AUSTRALIA

Aboriginal Anthropology

Australian Aborigines And Their Culture

           

Aborigines came to Australia from the north probably more than 18,000 years ago. They migrated during the last Ice Age, when the spreading polar ice caps took up so much water that the general sea-level fell, exposing more land. They crossed at least two stretches of water in canoes or on rafts. Aborigines are classified as Australoids, a stock distinct from the three main groups of mankind: the Caucasoid (typified by the European), the Negroid (typified by the African Negro) and the Mongoloid (typified by the Chinese). As a distinct type, the Australoids probably became differentiated in South-east Asia and possibly in the Malay Archipelago. There are isolated groups of people in Asia and the west Pacific with physical resemblances to the Aborigines. These include some Aboriginal hill tribes of Southern India, the Veddas of Ceylon, and the Sakai of Malaysia. There are also traces of Australoid groups in Celebes and New Guinea. Moreover, archaeology points to their presence probably thirty thousand years ago in Java. The dingo, which the Aborigines brought with them to Australia, is believed to be related to the paraiah dog of India.

Although all Aborigines share common features, there appear to be somewhat different regional types. They all have dark brown skin and dark wavy hair, are of about medium height and slender build, and have a very erect, graceful carriage. However, some are shorter, lighter-skinned, and have rather curly hair; others are of medium height and heavy physique, with high foreheads and high-bridged noses; others again have darker colouring, flat noses and are tall and slim. These types might indicate separate migrations into Australia by different peoples, but this is unproven and many authorities believe the Aborigines are homogeneous - that is, from the same stock. They attribute the different 'types' on the one hand to special environments and diets and on the other to genetic variation and selection. Although some northern coastal tribes had a long history of sporadic contact with people from Macassar and possibly other parts of the Indies, most Aborigines for many millennia were isolated from the rest of mankind.

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The Tasmanians were a negritoid group with a rather simpler material culture than the Australians. It is not known how they came to Tasmania. Their canoes may have been blown from the New Hebrides or they may have entered Australia from the north and later been driven across Bass Strait by the Australians. They became extinct late last century but some part-Tasmanians survive. When the Aborigines arrived in Australia men all over the world used stone tools and were nomadic hunters and food collectors, as they had been for hundreds of thousands of years. Domestications of animals and cultivation of crops began about 10,000 years ago in Europe. Civilisation as we know it began only about 5,000 years ago, when farmers in very fertile areas around the Eastern Mediterranean began to produce sufficient surplus food which allowed some people to specialise as craftsmen, merchants and priests. Metals were first used in Asia and Egypt at about this time, but not in Europe until about 3,000 years ago.

The Aborigines did not develop along similar lines; they never became food-producers but remained hunters, collectors and makers of stone, bone, shell and wooden implements. The main reasons for this were their unsuitable environment and their isolation. Australia had no indigenous animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, horses or asses which could be herded for food supplies or used as beasts of burden or draught. It had no indigenous grain foods which could be cultivated. The Aborigines were also largely denied the stimulating effect of intercourse with developing societies. They were entirely dependent on nature and were constantly on the move in search of food and water. Since there is a limit to the kinds and yields of foods which nature will reduce without assistance, they were never a numerous people; mere handfuls were scattered across a great continent cut off from the rest of the world. At the time of European settlement there were no more than 300,000 Aborigines in Australia, an average population density of one person per 10 to 15 square miles.

They were divided into about 500 regional groups or tribes, ranging in size from perhaps 100 to 1,500 persons. A tribe has been defined for Australia as a group of Aborigines having in common a language or dialect, a body of similar customs and beliefs and occupying a fairly definite territory. In several parts of the continent, especially in good environments, there were not clear-cut 'tribal' divisions. There might be several dialects within larger tribes (e.g. there are four or five Aranda dialects) and tribes otherwise distinct might speak closely related dialects. Again, adjacent tribes might share almost identical customs, and portions of different tribes might make common use at times of one tract of country. Generally speaking, the numbers of a tribe believed themselves related through descent from common ancestors, who brought their pre-existent spirits to the regions where they were later born. Because of this, they considered themselves tied to the territory which in the long past was inhabited, and given its natural characteristics, by these ancestors who were credited with super-human abilities. The size of tribal territories varied with the fertility of the country, ranging from a few hundred square miles often with relatively well-defined boundaries in coastal areas, to large areas in the arid regions, such as the 25,000 square miles of the Aranda in central Australia. In these cases, tribal territories were sometimes separated by useless country - a kind of 'no man's land'.  

Because of the relatively small numbers, became each tribe lived in comparative isolation, and because the environments differed so greatly, life varied somewhat from region to region although it had a common basic pattern. Except for short periods and in good seasons, people who lived off the country could not live in groups several hundred strong. Logically, therefore, a tribe consisted of several hunting and food-gathering hands or 'hordes', each of which had its own recognized 'country', and each of which consisted of several generations of related men and their wives and children. Such a band probably never numbered more than about 50, and in desert areas was much smaller. In good times several hordes sometimes might remain together for considerable periods. Each horde normally had as its nucleus a small descent-group or 'clan'. The members of this clan had religious ties with a series of sacred sites in its own part of the tribal territory.

This area was their spiritual home and men of the local group were its ceremonial guardians.

The horde generally ranged over the  country surrounding its sacred sits, but was free to move more widely. By agreement it could cross the hunting areas of other hordes and frequently shared the use of their resources. Tribal economy was a hunting and collecting one, but the Aborigines did not wander aimlessly about the countryside. They exploited their territory in accordance with definite routines determined by the seasonal supply of food and water. They took care not to waste precious or scarce resources. Totemic and other religious and social taboos served in some measure to protect useful plants and animals. The Aborigines' attitude was expressed very clearly in their religion; it was one of active co-operation with the rhythms, patterns and structure of nature. For many thousands of years they maintained a delicate balance between man and environment. Food collecting depended on the seasons and, up to a point, so did large-scale social activity. The ripening of the bunya pine nuts in central Queensland and the breeding of the bogong moth in New South Wales were occasions for groups of Aborigines, more than 1,000 strong, to come together. These were times of great excitement and activity - feasting, trading, the performance of ceremonies and rites, learning new customs, meeting old friends, and settling old scores. The social season in parts of central Australia was summer, when the smaller water holes dried up and the people were obliged to converge on permanent waters.

Aborigines were limited to the range of foods occurring naturally in their area, but they knew exactly when, where and how to find everything edible. Anthropologists and nutrition experts who studied the tribal diet in Arnhem Land found it to be well-balanced, with most of the nutrients modern dietitians recommend. But food was not obtained without effort. In some areas both men and women had to spend from half to two-thirds of each day hunting or foraging for food. Each day the women of the horde went into successive parts of one countryside, with wooden digging sticks and plaited dilly bags or wooden coolamons. They dug yams and edible roots and collected fruits, berries, seeds, vegetables and insects. They killed lizards, bandicoots and other small creatures with digging sticks. The men went hunting. Small game such as birds, opossums, lizards and snakes were often taken by hand. Larger animals and birds such as kangaroos and emus were seared or disabled with a thrown club, boomerang, or stone. Many indigenous devices were used to get within striking distance of prey. The men were excellent trackers and stalkers and approached their prey running where there was cover, or 'freezing' and crawling in the open. They were careful to stay downwind, and sometimes covered themselves with mud to disguise their smell.

Frequently disguises were used. Mud also served as camouflage, or the hunter held a bush in front of him while stalking in the open. He glided through water with a bunch of rushes or a lily-leaf over his head until he was close enough to pull down a water-bird. He prepared 'hides' and, with bait or birdcalls, lured birds to within grabbing distance. He attracted emus, which are inquisitive birds, by imitating their movements with a stick and a bunch of feathers or some other simple device. Fish were sometimes taken by hand by stirring up the muddy bottom of a pool until they rose to the surface, or by pacing the crushed leaves of poisonous plants in the water to stupefy them. Fish were sometimes taken by hand by stirring up the muddy bottom of a pool until they rose to the surface, or by placing the crushed leaves of poisonous plants in the water to stupefy them. Fish spears, nets, wicker or stone traps were also used in different areas. Lines with hooks made from bone, shell, wood or spines were used along the north and east coasts. Dugong, turtle and large fish were harpooned, the harpooner launching himself bodily from the canoe to give added weight to the thrust.

Hunting was frequently organised on co-operative lines. Groups of men combined to drive animals into a line of spearsmen, a brush-fence, or large nets. Sometimes a U-shaped area was fenced and the trapped animals killed. Animals were also trapped in snares, pits, and partly-enclosed water-holes. There was a fairly clear division of labour between the sexes in food-collecting, but this was not rigidly maintained. The main concern was to get food. The women's work may appear monotonous drudgery, but it was usually easier than the men's. Hunting was arduous, and the men often had to walk, run, or crawl long distances. In poor country the men often returned empty-handed but the women invariably collected something - perhaps only a few roots and tiny lizards - but sufficient to tide the family over. Inland, the quest for water was a life and death matter. Aborigines survived where others would perish. They knew all the water holes and soaks in their area. They drained dew, and obtained water from certain trees and roots. They even dug up and squeezed out frogs which store water in their bodies.

Very little effort went into the preparation of food and much was eaten raw. Meat was cooked quickly on fires, in hot coals and ashes, or in ovens scooped in the earth. Roots were pounded, and seeds ground between stones, winnowed, and made into cakes or loaves. Some foods, such as certain yams and the fruit of the cycad palm, were pounded or sliced, soaked in water (to remove poison) and dried or roasted. Most of the foods available could not be stored under bush conditions, and generally Aborigines were ignorant of food preservation. In a few areas, however, some types of food were preserved - fruits were sun-dried and stored in north Queensland and the Great Victoria Desert, fish were smoked along the lower River Murray and around some rivers in the Northern Territory, strips of kangaroo were sun-dried in some central desert areas, and nuts and grass seeds were stored underground in other places. Fire was made by friction and percussion. A common method was the fire drill. The operator twirled a hardwood stick into a softwood base until enough smouldering powder was produced to be tipped into a handful of dry grass and tinder, where it was blown into a flame. The same result was achieved by sawing a piece of hardwood such as a mulga woomera (spear thrower) across a cleft in a piece of softwood such as a bean-wood shield.

Because Aborigines were constantly on the move they limited their possessions to a minimum. They did not need permanent houses but built temporary shelters ranging from a simple windbreak of branches, bark or stones to a fairly substantial 'wet season' hut, rectangular and built of poles and sheets of bark, with a raised floor below which a fire was kept smoking to discourage mosquitoes. Aborigines generally preferred to go naked, rubbing their bodies with animal fat as a protection against cold wind and insects and sleeping at night between small fires. Ornaments were popular, and seeds, shells, string, feathers, teeth, animal tails, claws and bones were fashioned into head bands, necklets, armbands, girdles and pendants. Some tribes wore a small apron made from fur or human-hair string and in the south of the continent cloaks of sewn skins were worn in cold weather. The main weapons and implements were the spear, spear-thrower, club, boomerang, shield, stone axe and knife. There were many regional variations of each.

Spears measured up to about ten feet in length and varied, according to purpose, from light three-ronged fishing spears, through medium and heavy hunting and fighting weapons, to elaborately carved ceremonial spears. Hand-thrown spears were made of a single length of hardwood pointed and sometimes barbed at one end. Most spears, however, had a hollow or light wood shaft fitted with a stone or hardwood head. They were made to be thrown with a woomera, which acted as a lever, giving the spear greater velocity, accuracy and range. Clubs were of hardwood with wooden or stone heads and were made in a variety of sizes, from great two-handed sword sticks used in personal combat, to short throwing sticks which were used throughout the continent. The best known type of throwing-stick was the boomerang. The returning boomerang was made only in the east and west and was unknown to Aborigines in the centre and north. It was mainly a plaything, although it was sometimes thrown into a flock of birds. The non-returning boomerang was a larger, heavier weapon with a shallower curve, sometimes with a hook at one end, and was often thrown to bounce along the ground. Some tribes did not use the boomerang at all.

Shields fanged from a very narrow, hardwood type to a slab of softwood up to five feet long. Knives, axes, spearheads and a variety of pointed or edged tools such as adzes, chisels, scrapers, borers and saws were made from stone, by knapping - striking or prising off flakes - or grinding. In some areas needles were made from fish or animal bones. Containers included dilly bags, plaited and woven from pandanus fibre or various grasses (in some parts of northern Australia these were woven so tightly that honey and even water could be carried in them); pitchis or coolamons (shallow wooden dishes); bark baskets joined with wax, gum or cord, and animal skins in which all openings but the neck were sealed or tied off. Watercraft ranged from simple log or bark floats, used once for crossing a river and then abandoned, to the dugout canoes used along the northern coasts. The latter were probably copied from those of Macassan visitors. A few had large Macassan-type sails woven from pandanus palm leaves. Along Cape York Peninsula dugouts measured up to 50 feet long and were fitted with outriggers, an idea probably copied from new Guinea via Torres Strait.

The lack of raw materials such as ochre, stone or suitable wood for weapons in some areas led to barter between groups. But there were other forms of material transactions: gifts were given as part of kinship and marriage obligations, to settle grievances or debts, and in return for social and ritual services. Gift-giving strengthened kinship and friendship ties, and sustained social contacts and exchange of ideas between groups. Except in outright barter, the fact of giving was always more important than the gift, which might even be reciprocated with an identical object. When barter and exchange are looked at on an Australia-wide basis, a number of major trade routes can be plotted. Along these, objects were traded over long distances. Pearl shell ornaments travelled east and south from the Kimberleys right across Australia to Eyre Peninsula and Eucla, while back to the Kimberleys from the east came spears, boomerangs, red ochre, and other goods.

Because Aborigines had a live in small groups, and because in poor seasons survival was precarious, the groups kept in touch with each other as much as possible in order to have a full and satisfying social life. These needs were formalised in an elaborate social organisation between a great many inter-related social groups. Aborigines extended family-type relationships throughout, and even beyond, the whole tribe. They used a classificatory kinship system - a limited number of relationship terms extended to cover all persons. Thus, a father's brothers were also called 'father' and their children were classed as 'brothers' and 'sisters'. The number of classes of relatives varied from about fourteen to about thirty two. A definite code of bahaviour was prescribed for each class of kin. For example a man was not permitted to look at or speak to any woman classed as his 'mother-in-law', although in the case of his wife's own mother he was obliged to make gifts to her, and to take her art in a dispute. In this way a person's general behaviour towards everyone with whom he came in contact was, to some extent, ordained. The strength of the behavioural codes diminished with the distance - spatial or genealogical - between relatives.

Obligation and reciprocity were important aspects of kin behaviour. A hunter always shared his kill among his relatives, sometimes according to fixed rules. Each relative, however, was obliged to reciprocate when able to do so. There was a positive ideal of generous sharing and return. No member of the group ever went without if others could help. Other forms of social grouping were associated with or expressed the kinships system in various ways. Many tribes were divided into two 'moieties' or halves. In effect these were descent groups. A person was born into either his father's or mother's moiety, depending on whether descent was reckoned through the father or the mother. People born into one moiety had to marry into the other. Not only people, but animals, plants, birds and other natural species and phenomena were often divided between the two moieties, so that the people of each moiety had a special relationship with all the natural phenomena associated with it. Moieties not only affected descent, inheritance, succession, marriage and the family, but they also had an important role in the organisation of fighting, the settlement of grievances, and the playing of games. Above all, they were important in the conflict of religious ceremonies. Each moiety had a heritage of myths and rites, symbols, sacred designs, songs and dances which it had to cherish, perform, and hand on. The men of each moiety were bound together by this sacred responsibility. Many tribes were divided into four sections. These summarised relatives into classes or divisions and, like the moieties were associated with marriage, descent, totemism etc. The following example is from a Western Australian tribe:

(Panaka     =     Burong)
(Karimba   =     Paljeri )

 The double-headed arrows connect a mother's section to her children's section and the = signs connect intermarrying sections. Thus a Panaka woman would marry a Burong man; their children were Karimba. Karimba girls married Paldjeri men and had Panaka children; and Karimba men married Paldjeri women and had Burong children. Panaka's cross-cousins (and wife or husband, who were usually second cousins) were Burong, and Panaka's and Burong's paternal grandparents were also Panaka and Burong. The sections thus summarised relatives not only into four categories but into intermarrying as well as alternate generations. Each inter-marrying pair of sections represented a person's own generation level, and also the levels of his grandparents and grandchildren. Sometimes the four sections were associated with a system of two moieties as well.

Across much of central and northern Australia, the system was even more elaborate. There were divisions into eight sub-sections with or without moieties. There were other combinations too complex for brief description. In all cases the connections of the divisions with descent, kinship, marriage and totemic systems were comparable. In summary the 'horde' or band was the most important territorial group. The nucleus of the horde, a 'clan', was the most important social group. These clans were groups of people who claimed to be descended in one line from the same ancestor, often a mythological being. The moieties, sections and sub-sections and sub-sections were structural divisions rather than discrete groups. All were connected together through the kinship system. The behaviour rules associated with the kinship system ensured for the most part confident and co-operative relations within and between the clans, hordes and other divisions or groups. The territorial, social and structural divisions gave further rules for the regular practice of institutional customs. Nevertheless, these rules provided only a formal or ideal scheme to which actual behaviour did not always conform.

Aborigines saw man as sharing a common life-principle with animals, birds and plants. They included these things in human social and religious life by establishing totemic relationships between them and people. The totemic relationships varied. For example a man of the kangaroo totem looked on the kangaroo as a friend and helper, even as a brother; he was reluctant to kill or eat it because it was his flesh; or he may have had an attitude of responsibility towards it - to guard its 'beginning place' and to perform ceremonies to ensure that there would be plenty of kangaroos continuously. There were several forms of totemism, and one person could have several totems - his moiety totem, say, could have been eaglehawk, his section or sub-section totem wallaby, and the totem associated with the place where he was born, the yam. He might also have a personal or 'dream' totem. All were inalienably part of himself. In this way totemism linked man in a bond of mutual life-giving with nature. The sharing of certain totems by all members of a group or division brought order into social relations, and the common public recognition of each person's or group's totems made the symbolic principles of immense social importance. We might see Western modern man's paper records, whether they be marriage certificates, photo birth announcements or even a driver's license as modern totems that carry public recognition and social importance, which is why they are shared among both known and unknown people in the community.

A person and his totems possessed a sacred quality in common because their relationship, it was thought, had been established by an ancestral being in the dreamtime, the period long ago when the world, as the Aborigines knew it, was formed and their pattern of living established. Suprahuman ancestral spirits, it was believed, then lived on earth. They often embodied the essence of some natural species - thus goanna man was at once man, goanna and spirit. The ancestors travelled about performing marvels which led to the production of features of the landscape, animals and plants, the sky and the seasons, and - in some mysterious way, variably phrased in different regions - the first appearance of recognisable human beings, the Aborigines. The forms of religion, law, customs, rites, songs and dances supposedly were established then. The tracks of the ancestors (the routes they followed) were marked with sacred sites associated with their deeds. Eventually they changed into other forms; their physical elements went into the ground, or the sky, or waterholes, or into rocks or trees, but their spiritual elements continued to exist. Living men, it was supposed, could keep in touch with them  draw on their magical power, and make sure that their country maintained the fertile pattern given it in the dreamtime, by faithfully following the teachings of the ancestors and re-enacting their ceremonies and rites. The dreamtime was not merely the sacred past, it was vitally continuous with the present and future. Because of this it was conceived of as an eternal dreamtime and is appropriately referred to as the Dreaming.

The deeds of the ancestors were enshrined in mythology. There was an enormous and rich body of myths, ranging from secular stories or fables such as 'Why the kookaburra laughs' to complex religious myths and immense song cycles sometimes requiring days to recite. Many of the song cycles were but connected strings of key words or place names denoting the track of an ancestor. To an initiated Aboriginal each name symbolized heroic deeds of great significance. Associated with the myths was a vast body of ritual through which the latent power of the ancestors and of the Dreaming became operative. Many rites were concerned with maintaining the fertility of the country as the ancestors had created it by leaving the life 'principle' of various species, including particular clans of people, at different sites. The kangaroo 'principle', for example, was believed to persist, say, in a certain sacred rock. Living men who had the kangaroo as totem regularly performed special increase rights at this rock, to ensure that the 'principle' there would go forth into kangaroos so that they would continue to multiply. Other rites were re-enactments of the ancestors' deeds, performed partly in memory of them and partly to instruct the young men. These rituals sometimes continued for many months. The Aborigines believed that the performances were vital to the very existence of man and nature; if they were neglected, the life-giving forces which came from the dreamtime would dwindle or be lost.

An Aboriginal did not own land in the sense that he could acquire or dispose of it. He belonged in his country. His spirit had lived there since the dreamtime, and because of this he had the right to draw on the life-giving powers of the ancestors; in fact it was his duty to do so, for it was essential to the well being of the country and his people. Aboriginal beliefs, economic, social and religious, thus bound each person to his country, united him with nature in a relationship of intimate dependence, and explained the origin of and reasons for his social organisation, customs, and laws. In this form of life religion and magic were inseparable. Religion gave a general assurance of well-being; particular misfortune such as illness, death, and drought were attributed to, and an effort made to avert or control them by, magic of many kinds. It was thought that some magic could be carried out by anyone. Specialised magic such as curing illness was usually the province of 'clever men'. Some of their methods of treating illness (bleeding, heating, massage) were in part empirically sound and often psychologically fruitful. Belief in the efficacy of both white (benign) and black (malign) magic was so profound that no Aboriginal doubted that magicians could cure apparently doomed men, and cause healthy men to die. Bone pointing, a form of projective magic, was a common method of sorcery.

The survival of any local group eventually depended on its solidarity and there was strong feeling against serious quarrels within it. Nevertheless personal conflicts were common. Where possible these were confined to the person immediately concerned, but it was one of the weaknesses of Aboriginal society that quarrels tended to spread widely because of kinship and marriage loyalties. There was no juridical machinery to prevent this from happening and the moral feeling against it was often ineffective. However, there was a deeply-ingrained principle of 'equivalent injury', and this helped to limit the passion for revenge. Antagonists often fought a duel with spears, clubs or stone knives, striking at each other, torn and torn about, until one submitted. Usually they took care not to disable each other permanently, as the loss of an able-bodied man to a small hunting community was a serious matter. Even in large-scale fights a sense of prudence and common interest made itself felt. On most occasions the fighting ceased when several men were badly hurt or killed. Grievances between local groups often led to massed duets of a format character conducted under strict convention. The most intractable offenders, especially against religious codes, were judged secretly by elders, and they were injured or killed by younger men acting under orders. Sometimes the retributive methods involved magical ritual. Pitched battles were common, but not warfare in the sense of protracted campaigns. There were no military or social organizations suited to warfare in that sense and, indeed, little to be gained by it. Material wealth, conquest and slavery were alien to the Aboriginal way of life. Perhaps the nearest approach to warfare resulted when repeated murders, deaths attributed to sorcery, and thefts of women gave rise to an uncontrolled series of revenge killings. Most tribes had a favourite enemy of this kind.

The Aborigines had no chief or rulers and only the loosest form of political organisation. Their elaborate social and religious rules were enforced, often relentlessly, by the older men, who also sought to settle serious quarrels, punish offences against the group and decide the group's economic, social and ceremonial activities. It was not, strictly, a gerontocracy, or rule by the oldest men, but age and authority were very closely connected. Men, who had passed through the long periods of training and ordeals of initiation, had proved themselves as hunters and as fighters, and had shown the wisdom of maturity, were those to whom everyone naturally turned when guidance and leadership were needed. They alone knew all the rituals and ceremonies on which the well-being of the group and their territory depended. Indeed, because the Aborigines had no writing, the older men were the living store-houses of the knowledge, the precedents, and the well-tried experiences of their people. Authority was achieved by and given to them by virtue of these things. They were prepared for responsibility from boyhood. Boys and young men were disciplined and trained for many years by their elders who handed on to them their knowledge of tribal law, religion and social behaviour. Usually each youth had one or more older men as mentors. Crucial stages of the initiation period were often marked by a ritual operation, such as the knocking out of a front tooth, or the cutting of cicatrices on the body, or circumcision. young men bore these signs of manhood proudly.

Because of the use of comprehensive symbolism, it is almost impossible to separate Aboriginal art from craft and religious and magical practice. Implements weapons and utensils were not merely useful - they were beautifully made and adorned. In addition the owner often sang a special song as he made the object, and painted a sacred design on it to give it dreamtime power. Religious and magical rites always involved symbolism and mythology. In such rites a lavish use was made of sacred objects such as Tjuringa (carved pieces of wood or stone); ornate headdresses made of sticks, twine, feathers, down and grasses; carved, painted or feathered poles 15 or 25 feet high; a great variety of paintings and designs; and a rich repertoire of songs and dances. The performers usually painted themselves elaborately with red and yellow ochre, white pipe clay and charcoal; sometimes they added feathers and down stuck on with blood. Some groups painted the ground where they were to perform. The most beautiful ground designs were made in central Australia. Rock painting, usually with religious significance, occurred all over Australia. There were many different styles. In parts of Arnhem Land the artist painted in X-ray style, showing the bones and internal organs of the animal depicted; in caves in north-western Australia were great 14 feet long figures with large eyes and noses, but no mouths, representing Wandjina, ancestral beings; in western Arnhem Land there were stick figures - running, fighting, spearing, dancing - drawn with grace and vigour. Bark painting was (and is) very popular in Arnhem Land, and is recognised today as one of the world's outstanding forms of primitive art. In southern and eastern Australia rocks were engraved and trees carved, and across north Australia figures were made from wood, beewax and bound grass.

Over much of Australia designs were stylised. Just as many Aboriginal songs cannot be understood simply by hearing the words, so the painting cannot be understood simply by looking. Most paintings were associated with a story. The symbols used varied. In central Australia concentric circles, spirals, U-shaped figures, dots and wavy lines predominated. In different parts of Arnhem Land paintings were either geometric and abstract or more naturalistic. Songs and dances were usually accompanied by hand-clapping or time (percussion) sticks and, in northern Australia, by the didjeridoo, a long, hollowed-out wooden instrument which, when blown, gives a pulsating droning sound. The Aborigines were a people of buoyant mood and of carefree outlook when circumstances allowed. They greatly enjoyed games. Ball games were played in eastern Australia with an opossum-skin ball; a type of game resembling hockey was played in western Queensland with sticks and a stone; and tops made of clay or a gourd on a stick were popular in eastern Australia and Lake Eyre. Men everywhere enjoyed spear and boomerang throwing contests. Children played the universal games of hide and seek, wrestling and telling stories with string figures. Like children the world over, they learnt by copying their parents. Both boys and girls practised tracking animals and people; the boys enjoyed sham fights, threw small spears and clubs at a bark disc bowled along the ground and hunted small animals; the girls took miniature coolamons and digging sticks and busied themselves alongside their mothers.

In the evenings folk lore, jokes  and popular myths were told, songs were sung and dances performed for general entertainment. Environment, isolation, and economy of hunting and collecting kept the Aborigines materially poor but they compensated for their lack of material possessions by developing a rich social, religious and cultural life. It was a satisfying and emotionally secure life. Everybody was expected of him. Food gathering, social organisation, religion, law and art were all inter-dependent. A life constituted in this way was extremely resistant to change.

In many ways, however, the Aborigines were ill-equipped to face the changes brought by European settlement in Australia; similarly, a western European people, whose economy emphasized competitive activity and the value of material possessions, found the Aboriginal philosophy and way of life hard to appreciate. 

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