They possessed one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet. But what makes their culture distinctly unique is their isolation other cultures.
It was 40,000 years plus years ago that the first humans migrated to Australia. This was during a time of glaciation and much lower sea levels, effectively joining Papua New Guinea and Tasmania to Australia.
Some 10,000 years ago the sea began to rise again, adding to the isolation of the Australian continent. This resulted in minimal contact with outside cultures for thousands and thousands of years (except for a few tribes in the north that may have had limited contact with Indonesian tribes). Over this time indigenous Australians developed their own unique culture, shaped by this isolation and the harsh and varied nature of the Australian landscape.
Aboriginal people at this time lived as they had for thousands of years, in close association with the rhythms of the land, mainly as hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal society was generally mobile and influenced by food availability and the seasons. The population at prior to the arrival of Europeans is variously estimated to be somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000.
Aboriginal society was based on largely oral traditions and complex and, as is obvious now, largely beyond the comprehension of the average European of the time. Research indicates that the indigenous Australians had not only had a rich systems of beliefs (a subject of a future Bytes), but also pioneered a number of innovations, among them being the earliest known human cremations, some of the earliest rock art, the first boomerangs, ground axes, and grindstones in the world.
As Europeans ready themselves to step onto this continent, some 500 individual tribes cover the continent like a patchwork quilt. There is no overarching political system. No chiefs or kings. Tribes met for ceremonies, settled disputes and traded with each other, but that was about it.
Beneath these tribes were are a multitude of clans and family groups of varying sizes, from 6 to 40. There was also around 250 languages, along with intricate and shared oral traditions and spiritual beliefs united by the Dreaming, a world view that unites the spiritual, human and natural world.
You could easily think of this continent as being made up of a multitude of individual nations all with dynamic relationships and alliances, but a single world view.
But there was one thing over and above the Dreaming that unites indigenous Australia, and that is a strong and permanent relationship with the land…and unfortunately this is something that the Europeans coveted most of all.
So as the Europeans approach this Great Southern Land we need to prepare ourselves for an impending clash of two very different cultures…cultures formed separately over thousands of years on opposite sides of the world. One rich and spiritual, the other individualistic and legalistic.
We have to look no further than the writings of William Dampier in his New Voyage Round the World in 1697. His description of indigenous Australians created stereotypes that policy makers took to heart:
So wrote Dampier:
“The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world. The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for wealth are gentlemen to these; who have no houses and skin garments, sheep, poultry, and fruits of the earth, ostrich eggs, etc., as the Hodmadods have; and setting aside their human shape, they differ but little from brutes….”
Though to be fair, not all spoke as harshly as this. For example Captain Cook wrote a little more favorably about the Aboriginal inhabitants in 1770:
“… they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them … the Earth and sea of their own accord furnished them with all things necessary for life …”
What we will now see as we move towards the arrival of the first European colonists is a conflict over the very stuff of Terra Australis – a peoples’ identity and the land itself. A clash that will see the indigenous population dwindle from 100% of the population of this Great Southern Land, to some 2.5 % today…