I have never known how to write about the Australian Aboriginal peoples. They are a wonder and a mystery. They are still remote within themselves and distant from the European culture that has spread through this island continent. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, two things need to be understood or at least recognized; first, these people are ancient and second, they are not really a single “people” or nation. How that works is something like this; they arrived from the Sri Lankan coast some 60,000 years ago – well before Chinese cultures blossomed and more than 55,000 years before Greece and Rome. It is beyond imagination. The second aspect concerns the adaptations the people needed and the land that required adaptation – Australia has an ecological richness along its coast but not so much in the great Red Center; the desert after desert that encompass the interior of the country.
In order to survive in the center the people divided into small groups and eventually created more than 260 languages from the 500 small nations that eventually existed. When the Europeans arrived the aboriginal people were not anything like a unified nation or even a group of tiny nations with alliances. There were hundreds of small groups; twenty-five people or less. Any larger group couldn’t have survived on these barren lands. Each member needed a couple square miles a day to hunt and forage on. They needed space and no competition. They moved constantly. They competed for space and water. It was unlike anything we can imagine today. The coastal peoples were more settled and had resources upon which they could depend.
I cannot explain the Outback from an Aboriginal point of view. Perhaps no one can – remember much of its history is very ancient and the deep meaning hasn’t been told to us. There are many books written on the subject and some of the newer books are not deeply biased and present a pretty level look at the inner workings of these people. Most of the books written about the exploration of Australia, especially those about the harsh interior, will speak of these resident peoples but most early accounts should be looked at with a bit of skepticism as the lack of understanding was great in the early 20th century. I do recommend looking into the discovery and settlement of Australia both to get a sense of the European culture that sent the “First Fleet” south to this supposed empty land and a sense of those who were already there and watched the ships arrive. The interaction with the native people, the wildlife, the environment provide perplexing and often contradictory studies in bravery, planning, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, along with a heavy dose of stupidity.
I can’t resist on more reference to ancient times – – – As we know here in the Northern Hemisphere there was an Ice Age that covered much of Canada and the Northern US with billions of tons of ice; frozen fresh water. This also happened in Russia and Europe. There was some ice that occurred in the southern hemisphere as well. There was a lot of ice; a whole lot.
There was so much ice in the ice sheets up on land or frozen in the sea that the oceans and seas were deprived of runoff from rivers and the ocean surface dropped and dropped as the glaciation grew and grew. The ocean today is about 400′ higher than it was in Ice Age times – that is only 10-40 thousand years ago. Do you see where we are going?
The aboriginal peoples were the only culture in existence at that time that persists into modern times. The stories told by aboriginal people from the coast (not those of Uluru and the arid Great Red Center) speak repeatedly of the times when barriers, reefs, islands, marshes, and rivers were flooded or expanded and the time when land disappeared under the expanding ocean. There are stories of lost seasonal camping sites and flooded fishing areas. A detailed explanation of these stories and the relationship of the stories to a rising ocean as the glaciers melted back is very interesting. These people lived through the ups and downs of an Ice Age effected ocean – how very cool; how interesting, how revealing.