Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Religion

Aboriginal religion had no manmade structures for religious ceremonies, the used features of the landscape for their rites and ceremonies, e.g., Uluru (Ayer's Rock).

They believed that when a person died the spirit left the body and travelled to a place like a waterhole to await rebirth. The complex rituals to protect the living from any anger the dead person may have harboured towards the living and to expedite the journey of the spirit to the spirit home, a waterhole, offshore island, to the spirit home.

They followed a totemic system, each person was associated with an animal or a natural feature of the landscape. Every person has a totem, usually an animal, and those of that totem are responsible for the rites necessary for the continued abundance of that species. The sites for the increase rites of each species is marked by a pile of bones of that species.

Examples of these increase were found in the Northern Territory, in Sleisbeck Cave was a star-shaped pile of crocodiles bones, and a grouping of emu skulls was found at Ingaladdi.

In many ceremonies an integral part of the ritual were elaborate drawings in the sand. On Bora grounds of New South Wales, mythological figures up to 10 m long were moulded in earth or clay in the centre of the Bora ring. The sand or earth sculptures were not intended to last a long time. The most common form of Bora ring was a double circle surrounded by low earth banks and a path, also bounded by an earth bank, connecting the 2. One of the rings was for all the people, including women and children participated in the corroboree, then the young men being initiated were led by the elders along the connecting path to the other ring where only initiated men were allowed to go for secret rituals like tooth avulsion or circumcision. At least in some places a form of birth control was practiced where a subincision was performed, the urethra was cut open for a short distance from the head of the penis. When they had intercourse some of the semen exited this opening so reducing the efficiency of fertilisation. It wasn't intended to be for birth control, it was connected with ritual symbolic representations of menstruation, but some suggest it may have had this unintended side effect.

The trees surrounding these Bora ceremonial grounds are often surrounded by trees that have geometrical designs carved into them. Trees with these carvings on them are called dendroglyphs, those that have had bark removed for the manufacture of canoes or other artefacts are called a scarred trees.

Carved trees were often associated with burial and initiation rites. Initiation trees usually have the carving in the bark, but those carved as burial trees the carving is extended to the sapwood or even the heartwood.

These carved trees seem to be restricted to the areas inhabited by the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi peoples in eastern, central New South Wales and southeastern Queensland.

These designs were usually geometric and linear patterns cut with a stone hatchet. The motifs include concentric lozenges, diamonds, circles and spirals. The motifs resemble those on skin cloaks and to decorate wooden weapons. It is thought the designs carved on a tree near a grave may indicate the totem or kinship affiliations of the dead person.

A guide for Sir Thomas Mitchell, Yuranigh, died in 1850 near Molong in New South Wales, and was buried according to traditional custom. Four trees were carved near the grave, and the site is marked by a tombstone erected by Mitchell.

Some of the most elaborate grave ceremonies in Australia were carried out by the Tiwi from Bathurst and Melville Islands about 80 km north  of Darwin at the junction of the Arafura and Timor Seas. During the Pukimani ceremony they carved large grave posts that were intricately decorated, each one taking months to finish. These posts were erected by the grave during the long mourning ceremony, while dancers in elaborate body decorations drove the spirit of the dead person into the bush, miming events of the person's life. After the ceremony the posts were left where they were put, and allowed to decay naturally, no further interest being taken in them.

Two major Kunapipi ceremonies were carried out in 1972-73, by the Gidjingali of Arnhem Land involving between 200 and 300 people. It was estimated that the work involved in these ceremonies totalled about 400 human weeks of work. Three months after the event Rhys Jones visited the site of the great ceremony and wrote that 'visiting the great camp of Ngaladjebama three months after the religious climax there, all we saw, was the wind, whirling red dust over midden debris, and strips of paperbark rustling against bleached poles of collapsed hut structures. The investment had been into the intellectual and not the material sphere of life.'

The only prehistoric structures associated with religion that have survived are stone arrangements that are very difficult to date, but it is thought they have been part of Aboriginal culture for a very long time. There are a wide rage of stone array types. There are circles, lines, corridors, single standing stones, and piles of stones heaped into cairns. The mythology and significance of these stone arrangements is unknown, to the local Aboriginal People as well as the researchers. Most of the sites haven't been used for an unknown number of years, possibly centuries. The only thing known about them is that they are connected with the Dreamtime stories, representing either totemic beings or enclosed areas where special events took place.

The only stone arrangement dated so far is in the Bay of Fires in northeastern Tasmania where a new arrangement was set up on top of an old one that had been covered by a shell midden and charcoal, it is 750 years old. This only gives a minimum antiquity for this type of prehistoric stone arrangement.

Ranges on the east coast and religion

At Armidale on the northern tablelands of New South Wales, another part of the Great Dividing Range, the area was cold and windy. A single occupation site has been found above 1000 m in the area. In this bleak region art and ceremonial sites have been found, such as many bora grounds and stone arrangements.

It has been suggested that the high country could have had religious importance among the people of the area. The belief in a sky god, a supernatural ancestral being, Daramulan (Durramulan) or Baimai (Baiame), occurred over much of eastern Australia. High, isolated sites were favoured for the initiation of boys. Women and children were excluded from these ceremonies, they were "men's business". The women usually had their own ceremonies from which males were excluded.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications, 2004


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