There are several hundred Indigenous peoples of Australia, many are groupings that existed before the British annexation of Australia in 1788. Before Europeans, the number was over 400. Indigenous or groups will generally talk of their “people” and their “country”. These countries are ethnographic areas, usually the size of an average European country, with around two hundred on the Australian continent at the time of White arrival. Within each country, people lived in clan groups – extended families defined by the various forms Australian Aboriginal kinship.
Inter-clan contact was common, as was inter-country contact, but there were strict protocols around this contact. The largest Aboriginal people today is the Pitjantjatjara who live in the area around Uluru (Ayers Rock) and south into the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara in South Australia, while the second largest Aboriginal community are the Arrernte people who live in and around Alice Springs. The third largest are the Luritja, who live in the lands between the two largest just mentioned.
The Aboriginal languages with the largest number of speakers today are the Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri and Arrernte. Indigenous Australians are the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and nearby islands, and these peoples’ descendants. Indigenous Australians are distinguished as either Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders, who currently together make up about 2. 6% of Australia’s population. The Torres Strait Islanders are indigenous to the Torres Strait Islands which are at the northern-most tip of Queensland near Papua New Guinea.
The term “Aboriginal” has traditionally been applied to indigenous inhabitants of mainland Australia, Tasmania, and some of the other adjacent islands. The use of the term is becoming less common, with names preferred by the various groups becoming more common. The earliest definite human remains found to date are that of Mungo Man which have been dated at about 40,000 years old, but the time of arrival of the ancestors of Indigenous Australians is a matter of debate among researchers, with estimates ranging as high as 125,000 years ago.
There is great diversity between different Indigenous communities and societies in Australia, each with its own unique mixture of cultures, customs and languages. In present day Australia these groups are further divided into local communities. The population of Indigenous Australians at the time of permanent European settlement has been estimated at between 318,000 and 750,000, with the distribution being similar to that of the current Australian population, with the majority living in the south-east, centred along the Murray River.
Though Indigenous Australians are seen as being broadly related, there are significant differences in social, cultural and linguistic customs between the various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. Migration Modern day scientists and others often say that the Australian Aborigines arrived in the continent of Australia, by crossing land bridges or landing on the northern shores by canoes. Australia discovered by the ‘Southern Route’ PhysOrg – July 22, 2009 Genetic research indicates that Australian Aborigines initially arrived via south Asia.
Researchers found telltale mutations in modern-day Indian populations that are exclusively shared by Aborigines. Dr Raghavendra Rao worked with a team of researchers from the Anthropological Survey of India to sequence 966 complete mitochondrial DNA genomes from Indian ‘relic populations’. He said, “Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother and so allows us to accurately trace ancestry. We found certain mutations in the DNA sequences of the Indian tribes we sampled that are specific to Australian Aborigines. This shared ancestry suggests that the Aborigine population migrated to Australia via the so-called ‘Southern Route'”.
The ‘Southern Route’ dispersal of modern humans suggests movement of a group of hunter-gatherers from the Horn of Africa, across the mouth of the Red Sea into Arabia and southern Asia at least 50 thousand years ago. Subsequently, the modern human populations expanded rapidly along the coastlines of southern Asia, southeastern Asia and Indonesia to arrive in Australia at least 45 thousand years ago. The genetic evidence of this dispersal from the work of Rao and his colleagues is supported by archeological evidence of human occupation in the Lake Mungo area of Australia dated to approximately the same time period.
Discussing the implications of the research, Rao said, “Human evolution is usually understood in terms of millions of years. This direct DNA evidence indicates that the emergence of ‘anatomically modern’ humans in Africa and the spread of these humans to other parts of the world happened only fifty thousand or so years ago. In this respect, populations in the Indian subcontinent harbor DNA footprints of the earliest expansion out of Africa. Understanding human evolution helps us to understand the biological and cultural expressions of these people, with far reaching implications for human welfare.
” Appearance To the early Europeans, the Aborigines of the Sydney district (and later those throughout the whole continent), were primitives, natives or Noble Savages. So, descriptions of them (either written or in sketches/ paintings), were classificatory and comparative. There were a number of physical distinctions between different tribes. It was noted that the Gundungurra who lived in the Blue Mountains west of Camden were taller and stronger than the Eora / Dharawal who lived on the coast. Or so European observers said.
Some tribespeople were said to be darker than others (dark brown or black) and were different in other ways, but anyone who indulges in descriptions should ask themselves why they are doing this. People are people and differences of color and shape shouldn’t matter. However derogatory descriptions of Aborigines during the 19th century were often a justification for massacres and poisoning of people. Spears were personal possessions of individual Aboriginal males. Each tribe had their own particular style of spears.
Basically, all spears were made from timber or from the stems of plants. They ranged in length from about 1. 5 meters to 4 or 5 meters with various forms of points, tips or blades. Some spear tips were prongs which were used to catch fish; others were made from stone flakes while others were made from fish bones and shells. Spears were mainly used for hunting but they were also used in battles. Clothing The Aboriginal people of the Sydney, Illawarra and Shoalhaven district (and most, if not in all parts of Australia), were often observed by early settlers to be naked.
The men and women of some tribes are known to have worn a belt around their middle made of hair, animal fur, skin or fiber which they used to carry tools and weapons. These belts often had a flap at the front, however, this was a modification that was added during European colonization when the British colonists and authorities were concerned about modesty and imposed their standards on the Aborigines – who were unashamed of their nakedness.
However, Aboriginal people needed to be warm in winter months and did make cloaks which they made from animal skins e. g.., possum skins. They worn them during the day and used them as blankets during the night. A number of skins were needed to make the garment and they were cleaned, dried and sewn together. During colonization individual settlers gave the Aborigines their old clothes (known as slops). So the people were often recorded as wearing a variety of clothes such as army or navy jackets, trousers, petticoats and blouses (etc). From the 1830’s a number of Governors issued English blankets to the Aborigines through Magistrates and well respected settlers in various parts of the country.
The blankets were not as warm as possums skin cloaks and many Aborigines caught influenza and bronchitis and died from these diseases. Society Aboriginal Australians were social beings who lived in a number of social groups sometimes called bands, clans, sub-tribes and tribes, but essentially in a family or kinship group who were 1) of the same blood-line and 2) were related to other people through totems. The social groupings of ATSI people meant that their relationships were far more extensive than our own method of identifying people as mother, father, brother, sister and cousins (etc).
Aboriginal relationships are difficult to understand but the relationships of an Aboriginal male child are detailed in following script (with western ones shown in brackets), to give some idea of them: The family was usually comprised of father’s father (grandfather) and often his brother or brothers who was / were known also known as father’s father (no western equivalent); his wife or wives (grandmother); a father (father) and perhaps his brothers (uncles) who was also considered to be an Aboriginal male child’s father.
Each family group had a headman or Elder who was the leader of the unit. He decided when to move camp and settled disputes Food such as oysters, mussels and pippies were enjoyed. Sometimes they cooked them on the ashes of a fire and the Sydney Aborigines are known to have taken a fire with them aboard their canoes when they went fishing. This meant they could cook and eat their catch as they continued catching fish. They also took some of their catch back to the camp to share with others, but eating food while catching it gave them the energy to collect sufficient quantity for others.
Animals, birds and reptiles were also caught and cooked on an open fire. However they ‘scorched’ rather than cooked these foods. In other words, they did not roast the joint of a kangaroo like Europeans do today. For example by placing a leg of lamb in an oven for an hour or two. The Aborigines simply singed the food to remove feathers, scales and fur and ate partly cooked meat. Other sources of food included yams (sweet potatoes), berries and intestines such as liver (yuck).
But they generally hunted and collected the wide variety of food that was available in the places in which they lived. One food that was cooked by the Aborigines was a type of bread which was also popular among early European settlers who called it damper. This is made by grinding seeds into flour, mixing this with water into a doughy paste and cooking it in the ashes of a warm fire. The Aborigines lived within a tribal territory where they obtained their daily food needs. Some tribes lived in desert country, while others lived in mountain, coastal or timbered areas.
This meant that the members of different tribes ate different foods. It also meant that some of them were constantly on the move hunting and gathering. Others lived a semi-nomadic life in areas where there were amply food supplies. The Eora / Dharawal people who lived on the coastal area between the Hawkesbury River and the Shoalhaven River were hunters and gatherers of fish, shellfish, plants and animals. They caught fish such as bream, groper, snapper and whiting; collected shellfish including oysters (rock and mud), cockles and conniwink.
Plant foods included: native cherries, the cabbage palm, water lilies, five-corners and pigface. Animals, birds and reptiles such as kangaroos, ducks and snakes were also hunted for consumption purposes. Homes Aboriginal people were social beings as they lived and gathered together in family groups . Their camps were comprised of a number of gunyas (bark huts), but the people also lived in caves or in the open air. Some camps were comprised of as few as 6 to 10 people while in others there were up to 400 people. No doubt the availability of food was a factor in the size of a camp.
Each day, various members of the group would leave the camp to hunt and gather food and return to the camp to share the catch with others. During the 1830s William Govett (surveyor), visited a camp and recorded (in Sketches of New South Wales), that the people usually settled in their camp as night fell and were engaged in a number of activities – normal family life – sharing stories about the happenings of the day, repairing weapons, singing songs and playing games etc. Govett described a young man in one gunya using double sets of strings to make diamonds, squares, circles and other shapes.
He also told of an adult amusing a young child by placing a leaf on the back of his left hand, striking it with his finger causing the leaf to ascend perpendicularly to the squeals of delight from the child. Aboriginal people lived in family groups. The Elder or Elders gunyah (hut) were situated in the center of the camp and others spanned out in circles around the central hut. However, the people often slept in the open and in caves, so it is likely that the Elder decided where he wanted to sleep with his wife or wives and everyone one else spread-out from the spot he had chosen.
No doubt some people were more important than others and the most important ones camped near the Elders. Culture Culture is a celebration of beliefs and usually (if not always) includes rites of passage from one stage of life to another. Culture is stories and songs. Particularly because their stories and songs informed them about creation, the relationship between mankind and nature and were the source of their tribal laws. The tradition of initiation was an expression of Aboriginal culture and was carried out for thousands of years in exactly the way that had been ordered by the ancestors in the Dreamtime.
On another level the stories and songs were believed to be important for the preservation and conservation of their land and all it contained. This involved singing Songlines that had been sung by the ancestors and the concept of taking care. Until 1788 the Aborigines of Australia lived and celebrated a culture that was basically unchanged for thousands of years. Each tribe had their own beliefs – their own songs and stories, but until colonization, they were the oldest surviving race in the entire world.
They existed as a race of people well before the Egyptians were building the pyramids, while the Greeks were constructing the Pantheon and while Britain was ruled by the Roman Empire. However the first Europeans to arrive in the continent considered the ‘natives’ to be primitives. This was largely due to a lack of understanding about the culture of the Aborigines. A cultural group was comprised of two or more tribes that associated with each other for cultural purposes. For example to celebrate corroborees, barter or exchange goods, conduct initiation ceremonies or intermarry.
On the Far South Coast of New South Wales early records show that members of the Yuin tribe often associated with those from the Canberra area. These tribes did not associate with the Dharawal tribe of the Shoalhaven, Illawarra and Sydney districts, who gathered from time to time with the Gundungurra of the Goulburn and Camden area. Dance Aborigines held a corroboree in which there were elements of music, song and movement that imitated or replicated animal movements, hunting prowess, battles or ceremonies of initiation that had been conducted for thousands of years.
Corroborees are part of Aboriginal culture. They were not simply dances, but were highly significant events and belong to the Australian Aborigines. A corroboree is a ceremonial meeting of Australian Aborigines. The word was coined by the European settlers of Australia in imitation of the Aboriginal word caribberie. At a corroboree Aborigines interact with the Dreamtime through dance, music and costume. Many ceremonies act out events from the Dreamtime. Many of the ceremonies are sacred and people from outside a community are not permitted to participate or watch.
In the northwest of Australia, corroboree is a generic word to define theatrical practices as different from ceremony. Whether it be public or private, ceremony is for invited guests. There are other generic words to describe traditional public performances: juju and kobbakobba for example. In the Pilbara, corroborees are yanda or jalarra. Across the Kimberley the word junba is often used to refer to a range of traditional performances and ceremonies. Corroboree and ceremony are strongly connected but different.
In the 1930s Adolphus Elkin wrote of a public pan-Aboriginal dancing “tradition of individual gifts, skill, and ownership” as distinct from the customary practices of appropriate elders guiding initiation and other ritual practices (Elkin 1938:299). Corroborees are open performances in which everyone may participate taking into consideration that the songs and dances are highly structured requiring a great deal of knowledge and skill to perform. Corroboree is a generic word to explain different genres of performance which in the northwest of Australia include balga, wangga, lirrga, junba, ilma and many more.
Throughout Australia the word corroboree embraces songs, dances, rallies and meetings of various kinds. In the past a corroboree has been inclusive of sporting events and other forms of skill display. It is an appropriated English word that has been reappropriated to explain a practice that is different to ceremony and more widely inclusive than theatre or opera. Music The Australian Aborigines used a limited variety of implements to make musical sounds.
The didgeridoo (see separate listing) is probably the best known, but others included rattles, clapping sticks and two boomerangs clapped together. However they do not appear to have used drums. The exception may be the Torres Strait Islander people. Another instrument that wasn’t used, was a flute or whistle. The melodies, tunes, harmonies and rhythms of Aboriginal music included traditional ceremonial songs that were handed down from generation to generation. It was very important in Aboriginal thinking, to replicate the songs that had been first played and sung by the ancestors in the Dreamtime.
When the traditional music and songs were used, living men considered themselves to be in the Dreamtime. Particularly during initiation ceremonies. However ‘new songs’ were created from time to time. They told of important events in the history of the tribe. Events such as great battles or hunting expeditions. Other songs and music were for general amusement or entertainment and early European observations of the Aborigines included camp life where the people played games and sang songs around their camp fires.
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