Early Aboriginal Culture in Australia

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Australia's Aboriginal cultures may have some of the oldest continually practiced traditions in the world. In this lesson, we'll talk about the early cultures of Australia, and see what trends united them.

Australian Aboriginals

At some point in the very distant past, some of the first humans to ever leave Africa made their way east. Possibly thanks to lower sea levels in the Ice Age, they then worked their ways south into a large mass of arid land. Then, the ice melted, the sea levels rose, and this place became a giant island we call Australia.

The ancestrally indigenous people of Australia, collectively called Aboriginals in modern parlance, have a unique place in world history. Genetic evidence suggests that their ancestors were among the first out of Africa, arriving in Australia by roughly 60,000 BCE. What makes this even more fascinating is the fact that Australian Aboriginals claim to have the oldest continually practiced culture in the world, and anthropologists agree. Cave paintings and other forms of archaeological evidence dating back nearly 40,000 years show aspects of Aboriginal culture still practiced to this day. It's a living tradition millennia in the making.

Disclaimer

Before we get into Aboriginal cultures, a quick disclaimer. The term ''Aboriginal'' is a modern one, introduced by Europeans. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the peoples of Australia did not share a uniform culture or identity. In fact, there were an estimated 600 distinct groups in Australia at the time of European contact. So, while we will talk about many cultural practices in this lesson, keep in minds that none of them are absolutely universal. Aboriginal cultures are diverse and varied, but what follows are some of the most consistent trends.

Aboriginal Societies

So, who were the Aboriginal peoples of Australia? Aboriginal societies were, for tens of thousands of years, semi-nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. Australia's dry and harsh climate does not naturally lend itself to farming, so it's really no surprise that Aboriginal people never decided to switch to agriculture. Hunting was more practical.

Aboriginal cultures were hunters and gatherers
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This meant that Aboriginal societies were often on the move, and therefore had minimal material possessions. Baskets and other woven items were lightweight, made from available resources, and functional. In fact, most objects in Aboriginal life were practical, functional, and efficient, as well as being aesthetic and enjoyable. Stone tools were also a big part of daily life, and included knives, spears, axes, and other tools. In an amazing feat of cultural preservation, many of the stone tools being used by Aboriginal communities when Europeans arrived are nearly identical to those used over 40,000 years ago.

Cosmology

As part of the world's most ancient surviving culture, Aboriginal spiritual systems have been practiced for a very, very long time. In most Aboriginal cultures, the cosmos was created by a variety of powerful spirits who, after they finished creating the Earth, inhabited its natural features. Thus, all the land is sacred to Aboriginals. Some sites, however, have extra spiritual power. The location of these sites is guarded by clan religious leaders, and only those initiated through special ceremonies learn where to find them.

One of the other important concepts in Aboriginal cosmology is that of the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is a place beyond physical space and time. It is an entirely alternate cosmos, where the spirits dwell and where spiritually powerful Aboriginals can visit through extended ritualized trance. Since the Dreamtime is outside of physical time, all people and spirits who ever enter the Dreamtime are there simultaneously. This lets the visitor speak with ancestors, future heirs, and the spirits, seeking advice and guidance. Dreaming stories, visions, and prophecies are therefore of extraordinary importance.

Arts

While the semi-nomadic Aboriginal cultures did prefer to keep their material objects light and functional, they were still highly artistic groups. Weaving was a highly practiced art form, as was dancing and music. The didgeridoo is one famous example of an Aboriginal instrument, played through a complex process where the musician is constantly breathing in and out simultaneously.

Aboriginal instrument
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