The culture of the Australian Aborigines is the oldest surviving culture on earth. It is generally believed that Aboriginal people are the descendants of a single migration into the continent, a people that split from the first modern human populations to leave Africa 64,000 to 75,000 years ago, most likely island hopping by boat during periods of low sea levels. Aboriginal people mainly lived as hunter-gatherers, hunting and foraging for food from the land. Although Aboriginal society was generally mobile, or semi-nomadic, moving according to the changing food availability found across different areas as seasons changed, the mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region, and there were permanent settlements and agriculture in some areas. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the River Murray valley in particular.
At the time of first European contact, it is generally estimated that the pre-1788 population was 314,000, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 500,000 to 750,000 could have been sustained. The population was split into 250 individual ‘nations’, many of which were in alliance with one another, and within each nation there existed several clans, from as few as 5 or 6 to as many as 30 or 40. At the time the Australian continent was colonised, there were around 250 different Indigenous languages, with the larger language groups each having up to 100 related dialects.
British colonisation of Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay in 1788. One immediate consequence of British settlement was a series of European epidemic diseases such as measles, smallpox and tuberculosis. In the 19th century, smallpox was the principal cause of Aboriginal deaths. Another consequence of British settlement was appropriation of land and water resources, which continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as rural lands were converted for sheep and cattle grazing. By 1900 the recorded Indigenous population of Australia had declined to approximately 93,000, most of whom no longer followed the traditional Aboriginal way of life.
The Indigenous Australian population is a mostly urbanised demographic, but a substantial number live in remote settlements often located on the site of former church missions. The health and economic difficulties facing both groups are substantial. Both the remote and urban populations have adverse ratings on a number of social indicators, including health, education, unemployment, poverty and crime. A range of health, social and legal problems associated with substance abuse. To combat the problem, a number of programs to prevent or mitigate alcohol abuse have been attempted in different regions, many initiated from within the communities themselves.
Aboriginal religion, like many other religions, is characterised by having a god or gods who created people and the surrounding environment during a particular creation period at the beginning of time known as the ‘the Dreamtime’. Aboriginal people are very religious and spiritual, but rather than praying to a single god they cannot see, each group generally believes in a number of Ancestral Beings, whose image is often depicted in some tangible, recognisable form. This form may be that of a particular landscape feature, an image in a rock art shelter, or in a plant or animal form. These Ancestral Beings have taught the first people how to make tools and weapons, hunt animals and collect food, they have layed down the laws that govern their society, and the correct way to conduct ceremonies. Consequently, Aboriginal Australia’s oral traditions and religious values are based upon reverence for the land and a belief in this Dreamtime. The Dreaming is at once both the ancient time of creation and the present-day reality of Dreaming.
The term Ancestral Being is used to describe all Aboriginal deities. There were a great many different groups, each with its own individual culture, belief structure, and language. Consequently, there were hundreds of Ancestral Beings throughout Australia, recorded by Aborigines in their stories, songs, body paintings and art. This includes recordings in the rock paintings and petroglyphs (rock carvings) dating back thousands of years. Each Ancestral Being has its own creation story, has performed specific activities in the Creation Period, and has played a specific role in relation to laying down the laws for people to follow or in creating the landscape. This information is contained in the body of songs, dances, stories and paintings for each clan or tribe and is revered during certain ceremonies. To this day, ceremonies play an important part in Aboriginal life. Small ceremonies, or rituals, are still practised in some remote parts of Australia, such as in Arnhem Land and Central Australia, in order to ensure a supply of plant and animal foods.
Images relating to the Creation Period are a feature in art forms on weapons, utensils, body painting, ground designs, bark paintings, and rock art. The stories of The Dreamtime form the basis of Aboriginal religion, behaviour, law and order in society.
Australia has a tradition of Aboriginal art which is thousands of years old, the best known forms being rock art and bark painting. Evidence of Aboriginal art in Australia can be traced back at least 30,000 years. Examples of ancient Aboriginal rock artworks can be found throughout the continent notably in national parks such as those of the UNESCO listed sites at Uluru and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, but also within protected parks in urban areas such as at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney. The Sydney rock engravings are approximately 5000 to 200 years old.
Murujuga in Western Australia has the Friends of Australian Rock Art have advocated its preservation, and the numerous engravings there were heritage listed in 2007. In terms of age and abundance, cave art in Australia is comparable to that of Lascaux and Altamira in Europe, and Aboriginal art is believed to be the oldest continuing tradition of art in the world. Paintings were usually created in earthy colours, from paint made from ochre. Their designs generally carry significance linked to the spirituality of the Dreamtime. The ochres were also used to paint their bodies for ceremonial purposes.
Aboriginal art and decoration is an integral part of traditional life, and occurs as body decoration in ceremonies, on bark shelter and rock shelter walls, on trees (dendroglyphs), carved on rocks (petroglyphs), weapons, utensils, and sacred objected both natural and carved. Religious and ceremonial aspects of life, being so important, are the inspiration for much art.
Rock art is the common denominator in most Aboriginal sites – where there was no rock, tree carving was practised. This art takes the form of paintings on rock surfaces and illustrations carved into rock surfaces. Aboriginal rock art records ceremonies dating back tens of thousands of years, yet still continued to this day. Images of tools and weapons serve to bring to mind the myths and legends of the Ancestral Beings who taught the Aborigines their survival skills. They all help define a person s origins and connections with the world, their relationships with the past, present and future.
Modern Aboriginal art
Modern Aboriginal artists continue the tradition, using modern materials in their artworks. Several styles of Aboriginal art have developed in modern times, including the watercolour paintings of the Hermannsburg School, and the acrylic Papunya Tula “dot art” movement. William Barak (c.1824 1903) was one of the last traditionally educated of the Wurundjeri-willam, people who come from the district now incorporating the city of Melbourne. He remains notable for his artworks which recorded traditional Aboriginal ways for the education of Westerners (which remain on permanent exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria and at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
Artwork by Albert Namatjira, “Ghost Gums, Macdonnell Ranges”, Watercolour on paper
Margaret Preston (1875 1963) was among the early non-indigenous painters to incorporate Aboriginal influences in her works. Albert Namatjira (1902 1959) is one of the most famous Australian artists and an Arrernte man. His landscapes inspired the Hermannsburg School of art. The works of Elizabeth Durack are notable for their fusion of Western and indigenous influences. Since the 1970s, indigenous artists have employed the use of acrylic paints with styles such as that of the Western Desert Art Movement becoming globally renowned 20th-century art movements.
The National Gallery of Australia exhibits a great many indigenous art works, including those of the Torres Strait Islands who are known for their traditional sculpture and headgear.
Sport and Recreation
Though lost to history, many traditional forms of recreation were played and while these varied from tribe to tribe, there were often similarities. Ball games were quite popular and played by tribes across Australia, as were games based on use of weapons. There is extensive documented evidence of traditional football games being played. Perhaps the most documented is a game popularly played by tribes in western Victorian regions of the Wimmera, Mallee and Millewa by the Djab wurrung, Jardwadjali and Jarijari people. Known as Marn Grook, it was a type of kick and catch football game played with a ball made of possum hide, the existence of which was corroborated in accounts from European eyewitnesses and depicted in illustration. According to some accounts, it was played as far away as the Yarra Valley by the Wurundjeri people, Gippsland by the Gunai people, and the Riverina in south-western New South Wales. Since the 1980s it has been speculated that Marn Grook influenced Australian rules football. Over the years, many of the game’s top players have been Aboriginal.
A team of Aboriginal cricketers toured England in 1868, making it the first Australian sports team to travel overseas. Cricketer and Australian rules football pioneer Tom Wills coached the team in an Aboriginal language he learnt as a child, and Charles Lawrence accompanied them to England. Johnny Mullagh, the team’s star player, was regarded as one of the era’s finest batsmen.