Susanna Servello. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.
The native people of Australia are commonly called Aborigines, a much discussed term that comes from the Latin expression ab origine whose meaning is “from the beginning.” Even though nowadays this definition is mostly accepted, many members of the local populations dislike it as they perceive it as synonymous with oppression and as a stereotyped and discriminating way of distinguishing them from others. For this reason, they usually prefer to call each other by using hundreds of local expressions, such as alaua, nmatjera, or tagoman, which are some of the names used in the Northern Territory, or gingai, gringai, wiljagali, or illawarra used in the New South Wales state. These terms generally mean “person.”
In the linguistic anthropology field, the identification issue is a very important aspect as it conveys a meaningful message: the fact that their wise ancient culture conceives all the people to be the same, without any classification—simply anyone belonging to the human species. In order to respect their culture and their point of view, the adjective Aboriginal and the noun Aborigine will be used in this chapter simply as conventional.
Past and Present
Torres Strait islanders also belong to the indigenous population of Australia, but due to the peculiar features of their culture, which include some Papuan and Austronesian elements, they are generally referred to separately from the populations living on the continent.
The precise timing of the beginning of the human occupation on the mainland is still a controversial topic. Aborigines immigrated to the land we now call Australia from Southeast Asia between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago. Relative to the results of thermoluminescence dating, most archaeologists agree with the hypothesis of Aborigine arrival as 50,000 years ago, while radiocarbon testing places that epoch as 40,000 years ago.
An extraordinary discovery in 2003 has brought to light more than 400 Pleistocene-era human footprints together with some animal imprints (those of a kangaroo, an emu, and a big bird) in a desert area of southeastern Australia near the World Heritage Site of the Willandra Lakes Region. The researchers think that those prints can be dated to 20,000 years ago and describe the movement of women, men, and children through a humid area that could have provided them with food. Nowadays, Australian Aborigines embody the most ancient living culture in the world even though colonialism inflicted severe pain on them, bringing drastic changes to their lifestyle. Before colonialism’s beginning in the 18th century, Aborigines numbered much higher than today, but their numbers decreased enormously due to the killings the foreign settlers carried out against them, to scarcity of food and water caused by land deprivation, and last but not least to new illnesses (such as influenza, measles, smallpox, and venereal diseases) brought by the European conquerors for which Aborigines did not have any immune defense. Most of the local populations used to live near the coastline where they could fish and gather crustaceans while others obtained sustenance from the bush where they could find fruits, leaves, berries, and roots, or they could hunt in the desert areas. Nowadays, some communities that are still independent live especially in certain areas of Arnhem Land and in the dry regions of central and west Australia, but most of the natives live in the metropolis suburbs, generally in conditions of poverty and homelessness and often victims of alcoholism and social prejudices. That has caused the extinction of many traditional groups. Their life expectancy is 15 or 20 years lower in comparison with that of the white Australian population, and the infant mortality rate is nearly triple. As far as job opportunities are concerned, their unemployment rate is high, while salaries are definitely low.
Aboriginal ethnicities are estimated to be around 2% of the total population of the continent, which amounts to 22,156,867 inhabitants in early 2010 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, http://www.abs.gov.au/). They live both on the mainland and on many islands such as Groote Eylandt, Mornington Island, Palm Island, Fraser Island, and Tasmania and are organized as more than 500 tribal groups.
The Effects of Colonialism
As underlined before, life for the Aborigines became extremely difficult and troublesome when the first European settlers arrived in Australia claiming to have “discovered” a new continent and considering its inhabitants to be simply cumbersome objects to get rid of: The serious consequences of those treatments of the native people’s life cannot be ignored or denied as they are historically documented.
The fact that the indigenous people did not consider the territory as property and that they did not use to mark out the lands made it possible for the foreigners to claim that the wide Australian continent belonged to no one. Consequently, the rights that the Aborigines had had on their land for 1,000s of years were ignored, whereas the terra nullius (“land belonging to no one,” or “empty land”) principle was applied by the English who could take possession of the Australian regions in the name of the British Crown.
Even though the indigenous people often behaved defenseless in the face of the invasion, their attempts at rebellion caused the colonial government to reach the decision to use extreme clamping down to suppress rioting. In an instrumental way, massacres and individual killings perpetrated against Aborigines were made and believed to be supported by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, that is, that some races (such as Aborigines, who were considered to be inferior in comparison with the other ethnic groups) are destined for extinction. Therefore, the colonizers tried to pretend that Aborigines’ deaths were natural events. The government also tried to denigrate their adversaries by describing them as drones and inclined to alcoholism.
Notwithstanding, protests against violence arose and public opinion started to acknowledge how atrocious and unequal was the attitude of the members of the political power toward the natives.
For these reasons, the British chiefs felt compelled to change their strategy and to adopt an only apparently different approach to the Aborigines. The real aim of what was officially presented as “protection policy” was to “hide” native people through severe racial segregations and keep control over them. Indigenous communities were controlled by Western religious missions and forced to follow new cultural models.
However, the Aborigines were still a problem for the white Australians who decided then to start a new form of dominance by “assimilating” the native peoples into the European civilization and trying to make their 1,000-year culture disappear. Their traditional social structure was dismantled, and people were forced to follow the Western model of life. Moreover, since the second half of the 19th century and for 100 years, a new plan was undertaken by the political institutions: Thousands of children (above all, those who had a white parent and who are now known as the stolen generation) were systematically removed from their families and constrained to live in religious structures or orphanages or with white families where they were educated according to European principles so that they would pursue the ideal of totally transforming their population and purifying their race through eugenics. Those practices are now considered to have been real cultural genocide.
The shocking results of that policy are still visible today as many Aborigines now live excluded from both societies: oblivious of their traditional culture and languages and marginalized by the well-off Australians whose system they are dependent on. Real integration seems to be still a mirage.
In February 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd offered in parliament what many observers have defined as “historical” apologies for “the laws and policies that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss” (British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] News, February 13, 2008).
In Aboriginal culture, social organization is very complex as group life is considered to be more important than individuality.
The language groups (i.e., the various groups that differentiate themselves from the others as far as their spoken idiom is concerned) are based on several clans, which have their links with the territories they live in and with certain animals or plants or other natural elements venerated as totems. Each clan is divided into 2, 4, or even 8 “skin groups” (also called moieties).
The kinship system is a fundamental concept. It establishes the roles, the duties, and the display of manners of every member as it regulates every kind of relationship. According to its laws, for instance, members belonging to the same clan are forbidden to marry one another.
The way people address the other members is also extremely interesting but really very difficult to be understood by an outsider’s point of view. Mother and father, for example, are names that also refer to aunts and uncles, while aunt and uncle are terms used for older people; sister and brother are used not only for someone with whom a person shares his or her own biological parents but also for close relatives of the same generation. These examples make clear the meaning of family in Aboriginal culture, that is, a group that configures itself as “extended.”
If a person lives in harmony with an Aboriginal clan for a relatively long period, he or she is adopted by the group in the sense that he or she receives a kin name and, consequently, becomes aware of his or her particular role in that society.
On the other hand, strict social rules regarding external interactions are in force within each clan. Some individuals cannot, for instance, attend certain meetings or communicate with certain clan members. In such cases, communication may take place through the mediation of a third person or by using nonverbal means, such as signs and gestures.
The status of children and aged people is peculiar. As told before, from the end of the 19th century until the second half of the 20th century, Aboriginal children suffered psychological violence when fiercely taken away from their families by the government. They grew up without knowing anything about their origins or their family background, forgetting their names, and being taught to disregard the culture of their ancestors. Young boys were made to work for many hours every day, especially as farmhands, and they were often beaten if they did not obey the orders; in contrast, girls were indoctrinated to become docile wives for white men and to pursue through interethnic marriages the aim to make the white race prevail on the others.
Within indigenous societies, on the contrary, children are taken care of not only by their own parents but also by everyone within the group. The education they get causes them to approach the beauties of nature. Through storytelling, they learn how to go hunting, how to find fruits in the forest, and how to discern good food from dangerous ones or, more generally, they learn how to correctly behave toward the other members of the group; some knowledge is not revealed until the child has reached a suitable level of understanding.
When boys and girls are considered ready to become real men and women, their initiation takes place. Those rites will symbolize the death of their childhood and their passage into the world of adulthood. This can usually happen when the child is between 10 and 16 years old.
Non-Aboriginal people are forbidden to attend those ceremonies; the indigenous people describe these initiation ceremonies as particularly intense. The young protagonists wear ornaments or have their bodies painted and also have to endure painful experiences, such as having cuts made on their skin or having their noses and ears pierced; the teachings they receive will be precious in their lives.
Contemporary elders are highly respected for their wisdom and their role as moral guides, for they pass on their knowledge and experiences: The elders are, in fact, extremely important figures in the cultural Aboriginal panorama as they represent a symbolic link between the past and the future.
A central role in the community is assumed by shamans, too; their importance within the society will be described on the following pages.
Many years of colonial dominion have also caused severe loss as far as the cultural, Aboriginal heritage is concerned, considering, for instance, that more than 300 local idioms have disappeared since its beginning. Nowadays, 200 original “dialects” remain: Aranda, Wati, Walmatjari, and Tiwi are some of the most well known.
Aboriginal culture has essentially been spread orally, and only in recent times the languages of central Australia have started to be written down. The overall linguistic panorama is much diversified in northern Australia, while it is more homogeneous in other areas of the country.
Many pidgins (also called Aboriginal English) have developed from the contact between English and the huge variety of local dialects. They are a sort of English whose structure and vocabulary have been changed by the influence of local idioms: Some of them are very close to Standard English and are spoken in nearby cities, whereas others are more different from it and are mainly used in isolated regions. They are very important in communication between indigenous groups who did not share a common language and whose peculiar mother tongues could otherwise be an obstacle for relationship with each other. White Australians, however, generally still ignore both the traditional languages and the modern forms of pidgins, but in some schools of the continent, bilingual education is now an opportunity for Aboriginal students.
Australian native languages can be divided into two main families: the Pama-Nyungan and the Gunwinyguan languages. The first group is the more diffused one. Its name derives from the Pama idioms spoken in the northeast and the Nyungan, which are from the southwest; the Gunwinyguan languages, on the contrary, are spoken in the northeastern area of the Northern Territory.
Apart from these two principal linguistic families, there are many other languages and also isolated idioms. Generally, most Australian languages share several phonological or lexical elements. Different speech styles are interesting aspects of their features. For instance, avoidance speech, also called by the colorful expression “mother-in-law language,” is a particular type of speaking that involves the use of synonyms when some relatives are present and everyday words that could be perceived as taboos. In some cases, certain words are even replaced by signs. This happens, above all, in some central and southern desert areas or near the Gulf of Carpentaria. In Aboriginal culture, silence is also an important strategy of communication.
Some languages, then, have unique characteristics, such as the use of certain words only by men or only by women; on the other hand, lexicon can also differ if the language is spoken on the mainland or on islands.
In contrast with the commonly accepted theory that native idioms derive from an older language that spread through Australia 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, the linguistic anthropologist Mark Clendon has recently hypothesized that current Aboriginal languages might have more ancient origins as they could have come from the period of the last Ice Age (approximately 13,000 years ago) when a narrow strip of land united Australia to New Guinea in an area that was as densely populated as the eastern coastline of what is now the Australian continent (American Broadcasting Company [ABC] Science Online, December 13, 2006).
At the end of the 19th century, the British-Australian anthropologist Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), who was also one of the earliest filmmakers in the history of anthropology, and his Australian colleague, the anthropologist and ethnologist Francis James Gillen (1855-1912), used for the very first time the word Dreamtime, referring to one of the essential beliefs in indigenous culture. They spent several months working and studying together, participating in expeditions, and trying to understand the Aboriginal way of thinking. The results of their research were collected in books such as Native Tribes of Central Australia, which appeared in 1899, The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, published 5 years later, and The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People, which appeared in 1927 (Spencer & Gillen, 1966, 1969, 2000).
Some years later, the Australian anthropologist William Edward Hanley Stanner (1905-1981) was listening to a native who was speaking about Dreamtime and who explained to him that the white man does not know the real meaning of Dreaming. Stanner (1972) preferred this last word for referring to what the Aborigines believe to have been the “time of the creation”: A gerund verbal form could, in fact, better give the idea of the continuous presence of the time of the creation in the present moment. According to Aboriginal philosophy, Dreamtime, or Dreaming, is a timeless dimension that is not relegated to the past; on the contrary, it is a concept that is actual in every epoch, just as creation is an uninterrupted process.
Sometime later, Stanner (1972) also coined the expression everywhen thinking that this term could be more appropriate to define the concept of Dreaming that was so distant from the Western way of thinking.
On the other hand, Theodor George Henry Strehlow (1908-1978), an Australian anthropologist who dedicated himself to studying the Aranda group in particular, defined this idea by the terms uncreated and eternal, underlying in this way the fact that the Dreaming does not know any human-limited temporal dimension in its essence.
However, the most meaningful definition of this concept is the one that comes directly from the voice of the natives: It is all-at-once and underlines the particular role that time and no-time play in their cosmogony.
The indigenous people believe that when the primordial beings—that are now considered to be their “totemic ancestors”—came out from earth, time started to exist on our planet, which was featureless, bare, and dipped in silence and in darkness. The ancestors emerged from the crust and began to travel: They made the humans and the animals as well as the sun, the moon, and the planets, and they woke up the various forms of living beings that were asleep, hidden under the surface of the land. Ancestral Spirits deposited the seed of life and shaped the world through their actions (Dreamings), their will, and their imagination by following the Dream of the creation. They also created the unchangeable law (i.e., the “lifestyle and rules” every native Australian should follow even today) that also encompasses every legend and every ceremony. Several interesting tales are related to Aboriginal cosmogony: Some of them such as the one about “Rainbow Serpent” (also named “Rainbow Snake”) will be reported in the following pages.
The Dreamtime beliefs were much more vivid before the arrival of the first colonizers: Europeans found the Aboriginal beliefs very complex at first but later simplistic. At that point, to the European mentality, the natives were often considered to be similar to children who live in the Dreaming world created by their imagination. Past anthropological studies implied, in this sense, that the wisdom of an ancient culture was instead rather childish.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the French anthropologist and ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) in his studies on the mental processes of Aboriginal populations theorized that they owned a “primitive” sort of mind as they were unable to use logic and that they experienced a sort of mystical involvement in the reality shown by the myths.
The Rainbow Serpent
The so-called Rainbow Serpent (or Rainbow Snake) is one of the greatest and most important Aboriginal spiritual symbols.
The legend of this mythical creature probably originated in northern Australia near the area where nowadays the Kakadu National Park is located. However, due to its unlimited value, it is obviously known everywhere on the continent where it is also called by other names depending on different tribes: Ungur, Taipan, Yero, Ngalyod, Wonambi, Langal, Almudj, Borlung, Wonungur, Y urlunggur, Galeru, Wollunqua, Muit, and others.
The Rainbow essence of this mythical creature is energy and light. Its dualistic nature allows it to not only create life but also to destroy it: It represents both creation and destruction, good and evil, masculine and feminine powers. Generally, it is believed to be a female being. Like women, she is related to natural cycles: She generated life on our planet, gave nourishment, took care of all creatures, and represents the feminine power on earth. Women belong to this mythical creature, and when women pass away, they return to her cycle of life-death-rebirthing. She regulates fertility, menstrual cycles, and blood circulation as well as the rhythm of the seasons and of other natural elements, such as tidal phenomena and wind flow. Her relation to weather phenomena is especially believed in Australia’s monsoon area. Rainbow Serpent is also associated with the sun that gives us warmth and nutrition but can also make hot and sultry weather that causes the scarce and precious water resources of the desert to evaporate: In this case, its noxious and destructive energy is associated with male nature.
There are various stories related to this mythic being. One of the most famous legends tells us that the Rainbow Serpent came from the deepness of the earth when the world was still in a state of sleep, and it felt lonely. It started its journey on the ground and it created mountains, plains, gorges, hills, and all landscapes while crawling and slithering on the soil. Through its interaction with sunlight and wind, it provoked rain that created lakes and rivers. Even today, rainmakers and healers ask for its help through giving gifts of shells and quartz crystals. When Rainbow Serpent wanted to rest, it coiled up and slept without turning into any other element of the landscape or modifying its original nature. Australian Aborigines believe that it still hides in water holes or in a canyon formed by erosion near a waterfall in central Australia (but according to Gagudju people, it precisely lives in a place called Djuwarr) and that it does not allow people to disturb its quiet.
Male adolescents are said to risk being kidnapped by Rainbow Serpent—who would eat them and vomit them— to let them enter the adult age, while pregnant women are forbidden to touch the water it drinks. Legends said that the Serpent swallowed two young boys and transformed them into two iridescent parrots as colorful as the rainbow. That mythical event was a rite of passage that allowed them to obtain awareness and power. Nowadays, during ceremonies, people still primp with multicolored feathers to look like the Snake. Women, on the contrary, do not need such rites to get its power: They already own it, and they become adults with the onset of menarche.
People cannot see the Serpent except when it rises, arches its huge body, and shows itself in the semblance of a rainbow in the sky.
The intelligence of the Serpent is said to give to shamans the powers of healing and of traveling beneath the earth, flying through the air, and breathing underwater.
The bond between Aborigines and their land has always been very strong. In fact, land is an important element both as a fundamental source of sustenance and as a deep spiritual significance.
The indigenous people are very respectful toward the environment and know how to use its resources without damaging it. They do not overexploit it but try to maintain its delicate equilibrium and do not compromise its natural cycles that balance and regulate it. Taking care of it is a preeminent moral duty for them. For this reason above all in the past, people did not live at the same place too long and were careful not to hunt or fish too intensively in order to preserve different species and their reproductive rhythms so that the people could have enough food for themselves in the following seasons.
It is clear how the contemporary biodiversity loss caused by pollution and excessive use of natural resources could have a devastating affect on their lives and menace their own survival.
Their wisdom has allowed them to live in harmony with nature since the oldest time up to now. This symbiotic relationship derives from their animistic perspective that makes them feel devotion and respect toward all the elements. In this sense, land holds particular religious significance.
Moreover, according to their moral principles, land cannot be owned or traded: Those actions would be sacrilegious toward their ancestors who are believed to have roamed through the continent giving shape to it.
The native people do not fence in the land, and the concept of border is very different from that of the Western culture in the sense that it does not imply the concept of private ownership.
In the 1970s, Aboriginal human rights movements started as demonstrations to obtain justice against unequal laws and to claim rights to lands founded on the Aboriginal’s 1,000-year occupation. Since the beginning of the colonial dominion, in fact, local populations had been deprived of their richest soil and had not been able to gain any economic benefits from the natural resources that had been found in their territories. One of the most important results in the fight for equal rights was obtained in 1994 when the High Court of Australia declared that the concept of terra nullius, or land belonging to no one—that the English had applied to take possession of land—should be considered illegal and that the presence of the Aboriginal populations on the Australian continent before the arrival of the first settlers should be admitted.
The land and its beauties (shells, minerals, and precious stones) represent a world of magic power. Jakuli or riji, for example, are traditional male ornaments (pubic covers or necklaces) typical of the northern area of the continent that are worn by men who have reached the main level as far as initiation degree is concerned. Those pearl shells are decorated with tribal motifs and are believed to be linked to the spiritual energies of water that let shamans own the power of healing people. On the other hand, the mother-of-pearl glow reminds us of the Rainbow Serpent descriptions that are deeply connected to water power as underlined before.
As far as Queensland’s local culture is concerned, opals (Australia owns very important quantities of this mineraloid) also own their beautiful, iridescent colors because of the fact that they had been touched by the Snake; on the contrary, according to some tribes living in New South Wales, opals originated in water that a pelican was carrying in its beak.
Mabain (or maban) is a material associated with quartz crystals and other elements such as mother-of-pearl, iron, and desert rose, or ochre, and it is considered to give magic powers. It is used during ceremonies and rites of passage when parts of it are inserted into the initiate’s body to symbolize the link between the human status and the spiritual one: the bond between the present time and the eternal time of the Dreaming. Also, red ochre has intense significance in Aboriginal rites; related to the color of blood, it is used as a pigment for decorations and rubbed over naked bodies.
As it has been shown, the land and its elements transcend their material concreteness to reach deeper meanings. In local languages, shamans, who are the ones who succeed in completing all initiation levels, are called by terms that mean “clever men” or “powerful men.” The first anthropologists who visited Aboriginal tribes described them as people with extraordinary powers, such as clairvoyance or telepathy. Among them are the so-called medicine men, that is, men who are able to heal people by using natural remedies and giving energy. They are said to get this power from the cosmic harmony that created everything; this happens through symbolic death and rebirth. The ancestral spirits, in fact, are believed to come and bring the new shaman to the netherworld where they introduce magic shining quartz into his body. After acquiring its vital energy (as light possesses healing and regenerating virtues), the shaman can reach the world of the Spirits and meet his totemic guide. According to the tradition, those powerful stones could also come from water holes where the Rainbow Serpent lived.
There are also women who become shamans: Their secrets can be known only by other women or by men of high degrees.
Australian natives are bound to their land above all through a deep feeling of affection and filial love: Earth is like a mother, and they feel part of her. Damaging her means making unacceptable violence, and depriving them of her causes them to lose their own identity. As the anthropologist Theodor Strehlow (1947) underlined, the territory is like a giant genealogical tree as past and present are written on it.
The term songlines refers to a series of songs related to those trails that describe the mythical journey of the sacred Spirits of the Dreaming throughout the continent. In fact, as told before, the ancestors are believed to have awoken the different forms of life and shaped the countryside by distributing plants and animals, by making rivers and streams flow, or by relating one place to another. While doing that, they left their marks such as footprints or incisions on the land giving in this way significance to every natural element; according to the Aboriginal animistic view, whatever exists (rocks, plants, stars, water, etc.) has its own soul. The mythical trails of their passage trace a sort of labyrinth all over Australia and are said to be still visible as impressed upon its landscape features. Because of them, many places acquire a fundamental spiritual value and become a source of “law”; in this sense, Aborigines prefer to call the songlines by the phrase “way of the ancestral law.” These sites are considered to be sacred, and the natives keep them secret. The sites are said to own particular energy that lets people reconnect with the Dreaming dimension. Only a few people are allowed to visit them, and tourists or companies involved in economic businesses that do not respect this moral prohibition outrage the Aboriginal people and offend their sensitivity.
Aborigines, who identify their origins with a particular Ancestral Spirit, keep an extraordinary relationship to the characteristics of the landscape that are associated with it: In this sense, we can refer to the Aboriginal spatial view as a totemic one.
We can consider the concept of songlines as a principle of mythical geography, giving symbolic interpretation to some particular sites that are perceived as backgrounds to mythical events. In fact, this complex system of songs gives significance to the geographical features of the landscape and suggests mythical explanations of those natural phenomena that can infuse the territory with special value.
The Rainbow Serpent is considered to have created a song describing its own actions on the land surface. Aboriginal people still sing it, particularly when they have to travel from one place to another: It can help them to face difficulties in daily life as it offers indications of how to get understanding of the secrets of the territory. In arid desert areas, for instance, its spirit can guide them to find precious fresh water to drink.
Mount Uluru (called Ayers Rock by the white explorers at the end of the 19th century in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, who was premier of South Australia) is a huge rock formation set in central Australia and also one of the most famous sacred sites in Aboriginal mythology that is considered to be still inhabited by many Ancestral Spirits. According to the Australian ethnologist Cyril Havecker (1988), it is one of the symbols of the Rainbow Snake, which originated life. Aborigines consider it an emblem of fertility.
There are so many legends related to it. One of them tells that Tatji, the small red lizard, lived on the plains near Uluru and came to the rock where it threw and lost its curved stick (a sort of boomerang). Trying to find it, Tatji started to dig the soil and scar the rock causing those cracks and hollows that are still visible today. Another story tells that the Bell-Bird (typical Australian birds belonging to the sparrow family) brothers were hunting an emu, which ran away toward the big rock. Two fantastic creatures, the Blue-Tongued Lizard men, caught it and killed it. When the Bell-Birds arrived, the lizards had already eaten the emu, so the birds took their revenge by burning the lizard men’s shelter. The lizards tried to escape the flames by climbing the rock, but they fell and burned. Gray lichens on the surface of the rock still remind us of the smoke of that fire, and two boulders are seen as the two dead lizard men.
These examples show us how in Aboriginal culture mythological tales are useful to explain natural phenomena, such as erosion or the presence of a certain type of flora and fauna.
Even more significant is the legend that tells us about the origins of Uluru. At the “out-of-time epoch” of creation, two local ancestral tribes did not participate in a feast as they stayed gazing at the wonderful Sleepy Lizard women. The hosts got so furious because of the attitude of the tribes that in order to kill the leaders of both groups, they gave life to a mud sculpture that became a dingo. Earth was so desperate because of that tragic event that it rose up and originated Uluru, whose splendid tones remind us of red blood.
Many examples of cave art, illustrating both mythological scenes and daily life events, are there to remind us of the richness of this culture that has never broken its deep bond to the past.
There are still many secrets concerning the magic charm of Uluru, which are inaccessible to non-Aboriginal people. Visitors are strongly asked to not damage the rock or climb over it as a sign of respect for its sacred value. Unluckily, too often this request goes unheard. The mount is still an attraction for thousands of tourists who visit it every year.
Art and Musical Traditions
Art is a really important way of expression in Aboriginal culture as it is bound to nature, mythology, and rituals. As far as painting is concerned, many different types of surfaces are used to decorate (rock, barks, objects such as boomerangs, etc.), and there are also various styles to realize it, in particular, the so-called X-ray art (in which people and animals are portrayed and their skeletons and organs can be seen), the “stencil art” made by using, for example, leaves or hands as templates, and the “dot painting” originally made with sand, stones, seed, or other natural elements and nowadays by using dots of color. Drawings were originally realized through natural pigments, such as ochre and crushed rocks mixed with water or spittle. Those colors were also used for body painting on particular occasions such as initiation ceremonies, funerals, and ritual dances, whose decorations own a social and spiritual meaning.
Recently, thousands of extraordinary pictographs and petroglyphs (that date from 15,000 years ago to the middle of last century) have been found in Arnhem Land, northern Australia, arousing enthusiasm in the archaeologists for the exceptionally long period of time they cover.
Also, the role of music and of sounding expression in Australian traditional culture is highly significant. Dreaming Spirits are said to have created everything by “singing” life into the world, and even nowadays, during ceremonies (called by the indigenous caribberie but known by the English as corroborees), people chant the ancient songs of their mythical origins. Some of the songs are widespread, but many others are kept secret to preserve their evocative and magic power from corruption.
According to Aboriginal philosophy, whatever exists needs a name in order to be identified through a series of letters that can be pronounced: That allows the primordial energy of creation, which is the essence of every being, to materialize in tangible forms of life. Through the cultural concept of the songlines, music joins the surrounding environment and generates the peculiar, mythical meaning of geography that has been previously illustrated.
There are various sorts of instruments played during ceremonies. One of the most famous is what non-Aboriginal people know as didgeridoo, which is called in local languages by many different names such as ganbag, yirdaki, maluk, andyigi yigi. It is a natural musical instrument made not by humans but created by termites that feed on wood and consequently create hollows in tree trunks.
Its employment is very ancient, and it is traditionally known as a eucalyptus trunk or bamboo that Aborigines decorate with totemic drawings. Two ancient legends explain its accidental discovery by human beings.
According to the Northern Queensland’s tribal culture, it once happened that some women went to get firewood, and while going back to their villages, they heard an unknown but enchanting sort of deep sound coming from one of the trunks they were carrying. The wind blowing into it was letting them discover what can be considered one of the most fascinating types of natural music in worldwide cultures. On the contrary, as far as the traditions of the North Territory are concerned, not women but men were involved in the discovery of didgeridoo. They were roaming through the woods to find some food when they noticed that animals used to find their hiding places in excavated trunks. When one of those hunters tried to blow into one of the trees, it unexpectedly uttered a sound. Since that day, those trunks have been used to create music.
The description of the Aboriginal world that has been presented in this chapter has essentially aimed to be an invitation for the reader to reflect on the importance that indigenous cultures still have in the contemporary world.
History teaches us that too many arbitrary clichés and subtle interests have tried to persuade us that many local and often marginalized populations live in a sort of “prehistorical era.” The indisputable fact is, however, that they actually live in the same time as we do.
The different sectors in which anthropology structures itself can offer a valuable contribution: to make evident that there is not a unique way but different ways to live in the present. For this reason, the approach to the Australian indigenous people that has been illustrated could have important applications in future research. Their ancestral and modern holistic view of the world—instead of appearing as separated from the current temporal context—may offer a chance to rethink our own present. The richness of their culture and their unconditional respect for nature can help us to think over an idea of progress that should not imply indiscriminate growth to the detriment of emarginated populations. In the intercultural dialogue that should animate the contemporary globalized world, the deep study of their artistic richness, of their sensitiveness as far as ecological lifestyles are concerned, and of their precious, orally transmitted knowledge heritage could contribute to letting us better know our own identity. Thinking of ourselves as members of the great natural family, rediscovering sounds and silences, and considering the immense value of biodiversity and not running the risk of losing it forever can give us the force of constantly creating and improving our world in a modern Dreaming.