The word "aboriginal" means "the first" or "earliest known". The word was first used in Italy and Greece to describe people who lived there, natives or old inhabitants, not newcomers, or invaders.
Australia may well be the home of the worlds first people. Stone tools discovered in a quarry near Penrith, New South Wales, in 1971 show that humans lived in Australia at least twelve thousand years before they appeared in Europe.
So far three early sites have been discovered in Australia, the Penrith one being dated about forty-seven thousand years old, a Western Australian site forty thousand years old and another in Lake Mungo, New South Wales, thirty-five thousand years old.
To put this in perspective, so that we can appreciate the time scales, since the first fleet arrived in 1788 there have only been 8 generations of settlers. On the other hand, there have been in excess of 18,500 generations of aboriginals!!!
More than 30,000 years ago the population of the world was small, and people lived in family groups, hunting, fishing and food gathering. There where no cultivated crops, animals were not herded for food and metalworking was yet to be discovered.
At that time, known as the last great Ice Age, Australia was joined to New Guinea. Islands such as Java and Borneo were larger than today, sea passages between them narrower. This made it possible for the ancestors of the people now called Australian Aboriginals to reach Australia from lands to the north.
It is not known from where the Aboriginals began their journey, but it is certain that people with some kind of water craft crossed the 100 - 160 kilometres stretches of water between the islands to the north; and reach the southern continent. This sea voyage is the earliest evidence of sea travel by prehistoric man.
As the ice flows of the Ice Age began to melt, the sea level rose, isolating Australia, and making the sea passages too wide for crossing by the simple forms of watercraft available at the time. About 10,000 years ago, Tasmania became separated from the main land, thus isolating the people there, and about 5,000 years ago the Australian continent took on the shape of that it has today.
Nobody knows how long the Aboriginals took to reach Australia, or how they settled the continent when they arrived. At present archaeologists are searching ancient camping sites for evidence of their history, and each new discovery provides links in the history of the thousands of years before the white man reached the Great South Land. New discoveries also are changing previous ideas about the length of time that Aboriginals have been in Australia, and modern scientific methods of dating have provided new possibilities for further research. It is certain that man reached Australia more than 40,000 years ago. Australia, once called the "lost continent of prehistory", is fast losing that title.
The first Aboriginals found an Australia with a better environment than today. Large animals, now extinct, provided more meat than the animals with which we are familiar. Some parts of the continent were richer in vegetable foods, but the land contained no cultivated crops, or animals that could be domesticated, such as cattle and sheep.
Whatever their early history, Aboriginals had settled throughout the entire continent many thousands of years before the white man came and had evolved a way of living that was in harmony with the environment, and that satisfied their needs. Because Australia was isolated from the rest of the world, Aboriginals had little contact with outside groups from whom to "borrow" techniques, to trade goods, to acquire crop seeds, or animals, as was happening in the North of the world. It was only for a few centuries prior to white settlement that visitors came from islands to the north. However, the Aboriginals adjusted to the environment, learned to understand it and gained the maximum from it.
Each clan grouping occupied a well-defined area of land, their "clan" territory with which they had close and dependent relationship. The group belonged with, or to, the land - like the animals and plants of the area; man was an integral part of a relatively unchanging environment. They had no concept of being able to buy or sell land, the land was given long ago in the Dreamtime. Land was not something to be bartered, and the future of the group was tied closely with the continued ability of the land to provide food for gathering, animals to kill, and fresh water.
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. 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.
Inland, the quest for water was a life and death matter. Aborigines survived where others would perish. They knew where the water holes and soaks were 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.
Within the clan grouping, all speaking the same language, or the same dialect, small bands of families carried out their daily living as a group. They moved around their clan country, from place to place, depending on the season and the availability of food. In coastal areas, and the more fertile parts of the continent, groups were relatively static, because food was readily obtainable, but in the desert areas vast tracts of land could support only a few people, and these had to travel long distances in their endless quest for food.
The necessity to be mobile meant that Aboriginals could afford only those possessions that were essential to their way of life. Many belongings were multipurpose - like the coolamon, a curved wooden dish, which was used to dig, to carry water or the baby; to toss seeds or collect the plant food gathered daily by the women.
Often, the men carried only a spear thrower, spears, and those weapons needed to procure the animals native to his territory. The women carried the rest - babies, household utensils - to leave the men free to use the weapons.
Full use was made of natural resources to produce whatever possessions were needed. String, cord and hair were woven into nets, baskets, mats and fishing lines. Wood and bark were used to make dishes, shields, spears, and boomerangs, to make dugout canoes, and other types of watercraft, such as rafts. Stone was chipped to form tools that could be used as weapons, or to cut and carve wood. Large pebbles and flat stones were used to grind seeds to flour. Pieces of bone were sharpened into spear points, and even used as needles to sew together skin for cloaks and rugs. Skins of animals were treated to carry water, and in some places human skulls were used for the same purpose.
Clubs, nets, snare and spears were used to catch different types of animals and birds. Large animals were speared or clubbed, smaller ones caught in pits and nets. Fish were speared, or caught with traps, and sometimes water was poisoned with plant juices. The foot tracks of animals - and of every member of the group - were recognised. After years of training, the Aboriginals developed extraordinary skills in tracking their prey, by following broken twigs, or by very faint markings, even on hard ground.
Many ingenious devices were used to get within striking distance of prey. The men 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.
Mud also served as camouflage, or the hunter held a bush in front of him while stalking in the open. He glided through the water with a bunch of rushes or a lily-leaf over his head until he was close enough to pull down a waterbird. 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.
The catch of the hunter was in addition too, not always constant, to the daily plant food and small animals gathered by women. Women collected the larger part of the group's daily needs, and their skill in finding food, even in the poorest conditions, often kept the group alive. Fruit, manna, honey, lizards, snakes, witchetty grubs, roots, yams, grass seeds - almost anything grew, or moved could be use for food. The women then usually prepared and cooked the food in an earth oven.
As Aboriginals had to make use of the natural materials available in their area, huts were often made from bark and boughs, sometimes flimsy and sometimes more substantial, depending on the climate, the time of year, and the length of time that the group forced to remain in one camp.
When an Aboriginals child was born, he began to learn how to cope with the material and non-material elements of his world. He had been born into the group, and had to learn to become a full member with a knowledge of how to keep alive and also the rules and traditions that governed his nomadic society.
When very young, children were indulged - played with and loved by all members of the group. But soon, each child had to begin to fend for himself. Shortly after he could walk, he began to handle small spears, followed his father and the other men, watching while they fished, made tools. Little girls began to follow their mother, helping her and trying to copy what she was doing.
As well as the practical side of life, they began to join in spiritual matters. They were taught the rhythms of dances in preparation for later participation in sacred and non-sacred rituals. Children began to learn songs and stories that embodied knowledge to be passed on from generation to generation.
From early childhood to death, the Aboriginal was continuously learning more about the traditions of the past. Religion was related to the past, the present and future. Man identified with animals, plants and other natural phenomenon, and grouped himself according to this identification - his totem. Relationship with a totem meant a responsibility towards that totem - for example, people of a kangaroo totem might not kill kangaroos, and carry out special ceremonies to ensure the continued increase of the kangaroo.
The "Dreamtime", the mythological past, was the time when spirit ancestors had travelled throughout the land, giving it its physical form, and setting down the rules to be followed by the Aboriginals. Beings such as the "Fertility Mother", the "Great Rainbow Snake", the Djanggawul brothers and sisters, survive in stories and ceremonies that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Some sacred aspect of these stories and ceremonies were available only to initiated adult males. Women had their own sacred ceremonies from which they excluded men, but there were ceremonies and songs in which the whole group joined men, women and children.
Art was regarded as an integral part of life, not simply something that was decorative but outside the import and areas of life. Bodies were painted for ceremonies; the markings and designs have totemic significance and were taught to the young. Rocks were engraved and became one of the few art forms to survive. Designs were painted on the walls of rock shelters; these were perishable, and relied upon regular re-touching for preservation.
Bark painting is probably the most well known Aboriginal art form but this could be done only in areas where trees with suitable bark were available, such as Arnhem Land. Pigments were made from rocks, clay and charcoal, a narrow range of colours that produced characteristic red, brown, black and white of Aboriginal art.
Paintings told stories; in fact they were the forms by which preliterate people kept a record of their daily life and religious beliefs. They reflected also what was happening around them - drawing the animals of the area, and later telling stories of contact with other peoples, such as the Macassans who visited Arnhem Land and other northern coastal regions.
As children reach puberty they began to take on greater responsibilities. To mark the transition from childhood special ceremonies were held. For girls these were fairly simple, although they could be spectacular. For boy's initiation ceremonies extended over several years, and were associated with the intensive training in the traditions and mythology of the clan - in many clans the focal point of initiation was circumcision. From the point of view of the group, the boy was entering upon membership of society. However, he did not learn everything at his initiation, it merely open the door of adulthood, and to the sacred life of the group.
After a boy's final initiation ceremonies, he could marry, and it was only when he had a wife, and sometimes a child, that the community regarded him as a fully-grown man. He now had an obligation, obtaining food by using hunting skills learned in childhood, skills used for the group's survival.
In Aboriginal society, like every other society, there were problems; droughts, shortages of food, people became sick or injured, and they died. Supernatural forces were blamed for almost every event, and magic and ritual used to correct the situation. The "medicine man" or "doctor" was a powerful man, and tried to cure many physical ills, sometimes by massage or sucking, to remove the "evil" causing the pain, or by the application of natural medicines made from plants or roots. The emphasis on healing was on the spirit, rather than the body. It was the belief that the spirit was the primary resource of illness - evil thoughts act first on the spirit, and the physical symptoms came later - that led to "evil thinking" someone, as in the well-known custom of "bone pointing". The person who was a victim of a spell would usually sicken and die, because he believed that this would happen.
Old people in Aboriginal society were cared for, and respected for their wisdom and knowledge. When a person died the mourning custom and burial rights were complex and varied from region to region. The mourners freely expressed their sorrow and distress, sometimes covering themselves in ochre and clay. The dead were either buried, cremated, placed on platforms in trees, or left in caves or rock shelters. Sometimes the bones were recovered and part, such as the bone of the forearm, kept as relics for long periods.
The first recorded sighting of Australia was in 1606 by the Dutch captain of "Duyfken" William Jansz who described the natives as "...savage, cruel, black barbarians who slew some of our sailors". In the same year the Spaniard, Luis Vaez de Torres sailed around the strait that bears his name. He described the natives as "...very corpulent and naked. Their arms were lances, arrows, and clubs of stone ill fashioned". Jan Carstenz in 1623 described several armed encounters with Aboriginals, and judged the country "...the most arid and barren region that could be found anywhere on earth; the inhabitants too, are the most wretched and poorest creatures that I have ever seen in my age or time". As a result of such reports the Dutch government decided the land that was not suitable for colonisation.
In northern Arnhem Land, and on Melville and Bathurst Islands, the Aboriginals carved special wooden grave posts. These posts were adapted from the masts of the Macassan boats that visited the northern coast each year from Macassar and Celedes to collect trepang.
The Macassan visitors came in what the Aboriginals regard as historic times, and their camps were both large and well organised. The campsites are still marked by tamarind trees, which grew from the seeds of the fruit, dropped by the fishermen.
The Macassan introduced the dugout canoes and taught the Aboriginals the use of steel in making knives, spear blades and tomahawks. The Aboriginals watched or took part in the entertainment and ceremonies; they learned to play cards, and began to adapt their song rhythms to the strange tunes and sounds of foreign musical instruments.
The Aboriginals learned more about the culture of the visitors by travelling to Macassar with the fishermen, returning with the fleet the following season; some of them remained in Macassar. The Aboriginals adopted some Macassan words into their own languages; for example compass directions, names of tools and parts of the boats. The names of Macassans are still remembered, and Aboriginals often adopted Macassan names as well as their own
In 1697, the Englishman William Dampier had published his "New Voyage Round the World" in which he described Aboriginals on the Western Australian coast as "the miserablest people in the World ... they were tall, straight bodied, and thin, with small long limbs. They have great heads, round foreheads and great brows. Their eyelids are always half closed, to keep the flies out of their eyes." His observations remained the most detailed description of the Western Australian Aboriginals for well over a century.
About this time in Europe, the concept of the "noble savage" was changing people's attitude to other races, a belief that the material and spiritual simplicity of "primitive" people's was an ideal to be aspired to. This idea was given to later explorers, and was adopted readily by Captain James Cook. He set out in 1768 with the aim of exercising "...The utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the native ... They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent author, equally under his care with the most polished European; perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to his favour."
Captain Cook's observations of the Aboriginals were numerous and detailed; "these people may truly be said to be in the pure state of nature, and may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than ... we Europeans."
In 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Australia, the country was inhabited by an estimated 300,000 Aboriginals.
The British did not wish harm the Aboriginals - in fact, Governor Phillip began the penal settlement with the good intentions of "reconciling the Aboriginals to live amongst us, and to teach them the advantages they will reap from cultivating the land". But the newcomers assumed that their ways were superior to those of the Aboriginals, and that a people who were not Christians and who did not try to "improve" the land of their birth by agriculture were not only inferior beings, but also deserve to have their country take over.
Few attempts were made to understand the Aboriginals, their beliefs or their customs, or to understand how the Aboriginals had come to terms with an often-harsh environment - an environment that ruined many early settlers and cause the death of some white "explorers". Governor Macquarie in 1816 invited the natives to "relinquish their wandering, idle and predatory habits of life, and to become industrious and useful members of a community where they will find protection and encouragement".
Not surprisingly, the Aboriginals did not want to give up their way of life and enthusiastically embrace the ways of the newcomers, who in turn found their reluctance only further proof of the Aboriginals inferiority.
There were no treaties to regulate the movement of the British on to Aboriginals Land, and the attitudes of the two groups towards Land differed greatly. To the Aboriginals, to whom the Land was part of this life and the future of his group, land was not something to be bought and sold - it was not a commodity for exchange. The British believed that land could not only be bought and sold, but taken to be exploited by productive agriculture, and that those who carry out this obligation had some kind of "moral right" to the land.
As the settlers moved inland, the Aboriginals began to lose their hunting grounds, their watering holes, in fact their source of life. They contracted diseases to which they had no resistance; they suffered from the effects of alcohol, and from fighting between the groups.
Aboriginals resisted the advancing parties of the white man, sometimes so effectively that farming and grazing ventures had to be abandoned. Settlers retaliated and with their superior weapons sometimes wiped out whole groups of Aboriginals, justifying violence with the argument that these "savages" needed to be "taught a lesson" to ensure for future peace. Although the Aboriginals were supposed to be protected by British law, this protection was difficult to enforced - almost impossible at the frontiers of settlement.
The Aboriginal flag is divided horizontally into two equal halves of black (top) and red (bottom), with a yellow circle in the centre. The black symbolises Aboriginal people and the yellow represents the sun, the constant renewer of life. Red depicts the earth and also represents ochre, which is used by Aboriginal People in ceremonies.
The flag - designed by Harold Thomas - was first flown at Victoria Square, Adelaide, on National Aborigines' Day on 12 July 1971. It was used later at the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972.
Today the flag has been adopted by all Aboriginal groups and is flown or displayed permanently at Aboriginal centres throughout Australia.
The Torres Strait Islander flag - designed by the late Bernard Namok - stands for the unity and identity of all Torres Strait Islanders.
It features three horizontal coloured stripes, with green at the top and bottom and blue in between - divided by thin black lines.
A white dhari (headdress) sits in the centre, with a five-pointed white underneath it. The colour green is for the land, and the dhari is a symbol of all Torres Strait Islanders. The black represents the people and the blue is for the sea. The five-pointed start represents the island groups. Used in navigation, the star is also an important symbol for the seafaring Torres Strait Islander people. The colour white of the star represents peace.
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