Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Trade                                                                                                                       

In Aboriginal Australia trade and ritual were closely linked. An example is from western Arnhem Land, where various tribes regularly gathered to perform dances and songs and to exchange goods. The value of the exchanged good was enhanced by the associated rituals. People hunted for food during the days or weeks the ceremonies took to complete, but some food that could be stored was gathered in preparation for the festivities. At the times of these large gatherings trade was not the only activity, differences were settled, ideas exchanged, old friends were greeted and new friends were made. It was also a time for betrothals and marriages to be arranged, as well as the more holiday type activities, dancing, singing and love making. The usually complicated network of taboos of who could have make love with whom were relaxed, and all but the very young and very old participated.

The people of western Arnhem Land had 6 principal trade ceremonies, each associated with a particular area. The djamalag had a strong emphasis of sexual licence, but also was important for trade and reinforcing intertribal friendships. The culmination of the ceremonies was the ritual presentation of trade goods such as shovel-bladed and serrated-headed spears from the east.

In the rom distinctive emblems are sent to invite the visitors who perform special totemic dances, and again the culmination is the exchange of goods.

The midjan involves a different series of dances from the sea coast. Hanks of twine made from the hair belonging to their hosts have been prepared by the visitors, they are given goods in payment for these.

The wurbus is a series in which the main interest of the people are special breast mats and baskets. In the concluding rituals, after the dancing, eggs are given as part of the trade exchange. It is thought that these eggs may have been connected with magical increase.

The dancing and most songs in this ceremony are about the normal daily life of the people.

The most spectacular of the events is the njalaidj, which closely resembles the sacred dances of the kunapipi. It is commemorated in many myths. The traders connected with this event brought red ochre that was highly prized for its use in cave painting, and special stone spears that can only be made by these people.

On the Daly River, south of Darwin, trade took place at occasions when neighbouring tribes gathered for other reasons such as initiation or sacred ceremonies, the exchange of trade items were not actually associated with ceremonies as the those from western Arnhem Land were. On the Daly River and in north-eastern Arnhem Land each man and woman had a special trading partner in a complex network of gift exchange.

A vast network of trade routes criss-crossed the Australian continent prior to white settlement, after which the trade contacts were soon broken. Pearl shell was traded from tribe to tribe to the Nullarbor Plain. Native tobacco moved from the central ranges to the south of the continent, while wombat fur for twine making moved from the south to the north. Stone spear heads were traded from the central Australian quarries to the tribes of Arnhem Land. By the 1930s, when much of the Anthropological work was being carried on in the places like Arnhem Land, the trade routes were much diminished.

There is evidence from Pleistocene occupation sites that long distance trade routes existed throughout Australia.


The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul

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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