Aboriginal Art & Culture
Australian Aborigine people can affirm that the Aboriginal culture is the oldest living culture in the world. Research on the early use of certain stone tools as well as on the red ochre paintings have estimated that the culture is about 58,000 years old. Aborigine culture in this remote continent didn’t develop an iron or bronze age, nor the use of pottery, as the development and progress did not follow the same path as the rest of the world.
To understand Australian Aborigine culture is to understand the history of Australia. The first research about Aborigines was done in Alice Springs in the 1950s by explorer Bruce Chatwin, who discovered some sacred Aboriginal sites. You can find more details about Aborigines in his book “The Song Lines”.
There are five elements to consider:
- The concept of “Aboriginal” identity does not exist among the Aborigines themselves
The entire Australian territory is made up of many different tribes, that differ vastly in their languages, territories, arts and traditions. There is not one Aboriginal language that has a word for the entire Aboriginal population of the continent.
Visitors can have a look at the map of the different tribes to understand that the notion of Aboriginal people was created by Europeans. This is shown by the fact that there is no real unity between these tribes, who may even have trouble communicating with each other. However, two large groups can be distinguished within the original Australian culture:
- The Aboriginal tribes of the continent
- The natives of Torres Islands (north of the continent)
Unfortunately, today, the diversity of Aboriginal languages and cultures seems likely to disappear with the full integration of all native Australians into a multi-cultural Australian community
- The aboriginal culture and way of life are entirely related to the land and environment to which they belong
The rules of life and traditions of each tribe come from the “Dreamtime” concept, based on myths about the creation and formation of their land, transmitted to each generation by the ancestors of the tribe.
The traditions and cultures of each tribe are therefore based on land and sacred places, which explains the diversity of traditions from one tribe to another. This is one of the explanations for the failure of the reserves and territories reserved for the Aborigines during the colonization of Australia. If an Aborigine is “deported” to another land other than his own, his traditions, myths and rules of life no longer correspond to his environment and he totally loses his identity.
- Aboriginal art reflects the notions of knowledge and belonging to the land
Songs and artistic traditions are the privileged way for the transmission of myths and rites of protection and “possession” of the earth. That’s why any artistic object is sacred in the Aboriginal culture.
For Aborigines, to know and possess the myths left by the ancestors through the tales, paintings, songs and dances of their tribe means to belong to the tribe and even more to the land, and, in the Western sense, “to possess” the land where they live.
Some families therefore have special songs or artistic motifs that correspond to the territories to which they belong and they must protect from generation to generation. To use the motives or the songs of another family or a tribe without asking their permission is like stealing their knowledge of the land and therefore their territory. This is why no Aboriginal work must be reproduced without asking the consent of its creator.
- Language, arts and the notion of belonging to a land are the same thing for each Aboriginal tribe
The Aborigines believe that they belong to the land of their ancestors rather than the territory belongs to them. That is why it was so difficult for them to provide evidence of ownership to the English colonists who took the opportunity to declare Australia “terra nullius” (without any landlord).
“Owning” a place for an Aborigine is simply impossible. He belongs to his land and what he “possesses” is only a moral obligation to protect the sacred places and to honour the ancestors who created them. The Aborigines belong to their land and honour it by singing or drawing it in their own languages and artefacts. They have the right to do so because they were initiated by their parents and grandparents.
- The Aboriginal culture and way of life is based on the concept of “Dreamtime”
The term Dreamtime, refers to both a time in the history of the world (the time of the creation of living things), the land by ancestors and all myths and folktales that Aborigines transmit from generation to generation. These teachings contain the founding myths of the tribe as well as the rules that dictate the way rules must be respected in order to survive.
Dreamtime describes and dictates life, such as how animals should be hunted, what plants should be harvested, how meals should be prepared or how the ancestors should be honoured. It also contains the hierarchical rules of a “political” organization of the community. While some ancestors are common to some tribes, most Aboriginal tribes have their own Dream Time, myths, and special traditions.
Five Aboriginal Sacred Sites
The Monolith of Uluru
Ayers Rock, or Uluru for the Anangu Aborigines still living on the site, is considered the most sacred place in Australia. Visitors can see the sunset’s light changing the colour of this rock over time. You can walk the 10km track around the monolith and admire the many Aboriginal paintings.
40km away from Uluru is Kata-Tjuta. This smaller monolith is less known but no less impressive. You can walk the 7km path known as the “Valley of the Wind” to appreciate the best views in the area.
Kakadu National Park
Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Kakadu is still home to Aboriginal people such as the Bininj or Mungguy. It is possible to discover more about their culture and way of life with an Aboriginal guide who will explain the Aboriginal art and tell stories of their people. Nature lovers will be delighted to explore the mangroves and rocky areas of the park, as well as the waterfalls of Jim Jim or Mary River.
Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk means “Cicada place”, the Aboriginal name given by local Aborigines, the Jawoyn. The park is well-known for its beautiful Katherine Gorge and its steep cliffs which fall in the green waters of the river. You should do one of the many walks such the Jatbula Trail, a 66km walk to Edith Falls. Canoeing along the gorge is a good option too and lets you admire the stunning scenery around you.
Known more commonly as Devil’s Marble, this is the symbol of Aboriginal history. These huge red and rounded granite blocks seem to have fallen straight from the sky in the middle of nowhere and balance delicately on top of each other in an incredible fashion. Several Aboriginal stories attempt to explain the origin of these stones. One of them explains that these stones are the eggs of the rainbow serpent, one of the oldest figures of Aboriginal mythology.
The Cultural Park of Tjapukai
The cultural park of Tjapukai is a great way to discover the rich history of the Aboriginal culture. Located in Cairns, this is the most authentic Aboriginal activity you will find in Australia:
Tjapukai by Day
Discover Aboriginal culture with traditional and authentic dances, art and demos. The Cultural Centre teaches visitors about the ancient Dreamtime stories, the various clans, as well as the story of the Aborigines people in the creation of modern Australia.
Tjapukai by Night
The night fire at Tjapukai is an opportunity to meet the Bama (indigenous rainforest Aborigines) for a dinner with music from didgeridoos and traditional face paint activities.
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