“Rust red sand underlies the heart of Australia, where the huge monolithsknown as Olgas shoulder above spinifex and grevilea. This old and worncontinent has a look like no other – celebrated .
. . by both the nativeborn and brief sojourners to the land down under” (“Portraits” 159). Thisold continent also has also a spirit like no other, embodied by the peoplewho inhabited it for so long that they have come to “identify spirituallywith the land” (Terrill 200) – the Aborigines. They have developed a uniqueculture, centered on religious beliefs, and a lifestyle that unites them tothe earth.
Many times they have been categorized as primitive, but viewsare changing, and their civilization has come to be recognized assophisticated, their influential role in modern Australia being no longerdenied. Aboriginal history stretches long into the past. They have inhabitedAustralia for thousands of years before the European arrival. Sitesdiscovered around the continent prove that they have been there for atleast 38,000 years (Judge). However, new archeological techniques haveexpanded this figure to 116,000 years, stretching the limit almost to thebirth of Homo sapiens, and it is unclear whether they are the descendantsof modern man (Fullagar), or of a more archaic type (Judge). It isgenerally accepted that the Aborigines have migrated here from Asia,although there are still questions whether they have crossed a land bridge,or have sailed the seas (Fullagar; Judge).Order now
Whatever the means they used toget to Australia, the Aborigines have adapted to the continent and havemanaged to survive isolated from all other human groups. They only came incontact with another human population some 200 years ago, at the time ofthe European colonization. At that time there were from 300,000 to 700,000Aborigines (Gonen; Moore, “Aboriginal”), and their numbers have decreasedto about 250,000 today (Rajendra, “Old people”). The British settlersdestroyed the Aboriginal communities and way of life by taking over theland and introducing new animals into the Australian ecosystem. The nativesdied of diseases introduced by the Europeans, or starved as the newlyintroduced animals displaced the ones they traditionally hunted (Gonen). Although recently the Australian government gave them back some land toturn into national parks (Terrill 200) or mine for minerals (Gonen), theAboriginal community is still the one with the highest rate ofunemployment, disease and illiteracy in the country (Rajendra, “Oldpeople”).
The geography of a place will always influence the societies that livethere, and this is especially true of the Aboriginal culture that hasperfectly adapted to the Australian landscape. Australia is a flat and lowcontinent, with an average elevation of 1000 feet. The western sideconsists of a great, arid plateau and several deserts, while the easternpart is a mountainous region. The center of the continent is made up oflarge plains and is perfect for agriculture.
The same area is also host toUluru or Ayers Rock, the world’s largest monolith (Powell) and a sacredplace for the Aborigines (Rajendra, “Aboriginal”). An estimate of 700Aboriginal tribes, were spread throughout the continent at the time ofEuropean arrival (Moore, “Aboriginal”). Many tribes still survive today,although more than half of the Aboriginal population has moved to urbanareas (Rajendra, “Old people”). Besides inhabiting all the provinces ofmainland Australia, Aborigines also live in Tasmania, an island on thesouthern tip of the continent (Gonen). The structure of the Aboriginal society is different from the forms ofgovernment known in most modern societies. Related people are organized insubunits called clans or family units (Moore, “Aboriginal”).
Several ofthese subunits make up a tribe. They speak the same language and gather forreligious ceremonies. A tribe’s population can vary from a few members to2,000 people (Gonen). All male members of the tribe that have gone throughthe initiations are considered equal. There are some leaders in each clan -people who have qualities that others admire or that can perform certainroles.
The Elders are the wisest men in the tribe, knowing both the lawsand the tribe’s mythology. They are the ones who can give advice or settledisputes. In large tribes, the Elders form a council for the purpose ofconducting initiations and regulating other social and religious events,but they are not a government in the modern sense of the word (Moore, “A toZ”). Because of this organization and the small size of a clan, Aboriginesare not divided into social classes. Men and women have separate roles in the society, and, similar to otheraspects of Aboriginal culture, these are strongly influenced by theirspirituality. People of both sexes have to go through initiation rituals inorder to become adults, and these rituals are kept secret from the eyes ofthe opposite sex (Moore, “A to Z”).
Among the Aborigines, non-initiatedmales are considered women until their initiation, because they only havetheir mothers’ blood in their veins (Eliade 27). During initiations, thenovices are instructed in the religious traditions of their tribe and theirgender’s sacredness is revealed, thus establishing a connection betweentheir adult life and that of mythological beings (Eliade 4 and 42). Theseparation of sexes continues later in life, when each one has a specificrole. Men hunt and carry only their weapons, while women collect plantfood, small animals and take care of babies and household utensils(Humphrey). Because each subunit consists of people related to each other, the familyties in the Aboriginal society are more extensive that those incontemporary societies.
Children consider their mother’s sisters as mothersand their father’s brothers as fathers. Their cousins are to them brothersand sisters. The only people seen as aunts and uncles are the parent’ssiblings of opposite sex, and their children are cousins. As tribes areclosed communities, they are divided into two intermarrying groups.
Peoplefrom one group can only marry people from the other and this preventsinbreeding. Marriages are arranged when children are very young, and girlsbecome wives at the early age of 11 or 12 years old. Polygamy was notunusual, but both the husband and wives had love and respect for eachother, because this is what they were taught by stories and tradition(Moore, “A to Z”). Little children are taken care of by all members of theclan, but they still have to learn to fend for themselves. Therefore, froman early age, they try to imitate their parents, girls helping theirmothers and boys going hunting or fishing with their fathers (Humphrey).
In the Aboriginal culture, education is meant to prepare children for theirlife as members of a nomadic society and to help maintain the traditionalspiritual values of this society. Because of its practical purpose,education is strongly tied to entertainment, art and religion. It begins atan early age, when children are taught about the world around them and howto survive in it (Breeden, “The first”), and continues until death, aspeople learn more of their tribe’s traditions and spirituality (Humphrey). Children begin by playing games that increase their agility and teach themto work like a team.
Games like running, climbing, wrestling and throwingsticks prepare boys to their future role as hunters, and both girls andboys learn tracking by drawing animal tracks on the ground (Moore, “A toZ”). These games help children learn about their world and survive in oneof the most arid areas of the world. Besides learning about the naturalworld, children, as well as adults, learn about the parallel spiritualworld through stories (Berndt, Catherine 551). These stories describe thedeeds of legendary beings who have played an important role in the creationof the world and institution of human tradition, therefore they help peoplelearn and maintain tradition (Moore, “A to Z”). Art is also used as a meanto transmit traditions from generation to generation.
20,000 years oldstone engravings still portray animals and people, showing the continuityof Aboriginal culture (Doherty). The Aborigines believe that shy spiritscreated the first rock paintings and that they also taught people how topaint (Breeden, “The first”). Ever since, people have painted rocks withintricate designs representing people and animals as a tradition. Eventoday, some boys come and share a picture with their fathers (Breeden, “Thefirst” 287), although rock painting has made room for bark painting inrecent years. This type of painting takes a very long time and the worksare extremely valuable to collectors. The bark is coated with red ochre andthe designs outlined in white are filled with complex fine lines (Breeden,”Living” 291).
A defining part of a culture, and very important in relation to education,is language. Each tribe has its own language that separates it from othertribes. Some tribes that speak the same language have formed tradealliances and they conduct certain ceremonies together. At the time ofEuropean contact and estimate of 600 languages were spoken throughoutAustralia by the 700 Aboriginal tribes.
Some Aborigines even spoke morethan their own language and appeared to have no difficulty in learningEnglish (Moore, “Aboriginal”; Moore, “A to Z”). This great variety oflanguages seems inconsistent with the theory that the Aborigines aredescendants of a single race that migrated to Australia, but linguists haveconsidered the fact that languages evolve, thus permitting such diversity. Today it is accepted that all the Aboriginal languages come from oneancient language, and to support this affirmation stands the fact thatbefore European contact, Aborigines spoke only 200 languages, compared tothe 600 spoken at the time of contact (Gonen). Because more that half ofthe Aboriginal population has left the traditional setting to live in thecities (Rajendra, “Old people”), the languages are not spoken widelyanymore and they tend to be forgotten.
Forgetting the language is almostequivalent to forgetting the whole culture, as the Aboriginal way of lifeis deeply rooted in spirituality, and story telling is the most importantway of conveying the traditions. As people die, the language and storiesdie with them and the whole tradition will be forever lost, especially tothe young people who have chosen an urban lifestyle. This is how Big BillNeidjie puts it: “All these stories tell of the earth, the animals andAboriginal people. The old people, they know this.
That’s why for thousandsand thousands years this country not change. We learned this from ourfathers and mothers. . . . We are old men now, we have not got many years.
If you don’t learn now, in 20 years’ time you will cry because you don’tknow your story. But too late then. We will be gone. ” (Breeden, “The first”289)The supernatural is forever present in Aboriginal life.
Their religionexplains the world as a place full of spirits. People have no other choicethan to interact with these spirits, and the purpose of education is toteach how to exist in the world. Aborigines have to face an arid andhostile environment every day, but they also have to face the spirits andto help the world survive by Dreaming. Dreaming is the name given to humanactivities that connect this world to Dreamtime and give it new life andpower (Elwood 34). Dreamtime is a world that existed long before thecreation of time, and it continues to exist in parallel with this world(Rajendra, “Aboriginal”).
Spirits from Dreamtime have created the land,animals, people and have set in place the customs of Aboriginal society. All the places where they have retreated to reside (Elwood 34; Moore, “A toZ”), or where important acts of creation have taken place are considered tobe places of power, tying this world with Dreamtime (Berndt, Ronald 531). Everything has a spirit and is alive because of Dreamtime’s power, thusturning Aboriginal religion into a form of animism (Rajendra,”Aboriginal”). The Aborigines believe that people are born when spirit-children come from Dreamtime and enter a mother’s body. When they die, thespirit-children return to Dreamtime and await a reincarnation (Elwood 34;Moore, “A to Z”).
People have been created by the spirits to help maintainthis world and in order to do so, they need to learn the secret spirituallife that animates the world. This can only be revealed in time, duringseveral initiations. Girls’ initiation into the secrets of fertility andcreation of new life begins with their first menstruation and only endswith the birth of their first child (Berndt, Ronald 533; Eliade 42). Boys’initiations are done in groups and include several ordeals. During theseinitiations, they are told stories explaining the creation and structure ofthe world and taught how to use their knowledge of the spirits to preservethe world (Eliade 4). Religion and its purpose of maintaining lifetransforms all social events like weddings, funerals, births, andmigrations into re-enactings of events that took place in Dreamtime, thuslinking the two worlds together and transferring power from one to another(Berndt, Ronald 531).
The Aborigines tied their life to a higher purposeand learned to honor spirituality, yet European settlers have oftenmisunderstood them. As the Aborigines are nomads, moving each season to aplace that can provide them with food in the harsh Australia, the habit ofgoing on a walkabout is entrenched in their culture. In the 1800s and1900s, Aboriginal workers on white-owned farms would disappear for days asthey left on a walkabout. The term was coined by the farmers who saw theAboriginal need to travel as ingratitude, instead of recognizing that itwas something fundamental to their culture. Walkabouts are spiritualjourneys that take travelers to a place where they feel they belong, and insome cases to their place of birth (Moore, “A to Z”). The Aborigines have adapted to Australia and they learned to live ashunters and gatherers.
They do not practice agriculture, but move fromplace to place, following the pattern of the seasons that makes foodavailable in some areas, and scarce in others (Humphrey). They eat allsorts of animals, from kangaroo stews and soups, to crocodile steaks,snakes, lizards, turtles, fish, worms, and even wild ants and bees. Thevegetarian diet is also diverse, focusing on roots, cereals and grasses,occasionally fruits and even resin. Food can be eaten raw or roasted oncoals (Rajendra, “Bush tucker”).
Although the Aborigines do not need anindustry, they are involved in mining (Gonen), and in tourism, as theyturned their lands into national parks (Terrill 200). The ancient Aboriginal society has changed more in the last 200 years thanin the thousands of years before, yet is still maintains a lot of itsoriginal culture. In most cases, it managed to adapt to the Europeancolonization, yet still maintain its own spirit. Some of the Aborigineshave chosen to follow the path of their ancestors, others to seek a newlife in urban Australia.
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