There were over 500 different clan groups or 'nations'
around the continent, many with distinctive cultures and
Hundreds of languages and dialects existed (although
many are now extinct), as well as a variety of different
customs and rituals, art forms, styles of painting,
forms of food, and hunting habits.
A COMMON HERITAGE
Before Europeans came to Australia, the very distinctive
and culturally unique groups that made up Aboriginal
Australia shared a number of common traits. Two examples
Hunters and Gatherers
All of Australia's Aboriginals were semi-nomadic hunters
and gatherers, with each clan having its own territory
from which they 'made their living'. These territories
or 'traditional lands' were defined by geographic
boundaries such as rivers, lakes & mountains.
They all shared an intimate understanding of and
relationship with the land. It was the basis of their
spiritual life. It was this affinity with their
surroundings that goes a long way to explaining how they
survived for so many millennia. They understood and
cared for their different environments and adapted to
While their tools varied by group and location,
Aboriginal people all had knives, scrapers, axe-heads,
spears, various vessels for eating and drinking, and
digging sticks. Not all groups had didgeridoos and
contrary to popular belief many did not have boomerangs.
Some groups developed more tools than others.
CULTURAL DIVERSITY - Languages
There were between 200 and 250 aboriginal languages
spoken with many different dialects producing up to 700
varieties. This makes Aboriginal Australia one of the
most linguistically diverse areas on the planet. Within
the space of 80 kilometres you can still pass through
the territories of three languages 'less closely related
than English, Russian and Hindu.' (The Oxford Companion
to Australian History 1998)
Language is vitally important in understanding
Aboriginal heritage as much of their history is an oral
history. Interestingly, various oral histories have been
backed up by geological data such as the flooding of
Port Phillip Bay which occurred about 10,000 years ago!
CLIMATE & LOCATION
Aboriginals were supremely expert in adapting to their
environments. There were coastal and inland tribes.
Their 'territories' ranged from lush woodland areas to
harsh desert surroundings. Different groups needed to
develop different skills and build a unique body of
knowledge about their particular territories. Their
tools and implements reflected the geographical location
of these different groups. For example, it is known that
coastal tribes used fishbone to tip their weapons,
whereas desert tribes used stone tips.
Land was at the core of belief
Land is fundamental to the well-being of Aboriginal
people. The 'dreamtime' stories explain how the land was
created by the journeys of the spirit ancestors.
Living within the landscape
For Aboriginal people all that is sacred is localised in
"Our story is in the land ... it is written in those
sacred places ... My Children will look after those
places, that's the law." Bill Neidjie, Kakadu elder
The relationship between a clan and its 'territory'
involves certain rights, such as the right to use the
land and its products. With these rights comes a duty to
tend the land through the performance of ceremonies.
"We cultivated our land, but in a way different from
the white man. We endeavoured to live with the land,
they seemed to live off it. I was taught to preserve,
never to destroy." Aborigine Tom Dystra
The creation stories which describe the marks the
spiritual ancestors left on the land are integral to
Aboriginal spirituality. Particular places hold special
meaning. These are the sacred sites. Knowledge of
a clan's law and the dreamtime is accumulated through
life. Ceremonies such as initiation ceremonies are
avenues for passing on this knowledge.
The system of kinship puts everybody in a specific
kinship relationship each of which has roles and
responsibilities attached to it. It can influence
marriage decisions and governs much of everyday
behaviour. By adulthood people know exactly how to
behave and in what manner to all other people around
Kinship is therefore about meeting the obligations of
one's clan, and forms part of Aboriginal Law.
Skimming the surface
There is so much to know about the heritage of this
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