The Wisdom of the Elders



Hunter-gathering and trade



Indigenous Australians in prehistoric times were not farmers who grew and harvested crops such as wheat or corn; neither were they herders who bred and herded domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle. There are no native Australian crops suitable for farming or native Australian animals suitable for herding. Because of the kinds of plants and animals that were native to Australia, Aboriginal people were nomadic hunters and gatherers. How far each group travelled to obtain the food and other materials needed for everyday life depended on the local sources of food. These varied a lot because of the great variety of climates and landscapes. For example, people in an inland desert area would have to cover much wider areas than people in a tropical coastal region. There is also much evidence that Aboriginal people burned off large areas of land to encourage new growth for the kangaroos and other large mammals they hunted.

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People made what clothes they needed. In warm regions clothes were often just waistbands and ornaments; in colder climates people wore wallaby or possum-skin cloaks. As they travelled in search of food, men carried the weapons needed for hunting large animals. Women carried digging sticks and food containers, gathering roots, berries, fruits and seeds and catching small animals. This was usually a more reliable food supply than the meat from the large animals.

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.

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Arrival of the British


When the British did begin to settle in Australia, from 1788, there was much conflict with the Indigenous peoples. One major source of conflict was the differences between Indigenous law and British law. These differences still exist today, though efforts are being made to recognise traditional Indigenous law in the Australian legal system. Future chapters will look at more sources of conflict and the effects of this conflict.

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First contact


The British had hoped to assimilate (absorb) the Aboriginal peoples into the British culture and make them work in the new colony. At first, the Aboriginal peoples avoided the British settlers; but as the number of settlers increased and more land was being taken, contact became unavoidable. Governor Phillip wanted to avoid unnecessary conflict with the Aboriginal peoples by treating them with kindness and ordering his soldiers not to shoot at them. He captured several Aboriginals, including Bennelong. Phillip wanted them to learn English and act as translators between the Indigenous groups and the British.

Soon, however, there were clashes over land and culture. Phillip started ordering his soldiers to fire at the Aboriginal people, as his efforts to ‘civilise’ them and assimilate them into the British culture and society was not working as he had hoped. The Aboriginal peoples saw that the British settlers were clearing the land, putting up fences, restricting access and introducing different animals; so they started to retaliate against the invasion.

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Aboriginal  resistance


The Indigenous peoples generally resisted the settlement of their land, but they had little resistance against the gun s of the British settlers. One Aboriginal warrior, named Pemulwuy, led the Aboriginal resistance around Sydney Harbour from 1790 to 1802 and was feared by many British settlers.  As the British settlement grew, the Indigenous peoples lost more of their land and many of their family members. They became more reliant on the British settlers to provide them with food, water and shelter. As their traditional way of life was slowly eroded, many Aboriginal people started living on the outskirts of towns or started working as servants in the British settlements.

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Indigenous art


Indigenous art, like many other aspects of Indigenous culture, was not understood by the British settlers. Art was an account of Indigenous everyday experiences but more importantly it was a visual expression of their beliefs. The inspiration for much of Indigenous art was from the Dreaming and the spirit world. By painting, carving, drawing and decorating, Indigenous people were renewing contact with the Dreaming and expressing their beliefs visually. Art was also used to communicate, to record history, to tell stories, to teach and to mark territory. By understanding Indigenous art, we can gain a broader understanding of what Indigenous culture was like before 1788.

Indigenous art does not just refer to paintings. Artists drew pictures in the sand and carved pictures and designs into timber and rock. They made sculptures, painted their bodies, made baskets, jewellery and ceremonial clothing. Indigenous art also includes the decorations found on tools and weapons. It is generally symbolic in form and does not attempt to show an exact likeness of things.

Indigenous peoples have been painting the stories of the Dreaming on the walls of caves and rock shelters for at least 20 000 years. Most Indigenous painting has a symbolic significance. Artists painted what was spiritually relevant to them in a particular area of land. The paintings helped the Indigenous people to continue their relationship with the spirit­ beings of that area.

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Modern Indigenous art


Indigenous painting has changed in modern times, but it still reflects the Indigenous people’s strong religious beliefs and their continuing relationship with the land. Traditional methods have been combined with European elements to create a modern style of art that is very popular. Papunya paintings with symbols, waving lines, circles, patterns, and dots (used to camouflage secret objects) are one of the most recognised styles today.

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Indigenous spiritual life and the land


The Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land was very different to the way Europeans viewed the land. Individuals within Indigenous society did not own the land as the Europeans did; rather, Indigenous people viewed the land as owning them. The land was handed down to them from the previous generations and it was their duty to care for it.

The land is the spiritual home of the Indigenous ancestors, and the ancestral spirits are still part of the land – in its rocks, plants and animals. The ancestors, who travelled across Australia at the beginning of time, established the land boundaries between different Indigenous groups and the sacred sites.

Each clan’s land has sites that are sacred, or of spiritual significance. Groups or individuals are responsible for these places and must care for them and keep them free from unauthorised visitors. Even today, as in the past, Indigenous clans hold deep spiritual links with their lands which were formed in the Dreaming.

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Indigenous social structures


Indigenous groups lived in territories with other groups that spoke a common language and shared similar customs and beliefs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, there could have been up to 600 different language groups within Australia.

The basic social unit in Indigenous society is the family. Small groups of families lived together and formed a ‘; band’. Some bands would consist of several families living and hunting together. The size of a band would ultimately depend on how much food was available within the territory. This would vary at different times of the year depending on factors such as the season or rainfall.

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Land and survival


Indigenous peoples used the land and its resources to survive. How easy it was for them to survive depended on the environment they were living in. Indigenous peoples living in the desert in central Australia would have found it harder to survive than those living by large rivers or on the coast.

The type of food gathered also depended on the type of environment the group was living in. Sometimes there were an abundance of kangaroos and other game but at other times the band had to survive by eating plants and smaller animals and insects. In general, Indigenous bands just gathered enough food for immediate use; they did not usually store or grow food.

The Indigenous peoples also used the land to provide the material with which they used to hunt and gather the food. They made canoes from bark; spears, boomerangs and digging sticks from wood; baskets from grasses and knives and other blades from rocks.

Indigenous people did not practice agriculture as Europeans did but there is evidence that they made use of firestick farming and other methods to obtain food. Firestick farming was when the land was burnt so that it cleared out the undergrowth and produced new growth. The new growth after the fire attracted more other to the area which made it easier for hunting. Some Indigenous bands also made traps to catch eels and fish and most groups traded items such as food, shells, and plants when they travelled across other territories.

Land was vitally important for Indigenous survival and spiritual life.

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The Dreaming


The Indigenous population was divided into up to 600 different language groups but they all believed that the world was formed in the distant past during a sacred era known as the ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘Dreaming’.

The Dreaming is a unifying characteristic of all Indigenous culture, but each group within Australia had its own particular Dreaming. The Dreaming of a group explained how features of their world came to be, and explained the significance of their own sacred sites. It also set out the rules of how people should behave, particularly towards the land. The Dreaming gave meaning and direction to the lives of each Indigenous group, and continues to do so.

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Owning the land – the Indigenous perspective


Indigenous peoples did not own the land like Europeans did; the land owned them. The British became familiar with an Aboriginal man, called Bennelong, in the early years of the colony. Bennelong declared that Goat Island was his family’s home. This surprised the British settlers; they thought that the Indigenous peoples were nomadic and had no fixed home.

Indigenous peoples have a very close relationship with the land; it is their spiritual home. Indigenous culture and spirituality was inseparable from the land; every part of their lives had a connection to it.

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The Rainbow Serpent


The serpent as a Creation Being is perhaps the oldest continuing religious belief in the world, dating back several thousands of years. The Rainbow Serpent features in the Dreaming stories of many mainland Aboriginal nations and is always associated with watercourses, such as billabongs, rivers, creeks and lagoons. The Rainbow Serpent is the protector of the land, its people, and the source of all life. However, the Rainbow Serpent can also be a destructive force if it is not properly respected.


The most common version of the Rainbow Serpent story tells that in the Dreaming, the world was flat, bare and cold. The Rainbow Serpent slept under the ground with all the animal tribes in her belly waiting to be born. When it was time, she pushed up, calling to the animals to come from their sleep. She threw the land out, making mountains and hills and spilled water over the land, making rivers and lakes. She made the sun, the fire and all the colours.

To the Gagudju people, the Rainbow Serpent was called Almudj and was a major creator being. It forced passages through rocks and created more waterholes. Today, Almudj is still a great creator, bringing the wet season each year, which causes all forms of life to multiply, and appearing in the sky as a rainbow. But Almudj is also to be feared as he can punish anyone who has broken a law by drowning them in floods. Almudj still lives in a pool under a waterfall in Kakadu.

The Jawoyn people, of the Katherine Gorge area in the Northern Territory, tell how the Rainbow Serpent slept under the ground until she awoke in the Dreaming and pushed her way to the surface. She then travelled the land, sleeping when she tired, and left behind her winding tracks and the imprint of her sleeping body. When she had travelled the earth, she returned and called to the frogs to come out, but they were very slow because their bellies were full of water. The Rainbow Serpent tickled their stomachs and when the frogs laughed, the water flowed out of their mouths and filled the tracks and hollows left by the Rainbow Serpent, creating the rivers and lakes. This woke all of the animals and plants, who then followed the Rainbow Serpent across the land.

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Traditional care for the land

Before the invasion Aboriginal people created a complex system of land management. There was no ‘pristine wilderness’, rather a patchwork of burnt and re-grown areas. Fire was their biggest ally.


In using fire Aboriginal people could plan and predict plant growth and with it attract animals for hunting. They converted the land to grasslands for the “maintenance” of animals, plants and fresh drinking water, according to Bill Gammage’s award-winning book The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Gammage explains that Aboriginal people not only thought of kangaroos when laying out their burn patterns, but also of possums, wombats, birds, insects, reptiles and plants. “Once you have started to lay out country to suit a species, you are on the way to an extraordinarily complex arrangement of the land, which you must maintain very carefully, and over many generations,” he says. Burn patterns also need to consider plant cycles.

The research draws some striking conclusions:

  • No uncontrolled fires. Uncontrolled fire could wipe out food sources—Aboriginal people had to prevent them or die. Evidence strongly suggests that no devastating fires occurred.
  • Aboriginal people were farmers. (see section below)
  • Customised templates. Aboriginal people developed specific templates to suit the land, plants and animals. They knew which animals preferred what, e.g. kangaroos preferred short grass, native bees preferred desert bloodwood etc. Managing the land with fire required them consider these dependencies.
  • No pristine wilderness. More trees grow in areas now known as national parks than did in 1788.


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Aboriginal people were farmers

Researchers found that Aboriginal people grew crops of tubers such as yams, grain such as native millet, macadamia nuts, fruits and berries. People reared dingoes, possums, emus and cassowaries, moved caterpillars to new breeding areas and carried fish stock across country.

There is “strong evidence” of “sophisticated farming and agriculture practices”. Early explorers watched women harvesting yams, onions, and cultivating the land, creating reserves of flour and grain.


Aboriginal people have been fire-farming for more than 50,000 years. The spinifex plains of the Tanami desert in central Australia, for example, are man-made. Aboriginal people burnt the land there every year and used it for hunting kangaroos and other animals.

Governments, environmentalists and many other Australians maintain a distorted view of what ‘wilderness’ is. They engage to maintain it, not realising that Aboriginal people have always changed the Australian landscape. Native title legislation has fallen victim to this belief, allowing customary but not economic rights to Aboriginal people.

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How did Aboriginal Australians live?

Australian Aboriginal peoples were hunters and ate the animals they caught, they were also gatherers of plants that could be eaten. The people who lived along the coast were caught and ate fish. They built shelters that were different in design, depending on the climate (the weather), and the season in their part of Australia.

All Aboriginal peoples had tools for digging, cutting and for hunting. Spears, spear throwers and boomerangs were used for hunting and as weapons. They built canoes and other kinds of watercraft from bark. Nets, baskets and bags were made from different fibres and from animal skins. Clothing too, made out of animal skins, varied depending on the weather and the season.

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Friendship and good intentions and benefits of colonisation


Historians now believe that up to 20,000 people died in various conflicts between Aboriginal people and Europeans during the period of more than 100 years it took for white settlement to extend across the continent. Of this 20,000, about 18,000 were Aboriginal people. Many thousands more Aborigines died from diseases introduced by the settlers or through being pushed off their land and the destruction of their culture. Nevertheless, many Europeans had good intentions toward Aboriginal people, despite the fact that they were invading Aboriginal land. Similarly, until Aboriginals were forced into violent action to defend themselves, they often welcomed the first Europeans and treated them well. We can find many examples of friendship and co-operation between the two races in the 19th century. The conviction of the Myall Creek murderers was one triumph for those whites who were determined to see Aborigines treated as equals before the law. It showed that there were many Europeans in the 19th century who, when faced with clear evidence of injustice, acted with decency towards Aboriginals. There were many Europeans with a humanitarian outlook toward the Aboriginals. They viewed them as fellow human beings who should be helped rather than ill-treated. Unfortunately, although such humanitarian people were well intentioned, they often had very little understanding of Aboriginal culture.


The decline of Aboriginal culture came despite the setting up of government ration-stations to distribute flour and blankets to needy aborigines, and despite the work of missionary establishments and official protectors of Aborigines.

The breakdown of traditional borders between tribal areas did make it easier for Aboriginal groups to move into other parts of Australia. The domesticated animals that Europeans brought with them, especially horses, was also a benefit to indigenous people. Flint and steel changed the lives of the tribes who didn’t even have the ability to start fires! In addition to what was given/traded, Aborigines found that stuff whites had thrown away could be remade into useful tools – broken glass, snapped shovels, and so on. While some tribes had the ability to grind and bake roots etc, this was mostly done to remove toxins. Modern transport and refrigeration meant an end to relying on seasonal foods. Technology was brought to Australia by Europeans as well. Aboriginals didn’t have the concept of the working wheel, nor did they understand how to build roads, buildings, sewerage systems, aqueducts.

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Ancient Australia

Archaeologists have found that fires increased with the arrival of people. Hunter-gatherers use fire as a tool to drive game, to produce new growth to attract animals, and to clear scrub. Dense forests became more open forest, and open forest became grassland. Species that could survive fire began to take over: in particular, eucalyptus, acacia, and grasses.


The shoreline of Tasmania and Victoria about 14,000 years ago, as sea levels were rising, showing some of the human archaeological sites

The changes to the fauna were even more dramatic. Megafauna, species much larger than humans, disappeared, as well as many of the smaller species. About 60 different vertebrates became extinct, including the Diprotodon family (very large marsupials that looked rather like hippos), several large flightless birds, meat eating kangaroos, a five-metre lizard and Meiolania, a tortoise the size of a small car.

The direct cause of the mass extinctions of the megafauna is uncertain. It may have been fire, hunting, climate change, or a combination of all. Without large herbivores to eat the vegetation, the extra fuel made fires burned hotter, further changing the landscape.

In the period from 18,000 to 15,000 years ago, Australia became drier, with lower temperatures and less rainfall. Between 16,000 and 14,000 years ago the sea levels rose quickly. One scientist has estimated sea levels rose 50 feet in 300 years. At the end of the Pleistocene, about 13,000 years ago, rising sea levels cut the land access across the Torres Strait to New Guinea, the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania, and to Kangaroo Island.


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Aboriginal population