An Ancient People
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
The word Aborigine means ‘from the beginning’, and the many tribes that together are known as Australian Aboriginals have been around for over 40,000 years.
What unites them is a deep reverence for nature, and their struggle to hold on to the sacred land and traditions of their ancestors in a society dominated by the ‘white man’.
Subjugated for centuries, they are finally gaining the recognition they deserve. This is especially true in the art world, where their colourful paintings and artefacts are highly sought-after.
The first people in Australia arrived at least 40,000, and possibly as long as 60,000 years ago. They came from Southeast Asia, migrating from what is now New Guinea at a time when the two islands were linked by a land bridge.
Because of their geographical and cultural isolation, the people developed unique solutions to surviving in the harsh Australian landscape. The result was a complex society - among the first in the world to introduce human cremation, rock art, and new tools such as boomerangs, axes and grindstones.
They also used a system of controlled fires to manage the undergrowth and facilitate hunting.
Australian Aboriginals were originally hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups of families, with each group governed by tribal elders.
People foraged for plants, and hunted wild animals and birds with spears and boomerangs, while those near coasts and rivers caught fish in traps.
As they had to collect food every day of their lives, they developed an intimate knowledge of food-chain cycles, animal migration patterns, and the various habitats where they lived, gaining a complete understanding of the flora and fauna within their territory.
Society was driven by a deep belief in spirits: ancestral, personal, animal, and evil. These beliefs - like every other aspect of life – were based on the myths of the Dreamtime. During the Dreamtime, the world’s creators metamorphosed into the forms of animals, birds and other species. Each individual was linked to the creators through totemic relationships with a certain species, and would not eat their personal animal - to do so would be tantamount to cannibalism.
According to spiritual belief every object - plants, rock, caves, streams, and even the sky - was created during the Dreamtime. The creators lived on in these places. Tribes developed an affinity with their local spirits, and this helped maintain the peace. There were never any wars of invasion between tribes, as they believed that moving into the land of another would mean living among hostile spirits.
Aboriginal society was so successful it continued more or less unchanged for thousands of years.
The population grew steadily, and at the time of the arrival of the first European settlers in 1788 was between 250,000 and 500,000.
But this latter occasion heralded the dawn of a dark age, and Aborigine fortunes took a nosedive for almost 200 years.
Those living in newly settled areas were forced off their land to make way for towns and farms. Explorers moving inland were considered trespassers and were resisted fiercely by the Indigenous people already there, but they had no defence against European guns. When settlers followed and began clearing land to build farms, this restricted free movement of the Aborigines and destroyed traditional food sources.
Failing to grasp the rich diversity of the society they were invading, the settlers weren’t interested in the effect they were having on people they regarded as primitive, and merely a nuisance. Many Indigenous people were killed, not only by bullets but also by diseases such as influenza that they had never been exposed to before and had no resistance against.
Many Aboriginals who accepted and adapted to the new lifestyle became reliant on alcohol, tobacco and handouts of food and clothing, and were almost invariably condemned to a life of poverty. Most settlers were contemptuous of them, and they were exiled to the fringes of society. People were forbidden from teaching their languages, customs and ancestry, and children were forcibly separated from their families “for their own moral benefit”.
Throughout the 19th Century and until the latter half of the 20th, Aboriginals were virtually excluded from Australian life. Many were not given the vote or counted in the national census until the 1960s. Fortunately, recent years have seen an improvement. The Australian government has returned the tribal land to its rightful owners and restored equal status to all. But the healing process is a long one and needs to involve all parties. “We are very clear that reconciliation is the responsibility of non-Indigenous Australians, but that it cannot be achieved without the support and involvement of Indigenous Australians,” says Jackie Huggins, Co-Chair Of Reconciliation Australia, a non-profit organisation devoted to restoring the rights and self-respect of Aboriginal people.
“Reconciliation has two sides: practical and symbolic,” says Huggins. “While we have not come as far as we would like on either, we have made noteworthy progress in both.”
With ownership of their ancestral land, Aboriginals are now able to benefit from the upsurge in tourism in Australia. Their land includes many of the country’s greatest natural wonders, including Uluru (formerly Ayer’s Rock), and The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. Uluru is a particularly sacred site to Aborigines, as they believe that a hollow beneath the rock contains an energy source that is ‘Tjukurpa’: the Dreamtime.
Today, the romantic image of nomadic tribesman has all but vanished. Efforts are made to maintain knowledge of traditional ways, but most Aboriginals have adopted westernised lifestyles.
There is, however, one area where ancient skills have boomed and become highly lucrative. Traditional tribal artwork and handicrafts, often based on modern interpretations of ancient depictions of animals and spirits, have become increasingly appreciated and respected by art-lovers around the world. Finer works regularly achieve high prices at auction.
The ongoing process of reconciliation remains an important part of Australian political life. Arguments regularly flare up about the lack of official public apologies from the government for the indignations heaped upon the Aboriginal people; and also about some social privileges reserved solely for the Indigenous population, which some regard as too much reverse discrimination. But the wheels are turning.
And with the benefits brought by tourism and art sales, the future is looking brighter for one of the world’s oldest yet least understood cultures.