cures

The death of a person neither old nor killed in fighting was a disturbing event, causing much consternation and mourning. The death, it was claimed, must be due to an enemy. This touched closely on the matter of 'magic', a powerful factor in Aboriginal life. It was believed death could be brought about by another person's 'magic'. If so, the death had to be avenged, and every effort was made to find a person who could be held responsible for it - perhaps someone who had quarreled with the dead person or shown jealousy, or who had offended in some other way. A number of signs might identify the person to be blamed. To settle the matter, a revenge expedition could be sent out, or an agreement might be arranged with the guilty party.

The talents of Aboriginal 'doctors' - often known as 'medicine-men', though a few women also had the same role - gave further evidence of 'magical' power. These doctors, who had undertaken special initiation, directed their efforts towards curing sicknesses, finding the causes of death, making rain (or stopping it) and predicting the future. An evil spirit entering the body was believed to cause sickness, and had to be removed in order to cure the patient. Here the services of the doctors were required. A cure was attempted by rubbing or sucking the affected part. Usually the doctor managed to produce a piece of bone or stick which was claimed to have come from the sick person and to have been responsible for the malady. 'these doctors were often able to bring about a cure because of the psychological effect of their work, and they became greatly respected.

Minor illnesses were often treated by first-aid measures. Various plants were crushed and soaked in water to provide a fluid for the relief of stomach trouble, snakebite and injuries. Blood was drawn from a patient to help relive headaches. Tourniquets were applied to lessen pain. Heat was used to treat arches and pains, with a sick person either lying in hot sand or receiving steam treatment. some illnesses were more difficult to cure - eye-troubles, common among a people exposed to dust and glare, were like this, and fractured limbs, although often splintered, seldom mended well.

Ceremonial Gatherings and Performers

It would be a mistake to suppose that Aboriginal life was made continually grim by sickness or sorcery. Nor did ritual duties make Aborigines over-serious and reserved. Daily life brought many simple pleasures, and Aborigines became known for their good humour and temperament. Pleasure could be found and expressed in music and dance at gatherings. Many gatherings were non-sacred ceremonies. They centred on day-to-day experiences, dramatising the affairs of humans and the natural world through singing, dancing and noise-making. Music for simple gatherings, and for ceremonies, was easily made. sometimes Aborigines merely slapped their thighs to make the sound. At other times, pieces of wood (such as boomerangs) were struck together to provide the rhythmic beat for dancing. Bundles of gum leaves fastened around the ankles and arms enabled Aborigines to imitate the rustling of emu feathers. The most distinctive sounds ere the wailing chants of the Aborigines themselves or the droning notes of the didjeridu, the long pipe made from a bamboo or eucalyptus branch and found in certain northern parts of Australia. A skilled blower of the didjeridu was not always easy to find, and a person who could blow it well, never seeming to stop for breath and capable of producing notes of two different pitches, was in great demand.

A songman, too, was highly regarded. He was a special performer who composed songs to describe day-to-day events. His extensive repertoire could be enriched by songs handed down from ancestors. Like the skilled didjeridu player, the songman was often asked to perform for other groups, and was paid for his services. He could be noted for his voice of varying pitch, leading others in a chorus. There were specialist leaders in dancing as well. This was a central part of ceremonies and often involved miming, especially of the actions of animals.

Language and Communication

Aborigines in traditional societies used artistic means of communicating feelings and ideas in their gatherings and sacred ceremonies. Speech, of course, was the normal means of communication at other times. There were a great number of different languages and dialects spoken, possibly about six hundred in all, but they had a general similarity, except perhaps for the Tasmanian ones. Because Aboriginal languages were unlike those in other countries and had apparently been spoken for a long time, it seems they developed in Australia itself. They were often rich in meaning and vocabulary, especially in reference to the natural world. To understand any of them it is necessary to understand the way their users lived and thought. Words were often built up to a considerable length, and were spoken in voices of a reasonably high pitch. In different parts of the continent variations could be noticed in the different language sounds, the use of vowels or consonants of the end of words, and so on. These variations can be recognised even now in surviving Aboriginal place names Accents, body gestures and other mannerisms gave fuller meaning to spoken words.

Since there were so many spoken languages but no written language, it was often difficult for Aborigines to communicate beyond their own language group. Message-sticks carried when travelling had in fact no messages written on them, but were to help identify the bearer and give him some authority. Sign language, used extensively, was a common method of overcoming the language difficulty. Signs were made with the hands or by facial or body movements. They could also be used within a group to convey secret meanings and to give messages when hunting. This allowed considerable 'conversations' to go on. Another form of communication was by smoke-signals - these, like message-sticks, conveyed no actual message, but were pre-arranged signs useful in huntin g and in faxing a camp location. A visitor also made them to announce arrival in a strange territory. 

Visual Art

finally, there were other important ways in which Aborigines expressed themselves, ways that can be called visual art. This term refers mainly to the techniques of painting, shaping and carving, carried out on wood, bark, rock surfaces and the ground. There was also the painting of the human body for ceremonial purposes. Other forms of artistic expression, such as making designs on skin cloaks and modelling with beeswax, were uncommon. some of the results of artistic expression, such as the richly decorated graveposts of the Tiwi people, have already been mentioned, and have become widely recognised through displays and photographs as symbols of Aboriginal life.

Aboriginal art reflected the everyday experiences of the people, but its greatest inspiration came from the sacred life, rich in its stories of the Dreaming, totemic beliefs and the spirit-world. In this kind of art Aborigines were doing more than just making representations. They were expressing their beliefs visually and linking themselves to the spirit-world. The great creation period, with its stories of ancestral beings and their deeds, was a special source of inspiration. Aboriginal art was 'sung' as much as painted or engraved, and by singing or chanting as they worked Aborigines gave their art a religious meaning. This brought them closer to the spirit-ancestors and the things in nature they wished to influence. Aboriginal art was often art with a strong purpose, art that tried to communicate ideas and not act as a kind of photograph. So an Aborigine reverently repainting sacred designs in a necklace was renewing contact with the Dreaming and reinforcing the power in the designs. An Aborigine who painted a representation of an emu hunt was trying to influence the result of such a hunt.

Most Aboriginal visual art is symbolic in form, and does not attempt to show exact likenesses of things. Many of its patterns and designs have thus not been understood by people from another cultural background. Aboriginal art has reserved its hidden meaning for those who have the ritual knowledge and experience to understand it. To an Aborigine, art lived. Re-tracing a painting in ochre could bring an increase in the animal and plant species in the painting, but leaving the painting unattended for a long time and allowing it to fade could lead to a failure of the rains, a decline in food, and the possibility of death. The style and amount of visual art practised throughout the continent varied considerably. Tasmanian aborigines in traditional society seem to have done little, for only a few rock engravings, hand stencils and bark paintings survive. In the drier areas of the mainland was neither extensive nor diverse, probably because the Aborigines there spent a more wandering life in search of food. Nevertheless they made rock engravings and paintings (often of geometrical design), designs on weapons, and also fine ground and body painting (often with clan symbols) for ritual purposes. Red and yellow ochres were widely traded for use in these works; white pipeclay and black charcoal were also frequently used. In eastern and southern Australia there was quite extensive art on rock surfaces. Galleries of rock engravings in some mountain gorges - such as in the flinders ranges in south Australia and in western New South Wales - show thousands of figures, featuring animals, tracks of animals and birds, patterns of circles, human figures, weapons and special designs. Eastern Australia was also noted for its many carved trees (with patterns carved into the heartwood, for burial and initiation purposes, among the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi peoples) and for patterns on the ground ("bora grounds") for initiation ceremonies.

But it was in northern Australia that Aboriginal art really flourished. In the Kimberleys were the great rock paintings of the ancestral Wandjina figures, the spirit-ancestors responsible for rain-making. An Arnhem Land visual art, with much use of ochre, was especially fine. Here Aborigines decorated ceremonial objects, and painted and engraved on rock and bark surfaces. They left magnificent examples of their work. Notable are the ancient figure paintings of the Mimis - small spirit people painted on rock-faces in active scenes with figures from the natural environment. Examples of 'X-ray art' survive, in which animals were painted showing internal organs as well as their external outline. In Arnhem Land, too, there have been decorative bark paintings, frequently painted on the inside of bark shelters and inspired by the numerous religious cults of the area.

Many northern sites, with ancestral beings not only depicted but held to be present in spirit form, still have paintings of great age and power, and retain their sacred meaning for Aborigines. Visitors to Kakadu National Park can see rock paintings of outstanding cultural significance. At some sites - and not merely in the north of the continent - more recent paintings and engravings overlie older art, showing the use of the same sites over thousands of years. Art is another way in which traditional ideas were passed down through generations of people. But again, ideas were not static: new forms of art, and fresh subjects in the older forms, appeared. For example, representations were made of the arrival of the Makassan and of the impact of European settlement. Although the significance of some very old art has now been forgotten. Aborigines in recent times have turned with renewed vigour to artistic expression, using traditional ideas in new works. This has led to an upsurge in painting, especially since 1971 in Central and Western Australian Aboriginal settlements, where notable bark and canvas paintings have been produced.

*          *          * 

This Web site so far has concentrated on traditional Aboriginal life before 1788. From 1788 the invasion of the continent by European settlers overwhelmed traditional life in many places and profoundly altered it in others. Traditional Aboriginal society had been the product of tens of thousands of years of living in Australia. Although Aboriginal society had made constant adaptations over time, it differed vastly from the kind of European society transported to Australia from 1788. The difference made it almost inevitable that a merging of the old and new societies would be very difficult to achieve. The Europeans were not hunter-gatherers, and made very little effort to understand Aboriginal culture. With a different economic and social system, Europeans were to prove tough competitors for the resources of the land. But it was to be not just a struggle to control resources. For the Aborigines, with their deep spiritual attachment to the land, it was to be a struggle for the soul of their country.  

Aborigines And Whites: The Breaking Down of Aboriginal Society

 Australian Aboriginal Anthropology

Australian Aboriginal Music

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