A modern depiction of an Aboriginal family on a hunt. National Library of Australia.
9. Aboriginal families took their relations incredibly seriously, with a complex system of family roles at the heart of their ancient culture
As with every human civilization, the manner in which we treat and interact with our family is both unique and immensely important at revealing cultural values; Aboriginal families are no exception, and are telling about the significance placed on the family unit by these ancient residents of Australia. Defining the place of an individual within a wider community, these systems and conventions of action determine the roles, obligations, and responsibilities of each generation within said community.
In the Aboriginal context, the caring of children was not simply considered the responsibility of the child’s parents as is common in modern-day Western societies. Instead, family members were expected to support each other completely in such aspects of life, with elders supporting their tribe’s young and so on within a system of broad kinship among broad tribal communities; in this way, the old teach the young so the young can pass on said knowledge to the even younger and maintain tribal progress and history.
Unfortunately, this long-standing cultural and generational connection only made the advent of colonialism in Australia even more painful for the Aboriginal peoples. As part of their attempt to “civilize” the savage natives, imperialists often separated entrenched families and communities as a deliberate control method; as a result, the traditional mechanisms of social interaction and the maintenance of cultural knowledge was destroyed for these families resulting in immense harm on both a human and historical level.
8. The Ancient Aborigines faced changing climates just as we are today, suffering the consequences of lost homes and separation
Between 18,000 to 15,000 years ago, our planet underwent a considerable shift in climate resulting in widespread environmental consequences and precipitating adaptation or extinction by countless species. A prime feature of this seismic shift was rising sea levels, with ocean waters rising nearly 400 feet between 18,000 to 7,000 years ago including a rapid period within 16,000 and 14,000 years ago wherein sea levels rose as much as 50 feet in just 300 years. By 13,000 years ago, these risen waters had separated the land bridges connecting Australia via the modern-day Torres Strait to the island of New Guinea, the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania, and impeded access to Kangaroo Island; in consequence of these changes, by 9,000 years ago Kangaroo Island and many of the smaller islands of the Bass Strait were rendered uninhabited by humans. The climate of Australia itself also underwent a significant transformation, becoming a dryer continent more resembling the modern-day conditions, with much lower average temperatures and decreased rainfall.
Remarkably, much of our detailed knowledge regarding this wide-ranging geological shift is known through preserved histories documented by the Aboriginals of Australia via an oral tradition. The only culture to record this dramatic climate change, accomplishing such without written histories, the Aboriginals employed a cross-generational method of storytelling spanning over 300 generations detailing gradual tribal migrations due to the loss of hunting grounds and rising water levels.
The Rainbow Serpent, as painted on a cave wall by Aboriginal artists. Wikimedia Commons.
7. A rich and complex spiritual religion governed the beliefs of ancient Australian Aborigines, demanding life and nature be treated as sacred
At the core of nearly all civilizations throughout history is religion and the ancient Aboriginals of Australia are no exception, with their beliefs serving as the world’s longest continuous religion. A spiritualistic culture, the Aborigines founded their religious beliefs on the “Dreamtime“, a complex set of religious ideas divided into four composite key parts: the beginning of everything; the life and power of the ancestors; the war of life and death; and power in life. The Dreamtime was all four of these concepts simultaneously, representing the past, present, and future in an unending cycle. As all life stems from the great spirits who inhabit the Dreamtime, such as the Rainbow Serpent who is responsible for the creation of all the rivers, lakes, and mountains, all life and even nature itself is considered a sacred creation and thus must be respected.
As is common with early religious beliefs, stories of these divine spirits along with great ancestors were passed down by the Aboriginals through the tradition of oral folktales; similarly replicated in other cultures, communication with these spiritual entities is possible via ritualistic dancing and singing, known as “iwara” or songlines by the Aborigines and performed at “corroborees” or ceremonies. It was believed that without this link the spiritual underpinnings of life would be lost, that “without ceremony, the land soon dies”. It should be noted that there was not a singular conception of the Dreamtime, rather countless variants on the same general theme. One such version, belonging to the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia, is recorded within the Tjukurpa: a collection of questions and answers concerning life and the rules of behavior.
A red ochre depiction of an extinct emu-like bird found at the Arnhem Land plateau, known to have disappeared about 40,000 years ago. Ben Gunn.
6. Australia is home to some of the world’s oldest surviving paintings, with some suspected as being over 40,000 years in age
Although not developing a known system of writing, the Aboriginal people of ancient Australia nonetheless produced extensive artwork across the continent. Using rocks and bark to construct intricate designs, in addition to scratching and carving into rocks, the Aborigines also used crushed and diluted rocks to produce paints; employing a range of colors, spanning browns and reds to oranges and yellows, these paints were used to illustrate the world as seen by the ancient inhabitants of the continent.
Among the most notable discovered Aboriginal artwork is the depiction of now-extinct megafauna animals, providing an otherwise impossible glimpse into the ancient world. One such picture, located in the Arnhem Land Region of modern-day Northern Territory, shows an extinct emu-like creature called “Genyornis” and is known to have died out approximately 40,000 years ago. Unfortunately, as the paints used were made from crushed rock and clay, not organic materials, they cannot be carbon-dated; however, as asserted by archeologist Ben Gunn “the details on this painting indicate that it was done by someone who knew that animal very well”, with the level of detail unable to be replicated by mere storytelling, and consequently “either the painting is 40,000 years old, which is when science thinks Genyornis disappeared, or alternatively the Genyornis lived a lot longer than science has been able to establish.” The oldest dated drawings, made from charcoal, have been verified at 28,000 years old, making these comparatively young pictures still among the oldest ever discovered.
The skeletal remains of Kaakutja, the first known victim of a boomerang. Michael Westaway
5. One of the most iconic modern symbols of Australia, the boomerang was, in fact, a dangerous weapon used for both hunting and fighting
Although seemingly an innocuous, even toy-like object, the boomerang was created as a dangerous tool for the purpose of inflicting deadly injury. Known for its use in hunting by Aboriginal tribes, as well as by many other ancient peoples including the Navajo Indians of North America, a boomerang was traditionally crafted from wood or bone and, despite the popular modern conception of the item, could be designed in both a returning and non-returning style. Perhaps unique to the Aboriginal people of Australia, the boomerang was also used as a hand-to-hand weapon in addition to serving as an implement for ranged combat or hunting.
Not traditionally considered a weapon by the Aborigines, in 2014 a skeleton later named Kaakutja was discovered in Australia’s Toorale National Park; dated from roughly 1305 CE, aged between 20 and 30 at the time of death, and with a gash across the forehead measuring roughly 15 centimeters determined as the cause of death for Kaakutja, the body has served as vital evidence of the use of boomerangs for combat. After ruling out the possibility of a metal weapon inflicting the injury, researchers identified in Aboriginal ethnohistory the existence of “Wonna”: a fighting boomerang. Extrapolating from this new information, it was calculated that Kaakutja suffered an initial blow to the head from a fighting boomerang, likely destroying his right eye, before a second broke several ribs and a third hacked off part of his collarbone; although of little solace to the deceased, this makes Kaakutja the oldest known victim of the boomerang.
4. Australia possesses a man-made stone circle formation predating that of Stonehenge but has kept the location secret to prevent vandalism
Although Stonehenge enjoys international fame, Australia is quietly home to a far more ancient stone circle. Near Mullumbimby, New South Wales, and discovered in 1939, the site dating to the Paleolithic era houses one of the oldest man-made constructions in the world; comprising 181 sandstone features, it is likely these stones were quarried nearly 20 kilometers away before being transported by some unknown means by ancient Australians to their final resting place. In the words of its discoverer Frederic Slater: “the mound is one of the oldest; I should say the oldest, forms of temples in the world and dates back to the Palaeolithic age with the advent of the first man”.
Even more remarkably, the “Australian Stonehenge” is apparently inscribed with what allegedly forms one of the oldest human languages ever discovered; this discovery alone renders the common assumption concerning the lack of a formal writing system by ancient Aboriginals questionable. Translated by Slater after his discovery, 28,000 words are supposedly accounted for in what has been described as a “very complicated, multi-layered” language including “a combination of hand signs, letters, sacred signs, and body parts”. Unfortunately, due to considerable damage inflicted on the site during the 1940s, the site has been kept permanently secret and its location undisclosed to protect it from any further harm from tourists or vandalism.
3. In a telling lesson for modern humans regarding ongoing dramatic shifts in climate, ancient Australia was utterly transformed by a “mega-drought” lasting more than 1,000 years which caused the extinction of entire Aboriginal civilizations
The Kimberley region of northwest Australia is home to one of the largest collections of early human rock art in the world, having been inhabited by humans for approximately the last 45,000 years; curiously, two highly distinct styles of painting are discernible: “Gwion Gwion“, dating from 17,000 to 5,000 years ago, and “Wandjina“, dating from 4,000 years ago to the present day. The reasoning behind the sudden disappearance of the Gwion people in Kimberley, and the subsequent emergence of the Wandjina, can be explained as a consequence of dramatic natural shifts in Australia’s climate.
Around 5,500 years ago the region’s annual wet season is believed to have unexpectedly ceased, resulting in an arid period lasting approximately 1,500 years before conditions stabilized at levels comparable to that of the 20th century. Through the analysis of sediments and pollen, researchers have identified shifts in vegetation and humidity to model historic climate patterns in Australia. Their conclusions were an increase in dust particles led to a failure of the monsoon rains and a “mega-drought”; as Professor Hamish McGowan explains: “our interpretation is that this seems to coincide with the demise of one culture until the climate adjusted and another took its place”. As a result of the changing climate conditions, those who adapted were able to survive and subsequently expand whilst others less fortunate or successful were seemingly and cruelty eradicated from known history.
Joseph Lycett’s 1817 watercolor: “Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos”, depicting the use of fire burning as a hunting tool by Aboriginal Australians. National Library of Australia.
2. Ancient Aboriginals were not merely hunter-gatherers, but intelligently utilized fire as a tool as part of a complex farming endeavor spanning a continent
Although when one thinks of hunter-gatherers one typically envisages the tools used as spears or bows, in addition to plucking berries from bushes, Aboriginal Australians instead ingeniously also used fire as a means to carefully manage their food chain. In an incredibly sophisticated system of land management, Aborigines intelligently employed natural occurrences of water and fire to cultivate environments best suited to their subsistence needs.
Rather than mere victims of the bushfires which Australia endures each year, and which if left unchecked would eradicate the food supplies of entire tribes, native populations instead directed the fires in a way which accommodated their requirements. Selectively burning dense forest patches to reduce the impact of any potential devastating natural fire, these man-made fires cleared spaces for crop cultivation of otherwise unavailable produce and enabled the farming of animals in these areas; for instance, kangaroos prefer short grass whilst native bees prefer bloodwood, and thus the Aborigines created the conditions most appropriate for these desired outcomes. This intelligent understanding and farming practice stand in sharp contrast to Charles Darwin‘s ignoble description of indigenous Australians as “harmless savages wandering about without knowing where they shall sleep at night and gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods”.
Unfortunately, the practice of fire-stick farming has also been blamed for various negative outcomes throughout the ecological history of Australia, namely the rapid extinction of a variety of megafauna; the deaths of these predominantly herbivorous species resulted in an overabundance of flammable crops, which in turn fueled the fires into ever-larger infernos and caused critical damage to sundry and now-extinct fire-exposed plants.
1. It is believed that Aboriginal Australians might share ancestry with the native peoples of South America, particularly the inhabitants of the Amazonian Basin
As noted, the Aborigines of ancient Australia are among, if not the, oldest non-African cultures in the world; in addition to this claim, it has also been suggested by genetic researchers that the Aboriginals are related to the native Amazonian tribes of South America. Genome analysis conducted in 2014 revealed that the Australian Aboriginals are the closest genetic relations to several Amazonian tribes, in particular the Surui, Xavante, and Karitiana people; in fact, Australian Aboriginals were far closer relations than any known Eurasian culture, including the most common Siberians.
The consequence of this theory means that the original migration detailed above from Africa to Australia was likely even larger than already suspected and included multiple breakaway groups; these groups, according to this theory, must have split off en route, with some ultimately destined to migrate across thousands of years to South America via the Bering Strait. It also undermines the theory that Native American migration was the result of a single breakaway occurrence, instead suggesting multiple waves into the American continents starting with the distant relatives of the Aboriginals residing in Australia.
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