Australia Arts and Culture: Aboriginal Society

Australia's Aboriginal people were tribal, living in extended family groups or clans, with clan members descending from a common ancestral being. Tradition, rituals and laws linked the people of each clan to the land they occupied and each clan had various sites of spiritual significance, places to which their spirits would return when they died. Clan members came together to perform rituals to honor their ancestral spirits and the creators of the Dreaming. These beliefs were the basis of the Aboriginal peoples' ties to the land they lived on.

It is the responsibility of the clan, or particular members of it, to correctly maintain and protect the sites so that the ancestral beings are not offended and continue to protect the clan, Traditional punishments for those who neglect these responsibilities can still be severe, as their actions can easily affect the well-being of the whole clan - food and water shortages, natural disasters or mysterious illnesses can all be attributed to disgruntled or offended ancestral beings.

Many Aboriginal communities were semi-nomadic, others sedentary, one of the deciding factors being the availability of food. Where food and water were readily available, the people tended to remain in a limited area. When they did wander, however, it was to visit sacred places to carry out rituals, or to take advantage of seasonal food available elsewhere. They did not, as is still often believed, roam aimlessly and desperately in the search for food and water.

The traditional role of the men was that of hunter, tool-maker and custodian of male law; the women reared the children, and gathered and prepared food. There was also female law and ritual for which the women were responsible. Ultimately, the shared efforts of men and women ensured the continuation of their social system.

Wisdom and skills obtained over millennia enabled Aboriginal people to use their environment to the maximum. An intimate knowledge of the behavior of animals and the, correct time to harvest the many plants they utilized ensured that food shortages were rare. Lake other hunter-gatherer peoples, Aboriginal people were true ecologists.

Although Aboriginal people in northern Australia had been in regular contact with the fishing and farming peoples of Indonesia for at least 1000 years, the cultivation of crops and the domestication of livestock held no appeal. The only major modification of the landscape practiced by Aboriginal people was the selective burning of undergrowth in forests and dead grass on the plains.

This encouraged new growth, which in turn attracted game animals to the area. It also prevented the build-up of combustible material in the forests, making hunting easier and reducing the possibility of major bushfires. Dingoes were domesticated to assist in the hunt and to guard the camp from intruders.

Similar technology - for example the boomerang and spear - was used throughout the continent, but techniques were adapted to the environment and the species being hunted. In the wetlands of northern Australia, fish traps hundreds of meters long made of bamboo and cord were built to catch fish at the end of the wet season. In the area now known as Victoria, permanent stone weirs many km long were used to trap migrating eels, while in the tablelands of Queensland finely woven nets were used to snare herds of wallabies and kangaroos.

Contrary to the common image, some tribes did build permanent dwellings, varying widely depending on climate, the materials available and likely length of use. In western Victoria the local Aboriginal people built permanent stone dwellings; in the deserts semicircular shelters were made with arched branches covered with native grasses or leaves; and in Tasmania large conical thatch shelters which could house up to 30 people were constructed. Such dwellings were used mainly for sleeping.

The early Australian Aboriginal people were also traders. Trade routes crisscrossed the country, dispersing goods and a variety of produced items. Many items traded, such as certain types of stone or shell, were rare and had great ritual significance. Boomerangs and ochre were other important items. Along the networks which developed, large numbers of people would meet for 'exchange ceremonies', where not only goods but also songs and dances were passed on.