Australian Aboriginal culture is one of the world's longest surviving
cultures, which if one accepts the most recent dating of occupational remains at the Malakunanya II shelter, this period commences at least 50,000 years ago! Amongst the cultural items recovered from the site's lowest levels were used pieces of haematite which had been used in the preparation of paint, as well as yellow and red ochre. This period ended with the rise of the sea following the last Ice Age and the development of an estuarine environment 8000 years ago.
All of Australia's Aborigines were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers,
with each clan having its own territory. Those communities living
along the coast or rivers were expert fishermen. The territories
or 'traditional lands' were defined by geographic boundaries such
as rivers, lakes and mountains. All Australian Aborigines shared
an intimate understanding of, and relationship with, the land. That
relationship was the basis of their spiritual life and shaped the
Aboriginal culture. Land is fundamental to the well-being of all
Aboriginal people. The 'dreamtime' stories explain how the land
was created by the journeys of the spirit ancestors. Those creation
stories describing the contact and features which the spiritual
ancestors left on the land are integral to Aboriginal spirituality.
'Ancestor Spirits' came to Earth in human and other forms and the
land, the plants and animals were given their form as we know them
The expression 'Dreamtime' refers to the 'time before time', or
'the time of the creation of all things', while 'Dreaming' is often
used to refer to an individual's or group's set of beliefs or spirituality.
For example, an Indigenous Australian might talk about their Kangaroo
Dreaming, Snake Dreaming, or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination
of Dreamings pertinent to their 'land'. However, many Indigenous
Aborigines also refer to the creation time as 'The Dreaming'. For
Indigenous Australians, the past is still fervantly alive in the
present moment and will remain so into the future. The Ancestor Spirits
and their powers have not gone, they are present in the forms in
to which they changed at the end of the 'Dreamtime' or 'Dreaming',
as the stories tell. The stories have been handed down through the
ages and are an integral part of an Indigenous person's 'Dreaming'.
this harmonious affinity with their surroundings that reveals to
us how Australian Aborigines survived for so many millennia. Indigenous
Aborigines understood and cared for their different environments
and adapted to them. It is the intimate knowledge of the land, its
creatures and plants that sits at the core of traditional Aboriginal
culture. From this deep and intricate understanding of their environment,
Aboriginal Australians have developed many plant and animal based
By the aquisition of knowledge, rather than material possessions,
an Aborigine attains status in Aboriginal culture.
Art is an expression of knowledge and it is therefore a statement
of authority. Through the application of ancestrally (wangarr) inherited
designs and ceremonial initiations, Aboriginal artists assert their
identity, their rights and responsibilities. The paintings and the
ancestral beings within them are as much the property of clans as
the land itself.
Traditional Aboriginal society is structured by systems which organises
all aspects of Aboriginal life and perceptions. The systems have
a foundation of skin groups and moieties which determine an individual's
rights to marry in to particular groups. The ideology of the clan
system is based on a patrilineal descent with the male and female
off-spring belonging to the clan of the father, which is a clan
of opposite moiety to their mother.
However, in 1770, the Australian Aboriginal's culture and way of
life dramatically changed when Lieutenant James Cook took possession
of the east coast of Australia and named it New South Wales. The
British colonisation of Australia began 18 years later, which was
a catastrophic event for indigenous Australians. The Europeans spread
epidemic diseases such as chickenpox, smallpox, influenza and measles.
British settlement then appropriated land and water resources
from the Australian Aborigine, and were ignorant in their assumption
that the semi-nomadic Aborigines could be driven off and made
to live somewhere else. In fact, the loss of 'traditional lands,'
food sources and water resources was a fatal blow to the Aboriginal
communities, who already weakened by disease, were then forced
to relinquish their deep spiritual and cultural connection to
their land. As a direct consequence of the 'invasion,' the enforced
move away from traditional areas adversely impacted upon Aboriginal
cultural and the spiritual practices which had been necessary
for maintaining the cohesion and well-being of the tribal group.
Settlers also brought venereal disease (which greatly reduced
indigenous fertility and birthrates) and introduced alcohol to
the indigenous Aborigine and to which the Aborigine had no tolerance
and the Aboriginal community had no prior experience in dealing
with such issues. Substance abuse has remained a chronic problem
for indigenous communities ever since. The combination of disease,
loss of land and direct violence culled the Aboriginal population
by an estimated 90% between 1788 and 1900.
It wasn't until many years later that a referendum gave Aborigines
full legal status as Australian citizens, where up to that point
they had no legal rights as citizens at all! In 1976 the Aboriginal
Land Rights Act gave nearly 36% of Northern Territory back to
the Aborigines. Aboriginal protest movements also began and developed
strength in the 1960's. One Aboriginal protest group declared
Australia Day (the celebration of the day Captain Cook landed
in Botany Bay) to be a Day of Mourning in 1938. This became something
of a tradition.
recently, the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal
children in 1997 was a major acknowledgement of the wrongs inflicted
on Aborigines during the 'protection' era. The National Inquiry
was conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
in an attempt to assess the damaging effects national policies
had on Aborigines. The Inquiry found that 1/10 to 1/3 of all indigenous
children were forcibly removed from their families between 1910
and 1970. Children and their families were actively discouraged
from contact with one another after separation. The children were
taught contempt for their cultural heritage and their parents,
and had to endure the racist attitudes of their foster guardians,
teachers and peers. The schools and foster homes were underfunded
and in poor condition. Children placed in foster care were often
the victims of severe punishment and sexual abuse. Mothers and
children both felt "great personal loss" and helplessness.
"Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history..."
It was a momentous occasion when on February 13th 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the hurt caused by decades of state-sponsored treatment of indigenous Australians.
If you are interested in sponsoring a project for Aboriginal Artists
to over to the UK to share their rich arts, crafts and culture, please
The London Aboriginal Art & Didgeridoo Shop