Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Intellectual Aristocrats                                                                                                                                                                  

The famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called the Australian Aborigines 'intellectual aristocrats' among early peoples, based on outstanding features of traditional Aboriginal Society such as sophisticated religion, art, social organisation, an egalitarian system of justice and decision making, complex, far-reaching trade networks, and the demonstrated ability to adapt to, and survive in, some of the world's harshest environments. (in Flood, 2004).

As mentioned in Flood (2004), the Aborigines were still being characterised as 'unchanging man in an unchanging environment' in the 1920s. Since then evidence has been accumulating, especially from archaeology, that the reverse is actually true. Some features of their culture were indeed conservative, such as some burial practices, such as where men were buried clutching the penis. This has been observed in the 18th century, and has since been found in burials such as at Lake Mungo, where the burial of WLH 3, dated to about 60,000 years ago, had his hands in a position consistent with this practice. But they have adapted to extraordinary climatic changes. At the time of their arrival in central Australia the lakes of the centre were vast stretches of freshwater, the remains of large fish caught in them being found in middens near the lakes. Since then, the lakes dried up, the people, along with the animals, moved away from their dependence on the lakes, shifting to such food sources as grass seeds and the marsupials that had also adapted to life without much standing water.

Aboriginal culture has been shown by archaeological research to have been evolving for at least 50,000, and more probably 60,000 years, to suit the situation they find themselves in at any particular place and time. Whether rainforest or desert, they flourished wherever they went. Rather then being unchanging they have shown themselves to be masters of adaptation. Aboriginal society has the longest continuous cultural history in the world.

The stone constructions for eel harvesting in southwestern Victoria and fish trapping at Brewarrina are examples of engineering practised by Aboriginal people. These constructions demonstrate they had the ability and the knowledge of their environment and the animals they hunted to plan and successfully build large scale permanent structures where the environment was reliable enough to make the work required worth while in the long term, and where there was a need, as in the case of the Brewarrina fish traps, to catch large numbers of fish when they were available in times of drought. The processes used for preserving eels demonstrates they knew how to preserve food when required. With regards to activities such engineering structures, mining, quarrying, permanent or semipermanent huts, when the conditions permitted, where they could they did.

Present-day research has found 16 refuge sites occupied by red kangaroos during drought, 10 of which were sacred sites associated with Ara, the red kangaroo from the Dreamtime. Among the Aborigines, hunting was prohibited in these sacred sites, and for some distance around them.  Conservation being practised many thousands of years before the word existed, also a clue to how these "primitive" people survived, sustainably, on the driest vegetated continent on earth. These sacred sites would now be called a network of conservation reserves in prime habitat. Further evidence that rather than being unchanging people they had adapted extremely well to the very harsh conditions of central Australia.

Some features of Aboriginal society that were unknown at the time of European colonisation were a sophisticated religion, complex social organisation, art, and a knowledge of astronomy. Some that were observed and commented upon in journals by a number of early colonists, such as agriculture, aquiculture, mining of ochre and stone, engineering (see Brewarrina fish traps) and the building of semi-permanent or permanent huts in small villages in places where the climate and food supply were reliable enough to sustain such settlements was not widely known or ignored. The complexity of the religion, mythology and ritual was at an even higher level than first appears, because of a deeper level of symbolism and meaning known only to fully initiated men. In the most sacred rituals carried out by the fully initiated men, song, rather than narrative, is the medium used to tell the stories. Key words or references were used, instead of full descriptions. Any man that was not fully initiated, or women and children, would not appreciate the full meaning even if they overheard the songs, as the associations of each word must be known to fully understand the story being told. In northeastern Arnhem Land a word used in everyday speech can have several sacred equivalents with slightly differing meanings, as well as a further series of  'singing' words'. see Aboriginal Mythology.

The complex nature of their spiritual life can also be glimpsed in the beliefs and stories about the Land of the Dead, some of which have a theme somewhat like that in Dante's Inferno, and the crossing of a river, or stretch of sea, with the help of a boatman (canoe man) to reach the final abode of the spirits of the dead, as seen in Greek and Roman mythology. Some of the ideas expressed in their belief of the Afterlife can also be seen as not too dissimilar from those expressed in the belief systems of some of the present prominent religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, such as the cycle of life. In southern Australia, at least some of the tribes apparently had a single omnipotent 'God', known by a number of names among the different tribes, such as Bunjil, Baiame and Daramulun, as do some of the modern religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and they even had stories of a flood caused by Kaboka (thrush) that killed most of the population, the few who survived climbing onto Mt Dromedary, predating the Biblical flood by many thousands of years, as did the flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh, that also predated the Biblical flood, but only by a couple of thousand years.

More evidence of the complex nature of Aboriginal societies can been seen in the illustrations in William Blandowski's book, Austalien in 142 Phorographischen Abbildungen nach zehnjarigen Erfahrungen - Australia in 142 photographic illustrations from 10 years experience. see Source 1.

These were no 'simple savages'!


  1. Aborigines may have farmed eels, built huts
  2. Fish Traps and Drainage Systems
  3. Secrets of the stones
  4. Coutts, P. J. F. (Peter J. F), Aboriginal Engineers of the Western Districts, Victoria, Records of the Victorian Archaeological Survey; No.7
  5. Brewarrina Fish traps
  6. Australian Aboriginal Wisdom

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications, 2004
  2. Allen, H. ed., 2010, Australia: William Blandowski's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 30/09/2011

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