“Rust them to the earth. Many times they

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“Rust red sand underlies the heart of Australia, where the huge monoliths
known as Olgas shoulder above spinifex and grevilea. This old and worn
continent has a look like no other – celebrated … by both the native
born and brief sojourners to the land down under” (“Portraits” 159). This
old continent also has also a spirit like no other, embodied by the people
who inhabited it for so long that they have come to “identify spiritually
with the land” (Terrill 200) – the Aborigines. They have developed a unique
culture, centered on religious beliefs, and a lifestyle that unites them to
the earth. Many times they have been categorized as primitive, but views
are changing, and their civilization has come to be recognized as
sophisticated, their influential role in modern Australia being no longer
denied.

Aboriginal history stretches long into the past. They have inhabited
Australia for thousands of years before the European arrival. Sites
discovered around the continent prove that they have been there for at
least 38,000 years (Judge). However, new archeological techniques have
expanded this figure to 116,000 years, stretching the limit almost to the
birth of Homo sapiens, and it is unclear whether they are the descendants
of modern man (Fullagar), or of a more archaic type (Judge). It is
generally accepted that the Aborigines have migrated here from Asia,
although there are still questions whether they have crossed a land bridge,
or have sailed the seas (Fullagar; Judge). Whatever the means they used to
get to Australia, the Aborigines have adapted to the continent and have
managed to survive isolated from all other human groups. They only came in
contact with another human population some 200 years ago, at the time of
the European colonization. At that time there were from 300,000 to 700,000
Aborigines (Gonen; Moore, “Aboriginal”), and their numbers have decreased
to about 250,000 today (Rajendra, “Old people”). The British settlers
destroyed the Aboriginal communities and way of life by taking over the
land and introducing new animals into the Australian ecosystem. The natives
died of diseases introduced by the Europeans, or starved as the newly
introduced animals displaced the ones they traditionally hunted (Gonen).

Although recently the Australian government gave them back some land to
turn into national parks (Terrill 200) or mine for minerals (Gonen), the
Aboriginal community is still the one with the highest rate of
unemployment, disease and illiteracy in the country (Rajendra, “Old
people”).

The geography of a place will always influence the societies that live
there, and this is especially true of the Aboriginal culture that has
perfectly adapted to the Australian landscape. Australia is a flat and low
continent, with an average elevation of 1000 feet. The western side
consists of a great, arid plateau and several deserts, while the eastern
part is a mountainous region. The center of the continent is made up of
large plains and is perfect for agriculture. The same area is also host to
Uluru or Ayers Rock, the world’s largest monolith (Powell) and a sacred
place for the Aborigines (Rajendra, “Aboriginal”). An estimate of 700
Aboriginal tribes, were spread throughout the continent at the time of
European arrival (Moore, “Aboriginal”). Many tribes still survive today,
although more than half of the Aboriginal population has moved to urban
areas (Rajendra, “Old people”). Besides inhabiting all the provinces of
mainland Australia, Aborigines also live in Tasmania, an island on the
southern tip of the continent (Gonen).

The structure of the Aboriginal society is different from the forms of
government known in most modern societies. Related people are organized in
subunits called clans or family units (Moore, “Aboriginal”). Several of
these subunits make up a tribe. They speak the same language and gather for
religious ceremonies. A tribe’s population can vary from a few members to
2,000 people (Gonen). All male members of the tribe that have gone through
the initiations are considered equal. There are some leaders in each clan –
people who have qualities that others admire or that can perform certain
roles. The Elders are the wisest men in the tribe, knowing both the laws
and the tribe’s mythology. They are the ones who can give advice or settle
disputes. In large tribes, the Elders form a council for the purpose of
conducting initiations and regulating other social and religious events,
but they are not a government in the modern sense of the word (Moore, “A to
Z”). Because of this organization and the small size of a clan, Aborigines
are not divided into social classes.

Men and women have separate roles in the society, and, similar to other
aspects of Aboriginal culture, these are strongly influenced by their
spirituality. People of both sexes have to go through initiation rituals in
order to become adults, and these rituals are kept secret from the eyes of
the opposite sex (Moore, “A to Z”). Among the Aborigines, non-initiated
males are considered women until their initiation, because they only have
their mothers’ blood in their veins (Eliade 27). During initiations, the
novices are instructed in the religious traditions of their tribe and their
gender’s sacredness is revealed, thus establishing a connection between
their adult life and that of mythological beings (Eliade 4 and 42). The
separation of sexes continues later in life, when each one has a specific
role. Men hunt and carry only their weapons, while women collect plant
food, small animals and take care of babies and household utensils
(Humphrey).

Because each subunit consists of people related to each other, the family
ties in the Aboriginal society are more extensive that those in
contemporary societies. Children consider their mother’s sisters as mothers
and their father’s brothers as fathers. Their cousins are to them brothers
and sisters. The only people seen as aunts and uncles are the parent’s
siblings of opposite sex, and their children are cousins. As tribes are
closed communities, they are divided into two intermarrying groups. People
from one group can only marry people from the other and this prevents
inbreeding. Marriages are arranged when children are very young, and girls
become wives at the early age of 11 or 12 years old. Polygamy was not
unusual, but both the husband and wives had love and respect for each
other, because this is what they were taught by stories and tradition
(Moore, “A to Z”). Little children are taken care of by all members of the
clan, but they still have to learn to fend for themselves. Therefore, from
an early age, they try to imitate their parents, girls helping their
mothers and boys going hunting or fishing with their fathers (Humphrey).

In the Aboriginal culture, education is meant to prepare children for their
life as members of a nomadic society and to help maintain the traditional
spiritual values of this society. Because of its practical purpose,
education is strongly tied to entertainment, art and religion. It begins at
an early age, when children are taught about the world around them and how
to survive in it (Breeden, “The first”), and continues until death, as
people learn more of their tribe’s traditions and spirituality (Humphrey).

Children begin by playing games that increase their agility and teach them
to work like a team. Games like running, climbing, wrestling and throwing
sticks prepare boys to their future role as hunters, and both girls and
boys learn tracking by drawing animal tracks on the ground (Moore, “A to
Z”). These games help children learn about their world and survive in one
of the most arid areas of the world. Besides learning about the natural
world, children, as well as adults, learn about the parallel spiritual
world through stories (Berndt, Catherine 551). These stories describe the
deeds of legendary beings who have played an important role in the creation
of the world and institution of human tradition, therefore they help people
learn and maintain tradition (Moore, “A to Z”). Art is also used as a mean
to transmit traditions from generation to generation. 20,000 years old
stone engravings still portray animals and people, showing the continuity
of Aboriginal culture (Doherty). The Aborigines believe that shy spirits
created the first rock paintings and that they also taught people how to
paint (Breeden, “The first”). Ever since, people have painted rocks with
intricate designs representing people and animals as a tradition. Even
today, some boys come and share a picture with their fathers (Breeden, “The
first” 287), although rock painting has made room for bark painting in
recent years. This type of painting takes a very long time and the works
are extremely valuable to collectors. The bark is coated with red ochre and
the designs outlined in white are filled with complex fine lines (Breeden,
“Living” 291).

A defining part of a culture, and very important in relation to education,
is language. Each tribe has its own language that separates it from other
tribes. Some tribes that speak the same language have formed trade
alliances and they conduct certain ceremonies together. At the time of
European contact and estimate of 600 languages were spoken throughout
Australia by the 700 Aboriginal tribes. Some Aborigines even spoke more
than their own language and appeared to have no difficulty in learning
English (Moore, “Aboriginal”; Moore, “A to Z”). This great variety of
languages seems inconsistent with the theory that the Aborigines are
descendants of a single race that migrated to Australia, but linguists have
considered the fact that languages evolve, thus permitting such diversity.

Today it is accepted that all the Aboriginal languages come from one
ancient language, and to support this affirmation stands the fact that
before European contact, Aborigines spoke only 200 languages, compared to
the 600 spoken at the time of contact (Gonen). Because more that half of
the Aboriginal population has left the traditional setting to live in the
cities (Rajendra, “Old people”), the languages are not spoken widely
anymore and they tend to be forgotten. Forgetting the language is almost
equivalent to forgetting the whole culture, as the Aboriginal way of life
is deeply rooted in spirituality, and story telling is the most important
way of conveying the traditions. As people die, the language and stories
die with them and the whole tradition will be forever lost, especially to
the young people who have chosen an urban lifestyle. This is how Big Bill
Neidjie puts it: “All these stories tell of the earth, the animals and
Aboriginal people. The old people, they know this. That’s why for thousands
and thousands years this country not change. We learned this from our
fathers and mothers. … We are old men now, we have not got many years.

If you don’t learn now, in 20 years’ time you will cry because you don’t
know your story. But too late then. We will be gone.” (Breeden, “The first”
289)
The supernatural is forever present in Aboriginal life. Their religion
explains the world as a place full of spirits. People have no other choice
than to interact with these spirits, and the purpose of education is to
teach how to exist in the world. Aborigines have to face an arid and
hostile environment every day, but they also have to face the spirits and
to help the world survive by Dreaming. Dreaming is the name given to human
activities that connect this world to Dreamtime and give it new life and
power (Elwood 34). Dreamtime is a world that existed long before the
creation of time, and it continues to exist in parallel with this world
(Rajendra, “Aboriginal”). Spirits from Dreamtime have created the land,
animals, people and have set in place the customs of Aboriginal society.

All the places where they have retreated to reside (Elwood 34; Moore, “A to
Z”), or where important acts of creation have taken place are considered to
be places of power, tying this world with Dreamtime (Berndt, Ronald 531).

Everything has a spirit and is alive because of Dreamtime’s power, thus
turning Aboriginal religion into a form of animism (Rajendra,
“Aboriginal”). The Aborigines believe that people are born when spirit-
children come from Dreamtime and enter a mother’s body. When they die, the
spirit-children return to Dreamtime and await a reincarnation (Elwood 34;
Moore, “A to Z”). People have been created by the spirits to help maintain
this world and in order to do so, they need to learn the secret spiritual
life that animates the world. This can only be revealed in time, during
several initiations. Girls’ initiation into the secrets of fertility and
creation of new life begins with their first menstruation and only ends
with the birth of their first child (Berndt, Ronald 533; Eliade 42). Boys’
initiations are done in groups and include several ordeals. During these
initiations, they are told stories explaining the creation and structure of
the world and taught how to use their knowledge of the spirits to preserve
the world (Eliade 4). Religion and its purpose of maintaining life
transforms all social events like weddings, funerals, births, and
migrations into re-enactings of events that took place in Dreamtime, thus
linking the two worlds together and transferring power from one to another
(Berndt, Ronald 531). The Aborigines tied their life to a higher purpose
and learned to honor spirituality, yet European settlers have often
misunderstood them. As the Aborigines are nomads, moving each season to a
place that can provide them with food in the harsh Australia, the habit of
going on a walkabout is entrenched in their culture. In the 1800s and
1900s, Aboriginal workers on white-owned farms would disappear for days as
they left on a walkabout. The term was coined by the farmers who saw the
Aboriginal need to travel as ingratitude, instead of recognizing that it
was something fundamental to their culture. Walkabouts are spiritual
journeys that take travelers to a place where they feel they belong, and in
some cases to their place of birth (Moore, “A to Z”).

The Aborigines have adapted to Australia and they learned to live as
hunters and gatherers. They do not practice agriculture, but move from
place to place, following the pattern of the seasons that makes food
available in some areas, and scarce in others (Humphrey). They eat all
sorts of animals, from kangaroo stews and soups, to crocodile steaks,
snakes, lizards, turtles, fish, worms, and even wild ants and bees. The
vegetarian diet is also diverse, focusing on roots, cereals and grasses,
occasionally fruits and even resin. Food can be eaten raw or roasted on
coals (Rajendra, “Bush tucker”). Although the Aborigines do not need an
industry, they are involved in mining (Gonen), and in tourism, as they
turned their lands into national parks (Terrill 200).

The ancient Aboriginal society has changed more in the last 200 years than
in the thousands of years before, yet is still maintains a lot of its
original culture. In most cases, it managed to adapt to the European
colonization, yet still maintain its own spirit. Some of the Aborigines
have chosen to follow the path of their ancestors, others to seek a new
life in urban Australia. Whatever their choice, they all are important to
Australia, giving this 200-year old country a 100,000 year-old perspective
on life.


Works Cited
Berndt, Catherine. “Australian religion: mythic themes.” Encyclopedia of
religion. New York: Macmillan Publishing Corporation, 1987: 547-562.


Berndt, Ronald. “Australian religion: an overview.” Encyclopedia of
religion. New York: Macmillan Publishing Corporation, 1987: 530-547.


Breeden, Stanley. “Living in two worlds.” National Geographic Feb. 1988:
291-294.


Breeden, Stanley. “The first Australians.” National Geographic Feb. 1988:
266-290.


Doherty, Charles. “Art of Australia and New Zeeland.” International
encyclopedia of art: Far Eastern Art. New York: Facts on File, Inc.,
1997: 52-54.


Eliade, Mircea. Rites and symbols of initiation. Woodstock, Connecticut:
Spring Publications, Inc., 1958.


Elwood, Robert, ed. “Australian religions.” The encyclopedia of world
religions. Book Builders, 1998: 33-34.


Fullagar, R.L.K et al. “Early human occupation of northern Australia:
archaeology and thermoluminescence dating of Jinmium rock-shelter,
Northern Territory.” Antiquity 1996: 751-773. Archaeology World
Resources.

http://artalpha.anu.edu.au/web/arc/resources/papers/ausdates/jinmium.ht
m (10 Dec. 2000)
Gonen, Amiram, ed. “Australian Aborigines.” Peoples of the world. Danbury,
Connecticut: Grolier Educational, 1998: 83-87.


Humphrey, Michael. “Aborigines.” Coo-ee…Australia calling, 1997.

http://users.orac.net.au/~mhumphry/aborigin.html (13 Dec. 2000)
Judge, Joseph. “Child of Gondwana.” National Geographic Feb. 1988: 170-177.


Moore, Geoff. “Aboriginal tribes of south-east coast of New South Wales.”
Australian Aborigines History and Culture Research Project, 2000.

http://www.aaa.com.au/hrh/aboriginal/tribes1.shtml (10 Dec. 2000)
Moore, Geoff. “A to Z Encyclopedia of aboriginal information.”
Australian Aborigines History and Culture Research Project, 2000.

http://www.aaa.com.au/hrh/aboriginal/A_Z/atoz1.shtml (10 Dec. 2000)
“Portraits of the land.” National Geographic Feb. 1988: 157-169.


Powell, Joseph. “Australia.” Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2000.

http://encarta.msn.com/find/Concise.asp?z=1;pg=2;ti=761568792;cid=4#p4
(10 Dec. 2000)
Rajendra, Sundran, and Vijeya Rajendra. “Aboriginal religion.” Cultures of
the world: Australia. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish
Corporation, 1996.


Rajendra, Sundran, and Vijeya Rajendra. “Bush tucker.” Cultures of the
world: Australia. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation,
1996.


Rajendra, Sundran, and Vijeya Rajendra. “Old people in a new land.”
Cultures of the world: Australia. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall
Cavendish Corporation, 1996.


Terrill, Ross. “Australia at 200.” National Geographic Feb. 1988: 181-212.

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