Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The climate in Aboriginal Australia - Yarralin                                                                                                                           

Yarralin (Walangeri) is an aboriginal community 382 km southwest of Katherine in the Northern Territory, 16 km west of the Victoria River Downs cattle station on the banks of the Wickham River. It is not far from the Victoria and Humbert Rivers, the Gregory national Park and Jasper Gorge.

In the book, Windows on Meteorology, Australian Perspective, Deborah Rose reports some insights into the holistic and systemic nature of the  understanding of the natural world held by the Aboriginal people during conversations at the site she studied, Yarralin on the Wickham River, 15 km upstream from the Victoria River Downs cattle station. For the Aboriginal people the meteorological systems are the result of the interactions of many parts of their natural environment, and they include humans in that interconnected system. See Jones (1985), Rose (1987) and Stevenson (1985).

As with other cultures, the Aboriginal people have based understanding of the climate on detailed observations through time and assumptions regarding how knowledge is acquired and the ideas resulting are accepted as true. July is the coldest month at Yarralin, at this time of year the daily temperatures range from about 11o C at night to about 29o C during the day. The country is very desiccated by the end of the dry season, in about October or November, the major water bodies being the only water sources that haven't dried up, and the ground is dry and cracked, with sparse dry vegetation.

Some time from October to December the build up to the wet season is characterised by humid heat. It is a time when there is often a build-up of clouds and violent thunderstorms, though not always with rain, often only dust is stirred up. The winds are erratic and turbulent at this time, often occurring with short storms. The actual times when the seasons change varies from year to year, the wet season usually beginning in about January and lasting until about April.

At this time of year turtles form a large part of the diet of the people. At this time the monsoonal rains occur, sometimes at a number of times throughout the Wet, though not all the time, and the actual amount of monsoonal rain can very greatly from flood-causing rain to no monsoonal rain at all in the Wet. The result is that the season can vary, from comparatively dry to flooding, from year to year. The median annual rainfall at Yarralin is about 600 mm. The temperatures are usually about 41-42o C, or possibly a bit higher, between about October and February, with high humidity. The result is that the area has been estimated to be the area with most heat stress to humans in all of Australia (Lee, 1969).

At Yarralin the people divide the year into seasons that accord roughly with the Wet and the Dry that are normally used for this part of the country. The Dry is known as the 'cold time', makaru, 'cold'. In the season of the build-up they have a season called ngarap, that translates as 'more hot and hot'. The mayiyul is the Wet season, the name is believed to refer to the relationship between rain and plant growth.

To the people at Yarralin the weather is made by 2 of the Beings from the Dreamtime, the Sun, who was also the source of heat and light, though he had human form at that time, and the Rainbow (Rainbow Snake, Rainbow Serpent, Great Serpent) was associated with rain. The many Rainbow Snakes, that are usually inhabitants of waterholes, are referred to collectively as Rainbow.

The people of Yarralin apparently regard the Sun as predictable, unlike the unpredictable rain and wind, that they take more interest in as these interfere with sunshine. They refer to the rain by a number of terms, one for rain in general, yipu, as well as terms for different types of rain, rain in cold weather, rain in hot weather, the first rain after the very hot time of year, and the smell of the first rain. They also differentiate different colours of rain associated with matrilineal defined people. Conceptually, rain is associated with all water, differently coloured rains being linked to different coloured river water. The Rainbow Snake is responsible for both different coloured rains in changes in the colour of river water. The Rainbow Snake embodies the interconnected, complex ideas about water.

Rain occurs when the Rainbow Snake receives messages from a number of animals such as flying foxes. During the Cold Time, the Dry Season, they feed on the nectar of a number of species of trees, such as Eucalyptus terminalia and E. confertifolia in the bush, moving to roots in pandanus along the rivers when the flowers dry up. This tells the Rainbow Serpent that the land is getting hot, which means the vegetation is drying and food is becoming scarce in the country. On hearing this news he rises high into the sky and releases thunder, lighting and rain. At this time tadpoles hatch and frogs call to the Rainbow Snake to send down more rain. The Yarralin people told Rose that when the first rain falls the moisture rises to the sky to make more rain, and as the clouds form, the Rainbow Snake walks the sky at this time, more clouds from the moisture for it to walk on.

The people believe that in bad years when the rain fails it is because someone has done something that broke the chain of messages that took the message of the hot, dry conditions to the Rainbow Snake, so he doesn't known to bring rain. It is believed that the tribes to the west have some control over the amount of rain received at Yarralin, the western people being able to 'hold back the rain'. If the people at Yarralin decide the lack of rain is caused by the westerners, they take their own measures to bring on the rain, usually making use of calcite crystals, 'rain stones', as well as songs. These actions are only a last resort, as they believe the laws governing the weather system were designed to benefit all living things. It is only after long deliberation by the elders that an attempt to interfere with the natural system is made.

The wet season usually lasts until about March or April, by which time the watercourses and waterholes are filled and the vegetation is sprouting. If the rain continues too long there is a danger of flooding, possibly on a large scale, bringing the possibility of disaster. When the country is saturated the west wind usually realises there has been enough rain and breaks the back of the Rainbow Serpent, that then returns to the waterhole and the wind switches to an easterly wind, an the sun returns to prominence in the sky, no longer blocked by clouds. If the rain continues and it is decided assistance is required to get the system back in balance, the wind and sun are invoked by special songs and actions to bring about the end of the ran until the proper time for them to return.

In the culture of the people at Yarralin the basis for the cycles of the weather involves behaviour of the animals, plant growth cycles,  and all the other elements of the Earth and atmosphere, including humans. They believed that each part of the system must be balanced by the other parts for life to continue and flourish.

In their daily lives they knew from animal behaviour when there time was right to collect particular types of food. An example are crocodile eggs, that are not always laid at a particular time, all that can be said according to the western calendar is that they are laid at some time between late August and late September, maybe. At Yarralin it is known that the crocodile eggs are ready to be collected when the march flies begin biting.

The daily life of most Aboriginal people throughout the continent has been described by some anthropologists as 'original affluence', a term that applies to most hunter gatherers (Sahlins, 1972). Materials for tools were easily available, and those that were not found nearby could be obtained by trade, often from long distances away. They ate a wide variety of food that was healthy and nutritious and was available in sufficient quantities, often because of their intimate knowledge of their environment and the behaviour of all the plants and animals, especially their prey species. Captain Cook commented on their diet, saying they ate healthier food than many in Europe at the time. Their knowledge of the animals in their environment extended to the feeding and breeding behaviour, when and where they drank, even their reproductive systems, and when the different foods were available, which also applied to plants. Their long-term survival in such as challenging country, in such a wide variety of climatic conditions, was largely based on knowledge. A veritable knowledge-based society.

In the absence of writing, this accumulated knowledge was passed down the generations in the form of songs and dances, as well as their mythology in which the knowledge for survival was given more significance by being associated with various beings from the Dreamtime. Mostly it was passed on in the everyday life of the people, the young learning the skills of hunting, fishing, tool-making, etc., from the adults as they went about their daily business, with as much instruction as was required from the people who carried out the various tasks. All Aboriginal people of Australia were aware of the necessity of allowing breeding populations of animals to remain, and they tried to assist this reproduction by performing rituals at special 'increase sites'. These rituals were carried out to assist increase the numbers of the plants and animals they depended on.

According to Rose (1997), as well as the connection between marchflies and crocodile eggs, there were many other 'messages' their knowledge of their environment allowed them to pick up, such as :

  • the falling of flowers of the jangarla tree into water told them the barramundi were biting.
  • green flies arrive - certain species of figs are ripe
  • cicadas are sinking - turtles are getting fat
  • brolgas return - the dark catfish become active and the river will soon flow again.

They also had knowledge of the connection between the various constellations in the night sky and the activities of their food species. They could tell from the position of the Pleiades when dingo pups were born, the coldest time of the year, so know when they would mature.

Among the Yarralin people the Earth, the atmosphere and all living things, as well as the weather and climate with their variations, are part of a single living system that must be kept in balance. This knowledge gained through close observation over long periods of time, and the use of intelligence to make the connections between the various aspects of the system, was probably the basis of their use of the environment in a symbiotic way rather than a disruptive way, as has happened in the Australia since they were displaced.

Tropical north

A brief study at Milingimbi was the basis of seasonal calendars across northern Australia.

Throughout the tropical north of Australia there are 6 major seasons that are generally recognised by the aboriginal people of the area, with minor transitional seasons at the turnover between the main seasons. The major seasonal divisions apply across the coastal and near coastal areas of the north. Differences in latitude are the main reason for timing of the successive seasons, though the timing differences are only slight.

The main seasons correspond roughly to the western calendar used by non-Aboriginal Australia. 

Dhululdur - the pre-wet season - October to November
Barra'mirri - the growth season - December to January
Mayaltha - the flowering season - February to March
Midawarr - March - April - the fruiting season, this includes
    Ngathangamakulingamirri - the 2-week harvest season in April
Dharratharramirri - May to July - the early dry season. It includes
    Burrugumirri - July to August - sharks & stingrays give birth
Rarrandharr - August to October - the main dry season

The seasons were documented in the area of the Arnhem Land coast (Stephen Davis in Webb, 1997, Fig. 5.1)

As with the people at Yarralin, the people of the north regard the environment as an integrated whole, incorporating all components, including humans. Among the Yolngu of northern Arnhem Land the thunder of the wet season is the voice of the giant Rainbow Snakes speaking among themselves. Lightning is spat out by one of these Snakes when he raises himself high above his waterhole when he is disturbed by humans.

The large-scale features of the tropical weather systems have been integrated into the cultures of Northern Australia, being seen as signs of the changeover between the seasons.

Along with the change to the following season comes not only changes in climatic conditions, but a new suite of flora and fauna. Seasonal changes are heralded by changed direction of prevailing winds, the names of some seasons being taken from the name of the prevailing wind at that time. The growth season, from December to January, takes the name Barramirri, Barra meaning 'northwest monsoon' and the possessive suffix mirri - the season possessing the northwest monsoon.

The growth and flowering of certain plants, as well as animal behaviour, tells the Yolngu the season is changing. They also know from the first appearance and movement of particular stars, planets and constellations that the season is about to change. The Yolngu recognise the 3 stars in Orion's belt as 3 men, Birripirru, Djandurrngala and Ngurruwilpil paddling a bark canoe across the sky. Collectively they are known as the constellation of Djulpun. When Djulpun appears in the western sky the storms knock down the dry grass in the early dry season. The Yolngu begin burning the grass that remained following the main burning in the early dry season when Djulpun rises in the east in the night sky. It is the time to hunt goannas, wallabies and bandicoots, as they are fat and in good condition at this time.

In the pre-wet season, the 'male' thunder that is heard rumbling in the distance in the afternoons was believed to shrink waterholes. The clouds begin to build, building more each day, and the weather becomes hot and humid.

The nigh sky is well known to the Yolngu, they have myths associated with many constellations. When a shooting star is seen to fall in the 'wrong direction' it portends a death, possibly of a close relative. At night the coastal Aboriginal groups navigate at sea by the constellations as well as by sea wave patterns and wave swell. During the day they navigate by using the columns of cumulus clouds, as well as wind and wave direction.

On Bathurst and Melville Islands the Tiwi divide the year into 6 main seasons, the names being based on the type of rain most characteristic of each season.

Jamutakari - the wet season is made up of 3 main seasons

Wirriwinari - the dry season - is made up of 2 main seasons

The early dry is when cold weather and early morning fogs appear. Large-scale burning is carried out in the main part of the dry season.

Tiyari - the pre-wet season - the 6th season. Humidity increases and thunder storms build at this time. As the seasons change the main food sources change, travel is aided and the people know when various ceremonies are to be held.

To the south of the tropical coastal regions, in the arid regions to the south of the monsoonal belt, the plants and animals are more widely scattered and fewer in number, and the people are also fewer, the groups being widely scattered, needing a much larger area to find enough food. In the arid parts there are fewer changes of season. Among the Warlpiri of the Tanami Desert 3 main seasons are distinguished.

Another group from the arid zone, the Anmatjerre of central Australia, also have 3 seasons. This group divide the year up according to seasons based on rainfall, wind direction and temperature.

  • Utunakindja - early summer rain - plants flower, winds are from the north. The mid-summer rains come late in the season and wild fruits grow.
  • Alurrpakurla - the last rains with the south wind as winter approaches
  • Alurrpanda - the time of cold winter rain

Unlike in the tropical north there are no known transitional seasons recognised by the people of the arid zone, though there are some brief seasons within the main seasons.

Central Australia

Unlike just about anywhere else on Earth, the arid zone of central Australia does not have truly cyclical seasons, or even in a predictable sequence. Sometimes a season may simply not occur in a given year. They are more like recognisable patterns that usually recur at irregular intervals, (Robert Hoogenraad & George Jampilinpa Robertson in Webb, 1997).

In a region with such an irregular and unpredictable climate it was more important than in most places for the Aboriginal people of the this arid area to have a thorough knowledge of the indicators of approaching seasonal changes, as such changes bring with them changes in the amount and type of food available and the availability of water.

The indicators they watched for included temperature, the direction and type of prevailing winds, the type of the cloud formations and the direction they were coming from, day length, the direction in which the sun rose and set and the position and movements of the constellations and planets. Changes in animal behaviour, such as when goannas hibernated, and the flowering of particular plants were also of use in knowing the type of conditions they should be preparing for.

The calendar used by the Warlpiri had the following seasons

Uterne - hot season - summer
Uterne urle - hot season forehead - early summer
Alhwerrpe - cold season - winter
Alhwerrpe urle - cold season forehead - early winter
Ulpulpe - seasons after rains, when plants flower and seeds grow - spring

See Fig. 6.2 Webb, 1997). Because of the erratic nature of the climate of the arid zone the people of the area regard the calendar that was designed for teaching purposes as a general guide, in the real world the seasons cannot be so easily ordered.

Over the 60,000 years, or maybe longer, that the aboriginal people have occupied Australia they accumulated enough knowledge of the erratic climate and the unusual biota to survive sustainably up to the present. A much better record than the agriculturally superior people who took over 200 years ago, and who continue to degrade what little productive land there is on such an arid, soil-impoverished, salt-encrusted continent, of which deserts cover more than half, and desert sand dunes are still expanding. And this knowledge was passed on without writing, in the form of mythology and songs, an oral history into which was incorporated the knowledge of how to survive in the most extreme environments in a land of extremes. Their mostly strict adherence to their traditions in everyday life has been criticised as being conservative and unchanging, but the climate over much of Australia is such that straying from 'the way things have always been done' could be fatal.

Indigenous weather knowledge

Sources & Further reading

  1. Webb, Eric K, (1997), Windows on Meteorology, Australian Perspective, CSIRO Publishing.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 14/11/2013

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