Endless golden beaches, the Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef are top of many travellers’ “must-do” lists. But the cultural beliefs and plagued past of Australia’s enthralling Indigenous tribes seems to pass some of us by. The truth is, you never really get to know a place unless you discover the people – and the Aboriginal people will tell you more about Australia than anyone else.


Australian Aboriginal culture is one of the world’s longest surviving cultures (some argue the oldest), with the first settlers thought to have arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago (some think it is closer to 150,000 years). The earliest archeological discovery from which to gauge an accurate timing is the 1971 discovery of stone tools found in a quarry near Penrith, NSW. These tools date back about 47,000 years. It is not known from where the Aboriginals began their journey, but it is certain that people crossed stretches of water between islands to the north and Sahul – the early name for the land mass made up of Australia and New Guinea. It is difficult to know how many different clans or “nations” existed at the time of European settlement, often called the “European invasion” by Aboriginal people today (indeed, while White Australia celebrates Australia Day, Aboriginal people mark Invasion Day), but at the time of the arrival of the first British fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 1,000,000 Aboriginal people inhabited Australia – living in as many as 500 different clan groups around the continent.


Because of the various different nations and their differing cultures, there is no one homogenous culture pertaining to all Aboriginal people. Each clan is made unique by their differences. Key similarities include a shared spiritual belief system known as The Dreamtime (see below) and the intimate relationship a clan has with the land or territory from which they come. This relationship forms the basis for the nation’s identity, with territories or “traditional lands” being defined by geographic boundaries such as rivers, lakes and mountains. Other shared similarities include the social organisation of groups – all clans were originally semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer-based societies. Differences are many and probably arose due to the sheer size of the Australian continent, which would have kept some clans isolated, and the vastly different circumstances governing each region, such as varying weather patterns, crops, vegetation, terrain and wildlife. Perhaps the most significant difference can be found in language. Most clans had their own dialect and sometimes even their own language, demonstrating that nations may have operated separately for many generations.


The “Dreamtime”, or the mythological past, is the central belief system of all Aboriginal people and the basis of Aboriginal spirituality. Dreamtime incorporates the creation of the world and the spiritual energies operating around us, and affects all areas of lifestyle by determining values and beliefs and relationships with every living creature, and every feature of the landscape. The stories of Dreamtime refer to a distant age when spirit ancestors travelled throughout the land, giving it its physical form and setting down the rules to be followed by the Aboriginals. There are common surviving stories about beings such as the “Fertility Mother” and the “Great Rainbow Snake”. Stories of the Dreamtime are passed on through oral teachings, songs, music, art and ceremonies.


Music is a very special part of Aboriginal culture and, along with body painting, is an integral part of ceremonies. There are many different instruments such as yidakis (known as didgeridoos to non-Aboriginals) and drums made of hollow logs and covered with reptile skin. The didgeridoo is exclusively a man’s instrument and Aboriginal people find it offensive to see a woman attempting to play one. Aboriginal people will usually respect the cultural law and leave the playing of them to men.


With most of the languages and dialects extinct today, it is difficult to know how many originally existed. At the time of European settlement, however, it is thought there were between 200 and 250 Aboriginal languages spoken – with many different dialects, producing up to 700 varieties. Tasmania alone is thought to have had eight different languages. This variation in language and dialect makes Aboriginal Australia one of the most linguistically diverse areas on the planet. Even in modern-day Australia, within the space of 80 kilometres you can still pass through the territories of three languages “less closely related than English, Russian and Hindu,” according to the Oxford Companion to Australian History.


As with the art of other early cultures, Aboriginal paintings tell stories of religious significance and daily life. Art was also the means by which pre-literate Aboriginals kept a record of their environment, and early art included depictions of animals of the area and geographical features. Later Aboriginal art told stories of contact with other peoples such as the Macassans, who visited Arnhem Land and other northern coastal regions. Some forms of Aboriginal art include bark paintings, rock painting and engraving, and ceremonial body painting. Aboriginal bark paintings are now recognised around the world and each piece is said to tell a story. Early rock engravings have survived as one of the most important relics of pre-settlement. Some Aboriginal art can still be seen at sites around the country. For ceremonies, bodies are painted with designs that have totemic significance and like the stories of the Dreamtime, these are passed down through generations. Paints for bark, rock and ceremonial paintings were made from pigments taken from rocks, clay and charcoal – giving a narrow range of colours that produced the characteristic red, brown, black and white of Aboriginal art. Art is still regarded as an integral part of cultural life and serves as a reminder of group identity – with references to the Dreamtime and generations past.


The first recorded European sighting of Australia was in 1606 by the Dutch captain William Jansz. Later, in 1623, Jan Carstenz described several armed encounters with Aboriginals and judged the inhabitants “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 passed on any potential claim to the continent, deciding it to be unsuitable for colonisation. Captain James Cook sighted the east coast of Australia in 1770 and British settlement began in 1788 with the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet, which set up camp at Port Jackson in NSW. There are varying viewpoints about the conduct of the colonising forces in the early years and the debate is both ongoing and controversial, with Aboriginal people still seeking reconciliation. In most Australian schools the official version of history maintains that the British did not wish to harm the Aboriginal people, only to help them realise the benefits of living a “civilized” life. This can best be documented by an early quote from Governor Phillip who claimed the British were concerned only with “reconciling the Aboriginals to live amongst us, and to teach them the advantages they will reap from cultivating the land”. Phillip’s idealist view did not prevail and the settlers quickly assumed their ways to be superior to those of the Aboriginals. They also assumed that people who were not Christians, and who did not care to improve the land by agriculture, were not only inferior, but also deserved to have their land taken from them. There were no treaties to regulate the movement of the British on to Aboriginal territory, and the attitudes of the two groups towards land differed greatly. To the Aboriginals, land was the life force and the future of the group, it was not something to be bought and sold. To the British, land was a tangible commodity to be traded and exploited by productive agriculture. The British believed that those who could best carry out this process had some kind of moral right to the land. When the settlers expanded their reach inland, the Aboriginals began to lose their hunting grounds and watering holes. They also contracted diseases to which they had no resistance and suffered greatly from the effects of alcohol. The situation deteriorated rapidly to arrive at what some consider to be all out genocide. With their superior weapons and resources, the white settlers conducted widespread “assimilation”, which involved separation of Aboriginal children from their parents and efforts to “breed out” Aboriginal blood – the Stolen Generation. Some of this activity was sanctioned by the government. But the single most brutal effect of colonisation was the mass killings of Aboriginal groups, with the last mass-killing thought to have occurred in 1926 when a European-Australian was reported killed by an Aborigine. The subsquent retaliation led to a mass slaughter of the local Aboriginal group. Very few Europeans were ever tried or brought to justice. Aboriginal people were finally granted citizenship and given the right to vote in 1967.


Aboriginal people make up just two per cent of the Australian population today. They suffer disproportionately from drug, alcohol and domestic abuse, infant mortality rates are two to three time higher than normal, life expectancy is about 17 years lower than average and Aborigines are 11 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians (according to the “Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage” report, 2005). Though some land claims have been successful and state and territory governments have made formal apologies to the Aboriginal people, the Federal Government, under John Howard, stubbornly refuses to. Many people believe an official apology would go a long way to help the healing process.


The Aboriginal flag is divided horizontally into two equal halves of black and red, 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 was first flown at Victoria Square, Adelaide, on National Aborigines’ Day on 12 July, 1971. Today the flag has been adopted by all Aboriginal groups and is flown or displayed permanently at Aboriginal centres throughout Australia. For further information on Aboriginal Australia visit www.aboriginalaustralia.com. or www.indigenousaustralia.frogandtoad.com.au.