But Australia’s Aboriginal people have lived through it all. Indeed, people often joke that Australia has no culture, but the opposite is true – Australia boasts the world’s oldest continuous culture. Not convinced? Then how about this for some perspective.
Sites like Stone Henge and the Great Pyramid of Giza might be considered ancient, but at just 4,500 years old, they are actually mere youngsters in comparison to the Aborigines. Most of the things that dominate our lives today are decades old. Aboriginal people, meanwhile, are estimated to have been in Australia for somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 years. In Aboriginal culture, however, that number is of no importance.
What matters is that people arrived after the Dreamtime, or Creation, for while some religions have their gods, and science has its Big Bang, Australia’s indigenous tribes maintain that spirit beings created all living things on Earth. All traditional Aboriginal beliefs and tribal laws centre on these beings, such as the Rainbow Serpent, which took on varying animalistic forms and travelled the land, shaping it as they went.
Wherever these spirits passed, they took their energy with them, and where they left a change in the landscape, like a hill or a rocky outcrop, the spirit’s energy remains, making it a sacred site. Perhaps the most sacred of all the sites is also Australia’s most famous icon – Uluru. The traditional owners of Uluru, the Anangu, explain that the giant monolith rose out of the ground as a result of a terrible battle between two tribes of spirits, which left many dead on each side.
The story goes that one of the tribes had been invited to a feast by the other, but failed to turn up. This led to an angry show down, with the resulting deaths causing the Earth itself to rise up in grief. Aboriginal people consider spiritual beings like these to be the ancestors of all living things. Every plant, person and creature is believed to have two souls. One is the temporary mortal soul, while the second is the eternal connection to an ancestral being. As such, every Aboriginal person has their own Dreamtime ancestor, or Totem, and must protect the sacred sites associated with them.
Due to the lack of a written Aboriginal history, rock art took on a hugely important role in carrying on the traditions and beliefs of this truly ancient culture. The depictions of animals, people and spirits tell stories and teach lessons that are still handed down from one generation to the next. Rock art galleries can be found all across Australia. Indeed, there are even a couple of pieces at the north end of Sydney’s Bondi Beach if you know where to look.
There’s plenty on offer in the huge expanses of South Australia and Western Australia, especially up in the Kimberley. However, the Northern Territory is hard to beat. Both Darwin and Alice Springs are teeming with genuine Aboriginal art shops and music. To really get amongst it you want to head into the massive but neglected area of Arnhem Land, to the east of Darwin and Kakadu, or cruise over the water to the Tiwi Islands.
Visiting Aboriginal reserves such as these, however, does generally require a permit. The advantage of this is that the areas are not overrun by tourists, however the downside it that it can get expensive. Have a look at land council websites like nlc.org.au for more information. Also check aboriginaltourism.com.au for some indigenous tour operators. A much simpler, and cheaper, way to get your fill of local knowledge is by exploring one of Australia’s most culturally rich areas – Kakadu National Park.
It’s for good reason that Kakadu, in the Northern Territory, is one of only about 25 places on Earth to have been granted World Heritage status for both its natural beauty and cultural significance. As well as being an area of considerable ecological importance and beauty, Kakadu has two particularly accessible and impressive rock art galleries, Ubirr and Nourlangie, that offer an excellent introduction to the different artistic periods. Ubirr is a dramatic rock formation, incidentally made famous by appearing in another Australian cultural giant – Crocodile Dundee.
Looking out over the Nardab floodplains of the Arnhem Land, Ubirr is a spectacular spot for watching the sunset. But it’s far more than a lookout. With paintings spread across several galleries that date from the modern day back to 20,000 years ago, in contrasting styles, Ubirr makes an ideal place to build an understanding of rock art in the surroundings in which it is meant to be viewed.
Much of the art on display at Ubirr is from the estuarine period, meaning it was created in the last 15,000 years. In order to decipher the age of the paintings, experts have had to recognise and compare the different styles and subject matter depicted. This is because the minerals used in Aboriginal rock art, such as ochre, cannot be carbon-dated. Indeed, most of the original colours have long since disappeared, leaving just reds and browns, which are from the minerals that have managed to bond with the rock more permanently.
So, for example, historians know that estuarine period art cannot be older than 15,000 years old, due to the depictions of saltwater crocodiles, which only started appearing in the area around that time. The period also has a distinctive, so-called x-ray descriptive style, which means the outline of the animals, as well as their internal organs and rib cages, were all painted with great attention to physiological accuracy. This process was used as a method of passing on knowledge about the natural habitat.
Paintings older than 15,000 years are considered to be pre-estuarine, while more recent works are described as being from the freshwater period. These more modern works reflect the change in surroundings, when the arrival of greater rains and humidity brought more plants and animals. The reality, however, is that much Aboriginal art can seem underwhelming at first. Rock art comprises simple shapes and the outlines of animals and people.
However, the point is the art does not have the purpose of being aesthetically pleasing, instead acting as a vessel for passing on stories, culture and information, or even acting as a way to communicate with the spirit world. Most rock art galleries are ancient classrooms. Many of the oldest and most important pieces are simple handprints, which signify the passing of an initiation or learning of a lesson.
Often the act of the painting itself, accompanied by a traditional ceremony, is deemed far more important than the end result, which explains why rock art is quite regularly painted over. Animals are predominantly the subject matter. This is because the paintings would have been used to teach youngsters what they can hunt or cook, or even let visitors know what animals can be found in the area.
Therefore, once those objectives had been achieved, the art had no further use and could happily be painted over. Generally the lessons would be split into men’s business and women’s business, with each gender being forbidden from seeing the lessons of the other. Equally, lessons would progress with age, as boys and girls would be taught more about hunting, cooking or marrying as they grow older and pass more initiations.
It is for this reason that most tourists, or indeed any uninitiated people, are only ever allowed to see the most simple of rock art and are effectively considered tribal toddlers as a result. Incidentally, dot art, the form of Aboriginal art perhaps most recognizable to most Westerners, is in fact a much more modern invention. Western Desert painting, which has come to be known as dot art, has actually evolved from so-called ground paintings, when abstract-looking dots would form a design in a piece of pulped plant matter placed on the ground.
They were normally used to depict Dreaming stories or explain geographical features. It also has its roots in body painting. The existence of modern-day dot art is the result of Aboriginal communities increasingly seeing art as a potential source of income, after gaining exposure when the adoption of western materials like acrylic paints attracted widespread attention.
When looking to buy art such as this, it’s important to purchase pieces from indigenous-owned shops or associations if you want Aboriginal people to benefit as a result. The Papunya Tula artist cooperative in Alice Springs is one such place, but visit aboriginalaustralia.com for more information.
But whether you want to buy art, or simply clamber among rock paintings that are five or 10 times as old as the Pyramids, all that is important is learning the story behind the images, because that is why the images exist. Aboriginal culture is about the connection to the land. It is about feeling its pain, its sorrow and about realising that the cultural landscape is alive. Whatever the lesson or the tale, the message is consistent. Look after the land and the land will look after you.