The Aborigines

“Rust red sand underlies the heart of Australia, where the huge monoliths known as Olgas shoulder above spinifex and grevilea. This old and worn continent has a look like no other – celebrated […] by both the native born and brief sojourners to the land down under” (“Portraits” 159). This old continent also has also a spirit like no other, embodied by the people who inhabited it for so long that they have come to “identify spiritually with the land” (Terrill 200) – the Aborigines. They have developed a unique culture, centered on religious beliefs, and a lifestyle that unites them to the earth. Many times they have been categorized as primitive, but views are changing, and their civilization has come to be recognized as sophisticated, their influential role in modern Australia being no longer denied.

Aboriginal history stretches long into the past. They have inhabited Australia for thousands of years before the European arrival. Sites discovered around the continent prove that they have been there for at least 38,000 years (Judge). However, new archeological techniques have expanded this figure to 116,000 years, stretching the limit almost to the birth of Homo sapiens, and it is unclear whether they are the descendants of modern man (Fullagar), or of a more archaic type (Judge). It is generally 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). Whatever the means they used to get to Australia, the Aborigines have adapted to the continent and have managed to survive isolated from all other human groups. They only came in contact with another human population some 200 years ago, at the time of the European colonization. At that time there were from 300,000 to 700,000 Aborigines (Gonen; Moore, “Aboriginal”), and their numbers have decreased to about 250,000 today (Rajendra, “Old people”). The British settlers destroyed the Aboriginal communities and way of life by taking over the land and introducing new animals into the Australian ecosystem. The natives died of diseases introduced by the Europeans, or starved as the newly introduced animals displaced the ones they traditionally hunted (Gonen). Although recently the Australian government gave them back some land to turn into national parks (Terrill 200) or mine for minerals (Gonen), the Aboriginal community is still the one with the highest rate of unemployment, disease and illiteracy in the country (Rajendra, “Old people”).

The geography of a place will always influence the societies that live there, and this is especially true of the Aboriginal culture that has perfectly adapted to the Australian landscape. Australia is a flat and low continent, with an average elevation of 1000 feet. The western side consists of a great, arid plateau and several deserts, while the eastern part is a mountainous region. The center of the continent is made up of large plains and is perfect for agriculture. The same area is also host to Uluru or Ayers Rock, the world’s largest monolith (Powell) and a sacred place for the Aborigines (Rajendra, “Aboriginal”). An estimate of 700 Aboriginal tribes, were spread throughout the continent at the time of European arrival (Moore, “Aboriginal”). Many tribes still survive today, although more than half of the Aboriginal population has moved to urban areas (Rajendra, “Old people”). Besides inhabiting all the provinces of mainland Australia, Aborigines also live in Tasmania, an island on the southern tip of the continent (Gonen).

The structure of the Aboriginal society is different from the forms of government known in most modern societies. Related people are organized in subunits called clans or family units (Moore, “Aboriginal”). Several of these subunits make up a tribe. They speak the same language and gather for religious ceremonies. A tribe’s population can vary from a few members to 2,000 people (Gonen). All male members of the tribe that have gone through the initiations are considered equal. There are some leaders in each clan – people who have qualities that others admire or that can perform certain roles. The Elders are the wisest men in the tribe, knowing both the laws and the tribe’s mythology. They are the ones who can give advice or settle disputes. In large tribes, the Elders form