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Australia Before 1788

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 3

Indigenous Culture

The word Aborigine comes from Latin and means "from the beginning". The Australian Aboriginals were nomadic people, who arrived in Australia about 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, after leaving Africa and probably travelling through South East Asia.

Before Europeans arrived in Australia, there were about 300,000 aborigines living in about 250 different tribal groups. People mostly lived in extended families, but large numbers of aborigines would come together for ceremonies and important occasions. There were also highly complex kinship systems, social and marriage laws, customs and diverse languages. 

Some Aboriginal boys and men in front of a bush shelter, Groote Eylandt, NT, c.1933.

The religious beliefs of the Aboriginal people involved ancestral beings, who shaped the land and created people, plants and other animals. These ancestral beings emerged from a heavenly world in the Dreamtime and as they moved about, rivers, rocks, mountains, plants and animals began to appear. Everything on the earth was interconnected and related and although the ancestral beings went back to their heavenly domain, they could be summoned and their creative forces were still vital.

The landscape was often considered to be the embodiment of the various spirits. A river may have taken its shape from the Rainbow Serpent during the creation period called the Dreaming and mountains and hills were the mark of other spirits. Spirits often appeared in animal form, like a kangaroo, or emu, or perhaps as a human. Before the Dreaming the earth was a featureless desolate place, then the spirits rose, roamed about and created before returning to their slumber. Aboriginal groups however had a rich diversity and the variety of stories and spirits were equally diverse.  


There was a structured social and political system operating before 1788, which enabled the Aboriginal people to manage their society and lands. The customary laws were not written down, but passed by oral tradition. Aboriginal elders had an important role teaching social and cultural knowledge and survival skills; they were also regarded as the tribal leaders and decision makers.

The Aboriginal people believed that a sign, or dream would provide foreknowledge that a spirit child had entered a womans womb. A magpie flying into the mothers path, while out walking for example, would also signal, that the baby would be connected to the magpie ancestral being. Other animals, or plants, or other aspects of the world, also had ancestral beings and the aborigines in being connected to these, were also spiritually connected to the landscape and the Dreaming.

Sacred sites were also important places where rituals were often performed. Any negligence in caring for theses spiritual sites, or ritual tasks, could bring about harm to the people of the 'tribe' in the form of food and water shortages, illness and natural disasters.

Aborigines however prior to 1788 who lived in fertile places of Australia, generally had plenty of food sources, which could be collected in daily hunting, gathering and fishing expeditions. Most groups were nomadic and moved about to take advantage of seasonal foods. Groups like the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi groups in New South Wales, occupied large land areas, with groups of many people, as the land was very fertile. In desert regions however, groups like the Pintubi people also occupied large tracts of land, but the arid landscape could only support smaller populations.

Mother and Child(105685)

Aborigines did wear clothes and they did build dwellings, but these were different from Europeans. One of the most interesting items of clothing were possum-skin cloaks, which were made from possum pelts sewn together with kangaroo sinew and decorated. In regard to housing there was a variety of styles, suited to the particular climate. On Murray Island, round houses were built, surrounded by fences. On Tasmania's west coast, conical houses, with thatched roofs big enough to house 20-30 people were constructed. Near the fertile Murray River, permanent stone houses were built and in hot desert areas wiltjas, which were open circular dwellings, which provided protection from weather extremes, were erected.

Boomerangs originally, were simple throwing sticks, made with the purpose to hit and injure. In certain regions over time boomerangs became curved, so that when thrown they would travel in an arc, back to the thrower. Boomerangs were not just weapons for hunting however, they were also used to clear grass, as cooking implements, in digging holes and cutting up animals. Sometimes boomerangs were also used to create friction for fire making. Then there were sacred boomerangs for ritual purposes. 

Illness and death was believed to be caused by spirits, ancestral beings or sorcery. The traditional healer was believed to have great spiritual powers and super human skills. The healer would often use bush remedies for many ailments. The whistling tree (Casuarina equisetifolia) was used for tooth ache, crushed tea-tree (paper bark) was a remedy for sore throats, eucalyptus leaves for fevers. Sorcerers however were greatly feared by the Aborigines, as they could cause illness and death by 'pointing the bone', or capturing the spirit of a person in hair or food. Pointing the bone had a few different forms, but among the Aranda people of central Australia, a person would place the bone into the ground in the bush and repeat curses over it. In the darkness of night the bone would then be pointed in secret at the victim, along with various chants. Such was the belief in the curse and the ability of sorcery, that the victim generally died.

Boomerang Attack


Yothu Yindi - Treaty



Jul 15, 2012 9:54am
This is a fantastic primer! I enjoy reading of indigenous cultures before the taint of Whitey changed things. Thanks for a great piece. A thumb from me.
Jul 15, 2012 2:01pm
Thanks, I find the creation myths and legends of indigenous people rather fascinating.
Jun 9, 2014 11:11pm
I concur. Very good introduction to aboriginal Australia.

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  1. Social Organisation "Traditional Life." http://www.aboriginalculture.com.au/socialorganisation.shtml. ..
  2. Australian Aboriginal Culture "AGPS Press." .. 1991.

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