Australian Aboriginals
(Part of the "Australia Art Unit)

For more than 40,000 years--and perhaps for as many as 60,000 years--a black-skinned race of people have lived on the continent of Australia. Called "Aborigines" or "Aboriginals," they lived in harmony with their environment. They built no permanent homes, had no written language, and did no farming. Instead, they were nomadic hunters and gatherers, living off the land and trusting that the universe would provide what they needed to survive.

About 500 different tribes lived on the continent of Australia, and for thousands of years they lived as their ancestors did. They had very primitive tools, such as the boomerang, which they used for hunting. Most Aboriginal "throwing sticks" did not return when thrown, but they could be used with deadly accuracy to bring down large animals such as kangaroos. The type of boomerang that returned when thrown was mainly used for contests of skill.

For more than 40,000 years, they lived by the laws of their rituals, myths and spiritual beliefs. The belief system of the Aboriginals is the longest continuing religion in the world, and it guided--and still guides--every aspect of their lives.

Their beliefs are based on the "Dreamtime"--a period when the world was formed, and when the First People were spirits that lived long before the various tribes. These spirit people were responsible for creating the seas, the sun, stars, rain, fire, and more. Many landmarks or unusual rock formations were believed to be marks left by the spirits, or they were the spirits, themselves, who had transformed into these natural objects. Because of these beliefs, the land was viewed as sacred. Many of their myths and legends are "creation stories" that explain how some objects or animals came into being. Through songs, dance, storytelling and rituals, Aboriginals kept in touch with the Dreaming beings, and the Dreamtime wasn't just something that happened long ago--according to their beliefs, it continues into the present.

At birth, each child was linked to a particular animal or "totem spirit," and young children learned to understand their connection to the natural and spiritual world. They became expert botanists, astronomers and biologists, and this knowledge enabled them to survive as they moved across the land. For fun, they would often make "cat's cradles" and other designs out of string.

One of the most common musical instruments used by Aboriginals is the "didjeridoo." This is a long, wooden tube that is blown into to produce a low, eerie sound or drone. Many of the older instruments were made from a piece of eucalyptus wood that had been hollowed out by termites. Some can be quite long (5 or more feet), and a mouthpiece was made at one end using wax or the gum from a tree. Often designs were painted or carved into the outside of the tube for decoration.

Didjeridoos were used at most "corroborees"--ceremonial gatherings of tribes for music, dance, and the retelling of sacred stories. The player would breathe in through his nose, and then exhale into the mouthpiece. This type of circular breathing allowed for a continuous sound. Sometimes simple drums would also be played, as were sticks. Throwing sticks and boomerangs were often used as percussive instruments.

So for over 40,000 years, the Aboriginal people lived as they always had on the continent of Australia--wandering the land, living on the food that they could find, and keeping their religion and their culture alive through the telling of their sacred stories. All that changed in the 1700s when Europeans first arrived on the continent.

When Captain Cook arrived in Australia, it is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 750,000 Aboriginals on the continent. By 1911, however, there were only about 31,000 Aboriginal people left. How and why did this happen?

Many of the Aboriginals died from European diseases such as smallpox. Whole tribes were wiped out after they had been exposed to this disease. But this only accounted for part of the deaths; many other Aboriginals were murdered.

The Aboriginals tried to fight back to save their land and their rights, but their primitive weapons could not compete with the guns that the Europeans had. Many of the Aboriginals were taken as captives to work for the English, but others were simply killed on sight, or in large, organized massacres. Some people referred to the killing of Aboriginals as a "war of extermination," and in some cases, whole tribes were poisoned to death.

Amazingly, this killing of the ancient people of Australia continued into the 1930s. By that time, most Aboriginals were living on "reservations," similar to those in this country that were set up for Native Americans who had also been driven from their lands. As they lost their land, they lost touch with their religion and their culture. As one Aboriginal said, "If you take away our land, you take away our soul."

As measures were finally established to try to protect the Aboriginals, it was decided that they needed to be integrated into white society. Therefore, between 1910 and 1970, many Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and placed with white families in an attempt to teach them the ways of modern society. To a culture that was based on tradition, spirituality, ritual and continuity, this destruction of families was just another cruelty inflicted by those in power.

But the Aboriginals who were left survived. In 1967 they were finally recognized as citizens and given the right to vote, and many who had been taken away from their families as children returned to their tribes.

The cruelties of the past, however, cannot be totally undone, and many Aboriginals--especially those in cities--suffer from alcoholism, and live in extreme poverty. Despite new laws, Aboriginal workers still earn less money than those of other ethnic groups, and Aboriginal activists say that Australia continues to be the most racist society in the world.

But after facing near extinction, the Aboriginal population is rising, and many groups are reclaiming their cultural traditions. The world's interest in Aboriginal art, music and spirituality has exploded in the last decade, and many Aboriginal groups are working hard to try to bridge the gap between ancient traditions and modern society so that all can live in peace, with mutual respect.

© SBK 2000
No images or text may be used
without written permission from

Resources used include various internet sites as well as numerous books.


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